Literature as History

February 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

img_0822I am reading Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London.  This nocturnal history of London was constructed through literature.  He relies on everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens to William Shakespeare, amongst others to reconstruct the nocturnal London, though he focuses particularly on the 16th and 17th centuries.  The Amazon reviews are about what you would expect, especially the negative ones.  They castigate Beaumont for writing ‘history’ using ‘literature.’  And you can see the logic here.  Literature isn’t history, it’s make-believe. It’s fiction.  And I can certainly hear some of my professors saying the exact same thing.

I use fiction a fair lot when teaching.  I assign ‘history’ for my students to read besides the textbook, but I also make wide use of fiction.  This is true both in the case of literature and film.  So how is literature history, you ask?

Literature is a reflection of the time in which it is written.  This is true of historical fiction and non-historical fiction.  The historical fiction of our era is a reflection of our attempt to find a way through changing and complex times.  It is a reaching back for something simpler (as we imagine the past to be), or for an explanation of the world through the past.   Literature, like film, reflects the mood of the times, the neuroses we, as a society, carry.  What fascinates, puzzles, and frustrates us.  It is, in many ways it is the id to our rational ego.

So Beaumont reconstructs a history of London through fiction, and in so doing, he discovers what London’s nighttime meant to writers in their time and their place in London’s past.  Chaucer’s 14th century London is a very different beast from Shakespeare’s 16th and 17th century version, just as his is different from Charles Dickens’ 19th century London, which is different from Zadie Smith’s 20th and 21st century London. But each of those authors reflect the city as it was in those times and those places.

And while their stories may be fictitious, the city they are set in is not.  Each of these authors takes great effort to reflect London, the London they knew, to their reader.  And this is the point of using literature as an historical text.  Fictitious as the stories may be, their settings are not.

And so Beaumont’s nocturnal journey through London after dark is, in fact, a history.

Black Death: Some context on the new research

April 2, 2014 § 4 Comments

The interwebs are all a-glow with news that Black Death in the 14th century wasn’t actually the bubonic plague.  Rather, according to a new British study, it was pneumonic.  This means that rather than being transmitted from bites from fleas (which originally came to Europe aboard the black rat, or rattus rattus, which itself was a stowaway in cargo coming from China and Mongolia), it was an airborne illness.  Suddenly, every time I go to a news site in the past couple of days, I’m seeing headlines like this classic from FoxNews: “Black Death wasn’t actually bubonic plague.”

While I am certainly no expert in the matter, I have read a fair bit on Black Death because I have taught many sections of Western Civ and World History, and Black Death is central to the narrative.  Plus it’s great fun to go into excruciating detail of the physical symptoms with my students, seeing who turns green first.  And what I’ve learned from my reading is this: Black Death was actually three kinds of plague:

1) Bubonic plague: transmitted by bites from infected fleas and the most common of the three strains of plague.  This is characterised by High fever, aching joints, swelling of lymph nodes, and buboes (which are red lesions on the body and from whence the term we used as kids for cuts, booboos, comes from).  The bubonic plague had an 80% mortality rate.

2) Pneumonic plague: airborne, infects the lungs; symptoms include high fevers, cough, coughing up blood, throwing up blood.  The mortality rate for the pneumonic plague was 95%.

3) Septicemic plague: infects blood and the least common strain. Symptoms include high fever and purpura, purple skin patches, bleeding from mouth, nose and/or rectum, vomiting, organ failure.  The mortality rate was 100%.

So what appears to be the results of this new study in London doesn’t actually overturn all that we think we know about the plague, as the news reports are suggesting.  At most, it changes percentages, in terms of how many people came down with bubonic v. pneumonic v. septicemic plague.  Not exactly the earth-shattering news the media is claiming this to be.

And then I wonder if this is a research #fail or if this is a journalism #fail?

Hip Hop as Public History?

February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last week, the National Council on Public History (NCPH) asked on Facebook if the Facebook movies, celebrations of FB’s 10th anniversary, was public history.  Um, no.  They are no more public history than those wordle things were a few years back, images and video clips chosen by an algorithm programme designed to grab what in people’s timelines was most liked, most viewed, etc.  In other words, it was rather random.

But, this got me thinking about curation, narrative, and how it is we decide what is and what is not public history.  And this went on as I listened to Young Fathers, an Edinburgh, Scotland hop hop band comprised of three men of Nigerian, Liberian, and Scots heritage.  Their music is a complex mixture of trip-hop, hip hop, with hints of indie rock.  But the music is also full of African and American beats and melodies.

Hip hop, as everyone knows, is a music form that developed in the Bronx in New York City in the late 70s, it is an African American music form that has been globalised.  It has also been adapted wherever it has gone; at its core, hip hop is poetry, set to a beat.  Echoes of hip hop can be heard soundtracking everything from suburban teenagers’ lives to the Arab Spring to the struggle for equality on the part of Canadian aboriginals.

I’m a big fan of UK hip hop, I like the Caribbean and African influences on the music.  Artists such as Roots Manuva, Speech Debelle, and cLOUDDEAD have long incorporated these influences into their music.

So, as I was listening to Young Fathers whilst pondering public history, I was rather struck by the idea of hip hop, at least in this particular case, as public history.  Young Fathers have appropriated an American music form (one member lived in the US as a child), and then remixed it with a UK-based urban sound, and added African beats and melodies, to go with the occasional American gospel vocal.  In short, these artists have curated their roots into their music, and presented it back to their audience.  It’s the same thing Roots Manuva has been doing for the past decade-and-a-half with his Jamaican roots.

What, of course, makes Young Fathers and Roots Manuva different than the Facebook algorithms is that the music of these artists is carefully constructed and curated, they are drawing on their roots and background to present a narrative of their experiences in urban subcultures (whether by dint of music, skin colour, or ethnic heritage).  So, in that sense, I would submit that this is a form of public history.

The Symbolism of Maps

July 1, 2013 § 4 Comments

London Tube map. 1908

London Tube map. 1908

 

As noted, I’m reading Peter Ackroyd’s epic London: The Biography.  As might be expected of such a tome, it’s a treasure of information, some interesting, some not so much.  But in reading it, I’m reminded of the London Underground map.  Like the transportation network in any major city, London’s was originally a hodgepodge of private companies providing service, which were eventually centralised and then nationalised.  The maps were created for what maps are always created for: to help people navigate their way around the system.  The first map dates from 1908.

London Tube map, 2013

London Tube map, 2013

The basic template of this map remains in use today.  As Ackroyd notes, “The original Underground map bears only approximate relation to the location of lines and stations, but it is so aesthetically pleasing that its lineaments have never been changed.”  In other words, today’s Tube map is a representation of reality, it only gives a vague idea of the system.  Countless Londoners and tourists both state at the map with great intensity trying to figure out where to go.  And while the map does give a vague idea of where things are, it is highly impressionistic.  But, boy, it sure does look great, doesn’t it?

Montréal métro system map

Montréal métro system map

The thing I find most interesting about the London Tube map, though, is that it has become the template for subway/métro systems the world over.  These maps are stylistic triumphs, but they are, quite frankly, useless as maps.  Nonetheless, as urbanites, we are trained to be able to read these maps and navigate our way around the city.  And let me also point out that cities are incredibly complex organisms.  Navigating them has become second nature to us, but if we stop and thinking about it, what we can do on a daily basis without thinking too much is pretty impressive.  At any rate, these transit maps.  Consider, for example, the Montréal métro map. It’s a highly stylised representation of the métro and commuter rail lines in the city and its surrounding areas.  Nothing other than the stations and ultimate destinations of the train lines are identified.  In order to read the métro map, one requires a basic knowledge of the geography of the city.

Map of Montréal

Map of Montréal

Compare the métro map with that of the city as a whole.  The métro map only covers a small part of the central portion of the Île-de-Montréal.  Of course, that’s where the métro is. And note that the map of Montréal as a whole is missing perhaps the biggest geographical fact of the island, other than it is an island: Mont-Royal.  That, of course, suggests that maps in general are just impressionistic and little more than symbols of what it is they are meant to represent.

canada1This is a point that I like to make to my students about the great explosion of map-making in the West during the Age of Exploration, as well as the process of state formation in the Early Modern era: I ask them to think about what it is that they know makes them American (or Canadian, when I lived in Montréal), what makes them know that they in the upper right corner of the country know that all those people down in the lower left hand corner are all American.  The map of the United States.  As Benedict Anderson notes in his still brilliant Imagined Communities (seriously, this remains one of the greatest books I’ve ever read), part of the process of state-formation is achieved through the creation of a logoised map that is then emblazoned into the brains of the citizenry.  When someone says the word “Canada” to me, many things flash through my head, but amongst all these images is the outline of the map of Canada.

In other words, maps aren’t really anything more than symbols of what it is they represent.  We are trained in map reading from a very young age, so that even as children we can look at a map and instantly recognise what it is we’re supposed to be seeing.

The Urban Cacophony

June 28, 2013 § 31 Comments

I’m currently reading Peter Ackroyd’s epic London: The Biography. This is the third non-fiction book I’ve read in the past year on the history and culture of London (the others were Peter White’s London in the 20th Centuryand Iain Sinclair’s luminous London Orbital). I’m not entirely sure why I’m reading so much of London, a city I don’t have any connection to; nor is it a city I feel any attraction to.  But, here I am, no doubt attracted to these books because I find the city to be so fascinating (that’s the city in generic, not London particularly).  And London is the most written-about city in the English language.  Anyway.

One of Ackroyd’s chapters is about the sounds of London in the early modern era.  I find acoustic history to be fascinating.  Historians are increasingly interested in the sounds of the past (including my good friend, S.D. Jowett, whose blog is here), and this shouldn’t be surprising.  Given the innovative uses we historians have made of our sources, it’s really no surprise that now we’re beginning to ponder the smells and sounds of the past.  And cities, of course, are prime locations for such explorations.  One of my favourite Montréal websites is the Montréal Sound Map, which documents the soundscapes of the city.

Ackroyd has done interesting work in excavating the audio history of London, including references to the combined sound of the city in the early modern era, like a cacophony or like the roaring of the ocean.  These noises, of course, were and are entirely human created, the noise of people living in close quarters in a big city.  Even the sounds of nature in cities are mediated through human intervention, such as the rushing streams and rivers of early modern London, or the mediated parks of the modern city, such as Mont-Royal in Montréal or Central Park in New York, both of which were created and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted.  It came as a shock to me when I learned that most of the flora and fauna on Mont-Royal were not, in fact, native species, but were brought in by Olmsted and planted there for aesthetic reasons.

When I think of the roar of the city, I tend to think of Manhattan.  For my money, there is no urban space on this planet as loud as mid-town.  The endless roar of traffic, the honking of horns, the sounds of people on the streets talking, sirens wailing, fights breaking out, the sound of planes flying overhead, people hawking things along the sidewalks.  I had never really thought all that much about the noise of the city, it was just part of the background noise.  But a few years ago, I realised that I like white noise machines.  They were, I though, supposed to be evocative of the ocean (near which I grew up), but that’s not what the sounds evoked in me.  They evoked the sounds of the city, the constant hum of human activity.  The only other place I’ve been that challenges Manhattan for the capital of noise is my hometown.  Montréal is downright noisy, as all cities are, but Montréal hurts my ears.  Hence my love for Parc Mont-Royal.  Once you get amongst the trees on the side of the mountain, the sounds of the city become a distant roar.  The same is true for Central Park.

Where I sit right now, I hear the sounds of the city, over the sound of the loud music blasting out of my speakers.  But I can hear people walking by my house, I can hear the traffic on the busy street at the end of my block, and sirens.

It’s not surprising that academics as a whole are starting to turn to the sounds that surround us, given how much of an impact our environment has upon us.  This is just as true of rural areas (in which case, the silence can tend to frighten city folk).  In the late 19th century, the anti-modernists took hold of a part of North American culture.  They were turned off by the city, by the noise, by the hustle & bustle, by the fast pace of life.  People began to develop neurasthenia, wherein the patient began to feel frazzled, burned out, and depressed due to a frazzling of the nerves.  It was particularly common in American cities, and for awhile was also known as “Americanitis.”  So the anti-modernists, who preached a basic ‘back to the land’ message.  Canada’s most famous artistic sons, the Group of Seven, were predicated on this kind of anti-modernism, they championed the mid-Canadian north as a tonic against the aggravation of living in the city.

But what I find most interesting about the kind of acoustic history that Ackroyd introduces us to is the way in which he is so successful at recreating the past, I can almost put myself in the streets of London in the 17th century.  Perhaps this is not surprising.  I read something once that said that sounds, more than sights, triggered our other senses, as well as our imagination and memory (think of this next time you hear a song that has meaning for you, you will be transported back to that meaning).  But, for historians, acoustic histories (as well as histories of smells, the other incredibly evocative sense) really do work at making history come alive, so to speak.  Plus, it’s also just kind of cool to imagine what a city sounded like 200 years ago.

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.

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