Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a big book: it may be only 400 pages, but it’s scope is breathtaking. Don’t come to this book looking for dates or expositions of key historical events. Harari’s approach to history is to stand back and see what patterns emerge from the big picture. Continue reading “Sapiens: a big history of the species”
Utopia lies at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.
― Eduardo Galeano
In a single day the deaths are announced of two figures of literary and political importance – Germany’s Gunter Grass and the Uruguayan journalist, activist and assembler of fragmented kaleidoscopes of Latin American history, Eduardo Galeano. Grass has received plenty of coverage, but here in the UK there’s been hardly a mention of Galeano. Continue reading “Eduardo Galeano: enemy of lies, indifference and forgetfulness”
Bert Hardy. Chinese Seamen, Chinatown, Liverpool, May 1942
Stupid of me, I know, but I was surprised to turn up at the Open Eye Gallery a couple of hours before Colin Wilkinson’s talk on Bert Hardy was due to start, only to find it completely sold out and with a large waiting list. Still, taking philosophical view, it must say something about the strength of interest in local history and culture here on Merseyside.
Because Colin’s subject was to be Bert Hardy, the Picture Post photo-journalist who completed several assignments in Liverpool in the late 1940s and 50s – one of which went unpublished in the magazine, though images from that assignment feature prominently in Open Eye’s current exhibition, Ebb and Flow: A Visual Chronicle of the Changes Within Liverpool’s Chinatown.
The exhibition presents photographic snapshots of Liverpool’s Chinese community, drawing upon photographic prints from the Open Eye Gallery archive – including selections from three Open Eye commissions concerned to document aspects of the changing fortunes of the oldest Chinese community in Europe .
Bert Hardy, Pitt Street, 1942
The oldest of the photographs on display are images from Bert Hardy’s unpublished 1942 commission for Picture Post in which the photographer focussed on the living conditions experienced by by Chinese seamen based in Liverpool during the Second World War. None of these images were published due to their critical nature, and the delicacy of the situation in Liverpool at the time.
In the early 1940s, around 20,000 Chinese seamen were recruited into the British Merchant Navy, almost all of them based in Liverpool. Although the Chinese sailors played a vital role in Britain’s warfare, their demands for the same pay and equal treatment as local sailors in 1942, which led to strike action from February to May 1942, led to their being labelled as troublemakers. Bert Hardy’s images documented the daily lives of men, paid less than half the British seamen, working in worse conditions, and often living in squalid conditions. Hardy captured the initial transiency of their presence on shore leave in Liverpool as they set up temporary lives – eating, smoking, washing and cooking in lodging houses and makeshift clubs, waiting for their next ship to arrive.
Bert Hardy, Cooking dumplings, Chinese seamen’s boarding house, Great George Square, 1942
The first Chinese merchant sailors had appeared in Liverpool in 1850s, when Alfred Holt & Company established its shipping line from Shanghai to Liverpool and recruited Chinese sailors, making the Chinatown in Liverpool Europe’s oldest. During the Second World War Liverpool became the headquarters of the Western Approaches that monitored the Atlantic, and the British merchant navy started recruiting sailors from its allies across the world. This was when up to 20,000 registered sailors, mainly from Shanghai, Ningbo, Shandong and Hong Kong, came to Liverpool.
Bert Hardy, Nelson Street, 1942
Thousands of the Chinese sailors lost their lives in the Atlantic during attacks from German submarines; as a crucial element of the British fleet, Chinese sailors played an important role in Britain’s victory in the war. Many chose to settle down with local, working-class girls and started families, attempting to establish a more permanent presence within the city despite their alien status.
Bert Hardy, Seamen’s Boarding House, Great George Square, Liverpool, 1942
Hardy’s photos form a vital historical record of a formative moment in the history of the Chinese community in Liverpool. His image of Chinese seamen smoking around a table in a hostel (top) is also a work of great aesthetic merit.
The British authorities and the Blue Funnel shipping company did not forget the Chinese seamen’s act of defiance when the war ended: in 1945, hundreds of Chinese men who had settled in Liverpool legally – many married to Liverpool girls and with children – were deported, rounded up at night, and put into cargo ships roughly converted with bunk beds and sent back to a China to an uncertain fate. Their Liverpool properties were appropriated by the council, and their families remained silent for over half a century through fear of reprisals.
The monument to Chinese merchant seamen at Liverpool Pier Head
Now, due to the efforts of Yvonne Foley, the daughter of one of these seamen, there is a now a monument at Liverpool’s Pierhead acknowledging the contribution that was made by the men and the wrong that was done to them. Alongside the photos in this exhibition are showcases which display personal documents belonging to the children of Chinese seamen – the seaman’s Chinese passport, his Alien stamp book, ID Card and Blue Funnel line record of service book.
Documents belonging to the families of Chinese seamen in Liverpool
From the late 1950s, men from the rural villages of Hong Kong’s New Territories arrived in Liverpool, bringing with them their wives and children. The previously waning Chinatown of a bi-cultural, mixed marriage community gave way to a new population of Chinese families. In 1985, Open Eye commissioned Martin Parr to document connections between Liverpool and Manchester. Parr chose to explore the Chinese community in each city, and in Liverpool many of the people he photographed were the children of Chinese sailors who managed to stay on in Liverpool after the war.
Martin Parr: Liverpool Nelson Street Playing Mah Jong in the See Yip Association, 1985
Martin Parr: Liverpool Berry Street, 1985
Martin Parr: Kitchen on a ship docked in Gladstone Dock,1985
Martin Parr: Chinatown, Sunday Afternoon, 1985
Martin Parr’s work captured the next generation of the Liverpool Chinese community, depicting moments from their everyday lives, and revealing ‘a negotiation of cultures taking place throughout the community as they sought to make the city around them their permanent home’ (Open Eye).
A display of work by The Sound Agents – the Liverpool-based duo of John Campbell and Moira Kenny – brings the story up to the present day. The Sound Agents obtained funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to record the oral history of Liverpool’s Chinatown. In recent years they have brought together a deeply intimate archive of the community’s memories – interviews, personal documents and photographs that recount experiences within the city, from the early ship workers to their grown-up children. Their Chinatown Oral History Project aims not only to assimilate these memories into the city’s history, but to encourage the regeneration of the area, as seen in their recent bid to turn Britain’s only Chinese pub, The Nook, into the Contemporary Chinatown Museum.
On show, supplementing audio recordings and the display of family memorabilia, is a selection of photos taken during the project. Perhaps the most unexpected image is of a slim women dressed in a bright red top and jeans and wearing a cowboy hat and belt, dancing alone, caught in mid-stride.
The Sound Agents, San’s Café, Dock Road, 2013
The Sound Agents, Cowboy dancer, 2013
The most recent images in this excellent exhibition are the result of yet another Open Eye commission. Jamie Lau, a London-based photographer and an outsider with no prior knowledge of the area, was commissioned to document the Chinese community as it is today, seven decades after Bert Hardy’s seamen portfolio. Lau became intrigued by the architecture around Chinatown – the Chinese Arch, decorated lamp posts and red and green colours present throughout Nelson Street. One of the best shots is of a mean walking along Nelson Street, in front of shutters painted green and edged in red, reading a newspaper. The colours are saturated in bright sunlight and his shadow and that of a nearby lamp post fall sharply on the pavement.
Jamie Lau, The Gate, 2014
Jamie Lau, Wong’s, 2014
Many of Lau’s images are shot in darkness, illuminated only by the light from the window of a Chinese restaurant. The result is a deep sense of solitariness, which, in the best of the images – had the feeling of one of those night scenes by Edward Hopper. It is of the the brightly-illuminated sign and window of the Ma Bo; in the brightly-lit interior you can see Chinese lanterns, a waiter and two customers eating.
After I had seen everything in the exhibition I sat in the ground floor gallery browsing through Colin Wilkinson’s latest book, Bert Hardy’s Britain (which follows the many books on Liverpool photography he has published via his Bluecoat Press). On his highly-recommended blog, Streets of Liverpool, Colin writes that it is, ‘if I may be so bold, the best book I have ever done’. It certainly is: a handsome and beautifully produced book, with over 200 of Hardy’s photographs taken between 1940 and 1956, many of them reproduced across two-page spreads. Failing to get a ticket for his talk, I must obtain his book.
- The Sound Agents: blog
- Memories of Europe’s oldest Chinese community are being captured in a new project: Liverpool Echo
- Bert Hardy’s Britain: Snapshot of a lost time: Liverpool Echo
- Liverpool Chinatown: website
I must have walked past the narrow, gated alleyway on Arundel Avenue a thousand times before I even noticed it. When I did, and saw the small plaque which explained that beyond the gate there lay a Quaker Burial Ground, I never imagined so large a space lay down the narrow passage. On Sunday, as the result of a community project supported by the local residents association, TANN and the Liverpool Quakers, I went along to the grand opening of the burial ground as a ‘community orchard and wildlife garden’. What I discovered was, in the words of the leaflet being handed out by volunteers, ‘a secret garden hidden from view.’ Continue reading “Arundel Avenue’s Quaker burial ground: a secret garden hidden from view”
Map of Europe in 1914 (as envisaged by the New York Times in 2013)
As I write this, Russian military forces are massing at the border with Ukraine and armed men have seized government buildings in the Crimean capital, hoisting a Russian flag over the regional parliament building. A regional conflict threatens confrontation between Russia and other European powers.
Sound familiar? Perhaps because I recently finished reading The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s much-praised history of how Europe ended up going to war in 1914, the parallels with the events of that July are just a bit disturbing. The question that arises after reading his meticulously-researched and detailed account of the diplomatic manoeuvrings in the months and days before war broke out is whether today’s architecture of international communication and dialogue via the UN and the European Union will help us avoid the disaster that befell Europe after a little local difficulty in Bosnia spiralled out of control.
Christopher Clark’s book sets up further modern resonances in two gripping chapters that narrate with thriller-like tension and grim detail the unfolding of two terrorist acts. Thirteen years ago we saw how a single act of terror could change everything. Clark doesn’t spell out the parallel in so many words, but the implication haunts his pages, so in this sense Sleepwalkers is a history of the Great War for our times.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on the morning of 28 June 1914
The fateful act of terrorism in Sarajevo – the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife – does not make its appearance until more than halfway into Clark’s book. He narrates the shambolic sequence of events on 28 June 1914 with fine attention to the ironies and the tragedy of the act. Previous chapters have led us deep into the arcane world of European alliances and diplomatic intrigue in the previous decade (Clark describes European diplomacy at the time as a sort of ‘Harold Pinter play where the characters know each other very well and like each other very little’), so we understand a little better why two deaths in the Balkans had such boundless consequences. We can understand why the Austrian government made demands on Serbia. While the Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pašić, may not have planned the assassination, Clark’s scrupulous documentation has revealed that he clearly knew about it in some detail and failed to pass on more than vague warnings to Austria. Serbia, in the shape of shadowy forces that extended their influence as far as the heart of government, was implicated – deeply.
To unpack the background, Clark begins with a chapter – one that simply takes your breath away – detailing an earlier terrorist act, the grotesque murder in 1903 of the Serbian King Alexander and his wife, Draga, by a small group of officers acting as part of a larger conspiracy. Storming the royal palace in Belgrade, they blast their way into the royal apartment with dynamite and discover the royal couple cowering in a secret closet. Their bodies riddled with bullets, the couple are bayoneted, hacked to pieces and disembowelled. The queen’s near-naked and unrecognisable body was tossed over the balcony into a garden. Across Belgrade, other victims, including the queen’s two brothers, the prime minister and the minister of war, were found and killed.
The murder in 1903 of the Serbian King Alexander and his wife, Draga
Methodically, Clark traces the connections between this act of terror and the assassination in Sarajevo eleven years later. One of the plotters – Dragutin Dimitrijević, known as ‘Apis’ (the Serbian word for ‘bull’), would in 1911 become a founding member of the secret, ultra-nationalist Serbian irredentist group Unification or Death, a.k.a. the Black Hand. In 1913, Dimitrijević became head of the intelligence section of the Serbian general staff, a job that put him in a position to arrange to smuggle the weapons and ‘the boys’, as Clark calls them (Gavrilo Princip who fired the fatal shots, was a month short of his 20th birthday), over the border into Bosnia. Pašić, who had become prime minister in 1903 as a consequence of the murder and had close ties with the plotters, was still prime minister in 1914.
The historian Fritz Stern once wrote that the First World War was ‘the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. By its close, the war and its appalling slaughter had destroyed Europe’s empires, weakened economies and unleashed political forces of left and right that would wreak havoc across the continent. Among the the legacies of World War I might be counted revolution in Russia, Nazism in Germany, yet another world war, and the Holocaust. All of which explains our continuing fascination with how such a disaster came about.
Our interest is personal, too. Almost every family touched in some harmful way by the conflagration. So it’s no surprise that Clark opens proceedings on a personal note, with an acknowledgement to his great uncle Jim, a farmer from New South Wales and a survivor of Passchendaele, whose wartime journal Clark inherited. He recalls, as a nine year old, asking Jim whether the men who fought were scared or keen to get into the fight. ‘It keen ones shat themselves first,’ Jim responded – an answer that deeply impressed the young Clark. He writes that he puzzled over the reply for some time – especially the word ‘first’.
‘The historian who seeks to understand the genesis of the First World War’, writes Clark, ‘confronts several problems. There are too many sources, vast propagandist official histories, and volumes of unreliable memoirs from statesmen and decision-makers. The result is a bewildering variety of interpretations that tend to lay the blame for the war on one state or system. In seeking to add to the vast pile of First World War historiography, Clark argues that though a century may now have passed since its inception, the relevance of the conflict is even greater now, what with terrorism, the end of Cold War bipolar stability, the resurgence of divisions in the Balkans, and the lesson learned in September 2001 about how a single, symbolic event can change politics irrevocably.
In the introduction to Sleepwalkers, Clark states that he has set out to understand the July crisis in 1914 as ‘a modern event, the most complex of modern times, perhaps of any time so far’ and to do this by seeking to explain how rather than why the conflict began. To ask how, he looks at the sequence of interactions that produced certain outcomes; he is less concerned with the question why, which, he argues, though encouraging a more analytical search for categorical causes (such as imperialism, nationalism, alliances, armaments, etc) has a distorting effect, creating the illusion of ‘ a steadily building causal pressure’ in which the political actors become ‘mere executors of forces long established and beyond their control’.
Instead, Clark seeks to show how key decision makers – kings, emperors, foreign ministers, ambassadors, military commanders and the rest – ‘walked towards danger in watchful calculated steps’. The result is a dense and detailed narrative that makes considerable demands on the reader as Clark shifts his focus from one centre of decision-making to another, as well as back and forth in time in the years leading up to war. In Clark’s words, the story is ‘saturated with agency’, a phrase that suggests the decision-makers were clear about their objectives and knew what they were doing.
Yet, at the same time, Clark is keen to argue that the obsessive search by historians for a guilty party is fruitless. The search for blame, he insists, rests on the assumption that there were culpable decision-makers who had coherent intentions while, in fact, the problem was the lack of men with the power or capability to make decisions. In the states that went to war, there was no one really in charge. Policy and decision-making were fractured as ‘competing voices’ fought and conspired in support of different policies. The military competed with civilian governments, who were themselves divided, while there were factions within foreign offices, and ambassadors often pursued their own agendas. The democracies had no more of a coherent direction than the autocratic states, while in Germany, which had the broadest franchise and a socialist-dominated parliament, the Kaiser, a man who was clearly off his rocker, controlled military decisions.
So Clark’s analysis, contradictory as it may seem, is that all the key players knew exactly what they were doing and had clear objectives, but yet at the same time were sleepwalkers: they were, in the final words of the book, ‘watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring in the world’.
Police in Sarajevo arrest one of Gavrilo Princip’s co-conspirators after the earlier, failed attempt on the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Agency and contingency are both inextricably woven into his narrative.Perhaps the clearest example of this comes in his account of the background to the assassination in Sarajevo, and of the event itself. Having traced, in earlier chapters, the deep interpenetration of state and non-official irredentist agencies by the conspiratorial networks born with the terrorist act of 1903, Clark provides a heart-in-mouth minute by minute account of events in the Bosnian capital on that June day. To give sense of the truly contingent nature of events as they unfolded that afternoon, I can do no better than to quote Thomas Laqueur’s review of Clark’s book in the London Review of Books:
If we could marry Monty Python to Greek tragedy we would get what happened next. Seven young men were waiting to kill the archduke; none of them today would make it in al-Qaida. The first was paralysed with fear. The second managed to throw his bomb but it missed its main target; the driver of the archduke’s car heard the percussion cap go off and accelerated. Sophia got a scratch and the passengers in the car behind were wounded. The would-be assassin botched his suicide and was quickly caught.
One might have thought that the archduke would now call it quits, but he insisted on taking care of the wounded and after that on heading to the town hall, where he made a speech. Three more assassins all froze, undone by fear, as he passed by; one reported that when he saw Sophia he felt sorry for her. After the public ceremony Franz Ferdinand decided that it might, after all, be best to cancel the rest of his programme but before he left town he wanted first to visit the wounded in hospital. His hosts had the good sense to change the planned route, fearing that yet another assassin might be waiting. The motorcade would go straight down the Appel Quay rather than make a right turn on Franz Joseph Street. But no one told the driver about the change of plan. ‘This is the wrong way,’ the Austrian in charge shouted as it became clear the car was pursuing the original route. The car had no reverse gear and had to be pushed to get onto its new route. ‘This was Gavrilo Princip’s moment.’ He rushed up Franz Joseph Street to the stranded car and, after some hesitation, shot the royal pair at point blank range.
Given what we now know, Clark’s story is like a horror movie. Can’t they hear the music? Don’t they know not to walk down a long back-lit hall? Franz Ferdinand and Sophia died almost instantly. The fate of the adolescent assassin is not within the chronological scope of this book but it speaks to the world-historical import of what he did. Princip was instantly captured, but wasn’t executed because he was too young. Instead, he was sent to the Austrian fortress at Terezin, where he died miserably in April 1918. His prison is better known today as the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, where visitors can see his cell and his manacles amid the detritus of the Holocaust that he did a great deal to make possible.
A contemporary painting depicting the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie
What did I learn from Clark’s book? I gained an overwhelming impression of the astonishing levels of intrigue, violence and terrorism in Serbia and the Balkans. This region of instability was locked into a European network of opposing military and diplomatic alliances: these were ‘the structures within which a continental war became possible’. The nations attached to those alliances were, all of them, led by scheming, ineffectual politicians and incompetent dynastic heads of state.
Clark’s examination of how decision-making processes in the centres of power shaped the policy outcomes seems, on my reading at least, to have the greatest sympathy with the Austrian position. He portrays the Austrian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – ‘a unique polity, like an egg with two yolks’ – as pursuing a more accommodating policy on national rights in the Balkans, along with moderately reformist policies on public education, investment in infrastructure, and devolution of power to local entities. Indeed, one of the ironies of the assassination of which I was unaware was that in murdering Franz Ferdinand the assassins killed a man who, had he succeeded to the throne, had every intention of pursuing radical policies on the nationalities and who was opposed to aggressive confrontation in foreign relations.
Reviewing several recent histories of the war, Tony Barber, the Financial Times Europe editor, quotes Margaret MacMillan (author of The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War) on this point:
It is one of the smaller tragedies of the summer of 1914 that in assassinating Franz Ferdinand the Serb nationalists removed the one man in Austria-Hungary who might have prevented it from going to war. A year before his murder the archduke, heir to the Habsburg throne, criticised in no uncertain terms Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austria’s military commander, commenting that he stood for ‘a great Hurrah-Policy, to conquer the Serbs and God knows what’.
In a detailed line-by-line analysis of the terms of Austria’s 48-hour ultimatum to Serbia after the assassination and the Serbian reply, Clark demolishes the standard view that Austria was too harsh and that Serbia humbly complied. Austria demanded action against irredentist networks in Serbia. This would certainly have been an infringement of sovereignty, but Serbian tolerance of the terrorist networks and its refusal to pursue the organisations behind the Sarajevo murders offer some justification. In one of the few instances where he draws contemporary parallels, Clark describes Austria’s ultimatum as ‘a great deal milder’ than the ultimatum presented by NATO to Serbia-Yugoslavia in the March 1999 Rambouillet Agreement which demanded ‘unimpeded access’ to Serbian territory by ‘NATO personnel, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft and equipment’. As for Serbia’s reply,regarded by many historians as conciliatory, Clark demonstrates that on most points it was a ‘masterpiece of diplomatic equivocation’.
In his essay for the Financial Times, Tony Barber provides a succinct summary of the shifting historiography of the causes of the war:
Until the 1960s there was a sort of consensus on what had caused the war. One year after the Allies insisted on the ‘war guilt’ clause of the 1919 Versailles treaty, which placed all the blame on Germany and its associates, David Lloyd George, the British premier, observed that Europe had ‘glided, or rather staggered and stumbled’ into war. Politicians in Weimar Germany, anxious to evade reparations payments premised on the ‘war guilt’ clause, clutched eagerly at the implication behind Lloyd George’s remark that German behaviour before 1914, and immediately after the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, was not blameworthy. Historians of later decades pointed the finger at pre-1914 military planners, especially in Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. As AJP Taylor memorably put it, the generals launched a ‘war by timetable’ because their mobilisation plans, once set in motion, allowed no room for diplomacy to stop the slide into disaster.
The Second World War changed the historical perspective yet again. With the experience of Hitler and National Socialism fresh in mind, the ‘anti-revisionists’ returned to the idea of German responsibility. In Britain, AJP Taylor wrote The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, which placed the blame on German territorial ambitions. There were German anti-revisionists, too, as Tony Barber observes:
Everything was turned upside down in 1961 when Fritz Fischer, a German historian, published Griff nach der Weltmacht, known in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War. This book showed that, one month after the war’s outbreak, the German government had drawn up a plan for large-scale territorial annexations and economic hegemony in Europe. Fischer earned the opprobrium of many of his peers by blaming the war squarely on a German bid for world power.
As Barber points out, most historians nowadays regard the Fischer thesis about a pre-1914 German plan for world domination as too extreme. Instead, it is more usual to blame the war’s outbreak, in descending order of culpability, on Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Serbia, France and Britain:
Germany stands accused of practising an abrasive diplomacy in the pre-war years, and of offering rash, wholehearted support for Austria-Hungary’s insistence on punishing Serbia after Franz Ferdinand’s death on June 28 1914 at the hands of a Bosnian Serb terrorist. Austria-Hungary’s leaders are deemed guilty of reckless behaviour from the start of the July crisis. Russia was willing to risk war and ordered early mobilisation in the knowledge that this would expand the conflict beyond the Balkans. All in all, MacMillan speaks for many historians today when she writes that the greatest responsibility lies with ‘Austria-Hungary’s mad determination to destroy Serbia in 1914, Germany’s decision to back it to the hilt [and] Russia’s impatience to mobilise’.
Crowds in Trafalgar Square cheer Britain’s declaration of war on Germany
In her analysis, MacMillan places less emphasis than Clark on the Serbian role in destabilising Austria-Hungary. Overall, Clark eschews the blame game, recognising the possibility that the people, events and forces he has described carried ‘seeds of other, perhaps less terrible futures’.
Could the immense tragedy of 1914-18, in which 65 million men fought and nearly 9 million died, have been avoided? By July 1914, we can see from Clark’s meticulous analysis of the documentation that most of Europe’s political and military leaders regarded the defence of national power and honour was worth the risk of war. What is perhaps most inexplicable is the willingness of the vast majority of Europe’s citizens to enthusiastically support going to war. After all this was a Europe in which socialist movements – which regarded war as a capitalist imperialist struggle to secure supplies of raw materials and markets, and far from the interests of the working class – were at their most powerful in all protagonist states, and especially in Britain and Germany. In her study, Margaret MacMillan concludes that those who were against war could have stood up more firmly against those who denied there were other choices. She concludes: ‘There are always choices’.
Crowds on Unter den Linden in Berlin, following the declaration of war, 4 August 1914
Photographs of anonymous female workers at Tredegar iron works in the 1860s
From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and
its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.
– Alexis De Tocqueville on Manchester, 1835
The 1851 census revealed the full extent of the social and economic revolution that had swept through Britain in the previous half century. Now, over half of the workforce were employed in manufacturing, mining and construction, while less than a quarter worked the land. The textile industry alone employed well over a million men and women. The number of factories, mines, metal-working complexes, mills and workshops had all multiplied, while technological innovations had vastly increased the number of machines and their capabilities. The economic and social consequences of industrial development were felt throughout the British Isles; the British had become ‘a manufacturing people’. Though these developments had not happened overnight, the most momentous had taken place within living memory. By the 1850s commentators were already describing this momentous shift as an ‘industrial revolution’.
In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air at Manchester Art Gallery, artist Jeremy Deller curates a personal journey through the Industrial Revolution, exploring its impact on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today. The exhibition is a sprawling, quirky, surprising and hugely stimulating mix of words and images, songs and video taking in along the way: Adrian Street, a young man expected to follow his Welsh mining forebears down the pit, but who rejected that destiny to become a flamboyant androgynous international wrestler; James Sharples, a 19th century blacksmith and self-taught painter from Blackburn; Tony Iommi, the guitarist with Black Sabbath who lost his fingertips in an industrial accident; Francis Crawshay, the industrialist who commissioned portraits of his employees at his Cyfarthfa Ironworks which are probably the only oil paintings of early 19th century workers – and plenty more besides.
‘Factory Children’, 1814 by Robert Havell
‘The Collier’, 1814 by Robert Havell
Entering the gallery, I was intrigued about what I would find. I knew Jeremy Deller as a Turner-prize winning artist with radical left politics who had created (if that’s the word) the disturbing installation Baghdad, 5 March 2007 that now greets visitors to Imperial War Museum North. Not long before my visit to Manchester my friend Frank had brought back from Venice for me a copy of English Magic, the souvenir booklet that accompanied Deller’s exhibition in the British Pavilion at this year’s Biennale. English Magic is haunted by the spirit of William Morris and his critique of industrialism’s impoverishment of the spirit:
We sit starving, amidst our gold
– William Morris, The Socialist Ideal (1891)
At the heart of the exhibition was a huge mural depicting William Morris rising from the Venetian lagoon and hurling aside the megayacht belonging to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
2013 Venice Biennale: Jeremy Deller’s ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’
Now, in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Deller investigates what remains of the industrial revolution in the present, touching on aspects such as our relationship to technology and the regimentation of time. Introducing the exhibition he states:
The society we have inherited, our towns and cities, the social formations, cultural traditions, class divisions, inequalities of wealth and opportunity – all derive ultimately from the Industrial Revolution.
The exhibition is, in many ways, complementary to Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings, the book compiled first published in 1985 and the inspiration in 2012 behind Danny Boyle’s electrifying Opening Ceremony for the London Olympic Games. Jennings’s book shares the same approach to its subject as Deller’s exhibition: gathering material from a vast array of sources to present an enthralling narrative that slowly reveals how industrialisation has shaped Britain’s national consciousness.
‘All that is solid melts into air’ is a phrase lifted from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto: it was their way of expressing capitalism’s need to constantly invent and re-invent products in order to satisfy desires superfluous to human need – so what is made one day may be disposed of in the next. Older, less materialistic ways of living and the traditions and values associated with them had to be displaced so that the forces of capitalism could be unleashed. Deller sees the phrase, too, as ‘a metaphor for how we have gone from an industrial to a service and entertainment economy’:
Within a 20 or 30 year [period] the Industrial Revolution just happens – there are no regulations [and] there is this trauma, the inversion of order. The earth is on fire [and] there are these hellish scenes on your doorstop. But it’s producing money for you …. It’s impressive but it’s frightening at the same time – you read accounts of people from France going to Manchester in the 1860s and they cannot believe what they are seeing.
Then there is this moment, which I find interesting, when people take stock of what has happened and realise that they have probably let things happen too quickly and things have gone too far ….
Deller’s words express what lies at the heart of the exhibition: first there is the euphoric experience of radical social and economic change. Then there is the belated shock and dismay at what the revolution had brought in train: pollution of the environment, the growth of hellish towns, the transformation of peasants into workers shackled to machines.
John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852
The exhibition is divided into six sections. The first, ‘The Industrial Sublime’, shows how contemporary artists were drawn to the terrifying beauty of the new industries. A terrifying beauty: around the time that John Martin painted The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the British parliament commissioned reports into living conditions in the new industrial towns.The investigators returned with devastating evidence of degradation and poverty. Photographers (wielding the latest technology) brought back from the industrial wastelands of Wales photos of labouring women swathed in filthy rags, staring numbly into the camera.
John Martin’s painting tells us much about the anxieties of the Victorian age – as the exhibition commentary explains, Martin painted the work in 1852, when the reality of what we were doing our environment, our towns and to the labourers condemned to spend their working lives in mines and factories was beginning to sink in. As Deller puts it:
Within a 20 or 30 year [period] the Industrial Revolution just happens – there are no regulations [and] there is this trauma, the inversion of order. The earth is on fire [and] there are these hellish scenes on your doorstop. But it’s producing money for you …. It’s impressive but it’s frightening at the same time – you read accounts of people from France going to Manchester in the 1860s and they cannot believe what they are seeing. Then there is this moment, which I find interesting, when people take stock of what has happened and realise that they have probably let things happen too quickly and things have gone too far.
But Martin was also occupied with schemes for the improvement of London, and published various pamphlets and plans dealing with the metropolitan water supply, sewerage, dock and railway systems. There’s an 1828 lithograph print here of his Plan of Hyde Park, Green Park and St. James’s, Showing the Proposed Canal, Together with Insets Depicting Views in the Parks after the Improvement has been Completed. Martin’s schemes were considered outlandish by public and Parliament alike, yet his plans in 1854 for a London Sewage and Marine company proved to be a visionary foundation for later engineers assigned to prevent any recurrence of London’s famous Great Stink of 1858.
A kiln for burning coke near Maidstone, Kent aquatint print, 1799
The lithograph A Kiln for Burning Coke, near Maidstone, Kent makes an interesting comparison with the widescreen allegorical terror of John Martin’s Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The contrast between gently glowing, tree-framed kiln and Martin’s vision of urban cataclysm mirrors the way in which industry moved from experimentation in rural backwaters into the urban hell of the new industrial towns. This mass migration of labour meant that, by 1851, for the first time, more people lived in Britain’s cities than in the countryside and their exponentially-growing populations, coupled with increases in poverty, disease and vice gave pious Victorians good grounds for truly believing in Martin’s vision of an impending biblical apocalypse.
Philip James de Loutherbourg and William Pickett, Iron Works, Colebrookdale, 1805
The book Romantic and Picturesque Scenery of England and Wales has been left opened at a beautiful, hand-coloured engraving, Iron Works, Colebrook Dale. It’s a large format folio book, published in 1805 by William Pickett, a traveller’s guide to Great Britain that includes romantic images of industrial edifices alongside those of castles, caves and lakes. The iron works in Colebrook Dale have all the appearance of a classical ruin, fire exiting from chimneys more than a little reminiscent of classical columns bereft of their capitals.
Penryhn slate quarries, Bangor, Wales, lithograph 1842
Early 19th century artists were often compelled to express their sense of awe at the scale of the new industrial enterprises. In the image of Penrhyn Slate Quarries, near Bangor in 1842, the human figures are dwarfed by the scale of the quarry. ‘To me this is like the Welsh Grand Canyon has been produced by these slate miners,’ says Deller. ‘There was an element to the industrial revolution of great beauty and of change and people being quite impressed by it’.
A salt mine, Cheshire, coloured aquatint, 1814
The Black Country, engraving by G Greatbach, 1869
These images are punctuated by several album covers, including those of Slade, Happy Mondays and Brian Ferry, accompanied by each band leader’s family tree printed directly onto the gallery wall, stretching back to the origins of the Industrial Revolution.Deller’s intention is to mark the decline of British heavy industry and the turning of young, working-class people (whose ancestors commonly found work in factories or mills) to popular music as a form of self-expression and sometimes employment, by forming bands such as Judas Priest, Slade and Black Sabbath.
Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington, 2012, digital C-print by Dean Shaw
Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi is the subject of Dean Shaw’s photo Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington (found in the ‘Health and Safety will be the Death of Me’ section at the end of the exhibition). Iommi lost his fingertips in an industrial accident in a Birmingham sheet metal factory in the 1960s before he joined Black Sabbath. This accident is credited with helping to create the distinctive Black Sabbath sound, as Iommi had to learn how to play the guitar differently from everyone else and modify its strings and tuning to suit.
Deller tracks Brian Ferry, Shaun Ryder and Noddy Holder through their family’s working history. All three hail from industrial working class backgrounds, and have become famous rock stars in a way that transcends their family lineage.
Noddy Holder was born in 1946 in Walsall and went on to be lead singer in Slade. His family tree reveals ancestors who were variously:
millwright, shoemaker, boiler cleaner, agricultural labourer, spin filer, washerwoman, curb and chain maker, buckle filer, key stamper, buckle stamper, chainmaker, coalminer, railway carriage cleaner, ironworker, puddler, forgeman, blacksmith
His father was a window cleaner.
The family trees of Bryan Ferry reveals 19th century ancestors that included agricultural labourers, blacksmiths, a cartman, colliery labourers, farm servants and coal miners. His father was a pit pony handler.
James Sharples, The Forge 1848
James Sharples (1825-92) was a self-taught English artist born at Wakefield in Yorkshire. He started work when he was ten years old as a blacksmith’s boy on the foundry floor. During his spare time he learned to read and write. His talent for drawing was discovered when chalking out designs on the foundry floor. He subsequently began to make figure and landscape drawings, and copy lithographs.
Sharples took up painting when he was eighteen. From 1848 Sharples devoted his artistic energies to designing and engraving. He ordered an engraver’s steel plate and made a press and engraving tools for himself. He started the engraving of The Forge in his spare time. It took him ten years.
Sharples was regarded as a prime example of the Victorian middle-class ideal of the self-improved working man, and features in Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, published in 1859.
Rules to be Observed – Church Street cotton mill, Preston, c 1830
The regime of the new factories is represented in Rules to be Observed – a notice that informed workers in a cotton mill in Preston that to give their notice they must do so on Saturday only, in writing and one month in advance. In contrast, the ‘Masters have full power to discharge any person employed therein without any previous notice whatsoever’. The same notice states that workers are to be at the factory from 6 in the morning to 7.30 at night, with half an hour allowed for breakfast and one hour for dinner. The ninth rule notes that ‘Any person taking cotton or waste into the Necessaries shall forfeit 2 shillings, 4 sixpence’ (the ‘Necessaries’ being the toilets, I guess).
Church Street Cotton Mill was the centre of the Preston Lock-Out and Strike of 1853-4, the longest and most expensive industrial conflict in the history of Preston. In 1853 cotton workers in Lancashire began to demand that a 10-20% cut in their wages made during the 1840s should be restored. The majority of manufacturers agreed to restore half of the cuts, but some refused and 25,000 workers went on strike. The bitter struggle lasted for eight months. Engels thought the revolution would begin in Preston.
The protest was peaceful and the town supported the workers, with a weekly collection made from working people, shopkeepers and the general public. The end came when another depression in trade forced the strikers to give in and go back to work.
One of Francis Crawshay’s Workers Portraits, 1835 by WJ Chapman
If I was forced to choose one exhibit from this mighty exhibition, I think it would be the selection that Deller has made from a series of sixteen oil paintings commissioned by Francis Crawshay of the workers at his Cyfarthfa Ironworks. Crawshay was a progressive industrialist who, when he was managing the Hirwaun Ironworks commissioned sixteen small portraits of his employees that he hung in his office. The subjects included workers as well as managers, all depicted in working dress and with the tools of their trade. It’s a unique group of images of industrial workers, probably painted by W J Chapman, an itinerant artisan artist who worked as a sporting and animal painter.
WJ Chapman, portrait of carpenter David Williams
WJ Chapman, portrait of mine agent, John Bryant
WJ Chapman, portrait of quarryman Thomas Francis
WJ Chapman, portrait of foreman, John Llewellyn
WJ Chapman, portrait of cinder filler David Davies
WJ Chapman, portrait of roller William James
W J Chapman, portrait of Thomas Euston, Lodge Keeper
The images are an astonishing revelation. No other such images of industrial workers of this period are known. Even more unusually, the names and job titles of these workers were recorded.
Just to make sure that we don’t get too sentimental or nostalgic about these lost times there’s a section that Deller has artfully labelled ‘The Shit Old Days’. It includes a series of photographs of women who worked at Tredegar Ironworks in South Wales, taken by local photographer William Clayton. Unlike Crayshaw’s portraits, the identity of the women is unknown and the elaborate studio backdrops serve to emphasise their class while in many of the photos the women appear drained and dispirited by overwork. This was their purpose, since they were taken to highlight the impact of heavy industry on the domestic life of female labourers.
Photographs of anonymous female workers at an iron works in Tredegar, Wales
Deller says of the images: ‘These are very early photographs of workers. I’d never seen anything like these before. I think we are lucky. By our standards they had appalling lives and those photographs are very powerful.’
Jeremy Deller with Jukebox
Next I encounter a jukebox. It contains a selection of archive recordings, including the working song Down the Pit We Want to Go sung by Roy Palmer, and Drop Valves and Steam Leak on Piston, the sound of a Dee Mill Engine operating in Royton. Music provided relief from the rigours of working class life, and the second section of the exhibition, ‘Broadside Blues’, explores the broadsides, printed copies of popular songs sold in streets and pubs of the new industrial towns which could be purchased cheaply and sung at home or in the pub. The subject matter of these ‘English blues’ ranged from romance to tales of loss, home-sickness and the strange new life among the machines. Often they were tales of hardship, an example of the latter being being Salford Bastille: ‘God keep all poor people that they may ne’er go, To do penance in Salford Bastille…’.
Stockport Viaduct, 1986 by John Davies
The physical remnants of the Industrial Revolution are still visible in the industrial towns of the north. The striking photograph by John Davies of Stockport Viaduct shows a formidable Victorian structure that is still in use, carrying the main railway line from Manchester to London.
Deller has selected images that reflect a changing landscape, too. Ian Tilton’s photographs of the Happy Mondays in 1987 picture the band on a photoshoot to promote a new album. They have been shot alongside the Manchester Ship Canal, and one image shows them outside the new Cannon multiplex cinema at Salford Quays, reflecting the very first signs of the area’s transition to a leisure economy in which old industrial buildings and spaces have been transformed to serve new functions in a post-industrial age.
Effects of Alston Brewery, pencil drawing with red ink, c1805
‘Unlike nowadays, people used to get drunk and then fight in the street’, the caption for this exhibit reads. It’s a drawing entitled Effects of Alston Brewery and was made in the early 1800s, presumably to promote a temperance drive. ‘I just think it’s funny that someone saw fit to draw this, and I’m glad they did,’ Deller says. ‘It shows that the world hasn’t changed that much, has it? That’s a Friday night anywhere in Britain.’
JW Lowry, Thomas Robinson’s power loom factory, Stockport, 1849-1850
JW Lowry’s elegant drawing of Thomas Robinson’s power loom factory in Stockport in 1849-1850 is an idealised image of a cotton mill. ‘It’s a beautiful engraving’, says Deller, ‘but the women all look like Greek goddesses. They’re dressed with their hair up and with these dresses… Of course we know the reality would have been somewhat different.’ Deller has deliberately placed this image near to compares it to a 2011 photo by Ben Roberts of an Amazon warehouse (or ‘fulfilment centre’) the size of nine football pitches, with shelves stretching into the distance.
Ben Roberts, from the series Amazon Unpacked, 2011.
This section of the exhibition is titled ‘How’s the Enemy?’ and is concerned with the way that the industrial revolution altered conceptions of time and impacted on working class life. Time became an oppressive force in the workplace through the need to maintain a constant work rate over long working hours. Meanwhile, leisure time shrank, disappointing in its scarcity.
Double-dial Longcase Clock from Park Green Silk Mill, Macclesfield (c.1810)
Two exhibits separated by 200 years make the point about the management of our time very powerfully. Sometime around 1810, the managers of Park Green Silk Mill, Macclesfield installed what looks like a grandfather clock but is actually a means to measure their workers’ productivity. The clock has two faces, one that kept time by normal hand-winding, the other by means of attachment to the factory’s rotating water wheel. The time kept by the latter could be compared at a glance by the efficiency-conscious managers to that of the hand-wound clock. Any shortfall had to be made up by the workforce at the end of the day.
Near to the clock, Deller has installed a Motorola WT400 attached to a mannequin arm. His purpose is to demonstrate that the target-driven culture of 1810 is still with us, and has even more terrifying power to control. Unlike the clock, this device is used to calculate the productivity and speed of work of an individual worker – and warns the employee if they are not up to speed. This is the sort of device is worn that workers at Amazon fulfilment centres are required to wear. In the same room Deller has displayed Ben Roberts’s giant photograph Amazon Fulfilment Centre, Towers Business Park, Rugeley (2013), which powerfully conveys the soulless nature of the Amazon warehouse, its vastness dwarfing the workers.
Here, too, is an exhibit commissioned as an original work by Deller: a banner bearing the text, ‘Hello, Today you have day off’, the words of a text message sent to a worker on a zero-hours contract. Deller says that in retrospect he would have liked to use this message as the overall title for the whole exhibition.
Adrian Street with his father at the pithead of Brynmawr colliery in Wales, 1973
Adrian Street’s life reads like a Dickens novel. Born into a South Wales mining family, he briefly endured the hardship of the pit before, at the age of 15, he escaped to find fame and fortune in London where he hung around Soho, starting out as a body-builder, before gaining fame and fortune as a wrestler. He left the mine in 1956 to the jeers of his co-workers. Then, in 1973, he returned to his village and posed, in the show’s most remarkable image, with miners covered in dirt from the pit. They included his own father, with whom he did not get on. In Deller’s words:
Seventeen years later he returned, prophet-like, to show the coal serfs what the future would look like in a post-industrial entertainment economy. Whilst William Blake did not have Adrian Street in mind when he wrote Jerusalem, he might have had visions of him.
Street had become famous for his glam-rock style and for teasing his audiences’ perceptions of his sexuality. For Deller, Adrian is a character who transcended his environment through sheer will power and self-belief. Now 73, he still wrestles. ‘He is a phenomenon, a one off,’ says Deller, and yet he is also a symbol of people’s own ability to challenge the status quo on a very personal level:
He’s a great cipher for change. The image of him with his father is a metaphor for the changes going on in Britain. [It shows] what Britain was [and] what Britain will be: this shiny, clean, fame-based economy. We were the first country to industrialise and also the first country to de-industrialise. Adrian is like a one-man band, just doing it on his own. He and his dad had a terrible relationship. His dad was a prisoner of war of the Japanese [and] then he came back and went straight down the mines. He had been traumatised and was quite brutal with his son. So this is the image of Adrian returning to show his father, the miners, and Wales ‘this is what I’ve made of myself’. He’s a totally self-made man.
Like rock bands such as Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Happy Mondays and Slade, Adrian Street was the product of the industrialisation and migration from rural to urban living of the early 19th century, of family trees that feature generations of miners, metal-bashers, millwrights, weavers and servants.
We may have changed in myriad ways, Deller seems to say, but the Industrial Revolution, which transformed Britain before any other country, was a traumatic event that formed and shaped our lives. We live in its shadow still.
Jeremy Deller’s video: So many ways to hurt you, the life and times of Adrian Street (excerpt)
Jeremy Deller’s video: A Prophecy For 1973
Oh dear, Oh Dear, what things you will see
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…
No government laws we shall have, it is true
There will be no Magistrates, no Bobbys in blue
To charge ‘Ten bob and costs’ when a man’s been on the spree
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…
Everyone will be rich, there will be no need to beg
Nor stump up and down with an old wooden leg
If your limbs are blown off with a bullet or breeze
The doctors will replace you new ones with ease
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…
Young lovers you’ll see them in dozens and crowds
Courting by moonlight on the top of the clouds…
This video, produced in collaboration with BBC Newsnight, is featured in the exhibition. Members of the public, including those on zero hours contracts, read accounts of life and work during the industrial revolution, and a pop video is made for a Victorian futuristic broadside, A Prophecy For 1973, illustrated with home movie footage shot in a Butlins holiday camp in 1973, illustrating that the reality of 1973 was somewhat more mundane than the author of the broadside had imagined.
Watch the video (16 minutes) here.
Deller has produced an excellent catalogue to accompany the exhibition which, after Manchester, travels to Nottingham, Coventry and Newcastle. At the end of the exhibition there was a display of books drawn upon by Deller when gathering material for the show. They included Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings and All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity by Marshall Berman, first published around 1980, and now regarded as a classic text on the subject of modernity. Berman charts the development of the modern industrial process and explores how development is portrayed in literature and other art forms.
- Jeremy Deller’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air: exhibition film (BBC)
- Glam rock, wrestlers and our family trees: Jeremy Deller finds art in an industrial past (Observer)
- All That is Solid Melts into Air: blog post by Ben Roberts, whose photos of an Amazon fulfilment centre are featured in the exhibition
- Contemporary Art and War at IWM North: featured Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad, 5 March 2007
- The Art of War: more on Deller’s Baghdad, 5 March 2007
- ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’: illuminating blog post on Deller’s Venice Biennale installation
- Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’: class and taste run deep
When I was growing up my favourite book was a big, calf-bound atlas – Bartholemew’s 1898 Citizen’s Atlas of the World. I pored over it for hours, admiring the beauty of its coloured plates that, through a trick of its binding, displayed each map across a two-page spread with no interruption and fascinated by the map that, even at that late date showed areas of the globe as being ‘unexplored: any existing maps being merely hypothetical’.
Turning the pages of the atlas: a childhood memory …’unexplored’ and ‘unmapped’ areas – at least for Europeans …
In Europe: old empires and flashpoints …
Beneath that map, under the heading ‘The exploration and mapping of the world’, were these words, redolent of the era in which they were written:
Taking a general view of the surveys of the world it will be seen … that, excepting the European states and their possessions, comparatively little has been done, and that of the whole land-surface of the globe only about one-seventh has been exactly surveyed, while the remaining six-sevenths, with a a population of about nine hundred million, is only very imperfectly mapped. It also appears that outside of Europe, few states have attained to that stage of education or commercial importance when the possession of an exact survey is a necessity, or, where such has actually been commenced, it is still far from completion, while there further exists large regions, as in Africa, without any civilised form of government, which are only very imperfectly known, if not altogether unexplored.
But, as Jerry Brotton observes in A History of the World in Twelve Maps which I read recently, map-making is not an exclusively Western activity:
Current research is revealing just how far pre-modern, non-Western cultures are part of the story, from the Babylonian world map to Indian, Chinese and Muslim contributions. … There is also no hidden agenda of evolution or progress in the historical mapping of the world.
Brotton’s book, which I pounced on given the fascination for maps which that old world atlas had engendered, tells the stories of twelve maps, but it is not a general history of cartography. Each map, selected from different cultures or moments in world history, either reflects, or helped create, a new vision of the world that aimed not only to explain to its audience that this was what the world looked like, but to convince its members of explanations as to why it existed, and show them their own place within it. Brotton’s chosen maps are mainly world maps, and his purpose is to show how each map reflects big cultural or political ideas of their times, or, as Brotton puts it, ‘ingenious arguments, creative propositions, highly selective guides to the worlds they have created’.
Maps, writes Brotton, allow us to dream and fantasize about places we shall never see. I appreciate that observation: it’s the feeling I recall from childhood, turning the pages of that atlas, and maps still exercise their spell over me. Brotton illustrates his point by citing ‘perhaps the best metaphorical description of maps’, graffiti in two-foot letters on a wall next to the railway line approaching Paddington Station in London: ‘Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere.’ For Brotton, maps are like metaphors, ‘carrying something across from one place to another’:
Maps are always images of elsewhere, imaginatively transporting their viewers to faraway, unknown places, recreating distance in the palm of your hand. Consulting a world map ensures that faraway is always close at hand
If maps are metaphors, Jerry Brotton’s book sets out to demonstrate that they are also about ‘power, plunder and possession’, three words that formed the title of a BBC 4 series he presented a few years back. Mapmakers always make choices about what to include and what to omit, and their decisions are linked intimately to prevailing systems of power and authority. They are not objective documents, and, as Brotton argues, mapmaking is not following an inexorable progress towards scientific accuracy and objectivity, but is rather a ‘cartography without progress’, which provides different cultures with particular visions of the world at specific points in time’.
Brotton’s book selects twelve world maps from cultures and moments in world history, and examines the creative processes though which their makers tried to resolve the problems they faced from perception and abstraction to scale, perspective, orientation and projection. Brotton sets out to demonstrate that each mapmaker’s response to these problems was specifically rooted in the mapmaker’s particular culture, and that what drove them was as much personal, religious, political and financial as geographical, technical and mathematical.
Each map has been chosen because it reflects a specific moment in global history, and because it either shaped people’s attitudes to the world in which they lived, or crystallized a particular world view. These twelve maps were created at particularly crucial moments, and their makers took bold decisions about how and what to represent. In the process they created new visions of the world that aimed not only to explain to their audiences that this was what the world looked like, but to convince them of why it existed.
We begin in AD 150, in Alexandria where, in the remains of the great library, the astronomer Ptolemy wrote his Geography, the work that summarized a thousand years of Greek thinking on the size, shape and scope of the inhabited world. For Brotton, Ptolemy’s work is important because it was the first book that showed the potential of transmitting geographical data digitally. Rather than utilising graphic or analogue elements to describe geographical information, Geography used numbers and shapes grounded in astronomical observation and the abstract principles of geometry – coordinates, latitude and longitude – to ‘throw a net across the known world’:
One of his greatest triumphs was to make all subsequent generations ‘see’ a series of geometrical lines criss-crossing the globe – the poles, the equator and the tropics – as if they were real, rather than man-made projections upon the earth’s surface.
15th-century manuscript copy of the Ptolemy world map, reconstituted from Ptolemy’s Geography, indicating the countries of Sinae (China) at the extreme east, beyond the island of Taprobane (Sri Lanka) and the Aurea Chersonesus (Malay Peninsula).
As Brotton observes in his introduction, map-making goes back even further than Ptolemy. In 1881, at Sippar in Iraq, archaeologists found a fragment of a clay tablet from 2,500 years ago that is now displayed in the British Museum with the label, ‘The Babylonian map of the World’. It is, Brotton tells us, the first known map of the world – the earliest surviving object that represents the whole world in plan from a bird’s eye view, looking down on the earth from above.
The map is composed of two concentric rings, within which are a series of apparently random circles, oblongs and curves, all of which are centred on a hole apparently made by an early pair of compasses. Distributed around the outer circle are eight triangles. It began to make sense as a map when the cuneiform text was translated. The outer circle is labelled ‘salt sea’ and represents an ocean encircling the inhabited world. Within the inner ring a prominent curved oblong represents the Euphrates river flowing from a semicircle in the north labelled ‘mountain’ and ending in the south in a rectangle labelled ‘swamp’. The rectangle bisecting the Euphrates is labelled ‘Babylon’.
From Ptolemy, Brotton takes us forward to Sicily in AD 1154 in the reign of Roger II, Norman king whose rule represents ‘one of the great moments of medieval convivencia … the peaceful coexistence of Catholics, Muslims and Jews under one rule’. Here, the Arabic geographer al-Sharif al-Idrisi produced for the king a book entitled, ‘Entertainment for He Who Longs to Travel the World’. Now known as The Book of Roger, this is, in Brotton’s estimation, ‘one of the great works of medieval geography, and one of the finest descriptions of the inhabited world compiled since Ptolemy’s Geography.’
Brotton offers fascinating insights on this milestone of map-making in the Islamic world. For al-Idrisi the world was – as it had been for Ptolemy – round, ‘stable in space like the yolk in an egg’. He wasn’t trained in astronomy so the details of his map were compiled from the reports of merchants, travellers and foreign visitors, as well as his own observations during extensive travels through Spain, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. In addition to his world map (above), a distinctive feature of his work is a series of regional maps, each depicting an area in one of seven longitudinal climates, running east to west and orientated with south at the top. Each climate was divided into ten sections, which if put together would make a grid of the world made up of seventy rectangular areas. If assembled they would have formed a map too large to be of any use, even in a ceremonial situation. Reading this reminded me of the short story by Borges, On Rigour in Science:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography reached such Perfection that the map of one Province alone took up the whole of a City, and the map of the empire, the whole of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps did not satisfy and the Colleges of Cartographers set up a Map of the Empire which had the size of the Empire itself and coincided with it point by point. Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, Succeeding Generations understood that this Widespread Map was Useless and not without Impiety they abandoned it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and of the Winters. In the deserts of the West some mangled Ruins of the Map lasted on, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole Country there are no other relics of the Disciplines of Geography.
By the 13th century, al-Idrisi’s approach to mapping the world had been buried. In The Book of Roger al-Idrisi had been reluctant to endorse any one religion’s cosmogony, but now courts and rulers demanded that maps provide unequivocal support for theological beliefs – whether Christian or Muslim. Brotton’s third map epitomises this triumph of religious belief over geographical description: the Hereford mappamundi from around 1300 (above).
The mappamundi (a term that for 600 years defined any written or drawn account of the Christian earth) appears to the modern viewer, as Brotton puts it, alien, both as an object and as a map. Shaped like the gable end of a house and made from one enormous animal skin, this looks like no map familiar to us today. The grids of measurement found in Ptolemy and al-Idrisi are gone, and looking at the distribution of land masses and geographical just leaves the modern viewer confused. East is at the top of the map and even labelled landforms, such as ‘Anglia’ (squashed in the bottom left-hand corner, where Hereford is marked) are unrecognisable.
This is a map that celebrates religious faith … It is also a genre of map unique in the history of cartography that eagerly anticipates and welcomes its own annihilation. It looks forward to the moment of Christian Judgement when the terrestrial world as we know it will come to an end, all our travelling and peregrinations will cease, and salvation will be at hand. The Hereford mappamundi hopes and prays for the end of space and time – an eternal present in which there will be no need for either geographers or maps.
The further from the centre of the map you look are of all kinds of horrors: monsters and ‘savage people who eat human flesh and drink blood, the accursed sons of Cain’. This is not a map as we understand it; rather, it is an image of the world defined by theology, not geography. At the dead centre of the map is the place that is central to the Christian faith: Jerusalem. The map makers, have rejected Greek and Islamic mathematics and relied instead on God’s word in Ezekial: ‘This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the midst of the nations and countries that are round about her’.
The Kangnido World Map (above) was created in Korea at the beginning of the 15th century. It is exquisitely painted on silk in vivid colours. It was commissioned by the Choson dynasty of northern Korea, and is just as difficult for the modern viewer to interpret as the Herford mappamundi. The shapes and sizes of land masses are distorted, especially further west towards Europe. There is no apparent consistency of scale, and the map’s most striking feature is the size and centrality of China.
This is not surprising. The map was made by Kim Sahyong and Yi Mu who were part of the Choson dynasty’s cadre of Neo-Confucian advisers. Both men had been involved in land surveys on Korea’s northern frontier in 1402, and both had travelled to China on diplomatic business. In a complex chapter, Brotton also explains how the map reflects both Korean and Chinese approaches to mapping territory (including an age-old belief in geomancy – best known through the Chinese term feng shui), thus underscoring his argument that although ‘the idea of the world may be common to all societies, different societies have very distinct ideas of the world and how it should be represented’.
Martin Waldseemuller’s world map of 1507: click on the image to enlarge
Jerry Brotton begins the chapter on the Universalis Cosmographia, a twelve-panel wall map of the world drawn by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller and originally published in April 1507, with a story that reads like a thriller – the tale of its discovery, validation and rapid purchase by the US Library of Congress. Why did the Library choose to pay $10 million for the most expensive map in the world? Simple answer: the map, they argued, contained the first known use of the name ‘America’ – an invention by Waldseemüller – to designate the new continent discovered by Columbus in 1492. On this basis, the Library argued, ‘the map was a document of the highest importance to the history of the American people.’
But in his gripping chapter on the Waldseemüller map, Brotton recommends caution: the map (which mysteriously disappeared for centuries) may not have been the first to use the term ‘America’. He offers an account of map-making in the Age of Discovery, pinpointing the intellectual and technological changes that had taken place in the 200 years that separate the Hereford mappamundi from Waldseemüller’s map. In 1290, the Herford map is called an ‘estorie’ or history; by 1507 the Waldseemüller map is described as a cosmographia or cosmography. Scientific lines of longitude and latitude and the development of navigational methods that draw on compass bearings have replaced theology. Moreover, the Waldseemüller map was produced using an invention that was new to Europe: movable type. The original hand drawn map was now transferred to the printing press through the skills of the woodblock cutter, the printer and the compositor.
Printing, Brotton,argues, introduced a whole new dimension to map-making, not only transforming how a map looked (allowing for the depiction of geographical relief, shading, symbols and lettering), but also ‘altering the purpose of a map which became tied to money and a new, humanist scholarship that saw maps as a device for understanding the expansion of the world beyond Europe’s borders’.
Brotton’s next map – Diogo Ribeiro’s world map of 1529 – reveals how, in the 16th century, map-making became the servant of European rulers, as their explorers discovered new territories and their merchant ships began to open up new trading routes. Diogo Ribeiro was a Portuguese cartographer and explorer who worked most of his life in Spain. There, he worked on official state maps from 1518-1532 and took part in the development of the maps used in the first circumnavigation of the earth.
In 1524, Ribeiro participated in the Spanish delegation at the Conference of Badajoz, where Spain and Portugal discussed whether the Philippines were on the Spanish or Portuguese side of the Treaty of Tordesillas by which the two leading European powers had divided up the globe in 1494. he had been commissioned to prepare a map that would provide a conclusive answer. The one he produced is regarded as the first scientific world map based on empiric latitude observations. The map shows, for the first time, the real extension of the Pacific Ocean, and the North American coast as a continuous one. Crucially, it confirmed the allocation of the spice islands of the Moluccas to the Spanish Crown.
Brotton adds a surprising footnote to this story: traces of Ribeiro’s map can be seen today in the National Gallery in one of the Renaissance’s most iconic images. Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, painted in 1533, the year of the Portuguese cosmographer’s death, depicts two French diplomats at Henry VIII’s court on the eve of the English king’s momentous decision to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn and sever England’s religious ties with the papacy in Rome for ever. Let Brotton continue:
The objects placed on the table in the centre of the composition provide a series of moralized allusions to some of the religious and political issues preoccupying the elite of Renaissance Europe. On the bottom shelf is a merchant’s arithmetic manual, a broken lute and a Lutheran hymn book, symbols of the commercial and religious discord of the time. In the corner sits a terrestrial globe, just one of the many in circulation since Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. Looking more closely, it is possible to see the dividing line agreed at Tordesillas in I494 running down the globe’s western hemisphere. We cannot see where this line falls in the eastern hemisphere, because it is tantalizingly obscured in shadow, but we do know that Holbein used a globe attributed to the German geographer and mathematician Schoner … identical to the globe shown in Holbein’s painting.
It is a testament to the changes occurring in Europe as a consequence of long-distance travel, imperial rivalry, scientific learning and the religious turmoil of the first half of the sixteenth century that Holbein’s painting shares similarities with Ribeiro’s maps in placing globes, scientific instruments and mercantile textbooks before religious authority. Traditionally, the depiction of two prominent figures like de Dinteville and de Selve would show them between an object of religious devotion such as an altarpiece or a statue of the Virgin Mary. In Holbein’s painting, the central authority of religious belief is replaced by the worldly objects jostling for attention on the table. This is a world in transition, caught between the religious certainties of the past and the political, intellectual and commercial excitement of a rapidly changing present. Religion is quite literally sidelined, its remaining presence that of a silver crucifix barely visible behind a curtain in the top left-hand corner. The global interests of this new world of international diplomacy and imperial rivalry lie elsewhere, on the other side of a newly emerging globe, driven more by imperial and commercial imperatives than religious orthodoxy.
For most people living in the early sixteenth-century world the dispute over the Moluccas was meaningless in their everyday lives. Neither did it have much impact on the seaborne activity that continued regardless between Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Chinese merchants who continued their trade across the Indian and Pacific oceans. But, Brotton concludes:
For the western European empires of first Portugal and Castile, then Holland and England, the act of drawing a line, first on a map, then on a terrestrial globe, and laying claim to places that their putative imperial lords never visited, set a precedent that would be followed through the centuries, and shape so much European colonial policy across the globe over the subsequent 500 years.
Gerard Mercator’s World Map, 1569 (click on the image to view full size)
The best chapters in Brotton’s book are those which deal with the giants of Renaissance cartography – Waldseemüller, Ribeiro, Mercator and Blaeu. This is perhaps not surprising: not only is this period Brotton’s specialism – he is currently Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University London – but it is also one in which some of the greatest challenges in map-making were overcome and the best known maps produced. None more so, perhaps, than Gerard Mercator’s World Map of 1569, which continues to define map-making even today.
Mercator was responsible for inventing not only his famed map projection, but also the first collection of maps to use the term ‘atlas’ (though Joan Blau’s lavish and beautiful Atlas Maior of 1662 is regarded as unparalleled). Mercator produced one of the first modern maps of Europe and took the art of copperplate map engraving to unparalleled heights of sophistication. His name has become synonymous with his projection which later came to be regarded as the ultimate symbol of Eurocentricism and imperial domination of the globe, placing Europe at its centre and reducing the size of Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Brotton is somewhat critical of that sweeping rejection of Mercator’s projection, and points to how it became central to the new geography of the next two centuries. Its mathematical principles were adopted for measuring the nation states of Europe and Europe’s expanding colonial possessions: the Ordnance Survey, the British Navy’s Admiralty charts and, surprisingly, NASA’s maps of the solar system are all dependent on it.
On 29 July 1655 the new Amsterdam Town Hall was officially opened, a prestige project that announced to the world that the Dutch Republic was the new centre of political and commercial power in Europe. For contemporaries, the building’s greatest wonder was the vast People’s Hall with its marble floor into which were inlaid three hemispherical maps of the globe reproduced from Joan Blaeu’s map of 1648, probably the first that is now immediately recognisable as a modern map of the world.
Part of Blaeu’s map on the marble floor of the great hall of the People’s Hall (now the Royal Palace), Amsterdam
Blaeu’s map incorporated a diagram depicting the solar system according to the heliocentric theory of Copernicus in which the earth revolves around the sun, overturning centuries of first Greek, then Christian, belief in a geocentric universe. Even more significant was the fact that the city that paid for the hall and the marble map was at the heart of a nation prosperous as a result of the commercial success of the Dutch East India Company, part of the apparatus of the Dutch state, but also the leading example of the new mechanism of the joint-stock company that was transforming Europe’s economies – and the role of maps.
By the beginning of the 17th century, Dutch map-makers were competing to provide commercial companies with maps that would assist in developing overseas trade. On the new Dutch maps, distant territories no longer simply faded away at the margins, nor where they depicted as being inhabited by monstrous people. Instead:
The world’s borders and margins were clearly defined with regions labelled according to markets and raw materials. Every corner of the world was being mapped and assessed for its commercial possibilities. A new world was being defined by new ways of making money.
Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior – detail of the page depicting the region of the Yangtze river, China
Blaeu’s map on the floor of Amsterdam’s Town Hall was just one of many he made in preparation for his greatest achievement – the Atlas Maior, published in 1662 and described as the finest and greatest atlas ever published. It was the product, says Brotton, of a Dutch Republic ‘that preferred the accumulation of wealth over the acquisition of territory … In the 17th century as today, financial markets make little acknowledgement of political boundaries and centres when it comes to the accumulation of riches. … [It was] driven by money as much as knowledge’
What drove the Cassini family of France was the desire to produce a definitive and accurate map of their nation based on a series of nationwide surveys that operated on strict scientific principles of verification, measurement and quantification. The principles formulated by the Cassinis, based on the methods of triangulation and geodetic measurements, still define most modern maps, including the Ordnance Survey. Brotton describes the endeavours of several generations of Cassinis to map their country, backed by the French state, anxious both to define its national boundaries but also to achieve for the first time a definitive inventory of the national territories.
Detail of a Cassini map of the Dordogne region, 1785
Brotton’s story of the struggle by the various Cassinis to complete their map is a remarkable one: their engineers were obstructed by locals understandably suspicious that accurate mapping of their lands would lead to higher taxes, while the process of lugging cumbersome equipment around the countryside, writing up observations and translating them into hand-drawn sketch maps, then verifying them was incredibly slow. After eight of the 18 years that one Cassini had estimated would be needed to complete the survey of the entire nation, only two maps had been published – of Beauvais and Paris. The huge costs, and then the Revolution, finally scuppered the project. Yet it had a lasting impact, inspiring the most famous of national surveys, the British Ordnance Survey, and ultimately transforming the practice of map-making over the next 150 years into a verifiable science with a standardized, empirical and objective method that would spread across the world.
Brotton concludes his survey with two maps from our own times – the Peters projection world map, unveiled in 1973, and Google Earth. Brotton’s account of Arno Peters’ projection interested me because at college I once taught Development Studies and the map became an ideal teaching aid for challenging preconceptions about the ‘less developed nations’. With its elongated continents that appear to drip like drying paint, the map is a radical departure from the standard Mercator view with its over-sized Greenland a landmass bigger than Africa.
At a press conference to launch the map Peters claimed that Mercator’s map ‘presents a fully false picture particularly regarding the non-white peopled lands, … overvalues the white man and distorts the picture of the world to the advantage of the colonial masters’. Peters’ map, in contrast, utilised an ‘equal area’ projection that accurately rendered the correct dimensions of countries and continents according to their size and area. Over the next two decades it became one of the most popular and best-selling world maps of all time, adopted by NGOs like Oxfam, given away in a special issue of New Internationalist magazine and used by the Brandt Report on global inequalities in 1980.
However, as Brotton explains, geographers and cartographers reacted with horror and disdain. Peters was untrained in cartography and didn’t understand basic principles of projection, his map was ‘absurd’, and was simply out to feather his own nest through skilful marketing of the map. This leads Brotton to first identify the weaknesses in Peters’ map, and then to broaden his discussion to ask: what is going on when a map is accepted by the public but rejected by cartographers? What is an ‘accurate’ map of the world, and what is the role of maps in society?
Brotton’s discussion of these issues (plus his account of Peters’ own life and career, and their relationship to the political ideologies and divisions of the Cold War) is fascinating. From it all, Brotton draws this conclusion:
The problem with Peters’ map lay not in his technical limitations in drawing a map, but in persisting with the belief that it was still possible to create a more ‘accurate’ and scientifically objective map of the world. Having convincingly argued that the history of cartography has always explicitly or implicitly reproduced the prevailing values of its time, Peters still clung to the Enlightenment belief that his own world map could transcend such conditions, and be truly objective. In being so wrong, both technically and intellectually, Peters and the controversy that surrounded his projection inadvertently illustrated a deeper truth about mapping the world: that any map of the world is always partial and inherently selective, and that as a result it is inevitably prey to political appropriation.
We zoom towards planet earth spinning in the black void of deep space, a beautiful vision of the world:
…. as Plato imagined it nearly two and a half thousand years ago … as a gleaming, perfect sphere, ‘marvellous of its beauty’. It is the oikoumene that Ptolemy projected on his geometrical grid in the second century AD, the globe that Mercator plotted onto a rectangle nearly 500 years ago, and the earth that NASA captured in the first extraterrestrial photograph of the whole planet. … This is the geographer’s ultimate object of study, an image of the whole earth.
Launched in 2005, Google Earth, along with Google Maps, is now the world’s most popular geospatial application (i.e. combining geographical data and computer software). In less than a decade, writes Brotton, Google Earth has led to a complete re-evaluation of the status of maps and the future of map-making. Google seems to offer the potential for more democratic and participatory map-making, with anywhere on the planet potentially open to being seen and mapped by anyone online. The assumption now, as maps become digitized and virtual, is that we really have arrived at map-maker’s nirvana: that all maps will be a precise scientific record of what is on the ground, as seen by a satellite and adjusted to a particular scale. Google Earth seems to leave behind the idea of a map as a human artefact reflecting cultural predispositions.
But Brotton is more sceptical: it seems more likely that the corporate interests of multinational companies will bring a new world of online maps in which access is prescribed by financial imperatives, subject to political censorship and indifferent to personal privacy. He notes that, although Google’s software does allow any user to create customized maps, what economists call ‘Googlenomics’ is all about making money for the corporation from geographical data:
Google is effectively organizing information geographically, as well as alphabetically and numerically. ,,, Any search allows for immediate comparison with its maps application as a way of situating information in space. If I type ‘Chinese restaurants’ into Google, I will be confronted with a list of seven restaurants in my local town, each with a place page alongside a Google map showing me their location.
What this means, as individuals increasingly use geospatial applications on the move via smartphones, is that information that is close to us is going to be more important than information that is further away – especially for businesses and advertising. In one sense, this makes Google Maps the culmination of a long cartographic tradition of mapping geography onto commerce – think of Ribeiro and the Moluccas, Mercator’s projection for navigators, or Blaeu and the Dutch East India Company. ‘Mapping and money’, says Brotton.’have always gone hand in hand and have reflected the vested interests of particular rulers, states, businesses or multinational corporations’.
The maps examined by Brotton in this rich and fascinating book are the creation of cultures which have perceived physical, terrestrial space in different ways, and these perceptions have informed the maps they have made. Each map has been as comprehensible and as logical to its users as those from other times and places – from the medieval religiosity of the Hereford mappamundi to Google’s geospatial applications. The story of map-making that Brotton tells is a discontinuous one, marked by breaks and sudden shifts, rather than the steady accumulation of increasingly accurate geographical data.
Brotton’s survey repeatedly emphasises that cartographers cannot help but betray their own culture and its predispositions: the Hereford mappamundi portrayed the easternmost reaches of Asia as the haunt of griffins, cannibals, and ‘the accursed sons of Cain’; meanwhile, in China, scholars took for granted that the far west was ‘the zone of cultureless savagery’. In our time, Arno Peters’ map of the world corrected what he saw as the unforgivably Eurocentric projection of Mercator.
Even Google Earth, amassing mind-boggling amounts of geographical data, reflects the cultural diversity and economic inequalities of the planet: the regions most exhaustively covered by the application tend to be the ones with the highest concentration of computers and credit-cards.
Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1666: the map on the wall is of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands, flanked by views of the main towns. It was published by Claes Janszoon Visscher in 1636 and has been painted by Vermeer with a prominent crease that divides the Netherlands between the north and south (west being at the top of the map, as was the custom), symbolising the division between the Dutch Republic to the north and southern provinces under Habsburg rule.
With regard to the distortion inherent in the Mercator projection, and its impact on our perceptions: after the edition of In Our Time on the Berlin Conference and the ‘scramble for Africa’, Melvyn Bragg commented that, from the contributors, he had ‘learned that North America, China and Western Europe – all three! – would fit into Africa. Joanna Lewis said that her favourite film was Anchorman and she managed to see it through twice while flying over the Democratic Republic of Congo. Our under-appreciation of the sheer size of Africa has come about because of the ubiquity of Mercator maps.’
In 1973, Georges Perec wrote, ‘What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front page splash, the banner headlines…The daily papers talk of everything except the daily …We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep.’ Joe Moran’s book Queueing for Beginners, which I’ve just read, aims to wake us from that sleep, to gaze awhile at (again, in Perec’s words) ‘the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual’.
Joe Moran is Professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University who researches and writes extensively on the mundane aspects of daily life, especially British everyday life from the mid-twentieth century until the present day. I discovered Joe’s writing when I stumbled upon his excellent blog, aptly described by his colleague Professor Roger Webster as ‘entertaining, erudite, whimsical, and encyclopaedic’, dazzling in its breadth of subject matter and the range of media he draws upon. He’s published several books and also writes columns for the New Statesman, Guardian and Financial Times.
Queuing for Beginners – subtitled ‘The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime’ – follows the daily routine of an ordinary British day, bringing into focus the humdrum and the overlooked: the patterns of daily routine where change happens, but with imperceptible slowness, so that we hardly notice the small changes that can end up transforming our lives. We rarely give much thought to activities like working at office desks, sitting in meeting rooms, eating ready meals, flipping through the TV channels with the remote control. These things are all part of what the German critic Siegfried Kracauer (quoted here by Moran) calls ‘a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone’.
The silence of daily life can be deafening, writes Moran. The very nature of habits and routines, activities repeated again and again, makes it hard to think of them in historical terms. Daily life seems to be the way things have always been, and always will be. By excavating the meaning and origins of daily behaviours, Moran is following in the tradition of Mass-Observation, the project begun in 1937 when Tom Harrisson (anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (painter and film-maker) and Charles Madge (poet and Daily Mirror journalist) invited volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, which they called an ‘anthropology at home’. They were keen to develop what they called ‘a science of ourselves’. Joe Moran has said of Mass-Observation that:
They hoped that their investigators would develop some new insights into subjects such as: ‘[The] behaviour of people at war memorials … Shouts and gestures of motorists … Anthropology of football pools … Beards, armpits, eyebrows … Female taboos about eating’.
Thanks to Mass-Observation, he writes, we have some idea of what it was like to smoke a cigarette or drink beer in a pub in the 193os and 1940s. But, he continues, we don’t know much about how those habits changed from the 1950s to the present; his aim in this book is to try to unravel ‘a sort of alternative history of post-war Britain – one that does for habits and routines what other historians have done for more momentous political, social or lifestyle changes’.
The way that Moran has chosen to organise his findings is to focus on the pattern of the banal during the course of the day – the daily grind, or what Parisians call ‘metro, boulot, dodo’ (commuting, working, sleeping). He notes that writers have for a long time used the structure of the day to paint a kaleidoscopic picture of society and look again at neglected areas of everyday life: from Charles Dickens, with his chronological accounts of a morning and night of London street life in Sketches by Boz, to 20th century milestones like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, novelists have use the structure of a single day ‘to juxtapose the profound and the banal, the weightiest matters of life and death with the most trivial quotidian detail’. In the structure of a single day, everything receives roughly the same amount of attention – however dull or boring it might at first seem. Moran’s book similarly uses the pattern of a single day to explore the history of everyday life:
Some of these routines would be immediately familiar to anyone alive at the end of the Second World War: having breakfast (although they would be horrified by our propensity to skip it or skimp on it), commuting (although they didn’t call it that) and queuing (although it took up much more of their time, and the queuing barriers and recorded voices announcing ‘cashier number one, please’ would have seemed like sci-fi inventions). Other habits – checking emails, watching telly, eating ready meals – would be almost entirely new and strange to them, but they might detect some residue of older social habits even in these activities.
In Queueing for Beginners, Moran investigates the uninteresting events that unfolded yesterday and the days before that across Britain:
Millions of people woke up and had instant coffee and a cereal bar for breakfast. They all rushed for the train and stood pressed up against each other in a crowded carriage. They all arrived at the office, went to their desks and spent the morning there, occasionally getting up to go to the photocopier or the staff kitchen for a gossip. At lunchtime, they all stood in the queue at the bank, then they all bought a sandwich and came back to eat it at their desks. They all checked their emails, and then nipped outside for a smoke. They all had to attend a boring staff meeting. At half past five, they all walked out of the office, weaving in between the rush~hour traffic. They all had a quick, after-work drink with each other, then they all went home and stuck a ready meal in the microwave. They all ate it on the sofa while zapping through the television channels. After they had all watched the late-night weather forecast, they all went upstairs, tucked themselves up in bed and drifted off to sleep. Nothing out of the ordinary happened…
Moran’s interest in the unobserved and banal was piqued whilst studying for a DPhil at Sussex University, where he stumbled across the Mass-Observation Archive. On a more mundae level, Moran has credited his interest in taking note of what normally goes unnoticed to the I-Spy booklets he consumed as a young boy. Quoting the geographer Doreen Massey, Moran says that despite every generation’s emphasis on change, much of life for many people ‘still consists of waiting in a bus shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes’. He describes himself as ‘trying to find a critical language to talk about these empty, purposeless moments of daily life, filled with activities such as commuting and office routines, that we generally take for granted but that take up so much of our lives’. Ultimately, his focus on the banal suggests a serious idea: that ‘anything might be interesting if we look carefully at it’. There are parallels here with the recent interest in the similarly unnoticed edgelands, described by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their recent book as a ‘zone of inattention’ and a ‘richly mysterious region in our midst’ which is both interesting and strangely beautiful.
The spirit that pervades Queueing for Beginners is that of Mass-Observation – and of Georges Perec who in 1973, five years before the appearance of his defining novel Life: a User’s Manual and nine years before his death, wrote an essay called ‘Approaches to What?’, in which he remonstrated against the neglect of life’s ordinary things:
What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motor-cars is to drive into trees. [ …]
The daily newspapers talk of everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask. What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?
Queueing for Beginners is endlessly fascinating and, for those who have trudged through the days of more than a few decades, will reawaken many lost memories of the trivia that has filled the days: free gifts in cereal packets, Vesta curries, green-man, panda and pelican crossings, fax machines, three-piece suites, prawn cocktail sandwiches, Watney’s Red Barrel, theme pubs, teletext and TV remotes, and meetings structured around Powerpoint bullet points (in the index, under ‘meetings’, the first sub-entry is ‘bullshit’).
Somewhere along the way, Moran quotes Siegfried Kracauer as declaring:
We must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most determine a person. He is more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up.
- The value of trivial pursuits: article by Joe Moran (THES)
- Joe Moran: articles written for The Guardian
- Joe Moran: articles written for New Statesman
- A Short History Of Everyday Life: Professorial Inaugural Lecture given by Joe Moran at Liverpool John Moores University, March 2013 (mp3 download)
- Joe Moran’s blog: discussing ‘the everyday, the banal, and other important matters’
- Crossing the Road in Britain 1931-1976: article for The Historical Journal (2006)
As far as exhibitions go, sometimes small can be beautiful. Last week at the British Museum to see the Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition, I happened to wander into a side room where an exhibition consisting of just three objects was on display. Flame and water pots: prehistoric ceramic art from Japan is a concise, yet revelatory display of three ‘flame’ and ‘water’ pots from ancient Japan.
The Museum owns one Jōmon pot (above) which was featured in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects. That pot is accompanied by two pots on loan from Nagaoka City in the Niigata prefecture in Japan. In themselves, these objects are fascinating to look at, but the wider story they tell is one that is both interesting and significant.
The earliest pots found in Japan date from around 16,500 years ago. Pottery was not invented in the Middle East or North Africa until several thousand years later. The Jōmon people lived in the period between 12,500-1000 BC on the Japanese archipelago. The term Jōmon means ‘cord-marked’ in Japanese, and is derived from the decorative markings on the pottery. The pots themselves were made for a number of reasons and are both functional and aesthetically beautiful, and open a window to mysterious culture from the distant past.
Jomon pots are the oldest pots in the world. For the first time, pots allowed people to boil foods such as nuts and shellfish to make them edible. As Neil MacGregor put it in A History of the World in 100 Objects:
It was in Japan that the world’s first pottery was born – and with it, possibly the world’s first stew. […] The world’s pots are so ubiquitous that we take all of them for granted, but human history is told and written in pots perhaps more than in anything else; as Robert Browning put it: ‘Time’s wheel runs back or stops; potter and clay endure’.
The oldest Jomon pot (top) is pretty underwhelming to look at. It’s a cooking pot made about 7000 years ago – 2000 years earlier than the flame and crown pots displayed alongside it. The rim is decorated with marks incised with a stick or finger nail and the cord-markings are clearly visible. It was probably uncovered by a farmer in the 19th century and spotted by a tea master who thought it would make a fine water vessel (mizusashi) for a tea gathering. Gold leaf and lacquer was applied to the interior of the prehistoric vessel and a wooden lid was constructed with a snail decoration, alluding to the pot’s unearthing from the soil.
It’s made of brown-grey clay, a simple round pot about six inches high, six inches across at the top, with straight sides and a flat base, and it was made in Japan. It was built up with coils of clay and then, into the outside, fibres were pressed, so that it looks and feels like a basket made of clay.
The protrusions on the the rim of the Jomon crown pot (above) may have been inspired by the architecture of Jomon houses. The crown pot appears rigid in comparison to the fluid form of the flame pot displayed alongside. These contrasting styles seem to have been important in Jomon culture and figured also in the arrangement of buildings and burials.
This flame pot is around 5000 years old, the same age as Stonehenge. It takes its name from the elaborate flame-like protrusions around the rim. The rims and mouths of these pottery vessels held special importance for the Jomon, as they would have been the focal point for the family gathered around the hearth.
Jomon pots were used as cooking vessels, often sunk into the hearth to aid heat convection. Cooking was an important activity for the Jomon people and they constructed elaborate fireplaces. The hearth gave warmth and light as well as providing a social focus for the family unit. Analysis of the carbonised remains found in many of these vessels show that the pots were used to make soups and Jomon ‘cookies’ made of nuts, acorns and animal fat. Apart from cooking, Jomon ceramics were also used for pouring, serving, storage, and sometimes for burials and other rituals.
Each family group made its own ceramics. It is thought from academic studies that they were constructed by women, though the museum’s interpretation suggests there is no concrete evidence for this yet. Jomon potters did not use a wheel but constructed the vessels by hand, coiling the clay and then paddling it to firm up the sides. Various types of cord were made from twisted plant fibres and they were used to impress different patterns on the vessel’s surface. The pots would then have been fired in wood-fed firing pits.
Jomon pottery is unique, not just because it is the oldest yet discovered, but also because they were made in a hunter-gatherer culture. Pots are usually created by cultures only after they have made the transition from hunter-gathering
to farming, as it is very difficult to carry pottery and live a nomadic lifestyle. However, the Jomon were unique because although they foraged, hunted and fished throughout the year unusually they lived in semi-settled villages. They were able to do this because they lived in a particularly food-rich environment, as explained in this panel.
Pots enabled the Jomon to take advantage of these resources, as many of their key foodstuffs, such as acorns, were toxic unless cooked. Pots were also used to boil shellfish, forcing the shells to open and allowing access to the meat inside.
Finally, the exhibition tells how the rediscovery of the Jomon culture since the 19th century has played an important role in the evolving idea of what constitutes Japan’s cultural heritage. Prior to the Second World War, the Jomon people were mostly viewed as a primitive aboriginal culture that was completely superseded by the arrival of rice-farming
Yayoi people from the Asian continent in around 300 BC . This view changed significantly from the late 1940s onwards. Now many see Jomon material culture as a sophisticated artistic tradition in its own right and see evidence for interaction between the Jomon and Yayoi populations. More and more is being discovered about Jōmon origins and culture, and the exhibition examines the imagery and symbolism on the pots, as well as showing how Jōmon pots have been an inspiration to modern Japanese culture – with references in music, manga, modern art.
As an example of this, music inspired by Jomon culture was played by Yamagami Susumu, who performs on a shakuhachi (traditional Japanese flute) and a tsugaru shamisen (three-stringed instrument).
- A History of the World in 100 Objects: episode 10, Jomon pot
- A History of the World in 100 Objects: transcript of Neil MacGregor’s talk on Jomon pottery
- Jomon period: Wikipedia
- Jomon Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Women’s Japanese Prehistoric Jōmon Pottery
Recently I went along to an exhibition at the Liverpool Nordic Centre of paintings by three local artists, exhibiting together as part of the Independent Biennial under the title Sea Scapes – Land Shapes. What drew me particularly was that one of the artists whose work was on display was a former work colleague, local writer and poet Sylvia Hikins. Recently her paintings have been inspired by the wild and mountainous landscapes of Norway and Iceland.
Sylvia became fascinated by culture and terrain of these Nordic lands after learning about their connections with the Wirral peninsula through the Viking settlement of the peninsula in the 10th century. She has travelled extensively in Scandinavia and Iceland, including a flight over the still-erupting Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, resulting in film, photographs and paintings that capture the harshness and beauty of those lands. In 2011, she mounted a solo exhibition in Reykjavik.
Part of her fascination is the tangible link with once Viking Wirral where Old Norse was once spoken: the same language spoken today in Iceland. Her paintings capture the cold, empty landscape which she describes this as ‘huge, wild expanses of ice and fire, mountain and sea’. In oil on canvas, the paintings which include ‘Gathering Storm’ (below) depict, in shades of blue, grey and white, an unforgiving landscape.
It was the first time I had set foot in the Nordic Centre, formerly known as the Swedish Seamen’s Church or Gustaf Adolfs Kyrka (named after a 17th century King of Sweden) – though I had long admired the elegant and energetic red brick building from outside. It’s a beautiful, light infused building with a high vaulted ceiling and blue painted pews, dominated by the octagonal tower with its pyramidal roof. It is one of only four octagonal church buildings in the UK, and one of about 30 in Sweden. It was the first Swedish church built overseas, built to meet the pastoral needs of Scandinavian seamen and the growing number of emigrants on their way to North America. It was erected in 1883, at at ime when the number of transient Scandinavian people in the Liverpool area was growing. By the early 1880s, the annual number of Scandinavian emigrants passing through Liverpool had reached 50,000.
The commission to design and build the church was given to a young architect, William Douglas Caroe, who went on to be a major representative of the closing phase of the Gothic revival in Britain. He created a unique building, which contains many Scandinavian features, including stepped gables and a concave sided lead covered spire over the entrance.
Today there are still regular acts of worship at the Gustaf Adolfs Kyrka, but the building is now owned and managed by the Liverpool International Nordic Community, and, apart from religious services, provides community events and language courses for citizens and descendants of Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden and Denmark – and their fellow Nordic nations, Finland and Iceland – reflecting the continuing presence of a strong Nordic community in Liverpool. The story of the fight to save the building is told in this Seven Streets blog post.
While I admired the church interior and studied the paintings, activities were going on all around me – a language class (I know people who have learned Norwegian here), a music group setting up, and refreshments being served. But my eye was caught by a small library of books on Nordic topics, including a couple devoted to Merseyside’s Viking connections. I was aware that there was a connection – in place names, for instance, and as the likely location of the battle of Brunanburh in 937, when Saxon forces of Wessex and Mercia united to defeat combined forces of Norsemen and Celts from Scotland. But flicking through these books, I realised there was a lot more to learn, and so I ordered the books from my local library.
It’s a fascinating story, different in many ways from the pattern of Scandinavian settlement in eastern and north-eastern England, areas that were pretty much exclusively settled by Danish Vikings. I should say, by the way, that another reason for my interest in the Vikings had been as a result of watching Neil Oliver’s recent BBC TV series Vikings, in which (unless I wasn’t paying attention) he didn’t properly explain why these people from different parts of Scandinavia were all called Vikings.
A lengthy discussion of the etymology of the term at Wikipedia makes clear that it does not refer to any particular people or culture, but instead indicates an activity and those who participated in it – the explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates from different parts of Scandinavia who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th century. The Old Norse feminine noun víking refers to an expedition overseas. In later texts such as the Icelandic sagas, the phrase ‘to go viking’ implies participation in raiding activity or piracy, and not simply seaborne missions of trade and commerce. The related Old Norse masculine noun víkingr refers to a seaman or warrior who takes part in an expedition overseas. In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the 9th century and is synonymous with pirate and a Scandinavian.
One of the highlights of Neil Oliver’s series was his visit to the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo to see the truly beautiful Oseberg ship (above) discovered in a large burial mound from 834 AD. Elegant this ship might have been, but it was frail and designed only for coastal journeys, not the great ocean-going voyages that the Vikings embarked upon, voyages that took them to the Shetlands, and down the western sea ways to the Hebrides, the Isle of Man and Ireland.
The Vikings who landed on the Wirral actually came from Ireland. The first to come were Norsemen driven out of Ireland, later joined by fellow Scandinavians from the Isle of Man, the Isles of Scotland and the Viking homelands of Norway and Denmark. In 902 AD a group of Vikings expelled by the Irish from their settlement of Dublin, pleaded with Aethelflaed, Queen of the Mercian English (and daughter of Alfred the Great), for permission to land and settle peacefully in the peninsula. Granted rights, the settlers established themselves throughout the peninsula.
Some historians have drawn evidence of this settlement from Irish annals and Welsh texts that speak of a Viking named Ingimind leading a party of Norsemen, first to Anglesey, and then, being driven from that place, to the Wirral. Though these stories are heavily embroidered, the broad outline of the narrative is confirmed by the Norse place names found especially in the northern half of the Wirral – and, most convincingly, by recent DNA evidence.
Though the first Viking settlers on the Wirral came from Ireland, they were part of the great exodus of people out of Norway that seems to have followed the unification of Norway from 880 AD by Harald Harfagre: families forced to leave because they were opponents of Harfagre, or because land became scarce as Harfagre settled his own supporters in the narrow coastal strip. These were the people who headed westwards, settling in the Orkneys, Shetland, Faroes and Iceland.From there, some headed further west to Greenland and North America, while others headed south to the islands and lands bordering the Irish Sea.
The Mersey Vikings were not only raiders and traders, but also farmers, fishermen, and moneyers with their own representative assembly place or thing. Not all were pagans: though there is some evidence of pagan burial mounds, they were also Christians who built churches. In the 14th-Century some were still naming their children the traditional Viking way, with name suffixes such as –doghter ‘daughter of’ and –sson ‘son of’, as in Iceland today.
It’s the Scandinavian origins of so many Wirral placenames which reveals the extent of Viking settlement along the peninsula, but especially in the northern half. There is Birkenhead – from birki-hofud, meaning ‘headland growing with birches’; Frankby – from Frankisbyr or Frakki’s village; Irby – from Ira-byr, meaning sttlement of the Irish; Ness and Neston from nes, meaning promintary; Storeton – from Stor-tun, the great farmstead, the same element found in the name of the Norwegian Parliament, Storting, ‘the Great Assembly’; Thurstaston – from Thorsteinns-tun, meaning ‘Thorstein’s farmstead’; Tranmere – from Trani-meir, meaning ‘crane’s sandbank’. West Kirby derives from Old Norse Vestri-Kirkjubyr, meaning ‘the village west of the church’. Kirkby, on the other side of the Mersey, has the same derivation.
Two place names are the most evocative: Meols and Thingwall. Meols (from meir, ‘sandbank’), was the Viking seaport and shares its name with a place name of identical origin in Iceland (Melar). Judith Jesch, writing in Wirral and its Viking Heritage, say:
Finds of coins and metalwork from Meols dated to the tenth and eleventh centuries show regular trading contacts with the rest of England, the Irish Sea and beyond. While Chester was an official port and mint for the (English) kingdom of Mercia, Meols seems to have operated as a trading centre for the politically separate Norse enclave on the peninsula, serving its own local Anglo-Scandinavian community. It has even been suggested a that a mint, producing ‘Viking-style’ imitations of official English coins, operated there in the 1010s and early 1020’s.
The Viking settlement was most probably on the sandbank that gave it its name: a promontory that later disappeared under the waves as the coastline altered. But in the 19th century, a succession of low tides exposed the remains of the settlement as well as a an ancient forest. It was then that the major finds of coins and metalwork to which Jesch refers were found by local people searching the beach. Many of these artefacts can now be seen in Liverpool’s World Museum – such as the axehead, shield boss and bent spear head below.
Thingwall was the site of the Viking assembly field or thing, the centre of Viking administration and decision-making. Thingwall is a place name that can be found throughout the former Viking areas of the British Isles, as well as in Scandinavia (such as Iceland’s Thingwall, below).
On the other side of the Mersey there’s a Liverpool suburb named Thingwall, and there are additional sites at Whitby, on Orkney and Shetland, and the Isle of Man (where the local assembly still bears the name Tynwald). Things were usually situated in safe and secure locations: Wirral’s Thingwall (celebrated below by proud locals) was situated right at the centre of the network of Viking villages on the Wirral.
But it wasn’t just the Wirral that the Viking settlers occupied. Soon large numbers of Scandinavian settlers arrived across the Mersey, establishing themselves in villages and farmsteads throughout present-day Merseyside and then along the coastal plain up to the Ribble estuary. There is a significant 1945 essay by Frederick Wainwright, The Scandinavians in West Lancashire, (reproduced in one of the books I’ve been reading, Viking Merseyside by Stephen Harding) which suggests that the Norsemen settled mainly on the low-lying, marshy coastlands which the native English eschewed in favour of higher ground. ‘The distribution of place names’, Wainwright writes, ‘therefore suggests that the Norse settlement was characterized not by dispossession but by a willingness to accept the less attractive districts which had been neglected by the English’.
In 2004, an enthusiast with a metal detector discovered a hoard of Viking treasure that had been buried around 905 AD at Huxley, just outside Chester. The hoard (below) is a collection of 22 silver objects, consisting of one small cast ingot and 21 bracelets or arm rings that had been folded flat, probably for ease of burial. Sixteen of the bracelets are intricately decorated with stamped designs using a distinctive type of punch work.
In 2002 a survey was launched looking for evidence for Norse descendants in Wirral and West Lancashire, since the place name and other evidence suggested this area was once populated by Scandinavian settlers. The team sampled the DNA of male volunteers from old families in Wirral and West Lancashire who trace their male line back before 1700. In this way the researchers could bypass the large population influx since Medieval times. 30% of the men surveyed in West Lancashire and 50% of the men surveyed in Wirral had their top DNA match in Scandinavia.
Tony Tottey from Moreton Wirral had top DNA matches with men in Norway, Sweden and Denmark and, interestingly, is the nephew of the late Gordon Tottey of West Kirkby featured in an article in the Liverpool Daily Post in 1971, The last of the Wirral Vikings. You can read more about the survey on the University of Nottingham’s project website.
In his short series, Neil Oliver didn’t touch on the Viking settlement on Merseyside. But there was one story that he told that was a revelation to me: the one about King Cnut attempting to turn back the waves.
Cnut succeeded as king of Denmark in 1015, after just over a century of Viking settlement on Merseyside and in the wake of centuries of Viking activity in northwestern Europe. A year later his forces invaded England; a passage from Emma’s Encomium quoted on Wikipedia, provides a picture of Cnut’s fleet:
[T]here were so many kinds of shields, that you could have believed that troops of all nations were present. … Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. … For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, … who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force? Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen.
By October 1016 Cnut was firmly in control of England and was to rule England for almost twenty years. The protection he lent against Viking raiders – with many of them under his command – restored the prosperity that had been increasingly impaired since the resumption of Viking attacks in the 980s. The resources he commanded in England helped him to establish control of the majority of Scandinavia too.negotiated settlement made peace, dividing the kingdom between them.
I recall being taught at primary school the story of how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes as one that demonstrated overweening pride. But, as Neil Oliver pointed out in a portrait of a wise ruler who had tremendous influence and authority across Europe, the story has an opposite meaning. Failing to halt the waves, he king said: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again. The story reveals Cnut’s kingship skills: a demonstration of his piety and allegiance to the Christian church and a rebuke the flattery of his courtiers.
Oliver presented Cnut as an early adopter of European monetary standardisation, minting coins that were accepted right across Europe, fuelling trade and prosperity. Oliver argued that Cnut was drawn to England in the first place because, for several hundred years since Offa’s reform of the coinage, there had been a well-organized monetary system in England, unlike in Scandinavia.
Cnut took over the Anglo-Saxon system of coinage, minting coins like the one above which shows him wearing a typical helmet of the type worn by Anglo-Saxons, Normans and Vikings in the eleventh century. Contrary to the popular myth about Viking helmets, they had no horns.
Returning to the Wirral: for several years stories have circulated about the discovery of a Viking longship under a car park at Meols. It’s a story that is rejected by Liverpool Museum here, but in 2013, the largest ever reconstruction of a Viking longship will sail across the North Sea to the Wirral. Work to construct the 114 foot boat has been under way in Haugesund, Norway for the last 18 months. The vessel is due to be launched in June and will embark on its maiden voyage in summer 2013. The project – coordinated by Wirral’s Viking expert, Stephen Harding – aims to consolidate the growing links between Wirral and Scandinavia.
The books I read before writing this post were:
- Viking Merseyside by Stephen Harding
- Wirral and its Viking Heritage by Judith Jesch
- Viking DNA by Stephen Harding, Mark Jobling and Turi King
- Vikings: BBC site for the Neil Oliver series
- Stephen Harding’s Wirral & West Lancashire Viking Research Page: brilliant digest of academic and popular publications, press reports, radio and TV programmes and magazine articles
- Meols, Wirral: an ancient port: Museum of Liverpool
- Great Sites: Meols: article by David Griffiths, Oxford University in British Archaeology magazine, December 2001
- The Huxley hoard: Archaeology in Europe
- The Huxley hoard: Liverpool Museum
- Canute: Wikipedia
- King Canute’s coinage in the northern countries: paper by Brita Malma
Paths have always fascinated me. Sometimes their imprint of human purpose on the landscape can be a mystery: why does this path exist? Who made it, and when? Often paths lift the spirit with their sense of wilfulness – tracks left by those determined to make their way according to no rules. I’ve walked for years now in our local park – the twice-daily dog walk – always entertained by how, in a landscape where planners have mapped out in tarmac or gravel where people should walk, foot-worn paths still weave anarchically but determinedly across the meadows and through the glades. They are the tracks of kids on their way to school, routes to work, trails left by dog walkers like me seeking variations on a theme: short cuts, a path under the trees, a better view. Paths like these emerge all over the place – across vacant land in urban areas, in suburbia, or across fields and moors.
Recently I’ve been reading several books that explore this fascination with paths and walking, and in the process I discovered that Robert Macfarlane has also shared this fascination with paths and trails of all kinds. In his recent book The Old Ways, he writes:
Paths and their markers have long worked on me like lures: drawing my sight up and on and over. The eye is enticed by a path, and the mind’s eye also. The imagination cannot help but pursue a line in the land – onwards in space, but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and its previous followers. As I walk paths I often wonder about their origins, the impulses that have led to their creation…
These books represent just a fraction of those that have added to the already voluminous literature of walking in recent years. Pathways is a historical guide to the origins of the paths that we follow through the land; Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit, is an erudite cultural history of walking; The Green Road Into The Trees by Hugh Thomson is a narrative account of his journey along the Icknield Way – a route followed, too, by Robert Macfarlane in his new book The Old Ways which I’ve read alongside his earlier The Wild Places. Werner Herzog’s Of Walking In Ice is another proposition entirely: as you’d expect from the director of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo it is as far from Macfarlane as you’re likely to get: an often bizarre stream of consciousness account of a pilgrimage he made in 1974, from Munich to the bedside of his close friend, film historian Lotte Eisner, near Paris. It was deep winter and Herzog believed that tramping through adversity would help the friend, that the sheer effort of the walk would bring her back to health.
Alongside these books, I’ve also been dipping into The Walker’s Literary Companion edited by Roger Gilbert, Jeffrey Robinson and Anne Wallace, which gathers together examples of fiction, essays and poetry on the experience and meaning of walking. It’s a great compendium: rather than being arranged chronologically, the extracts are allowed to strike echoes off each other – Frank O’Hara nudging James Joyce and Elizabeth Bishop; Robert Frost strides alongside Wendell Berry and Walt Whitman; and Charles Dickens, John Clare and Matsuo Basho stroll along together.
What the latter book brings home is the degree to which the act of walking has inspired poetry. Among contemporary poets, the work of Thomas A Clark is almost entirely concerned with, and inspired by, the thoughts and sensations arising from a walker’s encounter with the natural world. His prose-poem ‘In Praise of Walking’, published in a little volume entitled Distance and Proximity begins with this walking manifesto:
Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.
It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence, property, triviality, to simply walk away.
That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.
Walking is the human way of getting about.
Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical and meandering.
Clark’s poem is cited by Robert Macfarlane in the opening paragraph of The Old Ways:
Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss. The language of hunting has a luminous word for such mark-making: ‘foil’. A creature’s ‘foil’ is its track. We easily forget that we are track-makers, though, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete – and these are substances not easily impressed.
‘Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering,’ writes Thomas Clark in his enduring prose-poem ‘In Praise of Walking’. It’s true that, once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets – say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite – holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.
Many regions still have their old ways, connecting place to place, leading over passes or round mountains, to church or chapel, river or sea. …
Pathways by Nicholas Rudd-Jones and David Stewart (Guardian Books) is a book that provides answers to those questions about the origins of the pathways that weave their way across Britain’s landscape. It explores and documents twenty different kinds of route trodden by man or horse which now form the footpaths and trails followed for leisure. Rudd-Jones and Stewart explain the histories of routes used for the transport of goods (ridgeways, packhorse trails, drovers’ roads, miners’ tracks and smugglers’ trails), pathways created to facilitate the exercise of power or define boundaries (Roman roads, dykes and Monks’ trods), and paths with a distinct spiritual dimension (processional ways and pilgrimage routes). They trace the course of corpse roads, canal towpaths, seaside promenades, long distance footpaths and leisure trails, urban pedestrian ways, and municipal parks.
Each chapter provides a historical account of the origins and use of a particular kind of pathway, followed by the description of an example and an account of a walk along it undertaken by one of the authors. Maps of these walks are included, but the size and weight of the book mean that it could not be carried on a walk. However, the book has been published in collaboration with the walking world website, where maps of all the walks featured in the book, plus a huge range of other walks, are free to download once you join by paying an annual subscription, currently £18. (There is a similar site – walkingbritain.co.uk – that is free, though the maps of the walks are useless).
Pathways is a beautifully produced book, lavishly illustrated with photographs, each chapter providing a succinct but informative history of one kind of trail that has left an imprint on the landscape. The book leaves you more knowledgeable and with a deeper understanding of how these tracks across the terrain were created. If you want to know more, each chapter has a useful guide to further reading.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking is by San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit and environmental activist who is the author of books about art, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, memory and getting lost. She is a cultural commentator and historian who respects no boundaries in the sources upon which she draws, meandering through disciplines as if the act of writing were an assertion of the right to roam. She acknowledges her eclecticism at the outset of the journey:
This history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur act. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field—through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies—and doesn’t stop in any of them on its long route. For if a field of expertise can be imagined as a real field—a nice rectangular confine carefully tilled and yielding a specific crop—then the subject of walking resembles walking itself in its lack of confines.
Solnit begins with a chapter on ‘The Mind at Three Miles an Hour’ in which she explores the connection between walking and thinking, beginning with the Athenian philosophers — although no one really knows whether they walked to think — and moves on through Jean Jacques Rousseau, Kierkegaard and Wordsworth, who collectively promulgated the romantic idea of solitary rambling as a contemplative exercise.
There follows a diversion to ponder the significance of the Rubicon crossed by evolving hominids when they stood upright and began walking. Although human beings are usually viewed as unique in terms of consciousness, Solnit points out that it’s our bipedalism that makes us stand out:
the human body is …unlike anything else on earth and in some ways has shaped that consciousness. The animal kingdom has nothing else like this column of flesh and bone always in danger of toppling, this proud and unsteady tower. … Even standing still is a feat of balance, as anyone who watched or been a drunk knows.
If walking came from evolution and necessity, Solnit says, it then went everywhere, usually looking for something. With this observation she sets out on a quest to understand pilgrimage – one of the basic modes of walking ‘in search of something intangible’. She follows a pilgrim route in New Mexico, musing as she goes on the essence of pilgrimage: the idea that there is a geography of spiritual power, that the search for spirituality can be pursued in the most material terms, through arduous physical exertion, toiling along a road towards some distant salvation. Pilgrimages allow people to bodily enter a story (most obviously as in the stations of the cross). A path, Solnit suggests, is a prior interpretation of the best way to traverse a landscape, and to follow a pilgrimage is to accept an interpretation, to reiterate something deep, and think the same thoughts.
The activist in Solnit leads her to explore the idea that in the last 50 years or so pilgrimages have evolved into secular assertions of political and economic values. She cites many modern variants that reflect a shift from appealing for divine intervention to demanding political change, such as the annual peace walk from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test site.
But Solnit pushes the analogy further, noting how, in actions like the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the collective walk unites the iconography of the pilgrimage with that of the trade union march, appealing to the public rather than spiritual powers. She traces the line of descent, from Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930 to Martin Luther King and the civil rights marches. ‘Inspired walking’, she calls it, epitomised for her in Matt Heron’s photo of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march (below):
He must have lain low to take it, for it raises its subjects up high against a pale, clouded sky. They seem to know they are walking towards transformation and into history, and their wide steps, upraised hands, the confidence of their posture, express the will with which they go to meet it.
Solnit also one of the strangest of secular pilgrimages – that of the film director Werner Herzog who at the end of November 1975, hearing that his friend, the film historian Lotte Eisner, was seriously ill and close to death, set off to walk several hundred miles from Munich to her hospital in Paris. By enduring the pains and hardship of terrible winter weather he thought would avert her death:
I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death. I took a jacket, a compass and a duffel bag with the necessities. My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them. I set off … in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.
[Diverting from the main track for a moment: I recently acquired as a very welcome birthday gift a copy of Herzog’s rare and difficult to obtain book. First editions in English are priceless – this was a Canadian limited edition reprint of 2009. It’s a shorter read than Herzog’s walk – no more than 60 pages, almost the entire text of entries made in a notebook as he walked. It’s quintessential Herzog – a stream of consciousness account of the hardships of the walk (those new boots – blisters, aching swollen legs, cold, and constant soakings due to inadequate clothing), the terrain, the people he encounters along the way, and the thoughts running through his mind. You can almost hear that inimitable Bavarian-accented English as you read.
There are constant flashes of Herzog the German romantic. On his second morning on the road he writes:
What a sunrise behind me. The clouds had split open a crack; yes, a sun like that rises bloodied on the day of Battle. Meagre, leafless poplars, a raven flying through missing a quarter of his wing, which means rain. … The village is dead silent, telling of deeds done from which it refuses to wake.
The Herzog who, when twelve and told to sing in front of his class at school, adamantly refused and was almost expelled for it, the Herzog who stole a film camera in order to make his first feature and later said ‘I don’t consider it theft – it was just a necessity’ – that Herzog is present in these pages. He shows no compunction about breaking into barns or empty holiday homes for the night:
Beyond Volertsheim spent the night in a barn; all around there was nothing else. What a night. The storm raged so that the whole shake, which was solidly built, began to shake. Rain and snow came sprinkling in from the rooftop and I buried myself in the straw. Once I awoke with an animal sleeping on my legs.
This is not an heroic account of a trek (in the manner, say, of a Macfarlane). Along with his physical discomforts, Herzog’s words evoke the psychological disturbances and the intense loneliness that he experiences:
No one, not a soul, intimidating stillness. … I can see sheets of rain, and the annunciation of the end of the world is glowing on the horizon, glimmering there. … The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void. Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into un-stars. Utter blissfulness is spreading and out of blissfulness now springs the Absurdity. This is the situation. A dense cloud of flies and a plague of horseflies swirls around my head, so I’m forced to flail about with my arms, yet they pursue me bloodthirstily nevertheless. How can I go shopping? They’ll throw me out of the supermarket, along with the insect plague swarming around my head. A flash of lightning bolts across the orange-black sky far below me, striking Francis the Miller, of all people, dead. … Is the Loneliness good? Yes, it is. There are only dramatic vistas ahead. The festering Rankness, meanwhile, gathers once again at the sea.
Some three weeks after setting off, Herzog arrives in Paris. In her hospital bed, he finds Lotte Eisner alive, though tired and marked by her illness (she lived for another nine years). She smiles, and Herzog says, ‘Open the window. From these last days onward I can fly’]
Returning to Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: she continues with an exploration of the idea of life as a journey – ‘a pilgrim’s progress across the landscape of personal history’ – delves into the meaning of labyrinths, and considers the place of promenades and the aristocratic garden walk. She follows the trail of walking in literature in the footsteps of Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Henry Thoreau and John Muir, and evaluates the literature of the long-distance walk (citing, amongst others, one of my own favourites: Alan Booth’s account of walking the length of Japan in the mid-1970s in Roads to Sata: A Two Thousand Mile Walk Through Japan.
There are chapters on mountaineering, walking clubs like the Sierra Club, an public access to the land through the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 (an excellent account). Then Solnit turns her attention to urban walking, illustrated by ambles through London (in the company of De Quincey, Dickens and Virginia Woolf), New York (with Whitman, Ginsberg and O’Hara) and Paris. Inspired by Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, she ‘ran away to Paris’ in the 1970s when the city was still a ‘walker’s paradise’. She inhabited the city like Arendt, ‘ strolling through it without aim or purpose, with one’s stay secured by the countless cafes which line the streets’. She returned recently to find Paris ruinously changed by cars.
As well as the writers, Solnit also casts her eye over the artists who have walked and incorporated the experience into their art. In particular, she considers the work of Richard Long, the contemporary artist most dedicated to exploring walking as an artistic medium. She traces the way his work – from Line Made By Walking in 1967 – aims to capture the way a walk can inspire and live on in the imagination: in Long’s own words, ‘a walk expresses space and freedom and the knowledge of it can live in the imagination of anyone, and that is another space too’. Attesting to his significance, another ‘walked’ work by Richard Long adorns the cover of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways.
In ‘Walking after Midnight’, Solnit explores the history of women walking the streets. She notes that men have usually had an easier time walking down the street than have women: ‘women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk’. Solnit charts the threat of violence and harassment often faced by women exercising their right to walk in public spaces, and attitudes to prostitution – the oldest form of street walking.
Freedom to walk is, however, not much use without somewhere to go: with this statement of the obvious Solnit introduces a fascinating chapter on the ‘suburbanization’ of the American psyche, the way in which modern American suburbs have been built exclusively for the car, without sidewalks and in every respect hostile to the person intent on getting around on foot. Bizarrely, she notes that as Americans – and residents of the developed world generally – have abandoned walking, so they have become addicted to the treadmill in the gym. On the treadmill a key element of walking, space – in the form of landscape, spectacle, terrain, experience – has vanished.
In The Green Road Into The Trees, Hugh Thomson describes walking the Icknield Way, probably the oldest pathway in Britain, from the Dorset coast to the Wash. It’s a route also followed by Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways and both were inspired in part by Edward Thomas’s account of walking the Way, Thomas figuring in both accounts. But though their paths and interests overlap, the sensibilities of these writers are attuned to different wavelengths. There isn’t, for example, an index entry for ‘pies’ in Macfarlane’s book: there are six in Thomson’s, and he doesn’t shirk the fact that his walk is an expedition from one great meat pie to the next.
Thomson is a travel writer, film-maker and inveterate wanderer: at the start of the book, he’s just returned from Peru. It is the rather weird strangeness of some sort of celebration in his local town that persuades him to set about exploring his own ‘complicated and intriguing’ country.
Needing a strong coffee and with no food in the house, I cycled to the local market town. The sound of Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ being pumped out by a brass band could be heard for some way before I arrived. A celebration was in full swing. Red and white bunting hung from the church, matched by the small flags the children were waving and by the icing on the teacakes sold in the market place; near by was a puppet stall where Punch was setting about Judy with ferocity. The children watching had their faces painted to look like lions or tigers.
Tattoos snaked out of the busts and jeans of the farmers’ wives queuing at the ice-cream van, which had been painted in neon orange with a ‘chill-out’ logo, and was dispensing Skyrockets, Mr Magics, Daddy Cools and Blackcurrant Peep-Ups. A quiff-haired teenager ostentatiously did a wheelie right across the Market Square on his bicycle pimped up with double shocks and chunky chrome spokes. Oblivious to the fairground stalls and the noise, an elegantly overdressed older lady with sunglasses, light wool coat and malacca cane was stooping against the spring breeze, leaning into it.
The band had finished ‘Dancing Queen’ and were now playing a more stately jig. I noticed not so much the music as their hats: a pink stetson playing the guitar, a bowler manning the cello, a Pete Doherty-style pork-pie perched on the lead guitarist and there, on the drummers head, an unmistakable panama, just as I had seen and bought at a small market on the Ecuadorian coast only weeks before.
England has become a complicated and intriguing country. In truth it’s always been one, but perhaps I’m just noticing it more now. The familiar is looks very strange. … I am seized with a sudden desire to explore England.
Thomson is very good at bringing to life, light-heartedly and with good humour, the characters he meets along the way. Take this encounter, for example:
In Peru I usually travelled with a mule –so that it could carry my kit as well as be company of a limited sort, but that wasn’t so feasible in southern England.
I had toyed with the idea of taking a dog along with me for the journey. Not that I’ve got one. But occasionally I had walked my neighbours’ sleek and beautiful rottweiler when at the barn. And my sister’s family had a parson’s terrier. Both were fine dogs. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, when he crossed the States with his large poodle, was one of my favourite books and an inspiration for this journey; I grew up to John Noakes’s television programmes about walking the Cornish coast path with his border collie, Shep. And I was aware, not least because my children kept telling me, that a book with a dog in it would be commercially attractive.
But there were disadvantages. For a start, both candidate dogs had names I didn’t feel like shouting out across a crowded field of walkers: the rottweiler was called Portia (like naming a gladiator Phyllis); the terrier, even more improbably, was called Spartacus. More seriously, the way I was walking would not work with a dog – too many impromptu stops and starts and stays with friends. I met a lot of dogs along the way anyway – particularly at Iron Age hill-forts, where dog walkers were often the only other visitors. It made for a perfect constitutional circuit: once round the earthworks of a fort and no need to scoop.
I was able to borrow a dog of my own just for a day though, as I passed Watlington, where my sister lived. Spartacus could come with me.
‘You can let him off the lead,’ said Alex, my brother-in-law, an incurable optimist, ‘but he may not stay with you.’
Within the next hour I had dragged Spartacus out of willow ponds, hedges and just about any cover that conceivably contained a rabbit. Dog-walking was the modern equivalent of medieval falconry – it required the owner to be led into unknown territory that they would otherwise not investigate. This was fine if it was a local landscape that you were happy to explore; not if you had a whole country waiting for you to cross.
I sat down on a bench outside a pub when I got to the next village along the Icknield Way, Chinnor, exhausted by having detoured past so many rabbit burrows. A man joined me and we got talking, mainly about Spartacus, as an easy and obvious point of conversation. It took all of a minute before he made the usual joke about ‘I am Spartacus’. I guessed he was about thirty-five, dressed eccentrically for the country, in pale tracksuit and trainers – more an urban look – and with an iPod looped to ostentatiously large and white Sennheiser headphones. He was very tanned. He said he had just been on holiday to Tunisia, where the clubbing was better than Ibiza.
I explained that the dog wasn’t mine and that my travelling lifestyle made it difficult for me to have one. He was sympathetic.
‘I know what you mean. And to be honest, I always think, “who needs a pet when you’ve already got a penis to look after.” ’
It was unanswerable.
But it would be wrong to characterize this as simply a light-hearted read. Thomson sees the England of the rural south through which he travels (so different to the England with which I am familiar) through eyes that are a bit rock and roll, a tad hippie radical. Indeed, if you read this book, please do not overlook the hilarious appendix, in which the Random House editor lists at length the various individuals and categories of people whom , he alleges, Thomson manages to insult (I don’t know whether this is genuine or not, but it’s a hoot).
More than this, though: Thomson brings erudition to his account. Travelling along the Icknield Way, Thomson passes the great prehistoric monuments of Maiden Castle, Stonehenge and Avebury, before ending at the Wash near Seahenge. Thomson knows his history, is familiar with the latest archaeological evidence and the most recent scholarly conclusions. He succeeds in digesting the scholarly sources to provide an informative and entertaining guide to the context and origin of Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon (and more recent) structures along the route.
Recently I listened to the edition of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on the Druids, in which, as usual, a group of top-rank academics discussed their area of expertise. After the programme, I went back to the book to check how Thomson’s account of the Druids and Stonehenge stacked up. It is on the nose:
They have already started to arrive for the solstice, although there are still some days before it is due. Among them are the Druids who lead the solstice celebrations. While New Age travellers fondly like to imagine that they are re-enacting Druid ceremonies at a Druid site, this is historically incorrect. The stones were erected many thousands of years before the Celtic prophet-priests became active around 500 BC. While perfectly possible that the Druids may have been drawn to the stones, they would have done so much in the same way as today’s New Age travellers – as pilgrims hoping to tap into the spiritual energy of their forebears.
I see the travellers’ vans lurking in lay-bys and along some of the sandy tracks that lead off the busy roads besieging Stonehenge in a pincer of tarmac: the A3o3 and A344 thunder by unbelievably close, the latter almost clipping one of the outer megaliths, the thirty-five-ton ‘Heelstone’. An unattractive wire fence separates the stones from the cars that stream past.
For Stonehenge represents all that is best and worst about England. There is the sheer imaginative leap of the decision, whether taken in a day or over several generations, to turn a ring of wooden posts into a circle of gigantic sarsen stones with – the literally crowning glory – stone lintels notched and raised onto them: a triumph of spirituality, of engineering, of ingenuity and of the sheer bloody-mindedness that has distinguished much later English history.
This passage epitomises Thomson’s approach: accurate history, folded lightly into a sometimes humourous account of middle England now, spiced with political savvy and a sprinkling of righteous indignation over things being done to the countryside and aspects of the way we live now.
- The History Behind Britain’s Pathways: Nicholas Rudd-Jones’ introduction to Pathways at UKHillwalking.com
- Will Self: Walking is political (Guardian)
- Democracy should be exercised regularly, on foot (Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian)
- Anarchy with a smile: Interview with Rebecca Solnit (The Guardian)
The weather map in the morning paper said it all: one oval isobar, a lazy ridge of high pressure lapping at the shores of the British Isles. Nothing like it for the whole of this damp, drab summer. Early on, with the dog in the park, there had been frost, now the sky was an expanse of blue, transmitting from beyond the city, as Robert Macfarlane put it in The Wild Places, ‘a longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac’.
In my mind I saw an upland ridge, expansive views across peaceful vales to mountains and the sea: and so we headed out of Liverpool, thirty miles to the Clwydian hills, and one and a half millenia back in time to Offa’s Dyke.
We followed fast roads down through the Wirral, across the ruthlessly canalised river Dee at Queensferry, via Mold through the villages that hug the northern flank of the Clwydian Range Area of Outstanding National Beauty. In Afon-wen we followed the single track lane that leads up to the Moel y Parc TV, radio and mobile phone transmitter. Leaving the car, we climbed to the section of Offa’s Dyke path that, for 20 miles or so here, follows the ridge of the Clwydian hills south from Prestatyn to Llangollen.
From the ridge the views extend, uninterrupted, in all directions. Southwest, across the Vale of Clwyd rose the peaks of the Snowdonian range; in the other direction we could see the whole reach of the Mersey estuary, stretching from the wind turbine array offshore from Crosby to the Runcorn bridge. The Anglican cathedral shouldered its way above the Liverpool skyline. To the east stretched the hazy blue line of Pennine outriders. To the west lay the coast, from Rhyl to the Great Orme at Llandudno.
One day past the autumn equinox, the fawns and browns of late summer were scattered with the pink of heather and rose bay willowherb, brilliant red splashes of rowan berries, and delicate blue drifts of harebells. Above us a buzzard hovered, and ravens tumbled and dived, their guttural croaking echoing around the hills. Down in the valley we heard the call of a curlew and the cough of a pheasant. Small flocks of finches swirled above bright yellow gorse.
Once you’re up on the Clwydian hills, the walking is easy along the gently undulating ridge of grass, heather, bilberry and bracken, and the views take your breath away. Six Iron Age hill forts are strung out along the highest points of the ridge, dating from about 800 BC to 43 AD. They vary in size, from the massive Penycloddiau (which we traversed on the first stage of this walk ) to the more compact Moel Arthur, the next peak along the ridge. They dominate the landscape now as they must have done in the past, though very little is known about these sites and their relationship to each other. They probably served several functions – as military fortifications and villages, summer grazing land, meeting places and sites of ritual, and symbols of status.
Penycloddiau was built around 2,500 years ago – the largest hillfort on the Clwydian Range, and one of the largest in Wales. There is a pond in the centre of the hillfort which may have provided water for the people living inside. Archaeological work has uncovered evidence of clusters of wooden roundhouses within the shelter of the banks and some around the pond. Farmers and craftspeople, skilled at weaving and metal working, would have lived in them.
Penycloddiau has wide sweeping views up to the coast, so is likely to have attracted traders. There may have been regular markets where people came to buy and sell their wares: wool, hides, meat, elaborately decorated jewelry, weapons and tools.
And there is evidence that there was a human presence here long before the Iron Age. At the northern end of the hill there is a Bronze Age burial mound which dates back at least 4000 years – almost two millenia before the hillfort. A plaque on the side of the mound records that the grassy mound was reconstructed in 2010 to protect the site of a Bronze Age burial chamber, built around 4000 years ago. The site would then have been a place of prayer and ritual where the cremated remains of important figures in the community were laid to rest in special pottery beakers. Like their descendants in the Iron Age, the Bronze Age people were farmers and the pond near the summit would have been highly valued and considered sacred. People gave offerings of livestock and goods to the water gods to ask for protection and a good harvest.
The excavation at Penycloddiau in 2010 that revealed the Bronze Age burial was carried out by the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust. The mound had been heavily eroded by the Offa’s Dyke trail, which runs across the top of it and through the centre of the hillfort. Although no dating evidence was found, archaeologists could distinguish the mound as being Bronze Age. One of the most obvious discoveries was a ‘robbers’ trench’ – a large hole where the burial should have been – including a rectangular shape cut into the bedrock directly underneath the trench. Unfortunately for the archaeologists, the robbers were good and took everything, not just treasure.
It’s difficult to convey the sheer scale of Penycloddiau: it covers 64 acres of fairly level grassland along the ridgetop. Ambling slowly, drinking in the astonishing views, it can take half an hour to walk from the northern portal to its southern wall. This aerial photo gives some sense of the extent of Penycloddiau.
Leaving the southern ramparts of Penycloddiau, we followed Offa’s Dyke path towards the next peak, Moel Arthur. Offa’s Dyke is a massive linear earthwork that stretches 182 miles from Prestatyn to Chepstow in the south, roughly followed by parts of the current border between England and Wales. In places, it is up to 65 feet wide (including its flanking ditch) and 8 feet high. Its construction was ordered by Offa, King of Mercia from 757 to 796, one of the great rulers of Anglo-Saxon times, though his reign is often overlooked due to a limitation in source material.
We continued on the Offa’s Dyke path as it descended steadily from Penycloddiau before passing through a stand of conifers to a valley where there is a parking place on a lane that leads back to Nannerch on the A541. From here, the path makes a steep ascent to the summit of Moel Arthur. We decided to leave that for another day.
We retraced our steps, climbing back up to Penycloddiau. As I walked, treading ground harbouring the remains of human settlement over at least 4 millenia – the Bronze Age burial chamber, the Iron Age fort, the old Roman road that also crosses the ridge, and Saxon Offa’s Dyke – the distant views were of 21st century intrusions into the landscape: the wind turbine arrays off the Welsh coast and in the Mersey estuary, the TV and mobile phone transmitter mast on the ridge, and, on the Cheshire plain, Jodrell Bank radio telescope, searching the universe for evidence of the beginning of time.
In Geoffrey Hill’s poem Mercian Hymns – in which history and memory are mixed, episodes from the life of Offa blended with memories of Hill’s own childhood, his experience of the Second World War and contemporary images from the time of writing in the late 1960s – there is a line which captures this sensation of time flowing through the landscape:
the landscape flowed away, back to its source
Mercian Hymns is a sequence of thirty prose-poems inspired by the remnants of Offa’s Mercia in the landscape. In Old English Mercia meant ‘boundary folk’, and the traditional interpretation is that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the native Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders. The main purposes of Offa’s Dyke seem to have been to define the frontier between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms, and to control trade by limiting movement across the border to defined routes through the earthwork. It may have had an additional defensive purpose, but historians think that would probably have been incidental. Only unchallengeable power could have allowed such a great undertaking, and only in a climate of relative peace between Wales and Mercia could a work of such a scale be achieved. This has suggested to historians that it must have been an agreed frontier.
In Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns sequence of prose-poem hymns, the first hymn is a panegyric – ‘The Naming of Offa’ – and echoes the accolades that begin such poems in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Offa is similarly introduced with accolades: ‘King’, ‘overlord’, ‘architect’, ‘money-changer’. Offa was a ‘money-changer’ in the sense that he introduced a new type of coin which became the standard for all subsequent coinage in the Old English period, and even after it.
Offa’s coins demonstrate that he was a contemporary of the powerful Frankish king Charlemagne and sought to stand up to him as an equal. The portrait on a typical coin shows Offa in the style of a Roman emperor with an imperial diadem in his hair.
Offa reformed the Mercian coinage in the 760s to bring it into line with the new-style Carolingian penny. The broader, thinner silver coin became the standard denomination for some six hundred years. From now on all coins would carry the name of the ruler. These coins weighed the same as Charlemagne’s and could have traded internationally at the same value.
But even more significant is a unique gold coin minted by Offa, now in the British Museum. It is one of the most remarkable English coins of the Middle Ages because it imitates a gold dinar of the caliph al-Mansur, ruler of the Islamic Abbasid dynasty. It has been suggested that the coin was designed for use in trade. Islamic gold dinars were the most important coinage in the Mediterranean at the time. Offa’s coin looked enough like the original that it would be readily accepted in southern Europe, while at the same time his own name was clearly visible.
Standing on Penycloddiau it seems extraordinary that beneath our feet are the remains of a kingdom that, nearly two millenia ago, linked traders who passed along and through the Dyke here with the rest of Europe, the Middle East and beyond. And yet, as Geoffrey Hill observes at the conclusion of Mercian Hymns, Offa himself vanished from history, leaving behind coins … ‘and traces of red mud’.
From Mercian Hymns:
King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.
‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’
The princes of Mercia were badger and raven. Thrall to their freedom, I dug and hoarded. Orchards fruited above clefts. I drank from honeycombs of chill sandstone.
‘A boy at odds in the house, lonely among brothers.’ But I, who had none, fostered a strangeness; gave myself to unattainable toys.
Candles of gnarled resin, apple-branches, the tacky mistletoe. ‘Look’ they said and again ‘look.’ But I ran slowly; the landscape flowed away, back to its source.
In the schoolyard, in the cloakrooms, the children boasted their scars of dried snot; wrists and knees garnished with impetigo.
Coins handsome as Nero’s; of good substance and weight. Offa Rex resonant in silver, and the names of his moneyers. They struck with accountable tact. They could alter the king’s face.
Exactness of design was to deter imitation; mutilation if that failed. Exemplary metal, ripe for commerce. Value from a sparse people, scrapers of salt-pans and byres.
Swathed bodies in the long ditch; one eye upstaring. It is safe to presume, here, the king’s anger. He reigned forty years. Seasons touched and retouched the soil.
Heathland, new-made watermeadow. Charlock, marsh-marigold. Crepitant oak forest where the boar furrowed black mould, his snout intimate with worms and leaves.
And it seemed, while we waited, he began to walk towards us he vanished
he left behind coins, for his lodging, and traces of red mud.