The Truth and How to Deal With it When Studying History

November 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

In two of the books I’ve read recently I found myself incredibly frustrated by the authors’ insistence on “The Truth” and the “True Story.”  It is worth noting that neither book was written by a professional historian, despite the fact that both dealt with historical subjects.  So I began to think about how we historians are trained to think about “truth” in graduate school, how we deal with various truths in the documents, and by obvious attempts at obfuscation by historical actors.  And how we deal with gaps in the sources.

Each author deal with these problems differently.  In Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, I was troubled by Weatherford’s inability to deal with at least one of his sources critically.  Weatherford makes great use of a source called “The Secret History”, which covers the early history of the Mongols in Temujin’s (Chinggis Khan) rise.  I found myself continuously wondering if The Secret History was actually verifiably true, or if it was something to be taken with a grain of salt, which is what my sense was in reading Weatherford’s book.

But the bigger problem came in C.J. Chivers’ The Gun.  Chivers was understandably frustrated throughout his research and writing process by the varying story of the development and proliferation of the AK-47 in the Soviet Union.  Mikhail Kalashnikov himself has published multiple autobiographies, both during the Soviet era and after, and has given countless interviews to the media, both before and after the fall of the USSR.  And in almost everyone of them, he gave different versions of his own biography, of his development of the AK-47 and so on.  I would’ve been frustrated in Chivers’ shoes.

For example, Kalasknikov’s brother, Nikolai, was sent to a Stalin-era prison camp when they were young.  Chivers is frustrated in figuring out what Nikolai’s sentence was.  At the end of the day, I found myself wondering “who cares”?  I am less interested in what sentence Nikolai Kalashnikov received than the fact that he was sentenced to a labour camp in the first place.  And I felt that Chivers spent too much time and space in the book expressing his frustration and inability to get to the fact of the matter there to the detriment of a discussion of the Kalashnikov family’s status as kulaks during Collectivisation during the Stalin era.

Chivers also spends the most time and effort complaining about Kalashnikov’s biography.  He also is downright naïve in expressing his frustration with Soviet-era sources and the multiple truths of the era, as if nothing like that ever happened in the US or any other Western nation.  At any rate, Chivers goes on a long rant about Kalashnikov co-operating with Soviet authorities in the re-crafting of his biography (Chivers prefers the term “white-washing”, which, while being accurate is ahistorical).  Kalashnikov’s family were kulaks, enemies of the state.  They were exiled to Siberia.  No kidding Kalashnikov needed a new biography when he became the inventor of the AK-47, which Chivers makes a strong and compelling argument as the greatest invention of the USSR.  His background as the son of kulaks had to be deleted from the story and a new version be created for public consumption.  To criticise Kalashnikov for participating in this process is almost laughable.  Obviously he had to participate.  He didn’t have a choice in a totalitarian dictatorship.  At least not if he wanted to keep living.

At any rate, it just so happens that, as a public historian, this is the kind of thing I study.  Public historians spend a lot of time looking at how stories get created, whether they are wider cultural stories or individual ones.  If Chivers thinks that what Kalashnikov participated in only happened in totalitarian communist states, he’s deeply, deeply mistaken.  Manufactured histories are part and parcel of almost daily life in Canada and the USA.

But the question of truth is what I’m interested in here.  Fact.  Statistics don’t speak for themselves.  Numbers don’t speak for themselves.  A picture is not worth a thousand words.  Facts are simple things.  Fact: Canadian Confederation happened on 1 July 1867.  But why? And what did it mean?  The why can be answered in many ways, both narrowly and widely.  It can be answered looking at what was happening in the United States, it can be answered looking at British colonial politics.  Or by what was happening in Canada.  Or a combination thereof.  The standard interpretation of what it means is that it was the birth of Canada.  But Canada in 1867 was four provinces, comprised of three colonies.  That’s about it.  It didn’t mean that Canada now had control of its own internal affairs.  That happened in 1848.  It didn’t mean that Canada gained control of foreign affairs.  That happened in 1931.  There was no such thing as Canadian citizenship until 1948.  Nor was the Supreme Court of Canada the highest court of appeal until then.  Canada did not control its own constitution until 1982.  So, in short, facts only cover a very simple corner of the story.  Interpretation is necessary.

To use an example from The Gun: The Ak-47 was developed in 1947.  Or was it?  Chivers does a wonderful job teasing out the details of the weapon’s creation in the late 1940s, to say nothing of the massive re-tooling of the gun that continued into the 1950s.  Even nailing down 1947 as the date of the gun’s creation isn’t as straight-forward as one would think, at least according to Chivers.

So, the truth.  Or the true story.  In my experience, rarely is something billed as the “true story” actually that.  Truth is a messy concept.  And this is what we historians are trained in.  We recognise that the honest truth isn’t necessarily a possibility (or even desirable) in telling a story.  Other things are more important, such as in the case of Nikolai Kalashnikov’s trip to the gulag.  Again, the actual sentence doesn’t interest me as much as why he was sent to the gulag.  In other words, there are varying shades of grey in sorting out the historical story.  And sometimes the actual straight truth isn’t that important to the story.  In the end, Chivers’ story is made all the more interesting for all the work he does in developing and elucidating the various stories of the development of the AK-47 and the various biographies and stories to be told about its inventor (or maybe he wasn’t the inventor, another version of the story could just as easily been that the gun was the result of a collective team), Mikhail Kalashnikov.

The Dehumanising Process of Imperialism

November 7, 2013 § 2 Comments

I’m reading CJ Shivers’ book, The Gun, which is essentially a history and biography of the machine gun, though he focuses primarily on the AK-47.  Shivers, though, goes into great depth about the development of machine guns, back to the attempts of Richard Gatling’s attempts back in the 1860s to develop an automated firing system.  So far, I have to admit, this book is worth the hype it received when it came out in 2010.

However. Shivers spends some time discussing the deployment of the Gatling Gun, as well as the Maxim, amongst others in colonial endeavours in Africa in the late 19th century during the Scramble for Africa.  For the most part, Shivers follows British troops on their attempts to pacify the natives.  The descriptions of the efficacy of the guns are chilling.  Shivers quotes one British soldier who casually mentions the piling up of African bodies as the British advanced with their Maxim guns.  Numbers get thrown around, here 3,000 dead, there 1,500, and so on and so forth.  These are from single battles, large African forces against small British ones.  And yet the British win, because of the guns.

The book summary on the back cover says that this is “a richly human account of the evolution of the very experience of war.”  It is, at least so far, if we are talking about white Europeans and Americans.  When it comes to the black Africans, however, they’re no more than body counts.  This, however, is NOT really Shivers’ fault.  This is the nature of imperialism, this is the very core of imperialism.  The colonised “other” is a faceless, shapeless mass.  The imperialist dehumanises the victims of the imperial process.  The colonised are reduced to something not quite human.  The fault here doesn’t lie with Shivers (let me state that again), it lies with colonial sources.  By design, the Africans were dehumanised by the British (or the French, the Italians, the Germans, or whomever) during the Scramble.  They were reduced to an irritant in the forward march of progress.

None of this is news to anyone who knows anything about imperialism.  It’s not news to me, but sometimes I feel like I’ve just been smacked in the face with this knowledge.  It is almost like reading it again for the first time.  And reading The Gun, I feel that way.

Arrival Cities: The Book

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have touched on Doug Saunders’ Arrival City previously on this blog here and here. This review was also in the works with Current Intelligence before I left back in 2011.  So, I am sticking it here for my own purposes.

Doug Saunders.  Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. London: William Heinemann, 2010.  ISBN: 9780307396891. 356pp.

Doug Saunders’ Arrival City was published to almost universal acclaim last fall.  The Guardian nearly fell over itself hailing it as “the perfect antidote to the doom-laden determinism of the last popular book on urbanisation, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums” and declaring it “the best popular book on cities since Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities half a century ago.” Saunders’ own newspaper, The Globe & Mail hails his calming certitude on the wonderful nature of progress that the city provides us.  And the Wall Street Journal praises Arrival Cities for its optimistic view of globalisation.

Certainly, Arrival Cities is an important book, its well-written and is clearly and cogently argued. It is also somewhat of a disappointment, at least in the first half of the book.  Saunders is the European Bureau Chief for  The Globe & Mail and his reportage and columns generally provide a balanced view of the world; his is one of the few columns in that newspaper I actively seek out. Thus, I expected more from Arrival Cities.  I did not get it.  While Saunders does give us a counter-narrative to Davis’ doom and gloom, it occasionally reads Pollyana-ish.  And at times, Saunders’ journalistic eye overwhelms his argument. Indeed, Dwight Garner in The New York Times notes this problem: his lengthy quotes from the people he talked to in arrival cities around the world sound formulaic and too easy.

Certainly, Planet of Slums was an overly statistical analysis, and statistics are on the aggregate level, they do not always us to view the micro- and quotidian levels. But Arrival City is plagued by the opposite problem: in focusing on a success story or two from each of the arrival cities he visits around the world (and Saunders has certainly been travelling the world), he over-personalises his arguments, which gives the impression that he’s choosing to extrapolate the success stories he saw, not the marginalised.  Certainly, all of the people in arrival cities are marginalised in the larger sense of the word, but within the poor, there are class/caste divisions.

More fundamental, though, is Saunders’ reliance on Hernando de Soto’s arguments that all people need in the slums and favellas of the world is security of tenure, if they owned their own homes, all would be good. As Davis notes, the problem with titling in the slums is that it perpetuates the problem of class, in that the wealthier squatters win and the poorer lose, or continue to lose. And de Soto has also been criticised for over-estimating the amount of wealth land titling would create.  The other problem of de Soto’s claims is the very notion of property: generally speaking, slums and favellas work due to the co-operation between residents.  The creation of private property is at diametrical odds to this economic system. Saunders parrots de Soto throughout large part of Arrival City, arguing that private ownership of homes and security of tenure would encourage slum-dwellers to, essentially, take pride in their homes and communities and would give them a base of capital to invest in the economy.  This is not to suggest that de Soto and Saunders are all wrong and their critics all right, but it is to suggest that life does not work quite as neatly and systematically as de Soto and Saunders would hope.

The first five chapters of the book are also plagued by an alarming ahistoricism as Saunders takes us on a tour of arrival cities across the globe from London to Dhaka, Nairobi, Los Angeles, and Shenzhen. In Chapter 5, he looks a the historical growth of cities in the west, focussing specifically on Paris, London, Toronto, and Chicago. Oddly enough, even in a historical chapter, one is left alarmed at Saunders’ ahistoricism.  In discussing the differences between urbanisation rates in the United Kingdom and France in the mid-19th century, Saunders somehow manages to overlook the major impetus behind urbanisation in that century: the Industrial Revolution.  The Industrial Revolution is the determinative factor behind the wildly different rates of urbanisation in France and Britain in the 19th century, plain and simple.

Also, a cardinal crime to an entire generation of historians, Saunders attempts to take on E.P. Thompson and The Making of the English Working Class. The problem is that he seems not to have read the book.  He says that Thompson sees his working class heroes as “passive victims.” This is just plain wrong, the key argument that emerges from The Making is that the working classes were not just passive victims, that they employed agency in agitating for their rights through corresponding societies, proto-unions, and through the church.

In addition, one is left rather flummoxed by Saunders’ apparent naïveté in looking at housing projects in Paris.  He criticises the project builders for not soliciting input from those who were to be the future residents of the projects. Seriously. Nonetheless, he does make the point that the lack of accountability on the part of both the authorities and residents in the projects, to say nothing of their discombobulating impact on community.

Following this, however, Arrival City improves exponentially, in the final five chapters.  In this sense, it is as if the book is split in two.  In the second half of the book, Saunders seems to adopt a more complicated approach to the arrival cities of the world.  This includes pointing out the ridiculousness of immigration policies in Canada and the United States.  Canada and the United States take in the largest number of immigrants in the world, at least on a per capita basis for Canada, a relatively tiny (population-wise) country.

But it is Saunders’ chapter on the geçekondus that surround Istanbul that really shines.  Here, we get a detailed, excellent study of the politics of the geçekondus from the 1970s to today and the struggle of the resident of the slums to attain regularisation and integration into Istanbul.  Istanbul, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  In 1950, Istanbul’s population was 983,000; today, over 13,000,000 call the city home.  The slums on the Asian side of the Bosporus grew up in the 70s as impoverished rural Turks migrated to the great city.  They established their slum housing outside the boundaries of the city and then agitated for the right to have such luxuries as running water and sewers.  The organisers of the 70s and 80s were almost all radical lefties and, during the military dictatorship and its aftermath in Turkey, many spent time in jail and saw their homes routinely torn down.  By the turn of the millennium, their geçekondus had been integrated into Istanbul (a large part of what saw the city’s population triple in the past thirty years).  Today, these old geçekondus are now part of the inner ring of Istanbul suburbs, fully integrated into the city, and the children of these old radicals are Istanbullus.  However, the geçekondus aren’t simply a case of de Soto’s economic theories being put into practice, the regularisation of the geçekondus and their residents, the geçekondullus, required state assistance.

In the second half of the book, Saunders also goes beyond the role of banks and business in the regularisation of the arrival cities.  He also notes that the state needs to take an activist role, whether of its own accord or spurred on by the arrival city residents.  In order to do this, however, the state needs to have the resources to do so.  This is simply not possible in many impoverished and/or corrupt developing world nations, like Bangladesh.  Instead, it requires the intervention of richer nations like Turkey, which could afford for Istanbul to absorb and regularise its geçekondus.  But more than this, the integration and regularisation of these arrival cities is necessary for local schools, jobs, health care facilities, water and sewer services, and transportation.  And then, finally, Saunders strikes a balance between the de Soto right and the Davis left:

What comes from this work, and form the experiences of families like the Magalhãeses in Brazil and the Parabs in India, is a conclusion that is unlikely to please the ideologues on the socialist left or the free-market right: to achieve social mobility and a way into the middle class for the rural-migrant poor, you need to have both a free market in widely held private property and a strong assertive government willing to spend heavily on this transition.  When both are present, change will happen [p. 288].

What we are left with then, is half a great book. The first half of Arrival City is done in by its overly simplistic and journalistic approach, its lack of historicity and its over-reliance on de Soto.  In the second half, though, Saunders finds his feet, and finds his own original argument that more than splits the difference between de Soto and Davis.  I remain unconvinced that the urbanisation of humanity on such a level as we are seeing today is a good thing, but it is also a truism throughout history, at least in the West, that periods of urbanisation have spurred on trade, the economy, and general human progress. And during periods of de-urbanisation, such as in the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Europeans were only slightly more evolved than cavemen, at least in relation to the rest of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, as David Levewing Lewis points out in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 579-1215Either way, there is no simple answer to the question of the massive urbanisation of the globe today, despite what the Mike Davises and Doug Saunderses of the world would have us believe.

The Problem With Niall Ferguson

June 16, 2012 § 6 Comments

I’ve never been crazy about Niall Ferguson.  I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought, and he’s about the worst kind of academic bully, demeaning himself to attack his critics in a petty, small-minded manner.  Hell, we’re talking about a guy who in, his latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, who attacks Gandhi! Yes, Gandhi! Gandhi, in a 1931 interview in London, noted the use of disease in the European conquest of the rest of the world (indeed, Jared Diamond confirms the disease theory in his 1999 book, Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fate of Human Societies).  Ferguson heaps scorn on Gandhi and goes on to argue that Western medicine did a world of good in the conquered parts of the world.  Ferguson isn’t entirely wrong, especially in the case of malaria in Africa.  But he’s too smart by half here, by mocking Gandhi, he discounts the fact that disease was a corollary of Western conquest.  Want some figures?  Try these on for size:

Caribbean Islands, 1492-1542: nearly 6,000,000 dead

Peru, 1570-1620: 750,000 dead.

Mexico, 1519-1600: 24,000,000 dead.

Ferguson’s attack on Gandhi is symptomatic of Ferguson’s general crusade against those who have the temerity to suggest that Western imperialism was not an entirely good thing.  See, for example, his Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.  

At least in Civilization, when he’s done attacking the likes of Gandhi and others who experienced the negative effects of Western imperialism, he does go on to note the horrors of the German Empire in Africa, which does show some maturity in Ferguson in the decade since Empire.

Then there’s his attack on Marx & Engels.  Ferguson wrote his manuscript in 2010, twenty years after the end of the Cold War.  And yet, Ferguson, showing how petty-minded he can be, spends almost as much time attacking Marx and Engels personally than actually discussing their arguments.  Why bother? Seriously.  Ad hominen attacks in the works of an historian as eminent as Ferguson are just kind of sad and pathetic, especially when tacked onto commentary of Marxism/Communism.

Ferguson is also adept at the fine art of quoting out of context.  For example, he attributes the following quotation to Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author:

Will the West, which takes its great invention, democracy, more seriously than the Word of God, come out against this coup that has brought an end to democracy in Kars?…Or are we to conclude that democracy, freedom and human rights don’t matter, that all the West wants is for the rest of the world to imitate it like monkeys?  Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?

Sure, Pamuk wrote these words. However, these words are those of the narrator of his fine novel, Snow. They are not the words of Pamuk himself.  But Ferguson kind of forgets to tell us that in his book.  These words are the epigraph to Chapter 5, “Consumption” (Consumption is one of the “killer apps” we in the West invented, but have now been “downloaded” by the East, seriously, that’s Ferguson’s language). And Pamuk’s words here are meant to be mocking.  But when you know the context of the quotation, well, then they mean something quite differently, don’t they?

And so once again, Ferguson, who actually makes a pretty good, if unoriginal argument in Civilization, shoots himself in his rhetorical foot and one is left wondering just how seriously he can actually be taken.

The Names and History

May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

[Ed.’s note: I wrote this about a year ago, it’s already been published. But it’s been front and centre in my mind of late as I read more history, more Don De Lillo, and as world events continue to unfold. It’s often been said that history repeats itself. It’s a trite comment, but there is some truth to it. Anyway, I like this piece. So I’m republishing it.  Enjoy.]

Historians take the long view when examining global affairs. I was recently reading microfilm of newspapers from the early 1920s, doing some last research for my book. The countries that dominated the headlines then were the same ones that dominate them today. The Third Anglo-Afghan War had just concluded with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ostensibly settling boundary issues between India and Afghanistan. The Levant was under British and French mandate following the First World War. The Republic of Turkey was in its infancy under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the British had just revoked Egypt‘s independence.

I had the same sense of déjà-vu in reading Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names.  It’s set against the geopolitical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, chronic Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus, and the instability of Greek democracy. The Names centres around a group of expats involved in various shadowy activities  involving international banking, risk analysis, security, and archaeology. Its hero, James Axton, is a risk analyst for a mysterious American group found to have ties to the CIA. David Keller, another American, is based in Athens. He works for a bank that has heavy ties to the Turkish government, and becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Greece. Charles Maitland, a Brit, is a security specialist. The men spend their time flying around the Middle East attending to business in dodgy locales: Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut in particular.

Control is a central theme of the novel, whether it’s states trying to manage their politics or DeLillo’s characters handling their personal affairs. Axton loses control in his marriage as his wife, Kathryn, slips further and further away from him (she moves from a Greek island to Victoria, British Columbia – about as remote and obscure a locale from Greece as possible). He loses control over his own reality, holding on desperately to his job, revelling in mundane office paperwork as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a mysterious, murderous cult. He eventually travels to the Pelopennese and as far as Jerusalem, Damascus, and India in an attempt to learn more about it. Along the way, something interesting happens: language, the means by which people order and make sense of their mental worlds, takes on a new importance for Axton; religion, as exemplified by the mystery cult, is what orders the meaning that he finds through language. The connections they establish and the control they represent suggest a world made in the cult’s own image, which Axton sees painted on a rock on the outskirts of an abandoned village in the Pelopennese: Ta Onómata, The Names.

As the novel closes, Axton is back in Athens. After the CIA revelations, he resigns from his job. Rootless, his wife and son on the other side of the world. He regains control of his life, while the world around him continues to spin out of control; he witnesses the assassination attempt on Keller. Geopolitics and the personal chaos caused by the characters’ involvement in it are useful allegories these days. In the continuing drama of the Arab Spring, states and their residents, the masses and their leaders, are locked in a competition over who gets to dictate the terms of order. The newspapers of the 1920s were clear about who was meant to maintain control over the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Today, questions of empire, language, religion and politics, domesticated and boiling over, are much more complex. For that we should probably be grateful.

The Cavalier Middle Classes

May 19, 2012 § 3 Comments

I am in the process of reading what is generally an excellent book, Jerry White‘s London in the 20th Century, itself part of a recently completed trilogy on London.  The 20th century came first, in 2001, followed by the 19th century in 2008, and the 18th a few months ago.  It’s an intriguing read, as White is adept at pulling together disparate strains of the history of the city in a compelling and very readable narrative.

But sometimes, he gets hard to take seriously.  For example, in discussing homelessness and begging in London in the 1980s, one of the toughest decades in English history due to a global recession and Margaret Thatcher’s scorched earth economic policies, White writes:

London experienced a begging revivals in the 1980s, especially among the young homeless and squatters, to an extent probably only paralleled in some of the bleakest years of the nineteenth century. In the absence of children, dogs had always been a useful prop for beggars to squeeze that extra penny from a sentimental public.  In the 1980s and 1990s the small dog on a length of string was a required fashion accessory for the young beggars of Stoke Newington Church Street or Islington’s Upper Street or Camden High Street and probably every other high road of inner London.

Yes. Right. Because being homeless is really just a career choice, complete with the same fashion accessories of the London City banker. Except instead of the Brooks Brother suit, Rolex watch, and Porsche, the beggar chooses ratty clothes and a mutt on a string to get that extra bit of change out of the public. Obviously White is being sarcastic here, injecting some humour into his narrative. But it’s inappropriate humour.

White strikes a similar chord in discussing the fate of the Port of London and the Royal Opera House, two unionised work places in the 70s and 80s.  Here, he calls the unionised workers, and the unions, “stupid” because they were unable to see the long-term and to protect their jobs (and their industries).  Indeed, this is a pretty common attitude amongst historians of late in discussing the deindustrialisation that struck Western Europe and North America in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  Unions were daft because they refused to accept their fate.  For that matter, we see the same discourse surrounding the plight of Greece today, those dumb Greeks refuse to see reality.

It’s not that simple, of course.  The critics of the Greeks aren’t experiencing what the Greeks are experiencing, quite obviously. It’s very easy to preach and be judgemental from Berlin, London, New York, or Toronto.  Of course, what those observers also have is a view of the bigger picture, and can no doubt see the forest, rather than just the trees.

It’s the same thing with the historians looking back at deindustrialisation.  Sure, from where we sit today in the early 21st century, it’s easy to see the bigger picture of the process of deindustrialisation in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. But, know what? It wasn’t so easy to see that from the position of the working classes in that era. These people were fighting for their jobs and their livelihood.  What else you expect them to do?  Lie down and take it?  To allow the system to run them over, dispossess them?  To settle for less than they thought they deserved? How many people do that?  Right, approximately zero.  Sure, they were wrong.  But for them it was a personal fight, not some abstract discussion of the economy and projections, stagnation, and inflation.

It wasn’t pretty.  The 80s were a horrible decade for the working classes of North America and Western Europe. Jobs disappeared as the world’s economy globalised.  When Free Trade came to Canada at the end of the decade, it had a direct impact on my family.  My old man lost his job, victim to Free Trade, because his company realised that a welder in South Carolina could do the same work for far less money than he did in Vancouver.  Not only that, but unionisation was a lot less likely in South Carolina.  And so on.

The process of deindustrialisation had very real human costs.  End of story. Historians would do well to remember than when discussing the process, rather than dismiss workers and their unions as “stupid” or “daft.”

Under London

February 7, 2012 § 5 Comments

I originally wrote this review for Current Intelligence, before I left the publication in the autumn of 2011, so it never saw the light of day there.  I am publishing it here as a means of starting a discussion, or thread, concerning the underside of cities.  And by that, I don’t mean the criminal underside or something like that, I mean the literal underground of the city.  Peter Ackroyd here has written an history of the London underground (and no, not the Tube), an idea I wish other historians and writers would seize upon for other cities.  There is an entire world located under our cities, not quite lost Atlantises, but at the very least, the ruins of previous civilisations.  But wait! There’s more!  The urban infrastructure is also below ground: the telecommunications and electrical wiring, sewers, subways, roadway tunnels and more.  The underside is a topic of fascination and revulsion and something I am interested in as an urban historian. In short, I’ll be returning to this theme in coming weeks.

Peter Ackroyd.  London UnderLondon: Chatto & Windus, 2011. 202pp. ISBN: 9780701169916 £12.99

Peter Ackroyd is one of the most prolific authors writing in the English language today, having churned out exactly fifty works of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction in the past forty years, to say nothing of another half-dozen TV shows.  While his subjects have been diverse, a constant throughout his oeuvre has been London.  Many of his novels have been set there and a decade years ago, he published London: The Biography, followed in 2003 by The Illustrated London and in 2007 by the biography of the great river that flows through the city, The Thames.  His latest book, London Under is a product of these three books, as well as his 2009 book, Venice: Pure City.  However, London Under reads as leftovers from London and Thames.  It’s the story of what’s under London, from natural springs, to the ancient Roman settlement, raunchy sewers, and, of course, the Tube. Certainly a fascinating little book, whether or not London Under is successful is another matter.

What lies beneath the surface is a topic that has transfixed humans since we first evolved away from apes.  For the Greeks, the dead went to the great Hades Hall under the world. Grave yards and the undead were a staple of Victorian ghost stories. What lies beneath the sea is still a topic that makes my skin crawl.  But there is also an entire underworld that lies beneath our cities. In Roman times, the city’s catacombs provided shelter for the Christians. The Catacombs of Paris have held an eery hold over pop culture since the days of Edgar Allen Poe. Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has his characters running through the old Byzantine city underneath Istanbul in his novel, The Black Book.  And London’s myriad underground tunnels were said to be the home of thieves, street urchins, mobsters, and slavers.

More than just the terror, though, there is a duality to the underground, which Ackroyd acknowledges; it can be both a site of safety and a site of evil and terror.  On the bright side, he cites the protection afforded the Christians under ancient Rome. On the dark side, he points to the medieval prison, which was oftentimes a pit in the ground, or the depths of the Tower of London. Indeed, under London are some nasty little places, such as the House of Detention, which was a dank, terrifying prison. But it was during the nineteenth century that the underground began to take on its truly nefarious tone in London, as it was seen as the den of criminals and smugglers who only came out at night.  Then there’s what creeps and crawls through the underground: rats, eels, snakes, and other such creepy creatures. Rats, in particular, spark fear in humans, no doubt due to their role in causing the Great Plague in the fourteenth century (to be fair, it wasn’t the rats, it was their fleas, but who’s counting?).

After a general introduction, we are transported back to the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666 and the discovery of what lay beneath the ruins of the torched city.  Ackroyd introduces us to Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect, and his excavations of St. Paul’s Cathedral after the fire.  He was surprised to discover, amongst other things, Anglo-Saxon graves, on top of Saxons, on top of Britons, on top of Romans. Along with the Roman remains, he found pavement from Londonium (as it was called during the Roman era) and below that, sand and seashells.  London had once lay under the ocean.  As for the bodies, Ludgate Hill, the site of St. Paul’s, had long been a sacred burial ground, and was the site of a temple to Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt. After a catalogue of all the neat and not-quite-so-neat things that have bubbled up to the surface of London over the past five or so centuries, we move onto more conceptual and sequential chapters.

From Chapter 3 “Holy Water,” onwards, it’s a whirlwind tour of what lies beneath London.  Water, not surprisingly, is the focus of much of the book, a total of five chapters are devoted to water in some form or another, including sewers, pipes, and the buried River Fleet, “the most powerful of all London’s buried rivers.” [p. 52].  Powerful, maybe, but the Fleet was more of an open sewer when it still flowed above ground. Thus, after the Great Fire, Wren sought to re-create the Fleet as a majestic, Venetian-type river that flowed through the City down to the Thames.  To this end, he constructed a canal.  But this did not turn out so well; by the 1720s, Alexander Pope was using the Fleet as the backdrop to the corruption of Britain in The Dunciad.  As commercial activity closed in on the Fleet, it became silted up, and was eventually built over and that’s how we get Fleet street today.

The chapters leading up to that on pipes (Ch. 8), however, read like they were picked up off the cutting room floor from when Ackroyd was writing London and Thames.  Perhaps it’s a testament to Ackroyd’s skill as a writer, but these chapters feel effortless, and not in a good way, as if he just rather sneezed them out.  They contain a lot of interesting information, but not much more in terms of analysis and organisation.

It is only when we get to the eighth of thirteen chapters that London Under hits its stride. “The Mole Men” tells the story of the men who built the tunnels that lie under the city.  The Thames Tunnel is the star of the chapter.  Its construction is a fascinating study in engineering, ingenuity, and the sheer terror induced by water. Having grown up in cities that have made great hullaballoo about tunnels under great rivers for transportation purposes, perhaps the story of the Thames Tunnel resonates with me more than most. While the harrowing stories of the gasses under the ground that burst into flame are enough, it is the horror conveyed in the voices of the long-dead workmen on the tunnel when the river broke through: “The Thames is in! The Thames is in!” When it was finally complete in the 1840s, the Thames Tunnel was a financial disaster, costing nearly £500,000 to construct. It was eventually absorbed into the nascent railway system before becoming part of the Underground and, today, the London Overground.

The next several chapters are dominated by the Tube.  In particular, I was taken by the chapter on the disused Underground stations that dot the system.  The London Underground is enough to boggle the mind at the best of times, servicing some 270 stations (though this is a far site fewer than the 468 served by the New York Subway).  In addition to the disused Tube stations, there are “dead tunnels”, empty, abandoned tunnels that run to nowhere off the main lines. (There is a website dedicated to the abandoned Tube stations, entitled, appropriately enough, London’s Abandoned Tube Stations).  Being fascinated by underground subway systems and the abandoned and empty tunnels we can see out the windows of the train as we hurtle below the city, I found this chapter to be the most entertaining and rewarding.

On the whole, London Under reads as though it is the B-side to London and Thames double A-Side single.  It is breezily written, one can easily sit down to read it in the morning with coffee and finish it by the point it’s time to put dinner on.  This has both its virtues and its vices. At its best, London Under is a rollicking tour through subterranean London, well worth the read.  At its worst, though, it is as if Ackroyd sneezed it out, with little thought to narrative or analysis, or to even tying it all together, it’s a long recitation of fact. At all times, though, Ackroyd is informative and interesting.

Planet of Slums or Arrival Cities?

April 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

It was with great anticipation that I opened Douglas Saunders‘ recent book, Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. The reviews I’d read of the book praised its brilliance and Saunders’ regular column for The Globe & Mail suggested this was a book anyone who thinks and writes about cities themselves had to read. It is rare I have been so disappointed in a book.

I will write in greater detail about Arrival City on my blog at Current Intelligence in the next month or so, but for now, let me just say that this book is a massive disappointment. Saunders does little more than re-hash neo-liberal, whiggish arguments about progress and the city and how the city is the panacea to all that threatens humanity and the environment.  The problems begin with what Saunders calls an “arrival city,” which is never properly defined. Could be a city, could be a neighbourhood, could be a slum, could be all kinds of things. But the rest of the book more or less dismisses the problem of the slum in the developing world. Saunders acknowledges that they exist, but then goes on to suggest they are just temporary dwellings for people on the rise into the middle-classes.  He picks up Hernando de Soto’s argument that all slum-dwellers in the developing world need is security of tenure, to own their own homes and property. This is the solution to poverty in slums. To prove his point, Saunders, a journalist, puts a human face on the residents of the slums, but he tends to pick people who are successful, who do get out of the slums. He champions the spread of middle-class North American culture (and its attendant free-trade) around the globe as the solution to urban poverty. Of course, this proves his point, about how these arrival cities are just that, a sort of purgatory for migrants from the countryside, a way-station on their way to respectability and security in the city.

I read Arrival City in conjunction with Mike DavisPlanet of Slums. The contrast between the two studies could not be more shocking. Whereas Davis has often been criticised as being too harsh in his arguments about the problem of slums and development globally, the problem with Saunders is the exact opposite: he’s far too wide-eyed to the point where he seems to be ignoring the harsh realities of life in slums of cities in the developing world.

John Lorinc, Cities: A Groundwork Guide

April 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

[Eds. note: Over the next few weeks, I will be re-publishing some of the articles I wrote for the Complex Terrain Laboratory, a precursor to Current Intelligence magazine. For the most part, these are articles I don’t want to lose, so re-posting them here is my way of creating an archive of them. Some are book reviews, a series of articles on cities and the slum, and some on landscape, memory, and archaeology.]

John Lorinc, Cities: A Groundwork Guide.  Toronto & Berkeley, CA: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2009.  140pp + index, $11.00 (CAN) $10.00 (USA)

2009 was a watershed for humanity.  It was the first time that a majority of people, worldwide, lived in urban areas.  This was fuelled by a process of urbanisation in the developing world; in western Europe and Canada, the majority of people lived in cities by the First World War.  The United States reached this milestone shortly thereafter.  But in the developing world, people remained primarily rural until the past couple of decades when industrialisation reached this part of the world, in large part because North American and European companies began to outsource and move production off-shore.  This, in turn, had massive consequences for cities in this part of the world, as jobs dried up and industrial areas were abandoned.  This has led to a paradoxical situation in terms of urbanism in the world.  For example, Manila has grown by some 10.5 million people since 1951 to its present population of 12 million.  Meanwhile, Detroit and other cities in the North American rustbelt have experienced depopulation in the past few decades.

Throughout all of this, cities, especially in the industrialised world, gain more power and influence, not just on the national scale (such as London, the British metropole), but on the global scale (London remains the financial capital of the world, a position it has held for centuries).[1]  And in the process, cities, worldwide, continue to grow, becoming larger than some nations.  For example, there are more people in Tokyo than in all of Canada.  That is a mind-boggling thought, given the size of Canada’s geographic footprint (the 2nd largest nation in terms of landmass in the world) compared to that of Tokyo.

It is in this context that Canadian journalist John Lorinc has written a primer on cities for the 21st century, the appropriately titled Cities.  Lorinc is a specialist on urban affairs, his work having appeared in several Canadian publications; he also currently contributes to the New York Times’ eco-business blog, “Green Inc.: Energy, the Environment, and the Bottom Line.”  His last book, 2006’ The New City: How the Crisis in Canada’s Large Urban Centres is Re-Shaping the Nation (Penguin) was especially well-received and serves as somewhat of a basis for his argument in Cities, insofar as he notes the power of cities.  In Canada, a full one-third of the nation’s population lives in the three largest cities: Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver.  In this sense, then, Lorinc is very well-positioned to ponder the plight, role, and impact of global cities in the 21st century.

Cities is the latest edition to a series from revered Canadian independent publisher, House of Anansi Press, the Groundwork Guides.  Previous volumes have examined topics as diverse as oil, empire, genocide, slavery, and sex.  The series is meant to provide an overview of cultural and political issues, offering “both a lively introduction and a strong point of view.” [back cover].  Lorinc accomplishes both, this volume is a lively discussion of the role and plight of cities, and though his “strong point of view” is somewhat muted in his prose, it is very clear.  Lorinc argues that we must be conscious and aware of the impact of cities on our wider culture, their economic, cultural, and political power, to say nothing of their environmental impact, and the plight of the poor in the megacities of the developing world.  In making this argument, though, Lorinc isn’t really saying anything new, nor anything controversial.  He covers the expected, and says the expected.

Rather than focus on the benefits and upside of city life, like other urbanists like Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida, Lorinc is more interested in problematising the city.  And this is beneficial tact to take.  Whereas as Jacobs and Florida focus on how the city is a creative force, a site of community, and so on, this is limiting argument and only deals with a minority of cities and a minority of people in cities worldwide.  Lorinc’s more comprehensive approach to the city allows for a wider analysis, both in the developed and developing worlds.  Indeed, the problem with Florida, in particular, is that he is not all that interested in slums and the poor in North American’s cities, which is troubling.

Nevertheless, while Lorinc travels down a road already well-travelled in Cities, his gift lies in the quick and coherent synthesis of the urban condition in the new century.  Broken up into 7 simple chapters, he gives us an overview of the issues facing cities the world over today.  He also moves easily from the developed to the developing worlds, between the historical and the contemporary.  Each chapter covers a central concept of urbanism: the city in the 21st century, urban forms and functions, sprawl, the environment and energy, transportation, poverty, and crimes, epidemics, and terrorism.  In addition to this division, the book is unofficially split so that the first half more or less focuses on the developed world, whilst the second half deals with the developing world.  The division isn’t absolute, of course, as both halves of the globe fit into the discussion throughout.

Central to the analysis is the environment, and the city’s impact upon it, in both the developed and developing world.  Each chapter serves as an introduction to the topic and hand, and whilst it is impossible for Lorinc to be comprehensive and exhaustive in the roughly 20 pages devoted to each chapter, he excels in introducing the problems and challenges facing cities to his readers.

Cities are incredibly complex and complicated socio-political structures.  They require careful- and micro- management; problems arise from dense population structures, complicated landscapes, environmental degradation, communications and transportation, amongst other things.  And Lorinc is best at pointing out that the problems that the megacities of the developing world face are problems that cities in the developed world are perpetually struggling with.

Most obvious here is the question of the environment.  Cities are cesspools of pollution and toxicity.  As noted, Lorinc’s discussion of the environmental impact of cities dominates this book; no fewer than 3 chapters (3: Sprawl Happens; 4: Environment and Energy; 5: Cities and Transportation) are dominated by environmental questions.  Chapter 3 examines the environmental (and socio-cultural) consequences of urban sprawl, primarily in Europe and North America.  Here, Lorinc touts cities that have managed to tout responsible development, vertical rather than horizontal.  Manhattan and the west end of Vancouver are two such examples, as they provide high-density urban settlement of high-rise condo development.  His argument is hurt, however, in a table that accompanies this discussion, a “selected” listing of the population density of the worlds 250 largest cities.  The table, however, is ultimately meaningless, in part because we don’t know the overall population of the cities, and the neighbourhoods/boroughs that he points to in his text aren’t in the table.  Manhattan is grouped in with the rest of New York City, which sees its density rating fall to 16th on the table (though whether that is 16th in the world or not is another matter entirely) and Vancouver isn’t listed at all.  In short, this table is rendered ultimately useless, as it offers us no real basis of comparison.  For example, while it is clear that Atlanta is much less dense than, say, London, this nugget means nothing to me without information on overall population size and geographic footprint of the two cities.

Lorinc also focuses on the degradation of the air we breathe in urban centres, offering a quick discussion of air-borne pollution in western cities during the industrial revolution.  Here he notes that by the 1880s, London’s air was close to being a toxic soup.  Oddly, though, he doesn’t mention the most obvious and famous example of air-borne toxicity in the developed world: Los Angeles.  That being said, he notes the lack of political will in battling air-borne pollution, politicians were not all that keen on dealing with the problem because of the damage it would to do the local economy and business.  Whilst London is his example, nearly every industrial city in Western Europe and North America has faced this problem.  Indeed, this seems to still be the crux of the question of global warming and environmental degradation today, as politicians remain unwilling to show leadership and make hard decisions, out of fear of upsetting the populace and damaging the economy (despite the fact that many studies note that implementing the Kyoto Accord would not harm the economy in the way that its alarmist opponents suggest), to say nothing of their chances at re-election.

Lorinc then nicely segues into a discussion of “Environmental Degradation in the South’s Megacities.”  Here, he deftly explores the problems facing these cities.  For example, he points to Lagos, the largest city and capital of Nigeria, which is a bustling metropolis of around 8 million (Lorinc uses the metropolitan population of 15 million [ed.: see my post on the difficulty in using Metropolitan population statistics here]).  Here he cites journalist George Packer, who has noted that the inner-city urban slums of Lagos are, in part, built on and around a heavily-polluted lagoon.  (As an aside, it is interesting to note that Lagos’ entry on Wikipedia makes absolutely no mention of the city’s slums).[2]  The polluted water of Lagos Lagoon is where the poor draw their water from, and where fishermen catch food.  The consequences of this for the health of these slum residences are obvious.  In discussing Lagos’ problems, however, it is interesting to note that Lorinc doesn’t point to the obvious source of the problem of pollution and a lack of regulation: there is no central urban government for the Lagos metropolitan area, the municipal government that does exist only serves a small core at the centre of the city.

Emissions are also a problem in these megacities of the developing world.  Even smaller cities are moving towards an environmental apocalypse.  Recently, China eclipsed the United States as the world’s emissions leader; of the top 20 cities in terms of emissions worldwide, 16 are Chinese.  The problem, in part, is due to the fact that the Chinese tend to incinerate their garbage, which causes serious emissions problems.  But Lorinc misses the other side of the equation here: automobiles.  And China’s streets and roads teem with automobiles belching emissions into the environment.  Indeed, the picture of China Lorinc paints in Cities reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ iconic Lorax, who speaks for the trees.  But the Chinese experience also points to another question of emissions and global warming, as the developing world is unwilling to be held to standards designed to ease the problems, arguing that such regulations would be handicaps to their own development.  They quickly point to the fact that North American and European nations were not subjected to such regulation during their period of industrialisation.

The discussion about trash is important because garbage dumps are quickly emerging not just as environmental disasters waiting to happen, but because slums are developing in and around them in various cities, such as Lagos, Buenos Aires, and Manila, amongst others.  In these cities, garbage is just piled up on top of itself in dumps (not that the developed world has a great record here, New York City has garbage barges floating in its harbour, and Toronto is engaged in an on-going battle with Michigan about where to put its garbage).  Dumps in these developing world cities have become the site of labour-intensive recycling businesses.  Scavengers, many of them children, dig through the dumps earning their keep, usually a few dollars a day, which they earn by selling what they find to scrap companies.  The scrap companies themselves turn around and make a handsome profit by selling the goods to recycling companies.  Not surprisingly, work conditions are brutal and dangerous, not to mention unsanitary.  It doesn’t take much of imagination to visualise these scrap-pickers climbing over the mountains of garbage, trying to avoid cesspools of toxic runoff, lethal smoke, bulldozers, garbage trucks, birds of prey, and insects.  Accidents can be fatal, Lorinc reports, such as in 2000 when the 20-hectare Pyatas dump in Manila capsized.  The garbage has been piled up to 13-storeys high when it fell over, smothering several hundred trash-pickers who lived in shanties at the foot of the garbage.

But it’s not just these megacities in the global South that are leading us to environmental danger, writes Lorinc.  Cities in the developed world are also intimately connected to our long-term survival in terms of climate change: “The reason is that wealthy nations are heavily urbanized, so the way these cities grow has a direct bearing on the pace of global warming, which in turn is already causing havoc in populous low-lying cities.” [p. 56].  Here, he points to Tokyo as a model.  Tokyo’s housing requires less energy than is the case in Europe and North America; the city is more tightly-packed and the transit system is both cost-effective and efficient, making the city easier to navigate.

Lorinc spends some time discussing environmentally-responsible architecture, as well as the reclamation of brownfields for housing and other purposes.  Brownfields are former industrial areas, located all over cities in the developed world, the consequence of the de-industrialisation of the developed world in the mid-20th century.  Lorinc correctly points to the redevelopment of brownfields in city cores as a means of increasing density, as well as developing better transit systems.  But he misses a prime opportunity to discuss the legacy of industrialisation in North American and Western European cities.  For example, I live in a former industrial neighbourhood in Montréal, surrounded by former factories and other sorts of industrial concerns.  My neighbourhood is like many around Europe and North America; cities like Pittsburgh have been left with massive brownfields that they have tried to redevelop to recover from deindustrialisation.  Some of the factories in my neighbourhood have been reclaimed as condos and office space.  Others, like the former metalshop that forms the backwall of my back garden, stand derelict and abandoned.  Nearby is the Lachine Canal, on the banks of which the Canadian industrial revolution began back in the 1840s.  In other words, I live in a neighbourhood that has been the site of almost continual industrial activity for the past 160 years (a few factories and railyards still exist).  To this day, the leisure craft that ply the canal today (it has been reclaimed as a recreation site) cannot travel at speeds in excess of 15 km/h, otherwise they run the risk of stirring up the toxic silt on the floor of the canal.  Redevelopment in my neighbourhood usually means cleaning the soil, but either way, there are serious environmental issues in neighbourhoods such as mine, ones that Lorinc doesn’t explore.

One way in which North American cities, in particular, can contribute to reversing climate change is through the implementation of viable public transit systems.  Most of the major cities in Canada and the US have good public transit: New York City, Chicago, Boston, Montréal, Toronto, for example.  Others, however, do not, such as Houston, or Calgary, or Atlanta.  These three cities are also home to considerable urban sprawl.   And Lorinc notes that this sprawl isn’t conducive to public transit:

there’s a powerful economic relationship between transit, population density and land-use planning.  Transit agencies must make substantial investments in vehicles and other equipment, like signalling systems.  They have hefty operating expenses, such as drivers’ salaries, vehicle maintenance and fuel costs…without a critical mass of riders, transit service becomes unaffordable and inefficient.  In general, transit riders want convenience, reliable and efficient service, and value for their money.  When a transit service doesn’t generate enough revenue, it often cuts back on service – for example, by reducing the number of vehicles running on any given route.  And when that happens, commuters…are much more likely to rely on their vehicles. [pp. 72-3]

And whilst this is certainly true, what Lorinc overlooks is that two of his examples of sprawl cities, Houston and Calgary, are the centres of the oil industry in the United States and Canada.  Another city with a shoddy public transportation system is Detroit, home of the domestic car industry in the United States.  In the case of Detroit, the car companies made sure that the city didn’t have a viable and efficient public transit system; what would it say if the home of the car companies had efficient transit?  It would hurt their bottom lines.  Certainly, the fact that public transit in Calgary and Houston is a dodgy proposition is not all that surprising.

The discussion of epidemics and the city in the final chapter is quite timely, given the recent worldwide paranoia about H1N1.  Our concentration in cities will make the transmission of H1N1 faster and more intense (though, of course, H1N1 remains less potent than common influenza, at least in Canada and the United States).  Indeed, cities in the industrialised world used to be cesspools of disease and epidemics, even as recently as the late 19th century.  Montréal was the site of the last smallpox epidemic in the industrialised west, in 1885.  Epidemiology in 1885 was only starting to develop, but its successive advancement throughout the 20th century has meant that epidemics like the Spanish influenza in the wake of World War I have become increasingly a thing of the past.  Governments, at all levels, have recognised their responsibility to protect the health and lives of their citizens. To that end, massive public health bureaucracies have grown in the industrialised north to protect us from disease.  However, this doesn’t mean that we are no longer vulnerable.  Lorinc reminds us of this when he points to the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto.  SARS originated in the Guangdong region of China before spreading, primarily to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Toronto.  Why an outbreak occurred in Toronto, rather than Vancouver, itself a major city of the Chinese diaspora, is instructive.  In Ontario, the province of which Toronto is the capital, a right-wing, anti-big government administration came to power 8 years earlier, and proceeded to radically slash government spending in all areas, including public health.  The consequences were disastrous, as hundreds were infected and quarantined, and 43 people died in Toronto from SARS, as hospitals lacked the resources to deal with the infection (in Walkerton, Ontario, a small city, government cutbacks led to a fatal outbreak of e.coli in the water supply in 2000).  Meanwhile, in Vancouver, writes Lorinc,

provincial labor officials had trained health care workers in the proper use of special masks and other safety systems designed to protect them from catching contagious diseases while administering emergency procedures to ill patients.[p. 121].

All in all, Lorinc provides us with an instructive and lively introduction to the problems facing cities and, as a result, humanity in the urban century.  That being said, however, his conclusion remains rather trite and does a disservice to the discussion throughout the book:

The twenty-first metropolis will be a concentrated place of nearly unfathomable diversity – ethnic, social, economic, environmental, religious.  Large cities have become a microcosm of everything that’s taking place in this complex world.  For good or ill, they are our future. [p. 128].


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