Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Like a chain of grotesque paradoxes": Adolf Löwe on England

Something I ran across in my research just now:

“Thus the England and the Germany of the liberal age represent two extremes of social formation. On the one side a society which has grown up and is daily maintained by the spontaneous conformity of its members—on the other side a social chaos which from time to time produces wonderful flowers of individual development and then relapses into the dullness of the herd, held together by the mechanical forces of the state.”*

This was a comment by Adolf Löwe (later Adolph Lowe), who came to Britain -- or as he consistently refers to it in his book, "England" -- in the mid-1930s from Germany for reasons that I probably don't have to explain.  

In case there should be any misunderstanding, he's praising Britain (sorry, England) in the passage I quoted, which appears in his 1937 book The Price of Liberty. (He became a naturalised British subject in 1939.)

To Löwe, the English capacity for "spontaneous conformity" was a model for facing the need to balance freedom and order in the world of the new mass society.

From a little earlier in his book.  

“When I landed in England three years ago, with my German background everything which happens naturally here at first seemed to me like a chain of grotesque paradoxes. … It was only gradually that I succeeded in finding the common denominator which gives these paradoxes coherence. This forced me to cast about for some of the historical factors which have moulded this peculiar social form. From here a road suddenly opened up to a certain insight into the significance of the English social order for the future. This must even be understood in a double sense: not only of England’s own further development, but especially of her value as an example for a new Western civilisation.”**

* Adolf Löwe, The Price of Liberty: An Essay on Contemporary Britain (3rd edn., London, 1948 [1937]), 26.
**Ibid., 10.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Secularism continued

Excellent article by Nick Cohen in The Guardian to support my previous post. The following sums it up nicely:

Do I need to remind you that insulting the gods, the pope or the synagogue were the charges the faithful levelled against Socrates, Galileo and Spinoza? Or that insulting religion is everywhere the favourite charge of fanatics?

Sadly, what is happening at the moment makes me wonder whether we haven't been overestimating the extent to which the mentality of the West has actually been shaped by spirit of these (and other) thinkers. The whole debate post-Charlie Hebdo has confirmed a nagging hunch of mine, namely that the secularisation of the West has never been as complete and all-encompassing as some of us seem to have believed. Most people have not understood what secularism means or fully embraced the values that this term denotes, or abandoned latent beliefs in the Christian roots of our ways of thinking, morality and sense of justice. How many of my friends and colleagues whom I had thought to be intelligent rationalists have puzzled me with abrupt und unmotivated references to the Sermon on the Mount as the dominant precept of Western Thought (well, the "liberal" Pontifex's recent endorsement of the principle of honour and lex talionis should have vaporised that fallacy) or even described the Ten Commandments as the basis of our justice system.

This means, in turn, that these are not "post-secular times", nor that religion is "returning". At this very moment I'm actually wondering whether we might not still be in a pre-secular stage of history and that this is a crucial moment for us to prove that we want to - and are able to - live in world that is as free as possible from ignorance, prejudice and fanaticism as it can be.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Thank you, Pope Francis: This settles the matter, then, whether Islamist terror is a religious issue. Because - as you have made so perfectly clear with your tasteless intervention - it is (though it has to be emphasised, of course, that all religious orthodoxies have committed heinous crimes).

And while we're at it, Angela Merkel: Papa's candor puts paid to the claim, reiterated ad nauseam all over the place, that "our" values are Christian. No: Our values are the values of secular reason. They are what must be defended.

UPDATE: And here another reason why free speech must be defended at all cost.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Vorsprung durch Natur

The German company Festo makes a wide range of fascinating devices, many of which are based upon some kind of naturally occurring model of movement.

Among their products are various drones, and I have to say that the AquaPenguin is among my favourites.

The AirPenguin is obviously less based on actual penguin characteristics; still, it must be one of the most lovely and elegant drones created so far.

Still: stick a Hellfire launcher on that puppy and it'd make the most elegant Flying Robot of Death in the world.

A guy can dream, can't he?

(The BionicKangaroo, BionicOpter and SmartBird are also worth looking at.)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Touring the ghostly technopolis

Via Reason, a video tour around Masdar City, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

It's a short, interesting and eerie journey through a kind of eco-Ballardian "community" in the desert: there's even an empty swimming pool 53 seconds in!

Whether this particular venture is sustainable or economically viable over the long term, I can't say.

But it does give me the urge to re-read Super-Cannes.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The dragons are already slain

An entertaining performance at the Bundestag today in an event related to the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It helps if you speak German, but if not, Alex Harrowell has provided a description and a few highlights in English at A Fistful of Euros:

Where do we start here? Obviously there’s the bit where he calls the Left Party MPs the “wretched remnants of everything we so fortunately overcame”. There’s the speaker of parliament, the CDU’s Norbert Lammert, a man who looks and talks exactly like a conservative called Norbert, who calls him to order on the grounds that he was invited to sing, dammit, and if he wants to speak he can always get elected. Biermann remarks that the DDR didn’t manage to shut him up and Lammert won’t.

The original:

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Full English Brexit

...comes, perhaps, one step closer.

Indeed, as Britain's conservative government is rapidly approaching a red line, it looks from Berlin as though Cameron is neither willing nor able to apply the brakes. Should Cameron move to establish numerical limits on immigration from EU member states, "there will be no going back," say sources in Berlin. First, they say, Cameron's proposal would be torpedoed in Brussels by Germany and several other EU countries and then he would return home and lose the referendum on Britain's exit from the EU.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Special journal issue: Crime Stories

I am very pleased to be able to announce that a special issue of Media History edited by myself and Paul Knepper -- "Criminality, Policing and the Press in Inter-war European and Transatlantic Perspectives" -- has now left the printers (which I can confirm since I received my copy today).

The four main articles (access to which will require an institutional subscription, probably through a university) consider a variety of topics:

In "Rogues of the Racecourse: Racing Men and the Press in Interwar Britain", Heather Shore (Leeds Metropolitan) considers the often dramatic (and sometimes violent) world of racecourse gangs and their presentation in both the serious and sensationalist newspaper press. (Among those gangs considered in the article are then then-infamous Sabinis, who have featured recently in fictional form in the hit British television show Peaky Blinders.)

In "Two Suspicious Persons: Norwegian Narratives and Images of a Police Murder Case, 1926-1950", Per Jørgen Ystehede (University of Oslo) takes a cross-media look at a case of police murder that, although legendary within Norway, has yet to be given the attention it deserves outside of that national context. Featuring stills from the 1949 feature film based on the case (which was banned in 1952 and not shown again until 2007), the article locates the Norwegian discourse around the case both within national and broader European trends involving perceptions of crime.

My own article, "The Constables and the 'Garage Girl': The Police, the Press, and the Case of Helene Adele", considers the controversy that arose when two London Metropolitan Police constables arrested a young woman for alleged disorder in the summer of 1928. She accused the constables of attempting to sexually assault her and use false charges to discredit her story, leading to a trial (and the eventual conviction) of the two men. Placed within the context of the period's sensationalist press and a long series of police scandals, the case has much to say about the complexities of "human interest" journalism in the 1920s.

Paul Knepper (University of Sheffield), in "International Criminals: The League of Nations, the Traffic in Women and the Press", explores one of the lesser known aspects of the League's activities in the inter-war period: the campaign against the traffic in women (previously known as "white slavery"). An important stage in the evolution of the modern language of "human trafficking", the League's investigations and reports were not only given widespread coverage but served as an important justification for the international organisation's existence.

In addition, Paul and I present an introductory essay (access to this is FREE) that explores some European and transatlantic contexts of recent crime-and-media historiography, which has--certainly for the inter-war period--become a very active field in recent years.

The special issue had its origins in a session of the 2012 European Social Science History Conference in Glasgow that I organised, though there have been a few twists and turns since its origins.

It has been a great experience to work with such talented colleagues who are, truly, not only engaged in some fascinating research but also capable of framing their work in clear and vivid language.

Furthermore, it was a very positive experience working with Media History, and we are all quite happy with the result.

Should anyone be interested in a copy of these essays but not have access to them through their institution, please do contact me. (Drafts of the introductory essay and my own article are available via my page).

[Cross-posted at The Most Remarkable Woman in England]

Friday, August 15, 2014

On directing "the madness of crowds to unexamined targets of outrage"

While I certainly don't agree with everything in Gary Indiana's review of a new biography of William Burroughs (is it really necessary to disparage realism and coherent narrative in praising more experimental fiction? I think not), it is certainly a readable engagement with an author about whose work I know far too little.

In any case, I also liked these passages:

The radically anti-authoritarian, left-libertarian notions he espoused probably look like irresponsible nihilism (or ‘antinomian morality’, in Schjeldahl’s solecism) to many of those ensconced at their computer screens during most of their waking life, or bedazzled by mobiles and ubiquitous electronic signage in a society overloaded with information yet drained of authentic experience. It now seems almost logical that the insight Burroughs offers into the brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia spreading everywhere would be precisely what brands him a crackpot, rather than the silly religions and fatuous disciplines he so often became fascinated by. Still, I feel it’s necessary to say how stupid this inverted logic is.

On social media legions of isolated individuals, with the brainless malice of a concierge, spread ‘the real dirt’ on artists, writers, actors, musicians, athletes and others in the public eye. A tsunami of ugly feelings surges across the global clothesline at the mere mention of ‘Woody Allen’ or ‘Roman Polanski’ in the press; Burroughs, too, has an anti-claque of Torquemada wannabes, enraged over his accidental shooting of his wife in 1951. Social media can launch a witch hunt or pogrom just as readily as a ‘progressive’ uprising, and in either instance directs the madness of crowds to unexamined targets of outrage; the technology itself is probably as addictive as heroin, since it acts directly on neural synapses, and its instantaneous transmission eliminates any space for reflection or analysis between emotional impulse and action. 

It rather seriously overworks the biological analogy of the-internet-as-drug, but as a description of the ultimately frustrating nature of social media discussions these days (one wave of overheated tribal screaming after another...), it certainly struck a chord with me.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Forthcoming article on ethnicity and the British criminal justice system, 18th and 19th centuries

I have just noted that an article by myself and Prof. Peter King -- "Black People and the Criminal Justice System: Prejudice and Practice in Later Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century London" -- has now appeared in an "advance access" version at Historical Research.

I'm not sure exactly when it'll appear in its final form, but for those of you with institutional access, it might be of interest already.

The abstract:

This article explores how attitudes to black people were translated into practice by examining how they fared as victims, witnesses and especially as the accused when they came to the Old Bailey in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It concludes that there was no significant discrimination against blacks as prosecutors and witnesses. Moreover, between 1791 and 1805, when a source containing systematic evidence on the ethnicity of the accused is briefly available, black people probably formed a smaller proportion of the accused than they did of the London population as a whole, and those who were prosecuted were less likely than average to be convicted and more likely to have their charges reduced. Although punishment patterns for black convicts included rather greater emphasis on transportation, an investigation of criminal justice practice in London reveals little or no systematic prejudice towards black people, thus indicating important contrasts with the experience of black people in colonial contexts and with the ways other ethnic groups such as the Irish were dealt with at the Old Bailey.

I'm quite pleased that this is finally seeing the light of day. This article was my first excursion into a more quantitative approach to history--though ultimately there was a lot of qualitative analysis as well--and it gave me the opportunity to focus for a while on the interesting and difficult history of ethnicity and "race."

The article emerged from a broader project led by Pete King, and it is best enjoyed in conjuction with his publication on the treatment of the Irish in the London courts: Peter King, "Ethnicity, Prejudice, and Justice: The Treatment of the Irish at the Old Bailey, 1750-1825," Journal of British Studies 52, no. 2 (2013): 390-414.

I will also note when the article appears in its final, printed form (with actual page numbers and everything).

Monday, July 28, 2014

"Quite simply an absorbing read"

The June issue of the English Historical Review contains a very fine review of The Most Remarkable Woman in England which is all the more enjoyable because it was written by Adrian Bingham, who is not only one of the leading historians of the twentieth-century British press but also someone whose own work influenced my approach to some of the topics in my book on the Pace murder trial.

I'm particularly pleased by the review as it is attentive to a difficult problem with which I wrestled throughout the more than five years I spent researching and writing the book: how to combine an exciting story that would appeal to as broad an audience as possible (essentially anyone who is interested in real-life human drama and not overly averse to endnotes) while also maintaining enough academic street cred for my professional historian peers to still take it seriously.

Or, as Bingham puts it in his review:  

What is the best way for academic historians to broaden their audience? How should they reach out to the much-sought-after ‘general reader’? One option (the Niall Ferguson or Simon Schama route) is to produce bold grand narratives and dazzle the public with new ways of looking at the ‘big picture’. An alternative, pursued here by John Carter Wood, is to narrow the scale, and to focus upon a dramatic human story, which can then be used to illuminate the period in question.

Happily, he finds that I have succeeded in this effort: 

The spectacular success of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009), based on a murder mystery that unfolded in Wiltshire in 1860, seems to have created a demand for real-life historical detective stories, and Wood has produced a pacy, scholarly and thought-provoking contribution to the genre. ...

Although this book is clearly designed to appeal beyond the academy, it will be of interest to scholars.... Firstly, it is quite simply an absorbing read. The case itself is a fascinating one, and Wood does it full justice. He writes crisply and vividly, and shows a real empathy for his protagonists, teasing out the likely motivations for their actions.... He has clearly learned well from the crime novelists, such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, who so entertained the British public in the 1920s.

At the end, Bingham raises a potential problem that was always on my mind (and which plagued my efforts to publish the book until I made contact with the wonderful people at Manchester University Press):

There is a danger that books like this may fall between two stools. Wood is far more measured in his approach than a writer such as Summerscale, and he is too scrupulous a historian to let his imagination take him further than the evidence allows in order to entertain the reader. At the same time, some of those working in the field would undoubtedly have been interested in seeing some of the underlying themes developed further. 

However, this dilemma has a very happy ending:

On its own terms, though, as a forensic historical examination of one of the decade’s most intriguing murder cases, this is an undoubted success. I hope it gets the wider readership it deserves.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that I do too.

I've had a fairly detailed look at reviews of the book at the blog for The Most Remarkable Woman in England, and there is also a shorter and more concise reviews page if you just want to skim all the nice things that people have been saying about it.

And if you feel so inclined, please do order The Most Remarkable Woman in England from your local bookstore, from Manchester University Press or from the online retailer of your choice.

Rumour has it that you may be glad you did. 

[Also posted at The Most Remarkable Woman in England blog]

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hotel art #10

Part of an occasional series.

Le Petit Hotel, Turin, Italy (July 2014).

"The last gasp of romantic hatred of the twentieth century"

I happen to have been reading Philip Roth's 1990 novel Deception today (which is engrossing and quite interesting, though not at the top of my list of Roth-so-far), and as this passage seemed relevant to events today--25 years later--I thought I would place it here.

This is more, please note, to mark this personal coincidence (so that I might find it again) and as a contribution to the broader cultural debate about what's going on in European countries rather than as a comment on the complicated and horrifying Middle Eastern conflict that I've been watching news reports about since I was old enough to watch TV (so we're getting on nearly 40 years now) and having debates about since I was old enough to debate politics (so going on about 30 years now). 

So: keep your simplistic partisan sloganeering--from either side--to yourselves, please. That's not what I'm on about here.

For background: the passage (like much of the book), consists of a conversation between a pair who is conducting an affair, a male American author of Jewish background and an upper-middle-class Englishwoman.

The American author's question begins the exchange:  

"Why does everybody around here hate Israel so much? Can you explain that to me? I have an argument every time I go out now. And I come home in a fury and can't sleep all night. I am allied, in one way or another, with the planet's two greatest scourges, Israel and America. Let's grant that Israel is a terrible country—"

"But I won't."

"But let's grant it. Still, there are many countries that are far more terrible. Yet the hostility to Israel is almost universal among the people I meet."

"I have never been able to understand it myself. It seems to me one of the most curious freaks of modern history. Because it's just an article of faith among left and left of center, isn't it?"

"But why?"

"I simply don't understand it."

"Do you ever ask people?"

"Yes, often."

"And what do they say? Because of the way they treat Arabs. That is the greatest crime in all of human history."

"Oh, sure, that's what they say. I don't believe a word of it. I think it's one of the most extraordinary pieces of hypocrisy in human history."

"Do they know Arabs?"

"Of course they don't. In English high culture, you could say it's because of this Foreign Office fantasy about Arabs, and Lawrence of Arabia, all this, coupled with a serious knowledge of Arab interests, and families with all sorts of contacts with sheikhs and who still get watches for Christmas and all that rubbish. It's a kind of feudal thing which the British quite like. You know, our boys and their boys. But that's sort of establishment—the actual antagonism comes from the so-called intelligentsia of this country."

"And what do you think is at the root of it?"

"I don't think it's anti-Semitism."


"Not in the main. no. It's just the fashionable left. They're very depressing. I can only come to the conclusion that some people are so wedded to certain unrealistic ideas of human justice and human rights that they can't make concessions to necessity of any kind. In other words, if you're an Israeli you must live by the highest standards and therefore you can't do anything really, just go back and turn the other cheek, like J.C. said. But also it seems to me an unspoken corollary that you criticize most harshly the people who actually behave best, or the least badly. It's quite banal, isn't it? These hotheaded people disapprove selectively and most strongly of the least reprehensible things. It's just unreal, isn't it? I think it has to do with the last gasp of romantic hatred of the twentieth century. But it's not really as strong in this country as you may think."

"You think not."

"I'm sure not."

"Well. I'd feel much better if that's true. About this country, and about you too."


Laughter being in such short supply these days, I'll just leave it there. 

[Text from Philip Roth, Deception (London: Vintage, 1990), 79-81.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hotel art #9

Part of an occasional series.

John Dodgson House (a UCL residence hall), King's Cross, London (July 2014)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Switch it off

Although I'm someone who once had (cautiously) high hopes for the Internet becoming a force for creating a better informed, better connected and more tolerant global public sphere, I have been becoming increasingly aware--like a lot of us--that it's about as likely to be a tool for pervasive surveillance, tendentious propaganda and unhinged misinformation.

And although I participate in various forms of social media (because--at least so far--its benefits seem to outweigh its costs for me personally), I've found it, over the last five years or so, to be increasingly a source of frustration and even despair.

Peter Pomerantsev's excellent "Diary" at the London Review of Books crystallises a lot of what I've been thinking along these lines with reference to recent events in Ukraine.

As the conflict over Ukraine intensified my social media feeds became more and more unsettling. Acquaintances from Moscow, the ‘creatives’ who make up the semi-mythical Russian middle class – that normally apolitical but vaguely anti-Putin iPhone crowd who’d joined the protests in 2011 and 2012 – were suddenly frothing with patriotic passion. I imagined myself in some downmarket horror movie where you wake to find your neighbours are vampires, with little ultra-patriotic bite marks on their necks.
I was talking to a work colleague just today about a very similar trend that she had noticed among Russian and Ukrainian friends on Facebook.

More generally, this is good to remember:

A common myth about social media is that it’s a priori a tool of liberation, taking publishing out of the hands of power. But Facebook and Twitter are a perfect vehicle for postmodern authoritarian regimes that focus on opposition narratives instead of simply suppressing them. You can switch off the TV, but you can’t stop a political technologist getting inside social media and generating memes from within.
This is also true for radical Islamism.

For myself, I've certainly been aghast (though not surprised) by Russian propaganda; what has disturbed me more has been the number of Western journalists willing to echo it.

Pomerantsev is eloquent here on this "strange complicity with the Kremlin's cause":

When she wasn’t repeating news from Brighton Beach my New Jersey cousin was sending me links to the Guardian. Comment is Free has become well known for its references to the Ukrainian fascist takeover. My Kiev friends began to message me, looking for an explanation: ‘Is Seumas Milne in the pay of the Kremlin?’ they would ask. Probably not, I said. ‘It all fits into a larger pattern of English racism towards Eastern Europeans,’ Oksana Forostyna, executive editor of the Ukrainian cultural magazine Krytyka, told me. She too spoke of the Ukrainians as ‘the new Untermenschen who get called whores and fascists. All those English jokes and novels about Ukrainian sluts; the weird fixation you had during Euro 2012 that Ukraine was full of neo-Nazi hooligans – there was even a BBC documentary warning football fans not to come – when in truth there are fewer racist attacks in Ukraine than in Britain … Now Putin can play on those prejudices.’

(Germany, has a very similar problem.)

Finally, I can't say that I disagree with this entirely:

‘The only thing to do if you want to stay sane in this war is quit social media,’ Alexey said when I Skyped him.

On related points, I would recommend that people read Evgeny Morozov's insightful book The Net Delusion.

See you online.