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 academia.edu 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."

"No?"

"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.

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.

Friday, June 06, 2014

La liberté vint de la mer

The Normandy American War Cemetery and Memorial,  Coleville-sur-Mer (2006)
On the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I have to think of two members of my family who were, to varying extents, involved.

In going through some of my parents' war-time correspondence not that long ago, I ran across the following in a letter from my uncle George--who was serving on a US Navy warship--to my father, who was in the army.

In October 1944, George was filling his brother in on what he'd been up to that year. He got to talking about Normandy:

"Then 6 weeks of Normandy--from D Day until days later when the sea lanes were cleared--we had all the excitement I could possibly want. Our ship got several commendations and quite a bit of publicity for our part in the operation. The miraculous fact that we weren't even hit still amazes me. Bombs hit the water so close to us that spray showered our decks, seven torpedoes were thrown at us all missing from 200 yards to 25 feet, 88mm shells narrowly missed us a dozen times but [our] luck held out. Our salvoes knocked out many a shore battery that was holding up the army's advance on the beach and it was a swell feeling to know that we were saving some of those soldiers. Those Nazis were pretty tough in Normandy." 

By the time the letter arrived, my father's unit--the 316th Army Station Hospital--had been relocated to Glasgow, but from the autumn of 1943 to the summer of 1944, he was near the Devonshire coast. On 6 June 1944 he was, therefore, not all that far away, geographically speaking, from where his brother was having what sounds like a pretty harrowing day.  (Though he wouldn't have been aware of this fact at the time.)

(My mother's main memory of that day was wondering where all the Yanks had suddenly disappeared to.) 

I recently ran across a fairly detailed unit history online (it seems to take a while to load, but the link should work), and the section for D-Day is interesting.

Having heard SHAEF’s official communiqué about the Invasion, the Hospital was now ready to fulfil its particular mission in the grand-scale assault on “Fortress Europe”. It was not however until the first casualties from the D-Day landings arrived on 11 June 1944, that the unit was confronted with “real” war! They were 23 German Prisoners of War, accompanied by armed MPs! The unit was now temporarily acting as a Transit Hospital. Five days later, it was 7 July 1944, the first Hospital Train filled with American battle casualties arrived at the nearby Heathfield Station of the Great Western Railway, and the Hospital settled down in earnest to its real war job. The top number of patients occupying the installation was reached on 30 July, when the Registrar had 819 patients listed. 

We're fairly often in Normandy--though in a different part than where the landings took place--but a few reminders of the war are still very visible.

It's not, really, all that long ago.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Values for money

Something I've just run across in the course of research: a brief passage from a critique of the English [sic*] educational system by Geoffrey Vickers:

"Although education costs money and although it shows in the long run an economic return, there is an insuperable antipathy between education and commercialism. We [in England] start with this handicap. Something vital in the character of a nation lies in the answer to the question – which of its public services is a model to the world? Our plutocracy is world famous for its – police."
Geoffrey Vickers, "Education, War, Change" (18 December 1939), Institute of Education (London), Fred Clarke archive, MOO /13, p 5.
[UPDATE]

Something else just run across, from about the same time and on a similar theme: a comment from a paper by Harold Dent, at the time editor of the Times Educational Supplement.

"Our present systems of education...are highly undemocratic. They are socially stratified to a degree, and they present the very essence of inequality of opportunity. They offer adequate training only to the few, and their basic philosophy is that not of a democratic, but of an acquisitive and competitive society, in which the prizes are privilege, power, and the well-filled purse."
H. C. Dent, "Reform in Education" (16 May 1942), Institute of Education (London), Fred Clarke archive, MOO /81, p 1.


*"We are worse off in this respect [i.e., having ‘enough education of the right kind’] than most of the smaller and poorer democracies. [...] Scotland is the poorer half of the United Kingdom – and the better educated." (Vickers, p 5).

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Pasquinades, plethoras and proles

From the conclusion to Will Smith's Guardian review of Rod Liddle's new book:

Liddle is a typical petit bourgeois, afraid of either being absorbed into the proletariat he champions, or destroyed by the capitalist bogeyman he excoriates but depends on for his wonga. The cultural cringing of the squeezed intellectual middle is creased into every line of this baggy diatribe, in the form of scores of French loan words, pasquinades poorly aimed at intellectuals he regards as pretentious, and of course that plethora of fucks.
That would be a negative review, then, I take it

It's safe to say Liddle's book isn't going to be on my reading list anyway. But it's nice to have that confirmed.

(This blog has in its distant past, it should perhaps be noted, featured critical remarks on writing by Messrs. Liddle and Self, the latter being himself not averse to a few "French loan words".) 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Irony, historical



So, Germany is getting ready for its festival summer, and the educated and not so educated elites with too much time on their hands flock to green and pleasant places to indulge, al fresco and with a glass (or two) of Winzersekt in hand, in a bit of cultcha. Among the smaller venues is the charming town of Röttingen in the gentle vale of the river Tauber (if you think "festival" in Germany means Glastonbury, you're wrong). 

Among Holocaust scholars Röttingen is known as the place where the first of a whole spate of massacres of Jews which swept the south of Germany in the 13th-century took place, sparked by the divinely inspired accusation by one Herr Rindfleisch (who either was a butcher or merely a crazy provincial aristocrat with a fanciful name) that the Röttingen Jews had (what else?) desecrated a host.   

Of course, no mention is made of that exceptional claim to fame on the town’s official website  (which, like those of untold other communities in Germany, is also in blatant denial about the period between 1914 and 1945. Simply didn't happen.).  

And so it strikes me as a bit of a historical irony that the organisers of this year’s Frankenfestspiele (merrily advertised all over the national press) have decided to put on Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

Now I'm not trying to prohibit performances of this particular play, or performances that do not aim at challenging the play's ascription to the genre of "comedy". But in this case a very particular idiocy seems to be at work: The kind of idiocy that probably comes from a total historical cluelessness, exacerbated by a half-baked, vaguely apologetic awareness of 20th-century German history (anything beyond that is terra incognita). Of course, the festival's website reassures us, this is not an anti-Semitic play – indeed, Shakespeare couldn't even have had anti-Semitic intentions. After all, there were no Jews in England at this time, for they had been "banished by law" ("Shakespeare wollte mit dieser Komödie sicher keinerlei antijüdische Stimmung machen, da es zu dieser Zeit in England offiziell keine Juden gab. Sie waren per Gesetz verbannt").

No Jews, no anti-Semitism. Somehow that formula sounds familiar. That doesn't make it any less stupid, however (or less embarrassing in a place with a history like Röttingen).