15 July 2017

Mind Maps of the Past & Present

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

History is a construct, a matter of perception; it's also personal and fixed firmly in our particular present. And, according to most of the reviews which I've read, the same seems to apply to people's perceptions of the merits and faults of this book.

I found it entertaining, engaging, and effortlessly readable - but then I am intrigued by works which ruminate or pontificate on 'how' and 'why' we 'do' history. It reads rather like having a chat with your favourite college professor (perhaps after you've finished their particular course) in the relaxed atmosphere of a bar given the lightness, informality, and humour of the author's tone; and in that sense it is a reflective book which doesn't seem surprising when you understand the book is derived from a series of (somewhat valedictory) lectures. I found it a thought provoking work, even if I didn't wholly agree or share in all of its theses. It meanders through a vast number of (rather self-conscious) metaphors to make many of its points and returns to some of them a little too often to labour certain aspects, which at the end - in seeking to come full circle - I felt left the book feeling somewhat inconclusive, but then that too seemed to be the overarching point: that history is essentially unknowable, or, to put it another way, history is a construct, a matter of perception ...

As a historian presently exploring my own approach, I have to confess, I am rather drawn to this kind of academic navel gazing. Hence I've no doubt I shall at some point return to The Landscape of History for a repeat reading.

On History
by Eric Hobsbawm
(Abacus, 2008)

Make no mistake. This is a heavy-weight set of meditations on historiography. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, but in parts it is highly dense and heavy going. Some years ago now I did my first degree in a distinctly Marxist Anthropology Dept., and so I was surprised (and somewhat startled!) to find I could follow and found the chapters on Marx particularly illuminating. Likewise, I found the later chapters on the 'Annales', History from Below, counterfactuals, and, post-modernism/identity history all made very fruitful reading. Hobsbawm is widely regarded as a formidable historian, and, as a first taster, in reading this book I can well see why!  

Onwards to his The Age of Empire, 1875-1914 and his Nations and Nationalism since 1780 ... I may be some time.

For a more comprehensive overview of Hobsbawm and his works this is an interesting article: reflecting upon Hobsbawm's Long Century by Joseph Fronczak (June 2017)

Making History, Drawing Territory: British Mapping in India, c.1756-1905
by Ian J. Barrow
(Oxford University Press, 2004)

This book describes itself as: "A unique study of British possession and territorial legitimacy in India as represented by colonial maps, this book focuses on various strategies used by map-makers and surveyors to embed a past into their narratives, and concludes that maps were used both to demonstrate a history of territory and, importantly, to justify the possession of land in colonial times in the Indian subcontinent."

An interesting and curious read. Making History, Drawing Territory covers a remarkable amount of ground (excuse the pun) for such a slim book, yet tends to spend more time saying what it's going to say rather than actually saying it! The author does seem very aware that he is writing in the shadow of several rather more substantial works in this field, most notably Matthew Edney's excellent Mapping an Empire (University of Chicago Press, 1999), yet most interestingly Barrow strives to shift the hitherto predominant focus of academic enquiry in this field away from the purely scientific to consider the more social aspects of analysis and interpretation, and thus opens up a number of intriguing questions which perhaps a longer and more in-depth examination might have made for a more rounded and satisfying work - instead it reads rather like a set of five loosely connected essays introducing similar themes, in this sense it's an excellent 'primer' text. A worthwhile and engaging read nonetheless. Incorporating a rich array of primary and secondary sources, as well as fold-out reproductions of many maps, I would certainly very much recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of cartography, British imperialism, and the trigonometrical survey of India.  

 My reviews for The LSE Review of Books


1 July 2017

Of Time & Tide - Reflections on the River Thames

Living near the River Thames I’m often struck by the fact it is so empty these days. It was much busier when I was a child, so the decline in river traffic is a fairly recent phenomenon. I suspect the Thames hasn’t been so quiet in centuries. Photographs and old newsreels from the last century show it teeming with all sorts of vessels, from great ships, powerful tugs, and the lovely distinctive Thames sailing barges, down to small skiffs and tenders. Today the river traffic is mostly tourist party boats, the fast commuter clippers, and the even speedier rib boat rides. But the Thames is still a “working river” – tug boats still haul barges filled with the city’s waste down river, and at high tide large cruise ships occasionally make their incongruous way upstream to moor alongside HMS Belfast. Sometimes, sitting near a window in my flat, catching a glimpse of one of these out of the corner of my eye as it passes by can be quite disconcerting; as, masked by the riverfront buildings, these ships look like a tower block that has decided to up sticks and slink off through the city. These happenings are made all the more eerie because their massive engines are so silent, yet the powerful vibrations of their screws turning in the comparatively shallow channel of the riverbed manage to rattle all the cutlery in my kitchen drawers.

 A Look At Life - Down London River, 1959

It’s impossible to live by the river and not become fascinated by its history. In the narrow maze of riverside streets, many of which are still cobbled, you can find echoes of the past. Old signs; converted warehouses and disused pumping stations; old docks and inlets; waterman’s steps; and cosy old pubs, such as the Prospect of Whitby or the Town of Ramsgate, that have been in business for hundreds of years. Then there’s the ever changing weather and the regular rise and fall of the tides. It often feels like the river has its own micro-climate which is distinct from the rest of the city, as here a mile’s distance can make all the difference between rain and shine.

Black Eagle Wharf, Wapping, c.1850s

The Remains of Napier Yard, Millwall

Not far from where I live is a curious site, beside Millwall. Set back from the paved riverside walkway and preserved in a shallow grassy hollow are the archaeological remains of a massive slipway. Consisting of a huge set of heavy timbers (now sadly decaying), laid out in long rows running parallel to the river; these piles are the remains of a shipyard – called, Napier Yard (at low tide, if there’s not too much mud, you can sometimes see these great wooden timbers extending down the foreshore). It was here, 160 years ago this year on November 3rd, that one of the great feats of Victorian industrial engineering was launched – the SS Great Eastern. Or, at least, this was the date on which the launch of the ship was attempted. In actual fact, it took a further three months to float the ship off the slipway. Its great weight meant that the timbers had subsided more than had been expected, particularly at the bow end, which meant the ship was not sitting level. Thousands of people had gathered that November day to watch the launch and so must have been disappointed when the huge ship failed to budge. Charles Dickens was among them, and penned the following word sketch while observing his fellow spectators:

“They delight in insecure platforms; they crowd on small, frail, housetops; they come up in little cockle boats, almost under the bows of the great ship … Many in that dense floating mass on the river and the opposite shore would not be sorry to experience a great disaster, even at imminent risk to their own lives.” (quoted in Croad, p. 156)

The SS Great Eastern, Napier Yard, Millwall, 1857

Sadly a workman in the Napier shipyard was accidentally killed during the failed launch. When the crowds did eventually disperse I can’t help wondering if Dickens stopped by at The Grapes on nearby Narrow Street, a favourite haunt of his (and mine) on which he is said to have based his description of "The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters" inn in Our Mutual Friend (1865). The original steam powered rams were not strong enough to push the ship down the timbers, and so, with the use of hydraulic rams and a conveniently higher tide than usual the ship was eventually launched sideways into the river as planned on January 31st 1858.

At the time the Great Eastern was the largest ship afloat. Designed by the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ship suffered a number of setbacks in its early career which have dogged its memory with many people still thinking of it as an unlucky ship, yet the crowning achievement of its working life was celebrated last year, when – 150 years before – on July 27th 1866, the Great Eastern arrived at Newfoundland, having set off two weeks before from Ireland, the ship had successfully laid the transatlantic telegraph cable that began a revolution in global communications. Arthur C. Clarke gives a fabulous re-telling of this historic feat in his book, How the World was One: Beyond the Global Village:

Brunel, at Napier Yard, 1857

“In the Atlantic Cable, the fabulous ‘Great Eastern’ met her destiny and at last achieved the triumph which she had so long been denied.
                This magnificent but unlucky ship had been launched seven years before, but had never been a commercial success. This was partly due to the stupidity of her owners, partly to the machinations of John Scott Russell, her brilliant but unscrupulous builder, and partly to sheer accidents of storm and sea. Seven hundred feet long, with a displacement of 32,000 tons, the ‘Great Eastern’ was not exceeded in size until the ‘Lusitania’ was launched in 1906, forty-eight years later. She was the brain-child of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the greatest engineering genius of the Victorian era – perhaps, indeed, the only man in the last 500 years to come within hailing distance of Leonardo da Vinci. […] He was as much an artist as an engineer, and the remorseless specialisation that has taken place since his day makes it impossible that any one man will ever again match the range of his achievements.
                Of these, the ‘Great Eastern’ was his last and mightiest. Though she was five times the size of any other ship in the world, she was no mere example – as some have suggested – of engineering megalomania. Brunel was the first man to grasp the fact that the larger a ship, the more efficient she can be, because carrying capacity increases at a more rapid rate than the power needed to drive the hull through the water (the first depending on the cube of the linear dimensions, the second only on the square). Having realised this, Brunel then had the courage to follow the mathematics to its logical conclusion, and designed a ship that would be large enough to carry enough coal for the round trip to Australia.
                To provide storage space for the huge coils of wire, three great tanks were carved into the heart of the ship. The drums, sheaves and dynamometers of the laying mechanism occupied a large part of the stern decking, and one funnel with its associated boilers had been removed to give additional storage space. When the ship sailed from the Medway on 24 June 1865 she carried 7000 tons of cable, 8000 tons of coal and provisions for 500 men. Since this was before the days of refrigeration, she also became a sea-going farm. Her passenger list included one cow, a dozen oxen, twenty pigs, 120 sheep and a whole poultry-yard of fowl.” (pp. 71-73)

Presumably the majority of the animal 'class' of passenger didn’t make it all the way to Newfoundland.

After the successful laying of the transatlantic cable the Great Eastern went on to lay over 30,000 miles of undersea telegraph cables, including one across the Arabian Sea from Yemen to India.

The telegraph cable laying machinery on the deck of the SS Great Eastern

The ‘unlucky’ epitaph of the great ship arose for a number of reasons, including a major explosion on board soon after she was launched, plus the fact the ship bankrupted a succession of different owners, but one of the most persistent legends is that the source of her bad luck was discovered when she was eventually broken up over a period of eighteen months on the River Mersey in 1889-1890. It was rumoured that the skeleton of a dead riveter was found in the cavity between her inner and outer hulls (some versions of the rumour even claim there were several skeletons, including one of a child), but Arthur C. Clarke dismisses this – as he states in a footnote: “This story is much too good to be true, and isn’t.”

The grappling hook for lifting the telegraph cable on the SS Great Eastern

That said though, I can’t help but find myself thinking of the ghosts of times past and the ships that once populated this stretch of the river where I live when I wander along its banks. Looking out across the tidal reach here always puts me in mind of a poem by Thom Gunn:

        The Conversation of Old Men

         He feels a breeze rise from
         the Thames, as far off
         as Rotherhithe, in
         intimate contact with
         water, slimy hulls,
         dark wood greenish
         at waterline – touching
         then leaving what it
         lightly touches; he
         goes on talking, and this is
         the life of wind on water.

         By Thom Gunn
        Collected Poems (Faber, 1993)

It’s strange to think that the wooden timbers of the Napier shipyard have outlasted all of it – the shipyard, the great ship, and even the Thames shipbuilding industry itself. Looking at that field of timbers in their serried ranks, and then casting your eye out over the stretch of water alongside, it’s easy to picture the Great Eastern, that majestic old ship (the prototype of those massive cruise liners which occasionally chunter up and down this improbable channel), a visionary leviathan, long laboured into being, eventually setting out from here to change our world forever. In many respects she is the first true ghost of our modernity, and this is the very visible spot where she was born. 

The SS Great Eastern beached on the Mersey, waiting to be broken up, 1889

Sources & Further Reading:

Arthur C. Clarke, How the World was One: Beyond the Global Village (Victor Gollancz, 1992)

Stephen Croad, Liquid History: The Thames Through Time (Batsford, 2003)

Also on ‘Waymarks’

All colour photographs were taken by me; click on the image for the source of the B&W archive photographs.

1 June 2017

Lingering in the Proustian Moment ...

Well, I've finally made it to the top of literature's Mount Everest ... That's twenty years of my life which I'll never get back!

But - it was definitely worth it. The view from up here is amazing, and I have a feeling every other book I read from here on after will be slightly different because of my having made it all the way through this one. It's hugely pleasurable, hugely entertaining, mind-numbingly tedious and immensely boring in places. It's both frustrating and exhilarating. It, shocks, it surprises, it cloys, it flows, it gushes, it's tart and acerbic, it's sweet and mellifluous - it's all things, and it's nothing. A wonder, and a waste of time. Marcel's a ninny and a prig; he's a genius, he's witty and wise - he's all these things and more, just like this book - this book is everything, it's life; it's memory and experience, it's thoughts in and out of time. It's excellent, it's clever, and, despite initial appearances, it's surprisingly well crafted, and odd to say at the end, but it even feels - concise ... if that can possibly make sense of such a phenomenally long and long-winded book?

Henry James summed up the experience of reading Proust as one of “inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine.” And it’s true, reading Proust is exquisite boredom. Andre Gide was the reader who famously turned down Proust’s great book when it was first offered to the Nouvelle Revue Française in 1912, hence Proust resorted to having Swann's Way published privately. Gide later noted his error. Proust was then published by Gallimard; and in 1919 Proust won the Prix Goncourt. The rest, as they say, is history.

… Life is a piece of cake, if you take the time to think long and hard enough about it.


For me, reading Proust was oddly like meditating. I’d read ten or twenty pages in a sitting. Sometimes it was hard to get into, but after persevering for a few agonisingly aeon-like moments, one soon found that the flow of words would suddenly, inexplicably and effortlessly carry you off on the current. Submitting to the gentle meander, either drifting along, or letting one’s head spin in the pedantically fussy eddies of his particularities, reading Proust is akin to turning one’s brain off – or rather slipping it into neutral and letting your consciousness coast along. At times I did wonder if reading Proust is in fact unhealthy; as, when reading Proust, one can’t help but automatically suspend one’s critical acuity. It’s an impossible book to ‘close read’ as the many themes he ambles through and around continually send your mind off on its own self-absorbed tangents. You can’t help reflecting on your own life and times, prompted by Proust’s gentle ruminations, and it takes several pages before you suddenly awaken and realise you’ve been reading without reading. It’s an infuriating habit. Reading Proust cultivated it, and I’m sure it had a negative effect upon my other reading – certainly, when during my studies, I frequently found my mind wandering and unable to concentrate on whatever academic article or book I was meant to be reading, suddenly having to stop and retrace what was nothing more than a meaningless blur of words stretching back over an endless sheaf of pages, I found myself mentally shaking my fist and blaming Monsieur Proust for turning my mind into a lackadaisical blob.

E. M. Forster is right to poke fun at Proust’s famously long sentences:

“A sentence begins quite simply, then it undulates and expands, parentheses intervene like quick-set hedges, the flowers of comparison bloom, and three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principal verb, making one wonder as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, such expensive dogs, and what, after all, is its relation to the main subject, potted so gaily half a page back, and proving to have been in the accusative case.”

But they do serve a higher purpose. The book is all about transcendental experience. There is no real plot, so to speak. The book is an encapsulation of that internal reverie which we all manage to execute in the lightening quick instant it takes to think and feel everything within. Like a momentary flash of self-reflection before we fall into sleep at the end of a long day. Like a dream in which all of our memories coincide and happen simultaneously, sparking new thoughts, reflections and revelations only half of which we will ever fully recall or examine in close detail. And that is why we are all Proust. His colossal monument, as he likens it himself, is to help us comprehend the cathedral of the mind in all its intricate enormity:

“How happy would he be, I thought, the man who had the power to write such a book! What a task awaited him! To give some idea of this task one would have to borrow comparisons from the loftiest and the most varied arts; for this writer – who, moreover, to indicate the mass, the solidity of each one of his characters must find means to display that character’s most opposite facets – would have to prepare his book with meticulous care, perpetually regrouping his forces like a general conducting an offensive, and he would have also to endure his book like a form of fatigue, to accept it like a discipline, build it up like a church, follow it like a medical regime, vanquish it like an obstacle, win it like a friendship, cosset it like a little child, create it like a new world without neglecting those mysteries whose explanation is to be found probably only in worlds other than our own and the presentiment of which is the thing that moves us most deeply in life and in art. In long books of this kind there are parts which there has been time only to sketch, parts which, because of the very amplitude of the architect’s plan, will no doubt never be completed. How many great cathedrals remain unfinished!”

Proust’s great work is a cathedral. It is whole, intricate, vast, open, overwhelming; a maze and a labyrinth in which to lose oneself – and although it is unfinished (the last volume has its technical flaws aplenty, which had he lived longer he’d no doubt have polished and smoothed into proper shape), it is surprisingly complete. I feared there wouldn’t be, but happily there is a sense of an ending. When you get to the final word, as with the harmonic variations in a great symphony, you realise Proust has actually managed to bring you full circle. It really is a book unlike any other. 

Marcel Proust briefly caught on film in 1904

It took me twenty years in all to read it, with two lengthy sabbaticals between volumes, which, I think means I near enough read it in real time. Starting aged twenty and ending aged forty, I've spent exactly half my life with this book happening in the background. I'd always assumed that once I'd finished reading it that that would be it - never again! It was such a long hard slog in some parts, yet in others I flew through it, caught upon the wave. The actual reading of each volume was relatively short, between two and four years, depending on various outside factors. But now I've finished (much to my deep surprise) I can sense I may well one day find myself drawn back in again ... But not just yet, I'm going to savour that final sweet taste of the madeleine, and continue to enjoy the view a little longer from up here, on the top of the highest mountain ...

You can leaf through Marcel Proust's original notebooks, here.