Category Archive • History
December 22, 2004
Remembering John By

Remembering John who? and by what? – is what you may well now be thinking. Well, pay attention.

This afternoon I found myself on the south bank of the Thames, just up river from St Thomas' Hospital. It's the bit where you get this familiar London view:


Then I turned through about forty five degrees and got this rather unusual view of the Wheel:


The light was fading fast, but my little camera makes the least worst light it sees into good light. I actually had to Photoshop it a bit darker.

But enough of such tourist shots, which I only show you to say where I was when I saw what really got me interested, which was what I saw when I turned around some more, and faced away from the river. It was a plaque, which I had never noticed before.


Do what I did. Take a closer look. And be grateful for the lamp in the second picture above for lighting it up. The plaque commemorates a man and an achievement of which I had previously known absolutely nothing.


When I got home I found out more about John By, and was also able to satisfy myself that the phrase "introduced malaria" is not a mistake, but an all too real a condition. More about Malaria here.

Just one of those little London pleasures, and this one is quite recent. As you can maybe make out from right at the bottom of the plaque, it was erected by the Historical Society of Ottawa as recently as 1997.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:03 PM
November 27, 2004
London's Billion Monkey Rugby World Cup celebrations

Just under a year ago, on Monday December 8th 2003, the triumphant England Rugby Union squad paraded the Rugby World Cup which they had won the previous month, against Australia, in Australia.

I found the final almost too painful to watch, and even now I can hardly bear to watch the DVD I now have of it. England should have finished off Australia an hour sooner, but they just couldn't, and in the end only Wilkinson's famous drop kick at the death won it for England.

So for me, the big thrill was not the final itself, but the celebrations in London, which I watched on the telly. This brought two of the things I have most enjoyed looking at during my whole life, the England rugby team in all its many variations, and the great city that is London, ditto, into one grand jamboree.

You can find far better photos, technically speaking, of these celebrations than the ones I took, but here are mine, which I snapped in a technically ridiculous fashion which I am sure was unnecessary, with my newly acquired Canon A70, of the digital TV coverage of the celebrations by the BBC, which I did not (and still do not) have the technology to record properly. (The only telly tapes I have are still of much inferior analogue reception.)

I couldn't even pause the pictures to get them less blurred.

But I love these photos. They capture a moment in the life of my country and my city, and of my own life, in a way which will surely never happen in the same way again, even if England win the next Rugby World Cup and parade that around London also, as is not impossible. For by the time of the next World Cup, I will surely have some means of digitally recording digital TV, and quite possibly I will by then have worked out how to capture such imagery on my computer, with some kind of card thingy or something. This, I feel sure, is what everyone else except me does already.

But for me, the technical bizarreness of it all only all adds to the fun, and it adds even more to the atmosphere of these pics that I think I started snapping away at the telly pretty much on the spur of the moment, having never tried doing this before.

All part of the oddity of them is that it has taken me so very long to finally get around to sticking them up here, the excuse being that it was a year ago. Also, today, at Twickenham this time, an almost brand new England side is playing against Australia.

Anyway, enjoy them, skip in among them, get the picture with one picture and move on, ignore them, scorn them. In short, treat this like any other brand-X blog posting. But for me, these will be a diary entry to treasure.


As you can see, the Billion Monkeys were out in force, many of us, it turns out, being England rugby players. My favourite Billion Monkey shot being the very first one here (which I'll call 1.1 – first row, first from the left), of Josh Lewsey, seen from above, photoing the Cup itself.

2.2 preserves in photo form all the clobber that surrounded my TV set at the time, and is one I will therefore particularly enjoy. And speaking of irrelevances, I especially struck by an individual I had completely not noticed at the time, namely the little blue guy whose job was to see that the Cup itself came to no harm. See especially 3.2, but he's in others too. What a day he must have had.

3.5 is a classic heroic shot from street level of Richard Hill on the bus, breathing it all in and making sure to savour these magic moments, with Jonny W for once rather spoiling things. And although 4.4 is very blurred, it gets Dallaglio very well, I think.

4.1 is another classic Billion Monkey pose, this time of the guy you have asked to try his best to do one of you with your camera. Jason Leonard is having fun, but he wants to get it right. And 5.1 is another generic Billion Monkey shot, the one where the Billion Monkey fiddles with the nobs in a somewhat puzzled way, with the strap hanging down over his hands. That's scrum half Matt Dawson.

In 5.2 and 5.3 we observe a veritable Billion Monkey Troop in full capture mode. A cameraless Mike Catt looks like he swallowed all the cream in England, but maybe Jason Robinson wishes he'd brought one of these camera thingies with him too, like all the other guys.

And who is that, just about makeable out in 6.1? Why yes, it's Mayor Livingstone! And quite right too. London needed to shake hands with these guys officially, and he was the man to do it. He did it well, not trying to barge in on anything, just making sure to be there, at the side.

There's even an artistic one, 7.5, and 1.4 is in a similar vein, with stuff flying through the air past the bus. And 5.6 is pretty artistic too, of the cup itself in reasonable focus and almost everything else blurred.

And through it all, the dominant personalities of the occasion. Captain Martin Johnson (4.3, 6.2), Head Coach Woodward (perfectly focussed in 4.5, then distracted away from the interviewer in 4.6), and Jonny Wilkinson (7.4 is especially good). And of course there are lots of pics in among it all are of the ecstatic fans, flooding into Oxford Street, Regent Street, and finally Trafalgar Square.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:22 PM
November 20, 2004
Art or people?

Here's a fun article:

At the height of the Cold War, with nuclear holocaust looming, British civil servants were engaged in a high-minded argument as to whether it was better to save priceless works of art or human lives.

The debate within Whitehall about how, or even whether, to evacuate masterpieces such as Constable's Haywain, or the Wilton Diptych, took so long that when disaster was truly imminent, no plans were in place, documents recently released at the National Archives reveal.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 came and went while the mandarins tried to fine-tune the number of pantechnicons they would need to transfer treasures from the National Gallery and the British Museum to specially prepared quarries in Wiltshire and north Wales.

I seem to recall someone having decked out Constable's Haywain with a mushroom cloud in the background. But googling by me was unsuccessful, so either it's not on the WWW, or I'm a crap googler which is a more likely explanation. Can anyone else do better?

Think what Constable would have done with a nuclear mushroom cloud, had he ever witnessed one.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:53 PM
October 29, 2004
Fritz Werner rescues Pierre Pierlot

FritzWerner.jpgSo, Fritz Werner's Bach Cantata recordings are wonderful. But have a read of this, from the sleeve notes:

Fritz Werner was born in Berlin on 15 December 1898. At the end of the First World War he was taken prisoner by the British, and he only began to study music in 1920. In 1936, on the recommendation of Wilhelm Kempff, he was appointed organist and choirmaster of the Nikolaikirche in Potsdam, a Neo-classical church designed by the famous German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Two years later, in 1938, Werner was appointed to Potsdam's Garrison Church, the Prussian "Holy of Holies" where the Prussian Kings were buried. At the outbreak of the Second World War he fought in the Polish campaign and in the battles around the Maginot Line in France. The Nazis then gave him the job of Musikbeauftragter in Occupied France. In this position, part of which put him in charge of music for the radio, he came into close contact with the composer and director of the Paris Conservatoire, Claude Delvincourt (1888-1954), who, like Werner, possessed humanist qualities which were widely recognised. Another part of Werner's job was to send French musicians to Germany for travail obligatoire (forced labour), and his protection of many of them made him a much-loved figure in the musical life of Occupied France, which he upheld with conviction. An illustration of Werner's compassion is contained in a charmingly mischievous anecdote concerning the twenty-year-old oboist Pierre Pierlot, whose playing features prominently in this Edition. Pierlot was told that he had to go to Königsberg in eastern Prussia for forced labour. He replied that his father would not let him go because it was too far. By the time the German official involved had found out who his father was, Pierlot had escaped his clutches. But not for long; a month later the German bumped into him again in the orchestra where he was principal oboe. Pierlot hid as best he could behind his desk until the leader called out "Pierlot, give us an A!". The German pretended he had heard nothing. He was Fritz Werner. After the war, when Erato needed a first-rate oboist to play in the Bach cantata recordings in Germany, Pierlot eagerly offered his services by way of thanking Werner, to whom he owed so much. The story has it that when Werner apologised to Pierlot for not at once recognising him because he looked so well, the oboist replied: "Since you Germans were driven out of France we can eat as much as we want, just as we used to. And, by the way, you look much better in a shirt than in a uniform". In August 1944 Werner again became a prisoner, this time of the Americans. He later returned to Germany, where he was interned in the Heilbronn-Böckingen camp, from which he was released in 1946.

The spine-chilling phrase here, just in case you missed it, was that bit about his protection of "many of them". So, Werner saved Pierlot, and "many of them". Good for him. But who did he not manage to save, or worse, who did he choose not to save? I'm not saying he's evil, but it certainly seems that this man got pretty close to some evil things, an impression that is reinforced by this biography of Werner (which is where I found the photographs of him), which, on the matter of Werner's war, has only this to say:

In 1936 he stated his career as a church musician at Berlin and Potsdam, where he became Kirchenmusikdirektor in 1938. He served as organist at Potsdam until the outbreak of World War II, when he left Germany and became a music director of the German radio in occupied France.

After the war he returned to Germany, settling this time at Heilbronn. …

My guess would be that Werner, like many other of his musical compatriot contemporaries, loved and worshipped music above everything, and did as much as he had to, and as little as he had to, to become a good and successful musician in those bad, bad times. Anybody know any different to that? All I really know about this man is his Bach conducting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:10 PM
October 26, 2004
Statue of the Bomber – and the Bomber talking

Today I contributed to a panel discussion organised by some LSE students. On my way there, from the Temple tube station, I encountered the statue of Bomber Harris and took a photo of it. It's impressive, I think.


In general I think that all the Second World War military statues tend to be very fine, being full of individual character. Although I guess all those long dead aristocrats on horseback looked more individual to people used to the nuances of horsemanship than they do to someone like me.

While googling for Harris linkage, I found that if you click on this link you can actually hear Harris himself talking.

"There are a lot of people who say that bombing can never win a war. Well, my answer to that is that it has never been tried yet."

A scary man. The human embodiment of the whirlwind reaped by Nazi Germany.

What a difference it makes to our appreciation of the past if we can actually hear dead people talking to us. As I seem to recall writing here before, what would we not give for a similar little snatch of, say, William Shakespeare talking,

Photographing statues is a very hit or miss thing I find. The darkness of the object combined with the arbitrary shadows caste by nearby trees (especially) can obliterate the shape of the thing entirely. But this snap came out quite well, especially when you factor in that a lot of the character of these statues is in the body langauge and the way the uniform is worn rather than just in the face. And this time the trees were on my side, metaphorically speaking, because behind the statue literally.

My one hurried attempt to photograph the writing on the plinth was not such a success.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 PM
October 11, 2004
Peter Padfield on the early years of the English novel

I have just done a review for Samizdata of a book by Peter Padfield about the history of Maritime Supremacy. What makes this book interesting is that it contains both blow by blow accounts of sea battles and a succession of o sketches of what these battles meant for the lives of those on land. Britain, of course, had its time of maritime supremacy, and its own highly distinctive sort of liberal, capitalist culture. Here is Padfield's account of the beginnings of the English novel. I do not personally enjoy reading the great works of fiction of the past, my fictional tastes being contemporary, and middlebrow if that. But I know that I am missing a great deal, and I do at least like to know about these works, and about the people who wrote them. So bluffers guide paragraphs like these are something that I especially appreciate.

The novel was an important vehicle. Its development had been foreshadowed even before William's revolution by the poet and popular playwright Aphra Behn, the first woman in England to earn her living by the pen. Her Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave (1688) told the story of a Negro of noble descent whom she had known while living in Suriname (now Dutch Guiana). Besides lighting the way for the future novel, Oroonoko, which was adapted for the theatre and played successfully for many years, was an important influence for change in the generally uncomprehending attitudes towards Negroes and the institution of European slavery.

Daniel Defoe took the imaginative embellishment of real persons and events a stage further in The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), often regarded as the first English novel. The son of a prosperous small businessman and religious Dissenter of Cripplegate, London, Defoe was also a living example of how trade had bred a clamorous and articulate middle class. His own attempts to set up as a merchant failed spectacularly, ending in the Fleet prison for bankrupts, and obliging him, like Aphra Behn, to earn his living from writing. Nonetheless, he remained a prolific publicist for trade, which he called his 'beloved subject'. He had previously taken part in the rebellion against James in the cause of both trade and religious dissent, and had written a verse eulogy of William of Orange as The True-Born Englishman – an illustration of the depth of the historical tide William had ridden, which must surely have brought about revolutionary change very soon with or without the 'Protestant wind' down-Channel.

Defoe's most famous protagonist, Crusoe, had made two slaving voyages to Africa before setting himself up as a planter in Brazil; there he told his Portuguese neighbours how easy it was on the coast of Guinea to buy Negroes 'for trifles – such as beads, toys, knives, scissors, hatchets, bits of glass and the like', as a result of which they persuaded him to guide an expedition to Africa and bring back slaves for them. On the way, he was shipwrecked and cast ashore on a deserted island; perhaps Defoe intended a moral. Basing Crusoe's subsequent experiences loosely on those of a real castaway, Alexander Selkirk, Defoe entered his mind so powerfully and portrayed his lonely struggle in such straightforward prose the book entered popular mythology and enjoyed immediate and lasting success at home and in continental Europe. Encouraged, he wrote a second novel, taking his readers into the mind of a girl, Moll Flanders, coping with even less promising circumstances in a debtors jail.

The next original genius of the English novel, Samuel Richardson, also came from the middle classes. He was a printer who had married well and established one of the best presses in London. In Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), he used the device of letters written by his characters to tell the story of a maid resisting extreme attempts at seduction from her former employer's son, until eventually the young man marries her; whereupon she embarks on a second, equally successful, struggle to disarm those who disapprove of the misalliance. This very moral and sentimental story and the novel method of its telling won extraordinary acclamation, and Richardson followed it in similar epistolary style with Clarissa: or the History of a Young Lady. Here the heroine's family attempts to force her into marriage for money; in her refusal and subsequent adventures, Clarissa exhibits more sublime moral virtues even than Pamela.

Meanwhile Richardson had provoked Henry Fielding, most accomplished and witty of the pioneers of the novel, into the genre. Fielding came from the gentry, but while studying at Leiden University his allowance had been stopped and like Defoe he had turned to his pen to earn a living, principally as a satirical playwright. In 1737 he lampooned Walpole so savagely that the Prime Minister retaliated by steering through an Act of Parliament requiring all new plays to be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain before being produced. It was a small dent in British liberties – plays could still be printed and published – but put an end to Fielding's career in the theatre. He studied law to become a barrister. When Richardson published Pamela, however, Fielding was evidently so struck by what he regarded as its sentimentality and prim morality – although, like Robinson Crusoe, the novel was based on a true story - he produced two parodies of the type. The second, Joseph Andrews, in which the protagonist, a footman, resists all attempts of a well-born lady to seduce him, was a masterpiece of observation and irony which took on its own life; together with two later novels by Fielding, Tom Jones (1749) and Amelia (1751), it established a pattern in plotting, characterization and authentic contemporary setting that was to dominate English fiction thereafter, and indeed spread across continental Europe.

These trailblazing books were written by middle-class or professional men, and won a huge middle-class readership which identified with the realistic characters and social settings depicted. The prominence accorded women is striking. Apart from Robinson Crusoe, the extraordinarily popular novels mentioned all had strong, admirable women as the central character or in a major role: a beautiful, high-mettled girl, Sophia Western, inspired Tom Jones's odyssey; like Amelia in Fielding's subsequent book, she was based upon the novelist's own beloved wife. This was an accurate reflection of the strong position women enjoyed in society, despite their unequal legal status, and another echo of the United Provinces of the previous century, where, as noted, women of all classes moved and expressed themselves freely as individuals, enjoying a far greater measure of independence than anywhere else in Europe at that time.

The novels, plays and journals were products of a free, trading society – their success or failure depending upon volume of sales – and also agents of change, undermining, often none too subtly, aristocratic or dogmatic assumptions, replacing them with more bourgeois attitudes. In the same way other branches of art were metamorphosed into new, more popular and subversive forms as they emerged from patronage into the market place.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:57 PM
September 13, 2004
A picture of success

At the home where I was brought up, in the dining room, was this painting. Well, a copy. But quite a nice one. In a frame and everything.


It's called View of Delft, and it was painted by Vermeer, in 1660-61.

I am amazed how much it resembles a lot of the photos I now try to take, across the Thames, with light striking some buildings but not others.

I was reminded of this painting by reading, as I have been, a book called Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind. Chapter 4 is about "The Dutch Golden Age", and here's how it starts:

The prosperity of the United Provinces in the mid seventeenth century was evident to all visitors. They marvelled as much at the freedoms its citizens took as their birthright. Descartes, acknowledged as the first modern philosopher, since he admitted the new principles of science into his system, wrote his seminal works in Holland, because of the unique intellectual and religious freedoms he found there; there was no other country in which one could enjoy such complete liberty, he declared.' The English ambassador at The Hague, Sir William Temple, who travelled incognito through Holland, afterwards expressed his admiration for the liberty 'the Dutch valued so much' - in particular, 'the strange freedom that all men took in boats and inns and all other common places, of talking openly whatever they thought upon all public affairs, both of their own state, and their neighbours'.

Temple was equally struck by the religious freedoms. Calvinism was the official Protestant denomination, and no one could hold office in the republic without affirming membership of the Calvinist Reformed Church, yet a large Catholic minority and innumerable dissenting sects practised their own rites in their own places of worship and published their own sacred texts. Even Jews lived freely among the populace without being confined to ghettos; later they were permitted a synagogue in Amsterdam, which was opened in 1675. Such essentially pragmatic indulgence in an age of extreme religious intolerance so impressed the fourth Earl of Shaftesbury he recommended that England follow suit, in order likewise to attract and retain skilled workers.

I never really learned about the Dutch when I did history at school. They were merely a vague interlude between the French (bad) and the British Empire (good, mostly). Yet for a while, they were the leading mercantile power of Europe and a beacon of life, liberty and property for all, secure against the depradations of the old aristocracy, who struck fear into the autocracies of the rest of mainland Europe.

And they celebrated all this by producing lots and lots of great oil paintings.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
July 22, 2004
Hating what we have – loving what we lose

Arts & Letters Daily links to an article which kicks off from a thought that has been close to my heart for some time now, especially the parking lot reference:

Many years ago, I was supposed to move to Los Angeles, but every time I went there, something about the light and space made me think that life was basically meaningless and you might as well surrender hope right away. I was still an art critic in those days, and I would drive from north-east of Los Angeles, where I was supposed to settle into my new suburban existence, over to the downtown museums, look at some art, and drive back. But when I got home I would find that the hours I'd spent negotiating freeway merge lanes and entrances and exits and parking garages was, in some mysterious way, more memorable than the museums. I was supposed to have a head full of paintings or installations, but instead, I was preoccupied with the anonymously ugly spaces that are not on the official register of what any place is supposed to be.

Every city has them. Thinking about Paris is more likely to bring to mind the Eiffel Tower, or graceful rows of mansard-roofed buildings on chestnut-lined boulevards, than the long cement passages of the Métro lit by bad fluorescence and smelling of piss, or the dank passageways descending from cafés into Turkish toilets. Even national parks steer their visitors into an asphalted world of public toilets, parking lots, and thou-shalt-not signage, stuff that almost everyone is good at fast-forwarding past to the waterfalls and forest glades and elk doing ungulate things in public. Certainly a waterfall is more striking than the parking lot near its foot, but I wonder how it is that visitors can be so sure they saw what they were supposed to and so oblivious of what they were not.

Human aesthetic response is very strange. Very strange. One day, a totally different way of getting around to the automobile will be devised. Something involving jet-packs or helicopters or gravity engines that enable vehicles to travel the way they do in The Fifth Element (an architecturally fascinating movie, I think you will agree). And at that exact moment, all the automobile crap we now complain about – the motorways, motorway intersections, signposts, petrol stations, and car parks – will suddenly acquire the charm of a village made of thatched cottages. Those big and complicated motorway intersections will remain as great big picturesque ruins and be clambered over by tourists armed with whatever has replaced digital cameras. I mean, Spaghetti Junction has all the makings of a future Stone Henge.

By the same token, when thatched cottages was all there was, I'm absolutely sure that people went around saying: bloody thatched cottages.

Or to put it another way, as I once heard it put, as soon as pylons stop being put up and start being taken down, the Society for the Preservation of Pylons will at once be formed, and people will go out and spot them, the way they now spot steam locomotives.


Pylons photoed by me from the train, in northern France, on my Brussels trip earlier this year.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:10 AM
July 15, 2004
Scientists with model

dnamodel.gifAnother "culture means what I say it means" posting.

While concocting a posting (it will appear tomorrow – link here when it does) for the blog that pays me, I came across this famous photograph, and in a particularly clear version (often it is very blurred), here.

I put in my posting that how Crick and Watson communicated their DNA idea didn't matter. It was enough that they got it across somehow.

But I wonder. There is something very beautiful about a helix, and all the more so when the elements that go to make it are complicated and cloudy and confused. The essential helicalness of the combined object is then all the more remarkable. Complexity leading to simplicity, blah blah. I wonder how well Crick and Watson would have done with such primitive modelling technology had the shape they were chasing been less simple and elegant. Try googling for images of "protein". See what I mean?

Well, I don't know. This is really just an excuse to stick up that picture.

Has anyone redone this, and redone it better, as an oil painting? It would make sense if they did. Here is a clue to what that might look like.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:47 AM
June 28, 2004
The poetry of cloud classification

I continue to enjoy this book by the great Bill Bryson. Here is another snatch from it, about one of the key figures in the history of an activity I greatly admire:


The person most frequently identified as the father of modern meteorology was an English pharmacist named Luke Howard, who came to prominence at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Howard is chiefly remembered now for giving cloud types their names in 1803. …

Howard divided clouds into three groups: stratus for the layered clouds, cumulus for the fluffy ones (the word means heaped in Latin) and cirrus (meaning curled) for the high, thin feathery formations that generally presage colder weather. To these he subsequently added a fourth term, nimbus (from the Latin for cloud), for a rain cloud. The beauty of Howard's system was that the basic components could be freely recombined to describe every shape and size of passing cloud - stratocumulus, cirrostratus, cumulo-nimbus, and so on. It was an immediate hit, and not just in England. Goethe was so taken with the system that he dedicated four poems to Howard.

And how about this?

Howards system has been much added to over the years, so much so that the encyclopedic if little-read International Cloud Atlas runs to two volumes, but interestingly virtually all the post-Howard cloud types - mammatus, pileus, nebulosis, spissatus, floccus and mediocris are a sampling - have never caught on with anyone outside meteorology and not terribly much within it, I'm told. Incidentally, the first, much thinner edition of that atlas, produced in 1896, divided clouds into ten basic types, of which the plumpest and most cushiony-looking was number nine, cumulo-nimbus. That seems to have been the source of the expression 'to be on cloud nine'.

Howard is not forgotten.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:36 PM
April 27, 2004
James Burbage opens London's first theatre and his son gets fat

As threatened here already, John Richardson's The Annals of London is going to be a rich source of postings here. 1576, for example, starts very enticingly:



On 13 April James Burbage, who lived in Holywell Street, Shoreditch, leased a piece of ground on which he built London's first playhouse. It was called simply the Theatre, and its site was that of today's 86-90 Curtain Road. Made of timber, it was probably circular or polygonal in shape. At the end of the theatre's 21-year lease, the building was dismantled and moved to Bankside, where it was resurrected as the Globe.

Because of the prevailing puritanical view of theatrical performances, companies of players sought the protection of noble patrons. Burbage was adopted by the powerful earl of Leicester and was granted a royal patent to perform. It is likely that works by Marlowe and many of Shakespeare's plays were performed here during the Theatre's brief life.

Burbage's theatre opened in the autumn. A few months later, probably early in 1577, the Curtain Theatre began in the same road, south of today's Holywell Lane; it is thought to have been built by one Henry Lanman. Superficially it would seem that Curtain Road derives its name from its theatrical past, but in fact there were no curtains in Elizabethan theatres. The theatre and road instead were named from a cluster of buildings which probably supplanted a fortification wall (curtain wall) here.

The Curtain managed to survive until 1627, but was gradually eclipsed by the fame of the theatres in Southwark.

burbage.jpgThe 1602 entry concerns James Burbage's son Richard, the celebrated actor, for it was in that year that Hamlet was premiered, at the Globe, with Richard Burbage in the title role.

But by then Burbage had become rather fat. Which is why …

… It is suggested that the lines:

King: Our son shall win.

Queen: He's fat and scant of breath.

were written by Shakespeare to take account of his friend's unfit state.

It can't have been the first time that a script got rewritten to accommodate an actor who looked different to the originally envisaged character, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:46 PM
April 24, 2004
The great London fly epidemic of 1707

I bought this book, crammed with London occurrences throughout the ages, at a bargain price, today, and a rich source of quota postings it is sure to prove. Although, my first two postings from it have been at my Education Blog.

No time for anything profound today, just an amazing little event from the summer of 1707. This is the second of four entries for that year:


About the middle of August there was an epidemic of flies in London so prodigous that, as Henry Chamberlain related in 1770, 'many of the streets were so covered with them, that the people's feet made as full an impression on them as upon thick snow'.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:13 PM
February 03, 2004
Paul Johnson on the early spread of printing

Paul Johnson's vast book called Art: A New History (all 777 pages of it) is a most inconvenient volume. It is very big and heavy and unwieldy, and almost every page seems to contain beautiful illustrations of one sort or another. Also, my copy of it was purchased brand new, which is not my usual practice at all. To me books are cheap and expendable, and meanwhile to be treated without care, preferably purchased second hand for next to nothing. Trying to read this book is like having a priceless first edition on my desk all the time, which it may one day be, I suppose. Yet despite all this, as the posting yesterday (see immediately below) illustrates, I am now dipping into this book, and today I came across an interesting description in it of the early spread of the very printing technology, the modern manifestation of which made this book possible.

At least when reading Paul Johnson's book I don't have to worry about spilling coffee on a Gutenberg Bible. Here's how he describes (on pp. 200-201) the way that was created:

In the years 1446-48, two Mainz goldsmiths, Johann Gutenberg and Johann Fust, made use of cheap paper to introduce a critical improvement in the way written pages were reproduced. Printing from wooden blocks was an old method. The Romans used it in textiles. It was the means by which the Mongol Empire ran a paper currency. By 1400, on both sides of the Alps, devotional pictures and playing-cards were being mass-produced by this method. What the Mainz team did was to invent moveable type for the letterpress. It had three merits: it could be used repeatedly until worn out. It was cast in metal from a mould and so could be renewed without difficulty. And it made lettering uniform. In 1450, Gutenberg began work on his Bible, the first printed book, known as the Gutenberg, or Forty-Two-Line Bible, from the number of lines on each page. It was completed in 1455 and is a marvel. As Gutenberg, apart from getting the key idea, had to solve a lot of practical problems, such as typefounding and punch-cutting, devices for imposing paper and ink into the process, and the actual printing itself, for which he adapted the screw-press used by vintners, it is amazing that his first product does not look at all rudimentary. Those who handle it are struck by its clarity and quality. It is a triumph of fifteenth-century German craftsmanship at its best. Indeed, it is a work of art, in the true sense: the application of manual and intellectual skills to produce a thing of beauty, as well as use. Gutenberg was an artist, and a very important one in the history of art, for the spread of black-and-white reproductions in books, which could be hand-coloured, did more to internationalise art than any other factor.

Which is of great interest to this blog, because most of the art experienced here tends to be either mass produced in and of itself, by such things as printing presses, or reproduced and served up here by similar means.


But now in this next bit, which follows on immediately from the quote above, Johnson deals with something which has always puzzled and bothered me, but which I have not read about very much, namely the extreme hideousness and illegibility of the so-called Gothic typefaces used especially by those early German printers. To my eye Gothic makes all letters look the same, which is hardly what you want with a typeface, now is it?

Well, it seems that I'm not the first to have been scornful of this extraordinarily ugly piece of design, which is plainly a creature of the pen, yet which was dumped, so to speak, onto the printing press. I suppose Germans in those days were used to it. But happily the Germans, much though we all owe them for inventing printing in the first place, were unable to make their Gothic habit spread, beyond the opening credits of war movies of course, as Paul Johnson relates:

Printing was one of those technical revolutions which developed its own momentum at extraordinary speed. Christian Europe in the fifteenth century was a place where intermediate technology, as we now call it – that is, workshops with skilled craftsmen – was well-established and spreading fast, especially in Germany and Italy. Such workshops were able to take on printing easily, and it thus became Europe's first true industry. The process was aided by two factors: the new demand for cheap classical texts, which were becoming available anyway, and the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into 'modern' languages. Works of reference were also in demand. The first printed encyclopaedia, the Catholicon, appeared in 1460. The next year, the first printed Bible for laymen appeared, quickly followed by the Bible in German, the first printed book in the vernacular. Presses sprang up in several German cities, and by 1470, Nuremberg had established itself as the centre of the international publishing trade, printing books from twenty-four presses and distributing them along trade routes and at trade fairs all over western and central Europe. The old monastic scriptoria worked closely alongside the new presses, continuing to produce the luxury goods that moveable-type printing could not yet supply. Printing aimed at a cheap mass sale. In 1471 the first best-seller appeared, Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ, which by 1500 had gone through ninety-nine editions.

Though there was no competition between the technologies (at Augsburg, the printing presses and the old monastic scriptorium were in the same building), there was rivalry between nations. The Italians made energetic and successful efforts to catch up with Germany. Their most successful scriptorium, at the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco near Rome, quickly imported two leading German printers to set up presses in their book-producing shop. Italian printers had one advantage. German printers worked with the complex typeface the Italians sneeringly referred to as 'Gothic' and which later became known as Black Letter. Outside Germany, readers found this typeface offputting. The Italians had their own clear version of the Carolingian minuscule. This became known as Roman, and was the type of the future. In 1458, Charles VII of France, impressed by the Gutenberg Bible, sent his leading artist-craftsman, Nicolas Jenson, master of the royal mint at Tours, to Mainz, in order to learn 'the art of printing'. But Jenson, having become an expert printer, refused to return to France. Instead he went to Venice and set up what became the most famous printing press in the world. The fonts of Roman type he cut were exported and imitated all over Europe. From 1490 he had a rival: Aldus Manutius, whose Venice press designed and used a practical Greek type for printing the classics, now available and in huge demand among scholars. He also introduced and made popular, c.1501-20, a slanting type based on the cursive hand used in the papal chancery. The international trade called it Italic, and entire books were printed in it before it slipped into its modern role of use for emphasis and quotation.

Hence, although the Germans made use of the paper revolution to introduce moveable type, the Italians went far to regain the initiative by their artistry and their ability to produce luxury items. By 1500 there were printing firms in sixty German cities, but there were 150 presses in Venice alone. …

So that's how it got called Italic.

Good stuff. I keep having to relearn this lesson. You don't have to read books in the correct order and all the way through. And Johnson's book especially seems to be the kind that will reward casual dipping.

Expect further dips from it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:58 PM
December 20, 2003
Coffee in history – the Economist enthuses about the internet

This counts as "culture" I think. Busy day, so I'm just following an Instapundit link. But it is a real boost for bloggers and blogging, coming as it does from the Economist.

I have the feeling this piece may soon become inaccessible by the direct route, so here's all of it. If it disappears from here too, it means I've had lawyers on me. I hope it stays. (Information wants to be free!) Read the whole thing.

The internet in a cup

Dec 18th 2003


Coffee fuelled the information exchanges of the 17th and 18th centuries

WHERE do you go when you want to know the latest business news, follow commodity prices, keep up with political gossip, find out what others think of a new book, or stay abreast of the latest scientific and technological developments? Today, the answer is obvious: you log on to the internet. Three centuries ago, the answer was just as easy: you went to a coffee-house. There, for the price of a cup of coffee, you could read the latest pamphlets, catch up on news and gossip, attend scientific lectures, strike business deals, or chat with like-minded people about literature or politics.

The coffee-houses that sprang up across Europe, starting around 1650, functioned as information exchanges for writers, politicians, businessmen and scientists. Like today's websites, weblogs and discussion boards, coffee-houses were lively and often unreliable sources of information that typically specialised in a particular topic or political viewpoint. They were outlets for a stream of newsletters, pamphlets, advertising free-sheets and broadsides. Depending on the interests of their customers, some coffee-houses displayed commodity prices, share prices and shipping lists, whereas others provided foreign newsletters filled with coffee-house gossip from abroad.

Rumours, news and gossip were also carried between coffee-houses by their patrons, and sometimes runners would flit from one coffee-house to another within a particular city to report major events such as the outbreak of a war or the death of a head of state. Coffee-houses were centres of scientific education, literary and philosophical speculation, commercial innovation and, sometimes, political fermentation. Collectively, Europe's interconnected web of coffee-houses formed the internet of the Enlightenment era.

The great soberer

Coffee, the drink that fuelled this network, originated in the highlands of Ethiopia, where its beans were originally chewed rather than infused for their invigorating effects. It spread into the Islamic world during the 15th century, where it was embraced as an alternative to alcohol, which was forbidden (officially, at least) to Muslims. Coffee came to be regarded as the very antithesis of alcoholic drinks, sobering rather than intoxicating, stimulating mental activity and heightening perception rather than dulling the senses.

This reputation accompanied coffee as it spread into western Europe during the 17th century, at first as a medicine, and then as a social drink in the Arab tradition. An anonymous poem published in London in 1674 denounced wine as the "sweet Poison of the Treacherous Grape" that drowns "our Reason and our Souls". Beer was condemned as "Foggy Ale" that "besieg'd our Brains". Coffee, however, was heralded as

... that Grave and Wholesome Liquor,
that heals the Stomach, makes the Genius quicker,
Relieves the Memory, revives the Sad,
and cheers the Spirits, without making Mad.

The contrast between coffee and alcoholic drinks was reflected in the decor of the coffee-houses that began to appear in European cities, London in particular. They were adorned with bookshelves, mirrors, gilt-framed pictures and good furniture, in contrast to the rowdiness, gloom and squalor of taverns. According to custom, social differences were left at the coffee-house door, the practice of drinking healths was banned, and anyone who started a quarrel had to atone for it by buying an order of coffee for all present. In short, coffee-houses were calm, sober and well-ordered establishments that promoted polite conversation and discussion.

With a new rationalism abroad in the spheres of both philosophy and commerce, coffee was the ideal drink. Its popularity owed much to the growing middle class of information workers – clerks, merchants and businessmen – who did mental work in offices rather than performing physical labour in the open, and found that coffee sharpened their mental faculties. Such men were not rich enough to entertain lavishly at home, but could afford to spend a few pence a day on coffee. Coffee-houses provided a forum for education, debate and self-improvement. They were nicknamed "penny universities" in a contemporary English verse which observed: "So great a Universitie, I think there ne'er was any; In which you may a Scholar be, for spending of a Penny."

As with modern websites, the coffee-houses you went to depended on your interests, for each coffee-house attracted a particular clientele, usually by virtue of its location. Though coffee-houses were also popular in Paris, Venice and Amsterdam, this characteristic was particularly notable in London, where 82 coffee-houses had been set up by 1663, and more than 500 by 1700. Coffee-houses around the Royal Exchange were frequented by businessmen; those around St James's and Westminster by politicians; those near St Paul's Cathedral by clergymen and theologians. Indeed, so closely were some coffee-houses associated with particular topics that the Tatler, a London newspaper founded in 1709, used the names of coffee-houses as subject headings for its articles. Its first issue declared:

...All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White's Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will's Coffee-house; Learning, under...Grecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James's Coffee-house.

Richard Steele, the Tatler's editor, gave its postal address as the Grecian coffee-house, which he used as his office. In the days before street numbering or regular postal services, it became a common practice to use a coffee-house as a mailing address. Regulars could pop in once or twice a day, hear the latest news, and check to see if any post awaited them. That said, most people frequented several coffee-houses, the choice of which reflected their range of interests. A merchant, for example, would generally oscillate between a financial coffee-house and one specialising in Baltic, West Indian or East Indian shipping. The wide-ranging interests of Robert Hooke, a scientist and polymath, were reflected in his visits to around 60 coffee-houses during the 1670s.

As the Tatler's categorisation suggests, the coffee-house most closely associated with science was the Grecian, the preferred coffee-house of the members of the Royal Society, Britain's pioneering scientific institution. On one occasion a group of scientists including Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley dissected a dolphin on the premises. Scientific lectures and experiments also took place in coffee-houses, such as the Marine, near St Paul's, which were frequented by sailors and navigators. Seamen and merchants realised that science could contribute to improvements in navigation, and hence to commercial success, whereas the scientists were keen to show the practical value of their work. It was in coffee-houses that commerce and new technology first became intertwined.

The more literary-minded, meanwhile, congregated at Will's coffee-house in Covent Garden, where for three decades the poet John Dryden and his circle reviewed and discussed the latest poems and plays. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary on December 3rd 1663 that he had looked in at Will's and seen Dryden and "all the wits of the town" engaged in "very witty and pleasant discourse". After Dryden's death many of the literatured shifted to Button's, which was frequented by Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, among others. Pope's poem "The Rape of the Lock" was based on coffee-house gossip, and discussions in coffee-houses inspired a new, more colloquial and less ponderous prose style, conversational in tone and clearly visible in the journalism of the day.

Other coffee-houses were hotbeds of financial innovation and experimentation, producing new business models in the form of innumerable novel variations on insurance, lottery or joint-stock schemes. The best-known example was the coffee-house opened in the late 1680s by Edward Lloyd. It became a meeting-place for ships' captains, shipowners and merchants, who went to hear the latest maritime news and to attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd began to collect and summarise this information, supplemented with reports from a network of foreign correspondents, in the form of a regular newsletter, at first handwritten and later printed and sent to subscribers. Lloyd's thus became the natural meeting place for shipowners and the underwriters who insured their ships. Some underwriters began to rent booths at Lloyd's, and in 1771 a group of 79 of them collectively established the Society of Lloyd's, better known as Lloyd's of London.

Similarly, two coffee-houses near London's Royal Exchange, Jonathan's and Garraway's, were frequented by stockbrokers and jobbers. Attempts to regulate the membership of Jonathan's, by charging an annual subscription and barring non-members, were successfully blocked by traders who opposed such exclusivity. So in 1773 a group of traders from Jonathan's broke away and decamped to a new building, the forerunner of the London Stock Exchange. Garraway's was a less reputable coffee-house, home to auctions of all kinds and much dodgy dealing, particularly during the South Sea Bubble of 1719-21. It was said of Garraway's that no other establishment "fostered so great a quantity of dishonoured paper".

Far more controversial than the coffee-houses' functions as centres of scientific, literary and business exchange, however, was their potential as centres of political dissent. Coffee's reputation as a seditious beverage goes back at least as far as 1511, the date of the first known attempt to ban the consumption of coffee, in Mecca. Thereafter, many attempts were made to prohibit coffee and coffee-houses in the Muslim world. Some claimed it was intoxicating and therefore subject to the same religious prohibition as alcohol. Others claimed it was harmful to the health. But the real problem was the coffee-houses' alarming potential for facilitating political discussion and activity.

This was the objection raised in a proclamation by Charles II of England in 1675. Coffee-houses, it declared, had produced

very evil and dangerous effects ... for that in such Houses ... divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majestie's Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm.

The result was a public outcry, for coffee-houses had become central to commercial and political life. When it became clear that the proclamation would be widely ignored and the government's authority thus undermined, a further proclamation was issued, announcing that coffee-sellers would be allowed to stay in business for six months if they paid £500 and agreed to swear an oath of allegiance. But the fee and time limit were soon dropped in favour of vague demands that coffee-houses should refuse entry to spies and mischief-makers.

Dark rumours of plots and counter-plots swirled in London's coffee-houses, but they were also centres of informed political debate. Swift remarked that he was "not yet convinced that any Access to men in Power gives a man more Truth or Light than the Politicks of a Coffee House." Miles's coffee-house was the meeting-place of a discussion group, founded in 1659 and known as the Amateur Parliament. Pepys observed that its debates were "the most ingeniose, and smart, that I ever heard, or expect to heare, and bandied with great eagernesse; the arguments in the Parliament howse were but flatte to it." After debates, he noted, the group would hold a vote using a "wooden oracle", or ballot-box – a novelty at the time.

Sweet smell of sedition

The contrast with France was striking. One French visitor to London, the Abbé Prévost, declared that coffee-houses, "where you have the right to read all the papers for and against the government", were the "seats of English liberty". Coffee-houses were popular in Paris, where 380 had been established by 1720. As in London, they were associated with particular topics or lines of business. But with strict curbs on press freedom and a bureaucratic system of state censorship, France had far fewer sources of news than did England, Holland or Germany. This led to the emergence of handwritten newsletters of Paris gossip, transcribed by dozens of copyists and sent by post to subscribers in Paris and beyond. The lack of a free press also meant that poems and songs passed around on scraps of paper, along with coffee-house gossip, were important sources of news for many Parisians.

Little wonder then that coffee-houses, like other public places in Paris, were stuffed with government spies. Anyone who spoke out against the state risked being hauled off to the Bastille, whose archives contain reports of hundreds of coffee-house conversations, noted down by informers. "At the Café de Foy someone said that the king had taken a mistress, that she was named Gontaut, and that she was a beautiful woman, the niece of the Duc de Noailles," runs one report from the 1720s. Another, from 1749, reads, "Jean-Louis Le Clerc made the following remarks in the Café de Procope: that there never has been a worse king; that the court and the ministers make the king do shameful things, which utterly disgust his people."

Despite their reputation as breeding-grounds for discontent, coffee-houses seem to have been tolerated by the French government as a means of keeping track of public opinion. Yet it was at the Café de Foy, eyed by police spies while standing on a table brandishing two pistols, that Camille Desmoulins roused his countrymen with his historic appeal – "Aux armes, citoyens!" – on July 12th 1789. The Bastille fell two days later, and the French revolution had begun. Jules Michelet, a French historian, subsequently noted that those "who assembled day after day in the Café de Procope saw, with penetrating glance, in the depths of their black drink, the illumination of the year of the revolution."

Can the coffee-houses' modern equivalent, the internet, claim to have had such an impact? Perhaps not. But the parallels are certainly striking. Originally the province of scientists, the internet has since grown to become a nexus of commercial, journalistic and political interchange.

In discussion groups and chatrooms, gossip passes freely – a little too freely, think some regulators and governments, which have tried and generally failed to rein them in. Snippets of political news are rounded up and analysed in weblogs, those modern equivalents of pamphlets and broadsides. Obscure scientific and medical papers, once available only to specialists, are just clicks away; many scientists explain their work, both to their colleagues and to the public at large, on web pages. Countless new companies and business models have emerged, not many of them successful, though one or two have become household names. Online exchanges and auction houses, from eBay to industry-specific marketplaces, match buyers and sellers of components, commodities and household bric-à-brac.

Coffee, meet WiFi

The kinship between coffee-houses and the internet has recently been underlined by the establishment of wireless "hotspots" which provide internet access, using a technology called WiFi, in modern-day coffee-shops. T-Mobile, a wireless network operator, has installed hotspots in thousands of Starbucks coffee-shops across America and Europe. Coffee-shop WiFi is particularly popular in Seattle – home to both Starbucks and such leading internet firms as Amazon and Microsoft.

Such hotspots allow laptop-toting customers to check their e-mail and read the news as they sip their lattes. But history provides a cautionary tale for those hotspot operators that charge for access. Coffee-houses used to charge for coffee, but gave away access to reading materials. Many coffee-shops are now following the same model, which could undermine the prospects for fee-based hotspots. Information, both in the 17th century and today, wants to be free – and coffee-drinking customers, it seems, expect it to be.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:54 PM
November 10, 2003
The time of the Multiple Remotes

Now that we live in the historic epoch – which got under way early in the nineteenth century with photography – of Recording, we can look back at the archives of earlier decades and chuckle at those transitional technologies which had only just been devised, but not perfected. Each decade has its characteristic signature gadgets, starting with those cameras, on tripods and with the photographer hiding under a blanket. Model T Fords. Telephones in two separate bits. Propeller driven aeroplanes. Black and white televisions. Vacuum cleaners the shape of giant Swiss Rolls. Ancient tape recorders with giant wheels of tape that you had to cut with scissors. Gramophone records. Portable telephones the size of shoe boxes. Giant genuinely floppy floppy discs. VHS videos and TV screens that stick out at the back are beginning their descent into the same memory banks.

Time was when it was very hard to notice these things in the historic record. We can see the battles and the kings and the queens, the opening up of continents and the industrial revolutions. Spotting the subtle changes in things like eighteenth century tea kettles and coal scuttles and fifteenth century butter churns and pig sties is harder. But now these kinds of details have also become easy for us all to remember, when we see them in the photographs and the newsreels and the ancient TV shows.

So here now is an image that will, I suggest, do a lot to define the very particular moment of domestic history that we are now living through:


A decade ago, none of us had so many of these damned things. In ten years time, the mess will probably have been sorted out. But now – just now – this is a small but definite thing which pinpoints our little moment in history. We now live in The Time of The Multiple Remotes.

Let me itemise these particular remotes for you, for they are mine, and I have just photographed them for you. From left to right as we look: (1) The television, (2) The video, (3) The tuner/amplifier component of my medium fi system (4) The compact disk player, ditto, (5) The digital box attachment to the television, (6) The DVD player, (7) The digital radio that has replaced the (analogue) tuner bit of the tuner/amp. I dare say there'll be more in the years to come.

But I don't really have to spell it all out for you, do I? You probably have just such a collection yourself. I live alone, and my collection adds up to a single control panel, albeit a rather complicated and unwieldy one. All my Remotes occupy the same shelf on my desk.

But pity the families. There, the Remotes move hither and thither like a litter of unruly puppies.

The relationship of the father of the modern family to his various Remotes is a metaphor for his entire life. When a modern man has a family, his life is no longer his own, and because of the multiplicity of all those Remotes, the very "control" which they are supposed to supply slips from his hands. When there was only one Remote, he was its Lord and Master, but not any more.

Luckily he doesn't have time to pay careful attention to all the electronic message receivers and displays these magic wands supposedly command for him, but which actually behave towards him more like a barrier. He has more important things to attend to.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:19 PM
October 09, 2003
Echoes of Macbeth

I like this piece by Friedrich Blowhard about Macbeth.

Friedrich's Macbeth reminds me of Shaka Zulu, whom I've just been reading about. He too was one weird guy, whose motivations don't seem to have been purely "political". He too seemed to be spoiling for a fight all the time, rather than merely a man who had to fight to achieve mere worldy ends. On one occasion, he banned sex for an entire year throughout his realm. Couples where the wife got pregnant were executed. How weird is that? Also, in Africa in those days and I daresay in these days too, the political atmosphere is altered somewhat by the tendency of sons to murder their fathers to get the top job, and the consequent tendency of fathers to murder their sons in order to prevent their sons from getting the top job.

Another possible Macbeth reference caught my ear recently. Apparently the recently deceased Alec Guinness wasn't much of a dad. No touching or hugging or affection, etc. One day, however, he did try to give his son a cuddle, and he called him his "chicken". "I'm not your chicken!" said the son indignantly, running away. Was that a reference, I wonder, to that appalling moment in Macbeth when Macduff learns that "all my pretty chickens and their dam" have been murdered by Macbeth's people "at one fell swoop"? I bet it was. And I bet Guinness identified with Macbeth like crazy. He must certainly have played him a few times. And how about this? (see paragraph one) – a small part in Macbeth seems to have played a big part in getting Guinness started as a pro actor.

Now I have to go looking for where I read that bit about his son the chicken (not).

Can't find it. I think it may have been in the paper Sunday Times, in one of the cultural appandages, a week or two ago. The episode is in a new biography of Guinness, I think, and I read a review of that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:18 PM
August 25, 2003
Did they have ice cream in Victorian times?

This is the kind of thing you need to know. After all, what if someone came up to you in the street and asked you: "Do you know if they had ice cream in Victorian times?" – and you had to admit that you didn't?

You think that's far fetched? Exactly this experience happened to Michael Jennings only yesterday.

Normally I take pride in being able to answer questions like this, but in this instance I really couldn't.

The horror, the horror.

Afterwards, of course, Michael did some research, and it turns out they did. Too late, Michael, too late.

This posting too silly and inconsequential to put on Samizdata. But since (a) this is my ego blog, and (b) culture here means whatever I say it means which means that it can include Victorian ice cream and strange events in the twenty first century street if I say so and I do say so, here it is here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:10 PM
July 16, 2003
Terence Kealey on hobby scientists

As all those multitudes who read everything I ever post already know, I've been reading Terence Kealey's The Economic Laws of Scientific Research. While I was reading what follows, I thought, I love this. I also thought, hm, maybe the place for this is the Culture Blog. Because that's what it's about. And then, as if to clinch it for me, along came Kealey's delightful final paragraph.

I wrote a short Libertarian Alliance piece in a similar vein, but about arts funding, at the end of which I say (approximately): for art read life. What Kealey says is: and in particular, for art read science. I've added a couple of links about two of the recent (and Nobel Prize winning) hobby scientists he mentions.

The hobby scientists flourished under laissez faire, but laissez-faire Britain came to an end in 1914. Before 1914 the Government sequestered less than 10 per cent of the nation's wealth in taxes, but between 1918 and 1939 the Government increased this to about 25 per cent of GNP, and since 1945 the Government has spent between 40-50 per cent GNP. Because of the attrition of inherited wealth and of private means, the hobby scientist is now practically extinct. By the 1930s, for example, half of the lecturers in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge University still had private incomes, but today's tax structure has dramatically cut the numbers of people who inherit sufficient private means to do science for fun. One rare survivor is Peter Mitchell who won the Nobel Prize in 1978 for discovering the chemiosmotic hypothesis in his private laboratories in Bodmin, Cornwall. The occasional hobby scientist can still be found in a theoretical subject; Albert Einstein, for example, was working as a clerk in the patents office in Zurich when, during his spare time, he conceived of his theories of relativity.

Even dirigiste France could produce hobby scientists, but its harsh taxes so restricted opportunities that, inevitably, its most distinguished hobbyist was a taxman. Lavoisier was indeed a Farmer-General, which ultimately led him to the guillotine (the judge who condemned him to death remarked that 'the revolution has no need for scientists'; Karl Marx would have disagreed).

The loss of the hobby scientists has been unfortunate because the hobby scientists tended to be spectacularly good. They were good because they tended to do original science. Professional scientists tend to play it safe; they need to succeed, which tempts them into doing experiments that are certain to produce results. Similarly, grant-giving bodies which are accountable to government try only to give money for experiments that are likely to work. But experiments that are likely to work are probably boring - indeed, if they are that predictable, they are barely experiments at all; rather, they represent the development of established science rather than the creation of the new (though science is so unpredictable that even so-called predictable experiments will yield unpredictable results on occasion). But the hobby scientist is unaccountable. He can follow the will-o'-the-wisp and he is more likely to do original than unoriginal research, because it is original research that is fun.

Most professional scientists spend much of their time doing repetitive work. Science has become a treadmill, and scientists must be seen to be publishing papers, speaking at conferences, getting grants, teaching undergraduates and training PhD students. These activities will not succeed unless they are predictable, and therefore even boring. The hobby scientist need never be bored. He need only do an experiment if it looks fun, The hobby scientist, therefore, will be attracted to challenging science to the same degree that the professional scientist is attracted to safe science.

The hobby scientist, moreover, will be a different sort of human being from the professional scientist. A professional scientist needs to be tough. It is a harsh, competitive world in a modern university, and if a scientist does not drive himself and his students to write the requisite number of papers and to win enough grants, then that scientist does not survive. But a hobby scientist does not have to be any particular sort of human being. Indeed, many of the great hobby scientists would transparently never have survived a modern university. Peter Mitchell, whose is chemiosmotic hypothesis changed the very nature of modern biochemistry, took seven years to complete his PhD. In Britain, PhD grants are only for three years, so Mitchell would never have completed his PhD had he depended on public funds (particularly as he was not a good PhD student, and no one would have fought for him). After his PhD, he obtained a lectureship in the Department of Zoology at Edinburgh University, but he found the job intolerable and left after a few years. He bought a dilapidated country house in Bodmin, in Cornwall, spent two years rebuilding it as a form of psychotherapy, and then started on his researches again, in his own way, on family money - to win a Nobel Prize.

Many of the hobby scientists were decidedly peculiar. Cavendish, a bachelor, only spoke to other human beings on Thursday nights when he dined with a coterie of FRSs. Otherwise he lived in solitude, communicating with his servants by notes and letters. Dinner was served to him through a contraption that shielded the butler from gaze, and if Cavendish ever saw a servant, he dismissed that person instantly. Darwin was also odd. He spent his whole life as a semi-invalid, and although it is claimed he suffered from Chagas' disease, Pickering showed in his Creative Malady that Darwin probably pretended to be ill to shield himself from the strains of everyday life. Neither Cavendish not Darwin would have survived in a modern university any better than did Mitchell, yet they were scientific giants (Darwin could not even survive undergraduate life, and he left before obtaining a degree). Another academic failure was Albert Einstein, one of the greatest of hobby scientists. Einstein did not do well as an undergraduate at university, and he failed to obtain a PhD position, so he had to get a job; he chose to clerk in a patents office because it left him with spare energy in the evenings.

When science was a vocation, personal poverty did not frustrate potential researchers. Michael Faraday, for example, was the son of a blacksmith, and he was apprenticed to a bookbinder, but science was his hobby and despite his lack of conventional qualifications Sir Humphry Davy was happy to employ him as a technician at the Royal Institution. It did not take long for his genius and passion to be recognised. (Even a chronic grumbler like Thomas Huxley prospered as a gifted career scientist despite his lack of private means.) Occasionally, a contemporary private scientific body will be as enlightened as those earlier institutions. Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her discovery of transposable genetic elements, was employed from 1942 by the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC. All they asked of her was that she wrote an annual report, which is all that she wrote. She could not be bothered with all the fuss and nonsense that it takes to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals, and anyone who wanted to know what she had done only had to read the Carnegie Institution's annual report. Only a private body could behave so unconventionally. A modern university would have found McClintock wanting, because she would not have been conventional enough to spend her days writing grants, sitting on committees, and driving PhD students, technicians and post-doctoral fellows to write their quota of papers.

The hobby scientists were the most romantic of scientists, approaching the poets in their intellectual purity and richly individualistic personalities. Rich or poor, the hobby scientists were driven by a vocation and a love of research. We are lessened by their extinction. Those who argue for more government funding of science, or of anything else, should never forget the cost of government money, namely the taxes that impoverish society to enable government to impose its particular, narrow, harsh vision of a modern university.

Terence Kealey

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:50 PM
May 18, 2003
An excellent documentary

Last week I posted a piece about how films about famous battles might be better done. I've now just watched a very good documentary, which was first shown last October but which I was seeing tonight for the first time, about the Battle of El Alamein. It was written and fronted by Peter Snow and by his son Daniel. Peter Snow told of the big decisions and the big strategic and battlefield agonisings, as befitted his age, while son Daniel related what it was like for the poor bloody infantry, tankers, gunners, minefield clearers, etc., ditto. It could have been ghastly, but Dan is obviously going to be just as much of a broardcasting pro as his Dad is and I thought it worked fine.

Concerning what I said in my previous post about how the drama genre and the documentary genre need to merge, and how documentaries need to make more serious use of actors, they used (young) actors in this documentary to tell the story from the point of view of the average soldier, as if telling the story just after the battle had ended. Maps, commentary, practical demonstrations of the difficulties of clearing mines, shots of the same landscape filmed now, all merged very well to tell the story with great clarity. As one who has read a lot about this battle over the years, I still managed to learn a lot, in the sense that it was all pulled together into a single story for me better than ever before. At first I thought that the computer graphics were going to be needlessly fussy and trixy, but once the battle got seriously underway, that mostly stopped.

Nevertheless, when they finally do make a decent drama-documentary about Alamein, they'll have to have an actor doing Monty (what a part!). And others doing Auchinleck, Lumsden, Rommel, and the rest of them.

Just as interesting as what this documentary did contain was what it did not. There was no attempt to downgrade the importance or the bravery of what the soldiers had done. There was no "revisionism". No campaigning for peace, other than noting how terrible it must be to get burnt to death in a tank. There was just an important story, clearly and vividly told.

It was interesting also, in this age of multi-national production deals and global audiences, that full credit was given to the contributions of the non-English (such as the Scots) and the non-British (Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, etc.). Special mention was, in particular, made of the contribution made to the winning of Alamein by the Australians, who made the vital attack in the extreme north after the first attack in the north had been stalled.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:40 PM