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Category archive: History

Tuesday May 26 2015

Take a train from … anywhere, into Waterloo.  Exit your train, and go through the barriers.  Turn right in the big concourse and carry on walking until you have gone as far as you can go, and you get to an exit.  Step outside.  You are in “Station Approach”:

image

I’ve messed with the visuals there, to make “Station Approach” readable.

You are wisely prevented by some railings from stepping out into Station Approach itself and being run down by a taxi.  But turn right out of the exit, and make your way a few dozen yards along the narrow pavement, to the point in Station Approach where you can cross the road, to some steps that lead down into “Spur Road”.  (The steps are right next to the S of Spur Road, in the image above.) But, don’t go down these steps.  Stay at the top of the steps and enjoy the view.

To the far left, you can see the Walkie Talkie.  To the far right, the Spray Can.  Between them is the sprawl of south-of-the-river London.

It’s one of my favourite London panoramas, if only because everyone else who ever sets foot in this place is either in a hurry to get somewhere else, or in a hurry to catch a train.  Nobody talks about this view, the way they do of the view from such places as Parliament Hill or the top of some of London’s big or even not so big buildings

What stops this view being talked up as a “view” is the prominence of all the foreground clutter.  In the background, there are Big Things to be observed, but they do not tower over the foreground.  If anything, the foreground clutter dominates them.  Even the Shard is an almost diffident, even sometimes (depending on the light) spectral presence rather than a “tower”.  Recently there was a TV documentary about the Tower of London, and the impact of it and the Shard, each in and on their time, was compared.  The message was that the Tower then was like the Shard now.  But these two buildings could hardly be more different.  The Tower then was telling London then that the Tower was the boss.  The Shard now politely concedes to London now that London is the boss.

And of course I love this view, because I love London’s clutter, especially roof clutter, and I love it when Big Things can be seen between and beyond the clutter, without necessarily dominating:

image imageimage image

Those shots were all taken within moments of one another, just over a week ago, on a sunny afternoon, the same sunny afternoon I took this.

Stations are great linear photo-opportunities.  This is because railway tracks have to be pretty much dead level.  If the lie of the land is high, the tracks have to be lower, and if the lie of the land is low, the tracks have to be higher, which is also convenient because it enables the railway to jump over the roads on bridges and viaducts rather than compete with them at such things as level crossings.  This causes the platforms of many a station to be at roof level rather than at ground level.

Level crossings will get road traffic across a mere double track out in the country, but are hopeless for getting past the tracks out of Waterloo, one of the world’s busiest railway stations.  The traffic would wait for ever.  So, bridges and viaducts it is, and that means that Waterloo Station itself is dragged up to regular London roof level.  So even if you can’t see anything from Waterloo Station itself, you can from just outside it.  You can from Station Approach.  Well, I can, because I want to.

Tuesday May 19 2015

Okay, this quote is from Chapter One, “A Universal Language?”, of The Story of English: How the English Language Conquered the World by Philip Gooden (pp. 11-12):

English is the closest the world has yet come to a universal language, at least in the sense that even those who cannot speak it - admittedly, the large majority of the world’s population - are likely to be familiar with the odd English expression.  One term that is genuinely global as well as genuinely odd is OK (or O.K. or okay), originating in America in the 19th century.  An astonishingly adaptable word, it works as almost any part of speech from noun to verb, adjective to adverb, though often just as a conversation-filler - ‘OK, what are we going to do now?’ Depending on the tone of voice, OK can convey anything from fervent agreement to basic accquiescence.  It may be appropriate that such a truly universal term has no generally agreed source.  Attempts to explain where it came from don’t so much show variety as a high degree of imaginative curiosity.  So, OK is created from the initials of a deliberate misspelling, oll korreket, or from a campaign slogan for a would-be US president in the 1840s who was known as Old Kinderhook because he came from Kinderhook in New York State.  Or it is a version of a word imported from Finland or Haiti, or possibly one borrowed from the Choctaw Indians.  Or it is older than originally thought and derives from West African expressions like o-ke or waw-ke.  Enough explanations, OK?

OK.

Thursday May 07 2015

Following on from yesterday’s ruminations, in among lots of stuff that doesn’t fascinate me, including one posting about shit, is a report about Paris’ tallest building in over 40 years.

Presumably “Paris” doesn’t include La Défense, which is out on the edge of Paris.  Those Big Things are very big indeed.  What they’re talking about here is building Big Things in the centre of Paris. 

And the thing is, this Thing not very tall at all:

image

In London, this sort of thing would hardly be noticed.

But the fact that this new Thing is not that big is deliberate.

“This project is not a high-rise, but embodies a shift in attitude, and this gradual increase marks a willingness to reconsider the potential of height and will change the city landscape little by little,” said the architects.

They know that if they are to get any new truly Big Things anywhere near the centre of Paris, the first step is to make some things that are not Big, but just a tiny bit bigger.  First you get the opposition to concede the principle, with something that doesn’t arouse huge opposition.  Then you gradually increase the heights, until finally you get your Big Things, and the opposition unites too late.  And by then it’s too small, because lots of people actually like the new Big Things.  This is how politics is done.  And this is politics.

The last, and so far only new and truly Big Thing anywhere near the middle of Paris (other than the Eiffel Tower) is the Montparnasse Tower, which was completed in 1973.  Compared to almost everything else in central Paris, before or since, the Montparnasse Tower is very tall indeed.  It aroused a lot of opposition by embodying such an abrupt, even contemptuous, change of Paris skyscraper policy, and judging by what happened for the next forty years, that opposition was very successful.  This time around, those who want Big Parisian Things are going about it more carefully, as the above quote shows.

Speaking of politics, who is that geezer in the picture, in the picture?  A politician, I’ll bet.

Tuesday May 05 2015

Shiny Thing in London, by Frank Stella Hon RA, one of the most important living American artists, near to where I live.  I go there.  I photo it.  I show you some photos.  I tell you what I think of the Shiny Thing.  (I like it.  If I didn’t like it I’d not be mentioning it.) So far so ordinary.

But for me this was not a regular photowalk.  The difference this time was that I had a friend with me while I did my snaps, and she was snapping also.  Just as I was about to depart from my home and do the checking out of the Shiny Thing on my own, the friend had rung up and we arranged to meet, near the Shiny Thing so that I could combine the two things, meeting the friend and then, as a separate operation, me checking out the Shiny Thing.  But while seeking somewhere to sit down and have a drink we went right past it, she saw it and liked the look of it, and we ended up photoing it together.

I was using my “camera”, and she was using her iPhone.  And of course I photoed her doing this:

imageimage

I have been out and about in London with this same friend quite a few times over the years, and I have usually been taking photos in among chatting.  But I don’t recall her even joining in with the photography so enthusiastically.  It was the Shiny Thing that did it.  And you can bet that her bests snaps were pretty soon if not instantly transmitted to others, long before I posted a couple of mine here.

There is a lot of this sort of opportunistic smartphone photography going on in the world, just now.  The key moment was when cameras in smartphones got good enough, which at first they weren’t.  But for a handful of years now, smartphone cameras have been more than adequate for shots like the ones my friend was taking, and of course smartphone cameras will, like my kind of cameras, keep getting better and better.  Soon, it just won’t make any sense to own a dedicated point-and-shot camera, if you also use a smartphone, because the camera on your smartphone will be plenty good enough for all but the fussiest of purposes.

Here is a piece by Michael Zhang, linked to a while back by Instapundit.  This tells the story in one graph, but presented in two different ways.

First, in this graph of camera sales from 1933 until 2013, we see the defeat of the old-school roll-of-film camera (the grey stuff) by digital cameras (in blue) like the ones I have owned over the last few years, and by DSLRs (green):

image

But now, take a look at what happens to this exact same graph when you include all the (yellow) smartphone activity, top right:

image

At the other end of the above link, they show the graph in all its endless-scroll-down vertical hugeness, huge enough to include all those smartphone cameras.  Above, here, is the exact same graph, but ruthlessly flattened, to enable you to see the entire picture in one go, with no scrolling up and down.

As you can see, the big - very big - story is the sheer quantity of half-decent smartphone cameras there now are in the world, in private personal hands, such as the hands of my friend.

This is a transformation that I have of course been registering, with all my photos of digital photographers, with an increasing proportion of them in recent years using smartphones.  See, for instance, this posting.  Quote:

And of course, there is that vast category that has hove into view in the last few years, of people taking photos with their mobile phones.  No less than seven of the above twelve snaps are of people doing this.  This was not a decision on my part, merely a consequence of me picking out nice photos of people taking photos.

For me, the most interesting titbit in the article with the graphs linked to above (and again), is this, right at the end:

… and 92% of smartphone users worldwide say that the camera is the most used feature on their phones.

That embedded link being to another piece, which elaborates on this point.  The other big use is, of course, texting.

The point being that all these smartphone cameras have not merely been sold to a billion plus people so that they can have them in their pockets.

Almost all of those cameras are being used, to take photos.

LATER:

We also used our phone cameras while we were away. Firstly, so that we could email the kids something each evening and secondly (and photography snobs may want to look away now) because you can actually grab a decent shot every now and again. Oh, and it enables you to do things like this while someone else is using the “real” camera.

... and to make mini-movies.

Monday May 04 2015

Part of getting old (new category here – I still have a lot of categorising to do so bear with me on that) is that you just forget to do things, even things that you like.  Thus, I have recently been forgetting to read Anton Howes.  Today I remembered, and started reading, in particular, this posting, which is most recent as of now.

Fun quote:

Uber isn’t a taxi company; it is a market. It provides a trust-based platform made up of assurances and ratings in order to let anyone ask “Can I have a ride? / Want a ride?” without sounding creepy.

Nicely put.

I will now read the whole thing.

Thursday April 23 2015

I am reading In Defence of History by Richard J. Evans.  The attackers are the post-modernists.  In Chapter 3 ("Historians and their facts"), Evans writes about how evidence considered insignificant in one era can become highly significant in a later era:

The traces left by the past, as Dominick LaCapra has observed, do not provide an even coverage of it.  Archives are the product of the chance survival of some documents and the corresponding chance loss or deliberate destruction of others.  They are also the products of the professional activities of archivists, which therefore shape the record of the past and with it the interpretations of historians.  Archivists have often weeded out records they consider unimportant, while retaining those they consider of lasting value.  This might mean for example destroying vast and therefore bulky personnel files on low-ranking state employees such as ordinary soldiers and seamen, manual workers and so on, while keeping room on the crowded shelves for personnel files on high state officials.  Yet such a policy would reflect a view that many historians would now find outmoded, a view which considered ‘history’ only as the history of the elites.  Documents which seem worthless to one age, and hence ripe for the shredder, can seem extremely valuable to another.

Let me give an example from my personal experience.  During research in the Hamburg state archives in the I98os, I became aware that the police had been sending plain-clothes agents into the city’s pubs and bars during the two decades or so before the First World War to gather and later write down secret reports of what was being said in them bysocialist workers.  The reports I saw were part of larger files on the various organizations to which these workers belonged.  Thinking it might be interesting to look at a wider sample, I went through a typewritten list of the police files with the archivist, and among the headings we came across was one which read: ‘Worthless Reports’. Going down into the muniment room, we found under the relevant call-number a mass of over 20,000 reports which had been judged of insufficient interest by the police authorities of the day to be taken up into the thematic files where I had first encountered this material. It was only by a lucky chance that they had not already been destroyed. They turned out to contain graphic and illuminating accounts of what rank-and-file socialist workers thought about almost every conceivable issue of the day, from the Dreyfus affair in France to the state of the traffic on Hamburg’s busy streets. Nobody had ever looked at them before. Historians of the labour movement had only been interested in organization and ideology.  But by the time I came to inspect them, interest had shifted to the history of everyday life, and workers’ views on the family, crime and the law, food, drink and leisure pursuits, had become significant objects of historical research.  It seemed worth transcribing and publishing a selection, therefore, which I did after a couple of years’ work on them.  The resulting collection showed how rank-and-file Social Democrats and labour activists often had views that cut right across the Marxist ideology in which previous historians thought the party had indoctrinated them, because previous historians had lacked the sources to go down beyond the level of official pronouncements in the way the Hamburg police reports made it possible to do. Thus from ‘worthless reports’ there emerged a useful corrective to earlier historical interpretations. This wonderful material, which had survived by chance, had to wait for discovery and exploitation until the historiographical climate had changed. 

Wednesday April 22 2015

Another of those pictures from the archives that gets better with age.  Can you see why?

image

Well, let me tell you.  In the foreground (perhaps that should be “forewater") is the Thames Barrier, looking as it always did, and looking as it does now.  But right in the middle, in the distance there, between the two nearer buildings, is the Shard.  But not the Shard as we know it.  The Shard when it was big enough to be hugely impressive, but when it was still under construction.

Taken in January 2011.

Wednesday April 15 2015

In an earlier posting I mentioned that I had ordered Marc Morris’s book about The Norman Conquest, and I have now started reading this.  (Although for some reason the version of it that I have seems to be the American one.)

Morris takes the Bayeux Tapestry as his starting point (as already discussed here in this and (because of its elongated shape) in this).

The events depicted in the Tapestry are of course highly dramatic, but as Morris relates, so too was the subsequent history of the Tapestry:

By any law of averages, the Tapestry ought not to exist.  We know that such elaborate wall-hangings, while hardly commonplace in the eleventh century, were popular enough with the elite that could afford them, because we have descriptions in contemporary documents.  What we don’t have are other surviving examples: all that comes down to us in other cases are a few sorry-looking scraps.  That the Tapestry is still with us almost I ,000 years after it was sewn is astonishing, especially when one considers its later history. It first appears in the written record four centuries after its creation, in 1476, when it is described in an inventory of the treasury at Bayeux Cathedral, from which we learn that the clergy were in the habit of hanging it around the nave every year during the first week of July (an annual airing that would have aided its conservation).  Its survival through those four medieval centuries, escaping the major hazards of war, fire and flood, as well as the more mundane menaces of rodents, insects and damp, is wondrous enough; that it successfully avoided destruction during the modern era is nothing short of miraculous.  When the cathedral’s treasury was looted during the French Revolution, the Tapestry came within a hair’s breadth of being cut up and used to cover military wagons.  Carted to Paris for exhibition by Napoleon, it was eventually returned to Bayeux, where for several years during the early nineteenth century it was indifferently stored in the town hall on a giant spindle, so that curious visitors could unroll it (and occasionally cut bits off). During the Second World War it had yet more adventures: taken again to Paris by the Nazis, it narrowly escaped being sent to Berlin, and somehow managed to emerge unscathed from the flames and the bombs.  The Tapestry’s post-medieval history is a book in itself - one which, happily, has already been written.

What next for it, I wonder?

Tuesday April 07 2015

Ages ago now, before I was ill, I checked out that Suicide Bridge in North London, as reported in this posting.  This was a fine destination to have picked for an photo-odyssey, both because the destination itself did not disappoint, and because it was in an unfamiliar part of town, and thus was only the first of many wondrous discoveries I would make that day.

As the years go by, I accumulate more and more photo-collections of such days, and get further and further behind in mentioning them here.  Which is fine, because there will soon come a time when I won’t want to be going out at all, just sitting here reminiscing.  Then I can catch up.  Then I can die.

So, March 8th of this year.  I hoover up snaps of the view from Suicide Bridge and then walk away from the top of it in a westerly direction, along Hornsey Lane.  I am in Highgate.  Then I go north (actually more like west north west) along the B519, past the Ghana High Commission, until I get to a turning that looks like fun again, turning west, again (actually more like south west).  I am climbing, still, getting higher and higher above central London.  And I take another turn, south, and come upon a miniature version of the Alexandra Palace Tower (that being a bit further out of London, to the north east), beside a lane called Swains Lane.

Here is a web entry that says what this tower is.

And here are some of the photos I took of it and of various decorative effects that it had on its surroundings, on a day that, although getting very dark in parts, is still topped off with a bright blue blue sky, worthy of Hartley himself:

image image imageimage image imageimage image image

And here is another web entry, which explains what an excellent war this contraption had:

The British immediately realised that the powerful Alexandra Palace TV transmitter was capable of transmitting on the transponder frequencies and instigated ‘Operation Domino’. Using the receiving station at Swains Lane, Highgate, the return signal from the aircraft’s transponder was retransmitted back to the aircraft on its receiving frequency by the Alexandra Palace TV transmitter and hence back to the aircraft’s home station. This extra loop producing a false distance reading.

The Swains Lane receiver station was connected by Post Office landline to the Alexandra Palace transmitter. By using a low-voltage motor, this line controlled any drifting in the lock-on carrier beam, thus eliminating any give-away heterodyning beat-notes.

Which you obviously wouldn’t want, would you?

I love the way things like this look.  Totally functional, but … sculptors eat your hearts out.  It beats most of what you guys do without even giving it a thought.

Actually, slight correction provoked by actually reading some of what I linked to above. The current structure at Swains Lane is the metal successor structure to its wooden predecessor structure, and it was the wooden predecessor structure which had a good war, but was then blown down by a gale in October 1945.

Had it not been for this extreme weather story, pride of place there would have gone to the report about Quisling getting shot.

I love the internet.

Tuesday March 24 2015

I’ve been reading Paul Kennedy’s Engineers of Victory, which is about how WW2 was won, by us good guys.  Kennedy, like many others, identifies the Battle of the Atlantic as the allied victory which made all the other victories over Germany by the Anglo-American alliance possible.  I agree with the Amazon reviewers who say things like “good overview, not much engineering”.  But this actually suited me quite well.  At least I now know what I want to know more about the engineering of.  And thanks to Kennedy, I certainly want to know more about how centimetric radar was engineered.

Centimetric radar was even more of a breakthrough, arguably the greatest. HF-DF might have identified a U-boat’s radio emissions 20 miles from the convoy, but the corvette or plane dispatched in that direction still needed to locate a small target such as a conning tower, perhaps in the dark or in fog.  The giant radar towers erected along the coast of southeast England to alert Fighter Command of Luftwaffe attacks during the Battle of Britain could never be replicated in the mid-Atlantic, simply because the structures were far too large.  What was needed was a miniaturized version, but creating one had defied all British and American efforts for basic physical and technical reasons: there seemed to be no device that could hold the power necessary to generate the microwave pulses needed to locate objects much smaller than, say, a squadron of Junkers bombers coming across the English Channel, yet still made small enough to be put on a small escort vessel or in the nose of a long-range aircraft.  There had been early air-to-surface vessel (ASV) sets in Allied aircraft, but by 1942 the German Metox detectors provided the U-boats with early warning of them.  Another breakthrough was needed, and by late spring of 1943 that problem had been solved with the steady introduction of 10-centimeter (later 9.1-centimeter) radar into Allied reconnaissance aircraft and even humble Flower-class corvettes; equipped with this facility, they could spot a U-boat’s conning tower miles away, day or night.  In calm waters, the radar set could even pick up a periscope. From the Allies’ viewpoint, the additional beauty of it was that none of the German systems could detect centimetric radar working against them.

Where did this centimetric radar come from?  In many accounts of the war, it simply “pops up”; Liddell Hart is no worse than many others in noting, “But radar, on the new 10cm wavelength that the U-boats could not intercept, was certainly a very important factor.” Hitherto, all scientists’ efforts to create miniaturized radar with sufficient power had failed, and Doenitz’s advisors believed it was impossible, which is why German warships were limited to a primitive gunnery-direction radar, not a proper detection system.  The breakthrough came in spring 1940 at Birmingham University, in the labs of Mark Oliphant (himself a student of the great physicist Ernest Rutherford), when the junior scientists John Randall and Harry Boot, working in a modest wooden building, finally put together the cavity magnetron.

This saucer-sized object possessed an amazing capacity to detect small metal objects, such as a U-boat’s conning tower, and it needed a much smaller antenna for such detection.  Most important of all, the device’s case did not crack or melt because of the extreme energy exuded.  Later in the year important tests took place at the Telecommunications Research Establishment on the Dorset coast.  In midsummer the radar picked up an echo from a man cycling in the distance along the cliff, and in November it tracked the conning tower of a Royal Navy submarine steaming along the shore. Ironically, Oliphant’s team had found their first clue in papers published sixty years earlier by the great German physicist and engineer Adolf Herz, who had set out the original theory for a metal casement sturdy enough to hold a machine sending out very large energy pulses.  Randall had studied radio physics in Germany during the 1930s and had read Herz’s articles during that time.  Back in Birmingham, he and another young scholar simply picked up the raw parts from a scrap metal dealer and assembled the device.

Almost inevitably, development of this novel gadget ran into a few problems: low budgets, inadequate research facilities, and an understandable concentration of most of Britain’s scientific efforts at finding better ways of detecting German air attacks on the home islands. But in September 1940 (at the height of the Battle of Britain, and well before the United States formally entered the war) the Tizard Mission arrived in the United States to discuss scientific cooperation.  This mission brought with it a prototype cavity magnetron, among many other devices, and handed it to the astonished Americans, who quickly recognized that this far surpassed all their own approaches to the miniature-radar problem.  Production and test improvements went into full gear, both at Bell Labs and at the newly created Radiation Laboratory (Rad Lab) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Even so, there were all sorts of delays - where could they fit the equipment and operator in a Liberator?  Where could they install the antennae? - so it was not until the crisis months of March and April 1943 that squadrons of fully equipped aircraft began to join the Allied forces in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Soon everyone was clamoring for centimetric radar - for the escorts, for the carrier aircraft, for gunnery control on the battleships.  The destruction of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst off the North Cape on Boxing Day 1943, when the vessel was first shadowed by the centimetric radar of British cruisers and then crushed by the radar-controlled gunnery of the battleship HMS Duke of York, was an apt demonstration of the value of a machine that initially had been put together in a Birmingham shed.  By the close of the war, American industry had produced more than a million cavity magnetrons, and in his Scientists Against Time (1946) James Baxter called them “the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores” and “the single most important item in reverse lease-lend.” As a small though nice bonus, the ships using it could pick out life rafts and lifeboats in the darkest night and foggiest day.  Many Allied and Axis sailors were to be rescued this way.

Monday March 16 2015

Do you get bored with my obsession with photographing photographers?  Well, such photos are easily skipped.  It’s not like you have to read a whole chunk of stuff before you realised that the posting was of no interest to you.

Meanwhile, here is a cropped-out chunk of a photo I took on August 18th 2007, which tells me that, quite aside from photoing photoers being enormous fun at the time, photoing photoers will continue to be enormous fun far into the future, for as long as I have a future:

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That’s right.  The lady is taking a picture with a small, cheap digital camera.  And she is, it would appear, on the phone, with her phone (one of the old-school folding sort) jammed between her raised-up shoulder and her ear.  You would never see such a thing now, because the two gadgets would now be one and the same gadget.

You get a similar thing when you see people simultaneously photoing with and wired up to and listening to the same phone, a “phone” that would have been two separate pieces of kit a while back.

Things that will change, like cameras and phones and music machines, are more interesting to photo than things that will not change any time soon, like Big Ben.

Friday March 06 2015

Libertarian Home have been having their meetings in several different venues of late.  Last night’s event was in the Prince of Wales, Covent Garden, which is on the corner of Long Acre and Drury Lane.  I got there a bit early, and filled the time by strolling along Long Acre towards where the old Alternative Bookshop once was, hoping for photoable diversion, and I was not disappointed.  Through a window, just across the road from Covent Garden tube, I spied, and photoed, this:

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I’m pretty sure I don’t like it, but it’s definitely a Thing worth photoing.  This time I remembered to photo enough information about the place to be able later to identify it.  The outside didn’t actually say what the place is, merely the address.  But that was enough for googling purposes.  It turns out this is a Fred Perry place, where Fred Perry and Co ... does things.  And this wooden Thing is a combination of reception desk, seating and window logo.  The Fred Perry enterprise makes, I assume sporty stuff and in particular sporty clothing, although that’s only a guess.  That Fred Perry website is all design but bizarrely little information.

It would be a lot more logical to have a reception desk, some seating, and a company logo in the window, each separate, each doing their own job, each replaceable as and when, or if decreed to be imperfect in some way.  Why do all these things need to be connected?  They don’t.  They need not to be connected.  And the reception desk bit must be very inconvenient actually to do receptioning on.

Thinking about this some more, this Thing makes me think that the Fred Perry enterprise is all about “design”, way beyond the bounds of intelligence or sanity or usefulness.  The website exudes the same atmosphere.  It tells you almost nothing, very prettily.  The whole company seems like one of those arrogantly stylish twats whose attitude is: I don’t have to explain myself.  I have your attention.  I am not going to deign to use it by actually talking to you.  I am wonderful and wonderfully stylish me.  That is enough for mere you.  Consider yourself lucky to be even seeing me.

But then, I guess that I am not their target demographic.  I am neither sporty (as in actually doing sport), nor stylish (as in myself wanting to look stylish).

While trying to find some kind of link to this enterprise, I learned that Fred Perry, the man himself, Wimbledon tennis champion in the year whenever it was, was also the 1929 world champion at ping pong.  Blog and learn.

Thursday March 05 2015

Here is another bit from a book which I found particularly interesting, having just purchased and started to read the book in question.

In the Preface of A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, Marc Morris writes that the first question everyone asks is: Was that Edward the Confessor?  No.  He came much earlier, before the Norman Conquest.  Question number two was more interesting, because it has a more interesting answer.  It concerns evidence:

The second question that has usually been put to me concerns the nature of the evidence for writing the biography of a medieval king, and specifically its quantity.  In general, people tend to presume that there can’t be very much, and imagine that I must spend my days poking around in castle muniment rooms, looking for previously undiscovered scraps of parchment.  Sadly, they are mistaken.  The answer I always give to the question of how much evidence is: more than one person could look at in a lifetime.  From the early twelfth century, the kings of England began to keep written accounts of their annual expenditure, and by the end of the century they were keeping a written record of almost every aspect of royal government.  Each time a royal document was issued, be it a grand charter or a routine writ, a copy was dutifully entered on to a large parchment roll.  Meanwhile, in the provinces, the king’s justices kept similar rolls to record the proceedings of the cases that came before his courts.  Miraculously, the great majority of these documents have survived, and are now preserved in the National Archives at Kew near London.  Some of them, when unrolled, extend to twenty or thirty feet.  And their number is legion: for the thirteenth century alone, it runs to tens of thousands.  Mercifully for the medieval historian, the most important have been transcribed and published, but even this printed matter would be enough to line the walls of an average-sized front room with books.  Moreover, the quantity is increased by the inclusion of non-royal material.  Others besides the king were keeping records during Edward I’s day.  Noblemen also drew up financial accounts, issued charters and wrote letters; monks did the same, only in their case the chances of such material surviving was much improved by their membership of an institution.  Monks, in addition, continued to do as they had always done, and kept chronicles, and these too provide plenty to keep the historian busy.  To take just the most obvious example from the thirteenth century, the monk of St Albans called Matthew Paris composed a chronicle, the original parts of which cover the quarter century from 1234 to 1259.  In its modern edition it runs to seven volumes.

I say all this merely to demonstrate how much there is to know about our medieval ancestors, and not to pretend that I have in some way managed to scale this mountain all by myself.  For the most part I have not even had to approach the mountain at all, for this book is grounded on the scholarly work of others.  Nevertheless, even the secondary material for a study of Edward I presents a daunting prospect.  At a conservative estimate, well over a thousand books and articles have been published in the last hundred years that deal with one aspect or another of the king’s reign.  For scholarly works on the thirteenth century as a whole, that figure would have to be multiplied many times over.

Sunday March 01 2015

The other day (to be more exact: on this day) I described England as a “dead team walking”, in the currently unfolding Cricket World Cup.  So, if England now turn around and start winning and winning well, well, that’s good because hurrah England.  But if England carry on losing, and losing badly, then hurrah me for being right.

How to snatch happiness out of thin air: be a prophet of doom proved right.  There are other ways to place a bet besides spending money.

This explains a lot about the world, I think.  Basically, as Steven Pinker has pointed out in the first half of that excellent (because of its first half) book of his, everything (approximately speaking) is getting better, slowly and with many back-trackings, but surely.  Yet to listen to publicly expressed opinion, both public and posh, you’d think that everything was getting worse, all the time.  And it’s been like that throughout most of recorded history.  But people are not really that pessimistic.  All that is really happening is that people are predicting the worst in order to be happy if the worst happens, and also happy if the worst does not happen.

Wednesday February 25 2015

It often happens with me that, while rootling around in the archives for one picture, I stumble across another which strikes me as worth showing to the massed ranks of BrianMicklethwaitDotCom’s readers.

Pictures like this, for instance, which I took at the top of the Monument, in November 2012:

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Small, blurry, totally recognisable.  Definitely a Big Thing.

As for all that wire netting (which I believe dramatically lowers the cheese content of the above shot), well, here is another shot, of how matters at the top of the Monument used to be not so long ago:

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I took that in July 2007.  (Note the pleasingly dated camera.) The change from prison bars to wire netting, which happened soon after that, was presumably because of different versions of health and safety.  Originally there was neither, just some waste high railings.  See this hand-done photo “by Canalleto (after)”, whatever that means.  (His production line, but not him, maybe?) And see also this picture.