Eduardo Galeano: enemy of lies, indifference and forgetfulness

Eduardo Galeano: enemy of lies, indifference and forgetfulness

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.

John Berger once said of him, ‘To publish Eduardo Galeano is to publish the enemy: the enemy of lies, indifference, above all of forgetfulness. Thanks to him, our crimes will be remembered. His tenderness is devastating, his truthfulness furious.’

My first encounter with Galeano was in the 1970s, in the days when I’d haunt radical bookshops, searching for the latest indictments of international capitalism. When I chanced upon The Open Veins of Latin America I knew I had found  something that differed from the automaton-like style of most Marxist texts at the time. Now regarded as a classic work, Galeano’s book analysed ‘five centuries of the pillage of a continent’, contending that Latin America had been exploited mercilessly by its European invaders (and later by US corporations) who had plundered its natural resources, ranging from gold and silver to cocoa and cotton, and impoverished its peoples.

Open Veins of Latin America cover
The Open Veins of Latin America cover

The book was revelatory not only for its value as a text of economic history, but, more significantly in terms of Galeano’s future direction, for the style in which it was written. On the one hand Galeano dissected how, in the five centuries after Columbus, a continent blessed with bountiful natural resources had been systematically stripped of its gold, silver, tin, copper, oil, nitrates, manganese and rubber, while its peoples had in turn been the victims of genocide, exploitative trade deals and, more recently, a string of murderous US-backed dictators, remaining among the most impoverished on earth.

Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into European— or later United States – capital, and as such has accumulated in distant centres of power. Everything: the soil, its fruits and its mineral-rich depths, the people and their capacity to work and to consume, natural resources and human resources. Production methods and class structure have been successively determined from outside for each area by meshing it into the universal gearbox of capitalism.

Eduardo Galeano
Eduardo Galeano

But Galeano was not by trade an economic historian; rather he was a writer, his craft honed by years of radical journalism, who was reaching towards a way of articulating the impact of colonialism and international capitalism through the stories, myths and legends that people might share with one another.  So, for example, he offers the parable of the Nobodies:

Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will suddenly rain down on them – will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn’t rain down yesterday, today, tomorrow, or ever. Good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.

The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life,
screwed every which way.

Who are not, but could be.
Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.
Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.
Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.
Who don’t have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have faces, but arms.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police
blotter of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.

I can still recall the impact of Galeano’s vivid portrayal of that symbol of colonial pillage – Potosi, the mountain of silver in  Bolivia, discovered by the Spanish conquistadors in their quest for mythical El Dorado:

They say that even the horses were shod with silver in the great days of the city of Potosi, The church altars and the wings of cherubim in processions for the Corpus Christi celebration in 1658, were made of silver: the streets from the cathedral to the church of Recoletos were completely resurfaced with silver bars. In Potosi, silver built temples and palaces, monasteries and gambling dens; it prompted tragedies and fiestas, led to the spilling of blood and wine, fired avarice, and unleashed extravagance and adventure.

The sword and the cross marched together in the conquest and plunder of Latin America, and captains and ascetics, knights and evangelists, soldiers and monks came together in Potosi to help themselves to its silver. Moulded into cones and ingots, the viscera of the Cerro Rico – the rich hill – substantially fed the development of Europe.

“Worth a Peru” was the highest possible praise of a person or a thing after Pizarro took Cuzco, but once the Cerro had been discovered Don Quixote de la Mancha changed the words: “Worth a Potosi,” he says to Sancho. This jugular vein of the vice-royalty, America’s fountain of silver, had 120,000 inhabitants by the census of 1573. Only twenty-eight years had passed since the city sprouted out of the Andean wilderness and already, as if by magic, it had the same population as London and more than Seville, Madrid, Rome, or Paris.

Potosi drawing by Pedro Cieza de León, 1553.
Potosi: drawing by Pedro Cieza de León, 1553.

Uncharacteristically for an economic history, Galeano told how it had all begun before the conquest, when an Indian shepherd who was forced to spend the night on the mountain, started a fire and ‘saw a white and shining vein – pure silver’. While Galeano’s description of Potosi at the height of its wealth and notoriety reached beyond the data of exploitation to fire the imagination:

By the beginning of the seventeenth century it had thirty-six magnificently decorated churches, thirty-six gambling houses, and fourteen dance academies. Salons, theatres, and fiesta stage-settings had the finest tapestries, curtains, heraldic emblazonry, and wrought gold and silver; multicoloured damasks and cloths of gold and silver hung from the balconies of houses. Silks and fabrics came from Granada, Flanders, and Calabria; hats from Paris and London; diamonds from Ceylon; precious stones from India; pearls from Panama; stockings from Naples; crystal from Venice; carpets from Persia; perfumes from Arabia; porcelain from China. The ladies sparkled with diamonds, rubies, and pearls; the gentlemen sported the finest embroidered fabrics from Holland.

Bullfights were followed by tilting contests, and love and pride inspired frequent medieval-style duels with emerald-studded, gaudily plumed helmets, gold filigree saddles and stirrups, Toledo swords, and richly caparisoned Chilean ponies.

In 1579 the royal judge Matienzo complained: “There is never a shortage of novelty, scandal, and wantonness.” Potosi had at the time 800 professional gamblers and 120 famous prostitutes, whose resplendent salons were  thronged with wealthy miners.

In 1608 Potosi celebrated the feast of the Holy Sacrament with six days of plays and six nights of masked balls, eight days of bullfights and three of fiestas, two of tournaments and other dissipations.

Nevertheless, Galeano’s text also analysed the consequences of the wealth flowing out of Potosi:

The metals taken from the new colonial dominions not only stimulated Europe’s economic development; one may say that they made it possible. Even the effect of the Persian treasure seized and poured into the Hellenic world by Alexander the Great cannot be compared with Latin America’s formidable contribution to the progress of other regions. Not, however, to that of Spain, although Spain owned the sources of Latin American silver. As it used to be said in the seventeenth century, “Spain is like a mouth that receives the food, chews it, and passes it on to the other organs, retaining no more than a fleeting taste of the particles that happen to stick in its teeth.”

Galeano provides an example of how the process enriched the burgeoning regions of Europe:

The laces of Lille and Arras, Dutch fabrics, Brussels tapestries, Florentine brocades, Venetian crystal, Milanese arms, and French wines and cloths swamped the Spanish market, at the expense of local production, to satisfy the ostentation and consumer demands of ever more numerous and powerful parasites in ever poorer countries.

Two decades later I would recommend The Open Veins of Latin America to Access to HE students who had opted to study an option in Development Studies (a subject that, like European Studies I also taught, has since more or less vanished from the English university curriculum). Galeano wrote at a time when Dependency theory – the idea that resources flow from a ‘periphery’ of poor and underdeveloped regions to the central ‘core’ of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former – was highly influential. I would encourage my students to consider how Dependency theory had arisen as a rejection of the Modernization theory of development which held that all societies progress through similar stages of development – meaning that underdeveloped areas would inevitably progress in the same way as, through international trade and investment, wealth ‘trickled down’ from rich nations to the poor.  (See: ‘Dependency theory – is it all over now?‘ by Jonathan Glennie and Nora Hassanaien, Guardian 2012)

Obama and Chavez
Hugo Chávez presents Barack Obama with a copy of The Open Veins of Latin America in 2009

The Open Veins of Latin America has had a vigorous after-life: it is now a set text for students in many Latin American countries, while Isabel Allende took a copy with her when she fled Chile after the 1973 coup.  Most famously, Hugo Chávez presented a copy to Barack Obama when they met at the White House in 2009. Galeano himself later admitted to mixed feelings about the book: ‘It was trying to be a work of political economics, but I just didn’t have the right training. I don’t regret writing it, but I’ve moved beyond that stage.’

The next stage proved to be Memory of Fire, a trilogy that consists of the volumes Genesis, Faces and Masks, and Century of the Wind. Above all else, they are the  works for which I revere Eduardo Galeano. Shamefully, searching Amazon today to replace my own mislaid copies, it appears that the trilogy is currently out of print in English translation.

In one sense you might describe these books as constituting a history of the Americas (North, Central and South). But, although Galeano does follow a chronological timeline from pre-history to the present, that fails to adequately describe a trilogy which consists of a series of vignettes or prose poems, none of them longer than half a page or so.

Memory of Fire
Memory of Fire: the trilogy

Memory of Fire is no academic history: each chapter tells a small story, and each story serves as an anecdotal, mythical or factually-based fable that contributes to a single long history of the rape of the Americas by both external and internal forces.  Galeano once said, ‘Each fragment of this huge mosaic is based on a solid documentary foundation. What is told here has happened, although I tell it in my style and manner.’

For each vignette Galeano cites the source that inspired it, and his bibliography shows that Galeano’s research has been extensive. He has consulted the original chroniclers of the conquest, such as Bernal Diaz, Bartolomé de Las Casas and the English Dominican Thomas Gage, in addition to the work of modern scholars.

Eduardo Galeano
Eduardo Galeano and the story of the Americas

The first volume, Genesis, delves back into pre-history and the many origin stories of the tribes of the Americas, and portraying life in the Americas before the age of the conquistadors. The second book, Faces and Masks, spans the two centuries between the years 1700 and 1900, in which colonial powers plundered their new-found territories, while in the third volume, Century of the Wind, Galeano brings the story into the twentieth century, as popular revolts against dictators backed by the USA blaze from Mexico to Chile.

Galeano’s constant theme is the crushing defeat and exploitation of the defenceless by the powerful. Here are episodes – many of them little known or forgotten – in the narrative of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Africans who were brought to the Americas as slaves, and the peons, indentured servants, and peasants rendered landless by oligarchs. From the pre-Columbian era to the late 20th century, Galeano weaves their story, told in fragments composed as a symphony structure in which certain themes or motifs appear and reappear. This fragmentary history reflects  Galeano’s perception of the history of the Americas: land that is splintered into individual countries, each splintered into factions and classes, with the result that there is no one Latin American identity, only a cacophonous multitude of voices. Nevertheless, for Galeano this history is one of conflict, of resistance to injustice and oppression.

Reviewing the trilogy in the New Statesman, Amanda Hopkinson spoke of Galeano’s ‘unsentimental tenderness for those who suffer’ that ‘defies geography as much as history, insisting on the Americas as a common continent’.

In 1492, the natives discovered they were indians, discovered they lived in America, discovered they were naked, discovered that the Sin existed, discovered they owed allegiance to a King and Kingdom from another world and a God from another sky, and that this God had invented the guilty and the dress, and had sent to be burnt alive who worships the Sun the Moon the Earth and the Rain that wets it.
― Eduardo Galeano, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (2013)

This is not a historian’s history, and it is certainly not an objective analysis. Galeano’s sources are myths and magical tales as well as documentary reports. But Galeano repeatedly asks us to question the nature of what is recorded in official histories, and how the historical record should be interpreted. He seeks to unmask how lies in history can become the official version. For example, in vignettes entitled ‘The Government Decides That Peronism Doesn’t Exist’ or ‘The Government Decides That Truth Doesn’t Exist’. Another episode records how the President of Guatemala proclaims the Santa Maria volcano dormant despite the lava destroying Quetzaltenango. Galeano’s ironic title reads, ‘The Government Decides That Reality Doesn’t Exist.’

There is a cyclical element to Memory of Fire, first introduced in Genesis in which the first fragments deal with the birth of creation in a dream by God. The myth introduces the idea of cyclical time by stating that woman and man will be born and die again and again: ‘They will never stop being born, because death is a lie.’ While much of the first section of Genesis focuses on indigenous myths of nature and creation, later comes the prophecy of the ‘rule of greed’ : ‘Men will turn into slaves … the world will become small and humiliated.’

Here are two examples of Galeano’s style, vignettes which record episodes in which the resistance of indigenous peoples is crushed by the Spanish conquistadors.  The first, entitled ‘1524: Quetzaltenango The Poet Will Tell Children the Story of This Battle’, tells of the battle of Quetzaltenango in which the people of the 300 year-old city of the Maya (in present-day Guatemala), led by their ruler Tecún Umán, are defeated and killed by the Spanish led by Pedro de Alvarado:

The poet will speak of Pedro de Alvarado and of those who came with him to teach fear.

For a long time Alvarado contemplated his beaten enemy, his body slashed open, the quetzal feathers sprouting from his arms and legs, the wings broken, the triple crown of pearls, diamonds and emeralds.

The children seated in a circle around the poet will ask: “And all this you saw? You heard?”


‘You were here?’ the children will ask.

‘No. None of our people who were here survived.’

The poet will point to the moving clouds and the sway of the treetops.

‘See the lances?’ he will ask. ‘See the horses’ hooves? The rain of arrows? The smoke? Listen,’ he will say, and put his ear against the ground, filled with explosions.  And he will teach them to smell history in the wind, to touch it in stones polished by the river, and to recognize its taste by chewing certain herbs, without hurry, as one chews on sadness.

This second extract, dated 1525, concerns the defeat and execution of the last Aztec Emperor, Cuauhtemoc, at Tenochtitlan (now the site of Mexico City):

From the branch of an old ceiba tree, hung by the ankles, swings the body of the last king of the Aztecs.

Cortes has cut off his head.

He had arrived in the world in a cradle surrounded by shields and spears, and these were the first sounds he heard: “Your real home is elsewhere. You are promised to another land. Your proper place is the battlefield. Your task is to give the blood of your enemy to the sun to drink and the body of your enemy to the earth to eat.”

Twenty-nine years ago, the soothsayers poured water over his head and pronounced the ritual words:”Where are you hiding, misfortune? In which limb do you conceal yourself? Away from this child!”

They called him Cuauhtemoc, eagle that falls. His father had extended the empire from sea to sea. When the prince took over the throne, the invaders had already come and conquered. Cuauhtemoc rose up and resisted. Four years after the defeat of Tenochtitlan, the songs that call for the warrior’s return still resound from the depths of the forest.

Who now rocks his mutilated body? The wind, or the ceiba tree? Isn’t it the ceiba from its enormous crown? Does it not accept this broken branch as one more arm of the thousand that spring from its majestic trunk? Will red flowers sprout from it?

Life goes on. Life and death go on.

Eduardo Galeano large

Born in Montevideo, with Welsh, Spanish, German and Italian blood in his veins to a family belonged to the fallen Uruguayan aristocracy, Eduardo Galeano began working as a journalist in the 1960s, editing Marcha, one of Latin America’s top political and cultural weekly journals. In 1973, following a military coup in Uruguay, Galeano was imprisoned and later was forced to flee to Argentina where he founded the cultural magazine, Crisis. His book The Open Veins of Latin America was banned by the military government in Uruguay.

In 1976, Argentina also fell to a military coup and Galeano’s name was added to the lists of those condemned by the death squads in the brutal period of the ‘dirty war’ against leftist. He fled again, this time to Spain where he wrote his the Memory of Fire trilogy, described by one reviewer as ‘the most powerful literary indictment of colonialism in the Americas’.

I find it hard to categorize any of the books I’ve written. It’s difficult to draw the line between fiction and fact. What I like best is telling stories. I feel I’m a storyteller. I give and take, back and forth. I listen to voices and transform them through the creative act into a story, an essay, a poem, a novel. I try to combine genres to go beyond the standard divisions and convey a complete message because I believe you can create such a synthesis with human language.

In an article for the Guardian in 2013, Gary Younge observed that, despite the catalogue of genocide, cruelty, abuse, and exploitation exerted upon the people of Latin America which he sets forth in Memory of Fire, Galeano ‘is an optimist’. Younge cites the closing paragraph of Century of the Wind, the third volume of Memory of Fire:

The tree of life knows that, whatever happens, the warm music spinning around it will never stop. However much death may come, however much blood may flow, the music will dance men and women as long as the air breaths them and the land ploughs and loves them.

Younge writes that Galeano’s world view is not complicated – military and economic interests are destroying the world, amassing increasing power in the hands of the wealthy and crushing the poor. He understands the present situation not as a new development, but a continuum on a planet permanently plagued by conquest and resistance. ‘History never really says goodbye,” he says. “History says, see you later.’

Galeano told Younge, ‘My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia. I wrote to recover the memory of the human rainbow, which is in danger of being mutilated.’ Younge asks who is responsible for this forgetfulness? ‘It’s not a person,’ Galeano replies. ‘It’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten … We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful.

The big bankers of the world, who practise the terrorism of money, are more powerful than kings and field marshals, even more than the Pope of Rome himself. They never dirty their hands. They kill no-one: they limit themselves to applauding the show. Their officials, international technocrats, rule our countries: they are neither presidents nor ministers, they have not been elected, but they decide the level of salaries and public expenditure, investments and divestments, prices, taxes, interest rates, subsidies, when the sun rises and how frequently it rains. However, they don’t concern themselves with the prisons or torture chambers or concentration camps or extermination centres, although these house the inevitable consequences of their acts. The technocrats claim the privilege of irresponsibility: ‘We’re neutral’ they say.

The Open Veins of Latin America opens with a preface, entitled, ‘In Defense of the Word’:

One writes out of a need to communicate and to commune with others, to denounce that which gives pain and to share that which gives happiness. One writes against one’s solitude and against the solitude of others. One assumes that literature transmits knowledge and affects the behaviour and language of those who read. One writes, in reality, for the people whose luck or misfortune one identifies with – the hungry, the sleepless, the rebels, and the wretched of this earth – and the majority of them are illiterate. […]

By writing it is possible to offer, in spite of persecution and censorship, the testimony of our time and our people – for now and for later. One may write as if to say: ‘We are here, we were here; we are thus, we were thus’.

Footnote: an affectionate appreciation of Galeano, ‘my late friend and comrade’ by Tariq Ali in the Guardian, Saturday 18 April:

His entire work is suffused with the idea of mass democracy, whereby the poor and oppressed achieve self-emancipation through common action for limited or broader goals. … History written as poetry, three volumes of vignettes, each of them a pearl that went to make a stunning necklace.

Utopia lies at the horizon Eduardo Galeano

Ebb and Flow: chronicling Liverpool’s Chinatown at Open Eye

Ebb and Flow: chronicling Liverpool’s Chinatown at Open Eye

Bert Hardy. Chinese Seamen, Chinatown, Liverpool, May 1942

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 .

Pitt Street, Bert Hardy, 1942

 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.

Chinese Cook

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.

Nelson Street, Bert Hardy, 1942.

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

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.

Chinese Seamen monument

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.

Sound agents documents 3 Sound agents documents 2

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, 1984

Martin Parr: Liverpool Nelson Street Playing Mah Jong in the See Yip Association, 1985

Martin Parr, Liverpool Berry Street Chinatown, 1985.

Martin Parr: Liverpool Berry Street, 1985

Martin Parr, Liverpool -Kitchen on ship docked in Gladstone Dock,1984

Martin Parr: Kitchen on a ship docked in Gladstone Dock,1985

Martin Parr, Chinatown, Sunday Afternoon, 1984

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, San’s Café, Dock Road, 2013

Sound Agents

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, Chinese Gate, 2014

Jamie Lau, The Gate, 2014

Jamie Lau, Wong's, from the series The Dark Ages, 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.

See also

Arundel Avenue’s Quaker burial ground: a secret garden hidden from view

Arundel Avenue’s Quaker burial ground: a secret garden hidden from view

Quaker burial ground 1a

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.

The size of the space that opens before you as you turn the corner at the top of the alley (above) is surprising, extending to the rear of Arundel Avenue on land that is bounded by the new housing on Bethel Grove.  When I arrived there was a healthy crowd of locals and other interested parties strolling around the garden and enjoying on the food and drinks laid on by the organisers.  The  aim of the project is to turn the space into an informal garden and orchard, encouraging wild flowers and wild life. What was already apparent was the progress the volunteers had made clearing and tidying the site, creating a pond, and planting fruit trees and wild flowers among the gravestones.

Quaker burial ground 4Quaker burial ground 1Quaker burial ground 3

Scenes from the opening of the new community garden

There have been Quakers in Liverpool since soon after George Fox, a young livestock dealer in Leicestershire founded the community in the 1640s, during a period of religious upheaval in England as people questioned the established church and sought new ways to understand Christianity. Fox and others encouraged people to be guided by their own direct, first-hand encounter with the Spirit – without the need for priestly intervention. Other sects read their New Testaments and tried to model their churches on the church as it had been set up by Jesus and as it existed in the first century. The church that arose from Fox’s preaching was very different: no priests or ordained ministry, no creeds or sermons, no baptism or Eucharist, no liturgy. Fox wrote:

As I had forsaken all priests, so I left the separate preachers also, … for I saw there was none among them who could speak to my condition.

A broadsheet catalogue of dissenters in 1647

A broadsheet catalogue of dissenters in 1647

A Quaker Meeting was established in Knowsley in 1657, with Quakers gathering together in each other’s houses, sometimes in Liverpool.  By the 1680s there were more members in Liverpool than Knowsley and the centre of gravity of the Meeting began to shift towards Liverpool. From 1710, Liverpool Quakers met in Hackins Hey Meeting House and the presence of Quakers in Liverpool was firmly established. The history of the Quakers on Merseyside can be looked at in more detail here on the Liverpool Quaker website.

One of the fundamental beliefs of Quakers is that ‘there is that of God in everyone’ – which implies no discrimination on grounds of gender or sexuality, youth or age, race, ethnicity, nationality or religion. Quaker beliefs have led to their prominence in anti-war and environmental movements.  In Liverpool, from the 1780s onwards, men like John Rutter and William Rathbone IV were members of the ultra-liberal Liverpool Literary Society, whose members supported the French Revolution, Parliamentary reform, the abolition of slavery, peace with France and the reform of local government in Liverpool – all highly unpopular with majority opinion in the city. Rutter founded the Medical Institution on Mount Pleasant for disseminating medical knowledge, and the Athenaeum Club on Church Street for businessmen.

The earliest record of an attempt by a Liverpudlian to discourage the slave trade originated within the Quaker community. In 1787, when the British abolition movement began, the Liverpool slave trade was the largest in the world. Liverpudlians, therefore, reacted negatively to the abolition movement, which they viewed as a threat to both the local and national economy. By 1788, the immense popular support generated by the abolition campaign left Liverpool isolated in its defence of the slave trade. Liverpudlians, however, were not unanimous in their support of the slave trade’s continuance. In 1787 and 1788, a small group of rational dissenters, known as the Roscoe Circle, anonymously contributed to the abolition campaign from Liverpool. The group’s namesake, William Roscoe, went on to be elected Member of Parliament for Liverpool in 1806, and in March 1807 he voted in favour of abolishing the slave trade along with 282 other MPs, against just sixteen, including Liverpool’s other MP.

In 1791 the Liverpool Quakers built themselves a new Meeting house on Hunter Street (now the dual carriageway behind Central Library), where Quaker burials took place until 1854, when the Meeting received an order forbidding it to make any more burials in a densely-populated area on public health grounds.

Arundel 1840

OS map, mid-19th century. Is the circled plot the burial ground? 

This was when the burial ground now accessed from Arundel Avenue was established – on land that had a frontage of 80 yards on Smithdown Lane (as it was then known) and extending back for about 100 yards. The Quakers had raised the money to pay for the burial ground by selling a previous Meeting house and burial ground which they still owned in Hackins Hey in the old part of Liverpool between Dale Street and Tithebarn Street. All the human remains were removed and reburied on the new site. In 1861 a new Meeting house to seat 200 people was built on the new burial ground, and a caretaker was installed in a cottage to look after the building and grounds.

Interestingly, according to this article on the TANN website, in their earliest days of the Quaker movement, they did not mark their graves in any way. Later, Friends allowed the use of gravestones laid flat over the grave. In 1864, the committee in charge of the burial ground on Arundel agreed that vertical headstones would be allowed – but they must all be of exactly the same shape and size, with inscriptions in identical script that gave only the name of the deceased, their age and date of death.

Arundel 1908 OS

The Burial Ground seen on the 1908 OS map before the sale 

in 1906 the Quakers sold half of the site that fronted on Smithdown Road to the Guardians of the Poor of Toxteth Park who wanted to expand the Smithdown Road Workhouse (which later became Sefton General hospital), leaving the burial ground as it is today. By the 1950s the graveyard had become filled to capacity and the last burial took place in 1961. In 1977 an electrical fault caused a fire which destroyed the Meeting House.

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Now, with its rows of identical gravestones it is a typical Quaker graveyard of its period and will be maintained as a site of historical interest – now serving a new function as a wildlife garden for the local community.

See also

Europe sleepwalks to war

Europe sleepwalks to war

1914 NY Times

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

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.

Murder in 1903 of the Serbian King Alexander and his wife, Draga

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

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

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 cheer Britain's declaration of war on Germany in Trafalgar Square

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, 4th August 1914

Crowds on Unter den Linden in Berlin, following the declaration of war, 4 August 1914

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: ‘from this filthy sewer pure gold flows’

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: ‘from this filthy sewer pure gold flows’

Photographs of anonymous female workers iron works Tredegar 1860s

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. Havell, Robert

‘Factory Children’, 1814 by Robert Havell

'The Collier', 1814. Havell, Robert

‘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

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

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 1799 Aquatint and hand

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

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.

Newman & Co, Penrhyn Slate Quarries, near Bangor, Wales, 1842

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’.

salt mine, cheshire, coloured aquatint,1814

A salt mine, Cheshire, coloured aquatint, 1814

Black country

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

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, 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.

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman 2

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.

Carpenter David Williams

WJ Chapman, portrait of carpenter David Williams

mine agent at Hirwaun, John Bryant

WJ Chapman, portrait of mine agent, John Bryant

Quarryman Thomas Francis

WJ Chapman, portrait of quarryman Thomas Francis

tinplate works at Treforest near Pontypridd. This portrait depicts its foreman, John Llewellyn

WJ Chapman, portrait of foreman, John Llewellyn

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman David Davies

 WJ Chapman, portrait of cinder filler David Davies

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman William James

WJ Chapman, portrait of roller William James

W J Chapman (c.1835-40), Thomas Euston, Lodge Keeper

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.

Iron Workers, Tredegar, Wales, 1865, W Clayton

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 4

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 1

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 2

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 3

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

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, England, 1986 John Davies

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.

Mondays Salford Quays Ian Tilton

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

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, 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.

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.

Macclesfield clock

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.

Motorola WT4000

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.

Wrestler Adrian Street and his miner father (1973)

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.

See also

Twelve maps that reflect their times: far away is close at hand

Twelve maps that reflect their times: far away is close at hand

Citizens Atlas 3

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 …

Citizens Atlas 2

In Europe: old empires and flashpoints …

Citizens Atlas 1

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’.

Far away

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.

Ptolemy World Map

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.

Babylonian World Map 750 BC

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.’

Copy of al-Idrisi's world map

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.

The Hereford 'Mappa Mundi'

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’.

Kangnido Map

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’.

Waldseemuller world map 1507

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’.

Diego Ribero world map,1529

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.

Map of America, Ribero (1529)

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.

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors, 1533

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.

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (detail)

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.

Mercator's map 1569

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 Royal Palace, Amsterdam

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 - Yangtse

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’

Blaeu's Atlas Maior

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 Cassini map of 1785

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.

Peters projection World Map

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.

Google Earth desktop

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’.

Google Map

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

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.

Footnote, 1.11.13

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.’

Queueing for Beginners: ‘the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up’

Queueing for Beginners: ‘the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up’

People queuing for the cinema.

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.

Queueing cover

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…

Britain by Mass Observation published 1938
Britain by Mass Observation published 1938

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.

George Perec

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.

See also