Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The decline of the western hemline

Here's something I just unexpectedly ran across while looking through inter-war newspaper articles for references to Oswald Spengler: a recounting of a lecture at the Edinburgh City Business Club by Mr. R. H. Munro on the topic of fashion.

Mr Munro was dealing principally with the ever-changing fashions in women's wear. Married men profess to deplore these changes, but no man likes to see his wife fall behind in the parade. It is true that a woman who remains old-fashioned long enough may find herself again in the fashion, for as Beaumont and Fletcher observed in the Elizabethan age, "We know that what was worn some twenty years ago comes into grace again." In somewhat less that twenty years we have witnessed our womenfolk abandoning their crowning glory only to grow it again, and shortening their skirts only to lengthen them again. Yet history never repeats itself in exact detail. Women's infinite variety is never staled by custom, for custom never gets a chance.
"The Dictates of Fashion," The Scotsman, 8 May 1935, p. 12.

The Spengler reference (in case you're interested in these kinds of things) derives from his concept of "Dionysian Man", which Mr Munro uses as a description of a feature particular -- in his view -- to Western civilisation: the type of person "in a state of continual movement from one idea to another", who is "constantly on the quest for visions to guide him along untravelled roads".

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"The dark, howling apex of infinity"

Not least for the H. P. Lovecraft reference, I pretty much adore this passage from Charlie Brooker's latest column (which is actually about the Sun):

It's hard to cheer when a newspaper closes. Even one you're slightly scared of, like the Daily Mail. Even though the Mail isn't technically a newspaper, more a serialised Necronomicon. In fact it's not even printed, but scorched on to parchment by a whispering cacodemon. The Mail can never close. It can only choose to vacate our realm and return to the dominion in which it was forged; a place somewhere between shadow and dusk, beyond time and space, at the dark, howling apex of infinity.

It's just a newspaper. It's just a newspaper. (Repeat 100 times a day.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

See no evil?

The German President, Christian Wulff announced today that he would resign, in the wake of accusations that he has, over the years, gotten just a little bit too much help from his friends.

This is not a surprise.

I'm wondering, though, whether this was really the best picture the Guardian could find to accompany its story:

Perhaps it was a wry commentary on the blindness of the powerful?


Anyway, it would all be very exciting...if the scandal itself were not so boring: even the name for the alleged wrong, 'Vorteilsannahme im Amt' sort of puts you to sleep.

I bet Silvio Berlusconi is laughing his ass off...

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Toys are not citizens. I hope that's clear now.

This is...surreal:

There hadn't been many – indeed any – rallies like it before in Russia. Last month saw dozens of toys, from teddy bears to Lego figurines, standing out in the snow of a Siberian city with banners complaining about corruption and electoral malpractice.
At the time, Russian authorities in Barnaul declared the protest "an unsanctioned public event".
Now a petition to hold another protest featuring 100 Kinder Surprise toys, 100 Lego people, 20 model soldiers, 15 soft toys and 10 toy cars has been rejected because the toys have been deemed not to be "citizens of Russia".

Well, it's hard to disagree with that logic.

I guess.

I sure am glad that a significant portion of our energy supplies come from this country....

Hey, stop being so mean!

Just another example of that horrible, nasty, 'militant' secularism at work: the discussion of a poll commissioned by Richard Dawkins's Foundation to explore the social attitudes of British Christians.


[O]ur findings show that the majority of UK Christians share the secular, liberal, humane values that are the hallmark of a modern, decent society.

This won't come as a surprise to most Christians reading these results, I suspect, nor to those of us who count liberal Christians among our friends, families and colleagues.

Now, that is really over the line.

I mean, how divisive and insulting. 

Damned militant atheists. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I didn't expect the secular inquisition!

Baroness Warsi, government minister and co-chair of the UK's Conservative Party, is concerned about freedom.

My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere. 

 Not only is this secularisation 'militant' it is even reminiscent of 'totalitarian regimes':

For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities. That’s why in the 20th century, one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes was the targeting of organised religion. 

So worried is our Baroness, in fact, that she will be conveying this message to the Pope today via the ministerial delegation she is leading to the Vatican, a place famous for centuries a bastion of reason, tolerance and the acceptance of 'multiple identities'. (Cough, cough...)

As Ophelia says elsewhere, 'oh vomit', and there is much purgative pleasure to be found in the Baroness's missive (if you're into that sort of thing), which is eagerly echoed by the usual suspects at the Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

(And probably elsewhere. You know, for such a sadly marginalised social group, religious people seem to have no shortage of large-circulation platforms from which to bewail their marginality.)

I'm too weary of these kinds of comments to go through it line by line (say with regard to the typical canards that 'signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings', or that totalitarianism and 'religious identities' have somehow been mutually incompatible), though no doubt others will do me the favour.

However, a couple of things immediately jumped out.

Like this:

I will be arguing that to create a more just society, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their creeds. In practice this means individuals not diluting their faiths and nations not denying their religious heritages. 

At a time when (just to pick a few examples) a good third or more of young British Muslims believe apostates from their faith should be punished by death, when leading American presidential candidates have no problem placing the authority of the Bible over that of the constitution and when ultra-orthodox Jewish religious fanatics can use terror and violence to enforce a radical form of patriarchy, it would seem that there is no great shortage of people who feel pretty 'confident in their creeds'.

Methinks the Baroness might be missing something here.

(And is it just me or is there something a bit sinister about the good Baroness's reference to people 'not diluting their faiths', especially given some of her co-religionists' touchiness on precisely this issue.)

But, for me anyway, an immediate, sure-fire dead give-away of the problem popped up with the phrase 'militant secularism'.

Militant secularism.

I pointed this out before (five years ago! I've been at this too long), in a response to a complaint about 'militant atheism', one directed at authors such as Richard Dawkins.

I concluded:

Until the day that Richard Dawkins appears on television standing in front of a poster of Darwin while holding an AK-47 and screaming for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, can we find a different, perhaps more appropriate adjective to describe his approach?

It would seem to me that this still stands.

Our weapon is reason, reason and sarcasm. Our two weapons...

[UPDATE] The juxtaposition on the front page of the Telegraph is classic (and useful in case you need to identify one of those 'militant secularists'. No, wait...).  (Informed via Chris B, image via here)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"I don't want to die in a nuclear war"...

...well, who does?

Happy Darwin Day!

"A sort of wryness mixed with tentative enthusiasm"

Simon Winder's review of Philip Olterman's new book Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters is worth reading for at least two reasons.

First, it neatly encapsulates something about Germanness:
Everything that makes modern Germany so appealing – a sort of wryness mixed with tentative enthusiasm, a wish to be liked tempered by a genuine concern to engage with a terrible past – are all in this book.
Second, it notes Anglo-German connections that are somehow simultaneously unexpected and inevitable:
A long, excellent analysis of the Baader-Meinhof Gang is almost over before the reader realises that the only real Anglo-German element in the chapter is that Astrid Proll, hiding in London, once went to a concert by the Clash where the band were wearing Baader-Meinhof T-shirts. 
I have something new on my reading list.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Dodging, artfully

Via the wonders of social networking I have been informed of an event that I would definitely be attending were I in London tonight: the first screening of the short film 'Fits and Starts of Restlessness' by Tim Shore and Gary Thomas, made in collaboration with our friend, Dr. Heather Shore of Leeds Metropolitan University.

It will be shown with other short films at the BFI (Tuesday, 7 February 2012, NFT 1, at BFI Southbank, seems to be starting at 18:20) as part of the celebrations around Dickens's 200th birthday...which is, in fact, today.

Details on the Birthday event are here.

A brief description:
The title is taken from Dickens’ essay Night Walks, and his description of London has having “expiring fits and starts of restlessness”. The film takes its own night ‘walk’ and traces the path of the lost Fleet River, through the night time streets of Saffron Hill – once the site of a notorious rookery – and where Dickens located Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist.

I haven't seen it yet, but the stills that are available are, I must say, very intriguing.

And since part of the research was related to Heather's excellent book Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London, I'm sure the style is matched with substance.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Poso-Graph: 'A great money maker'

A found advert for a photo booth, 1928.

Sunday News, 7 October 1928, p. 7.

Exercise, the weaker vessels and their 'monthly mortgage'

Here's something that I ran across today while working on another article related to police scandals in 1928.

It may be that our decision to go for an hour-long run this morning in the extreme cold we're experiencing encouraged my interest in this story.

Of course, it might be the London 2012 fever that I'm feeling as well.


Should a Woman Be an Athlete? 

Violent Exertion that Injures Brain and Body


By Sir W. Arbuthnot Lane

Now that the Olympic Games are in full swing the question has arisen as to whether these physical contests are harmful to women. The question as to whether they are harmful to men, too, also arises—though it is apt to be overlooked.

Both questions can be answered in a definite manner.

That excessively violent exercise and maintained effort, such as is exhibited in athletic contests in general and the Olympic Games in particular, is most detrimental to human health is a well-recognised fact in medicine.


But the general public, if they realise at all that over-exertion is damaging, certainly do not realise how remarkably injurious it can be.

For it is not inconceivable that a person who persistently overstrained his or her body over a certain period of time might eventually become not only a physical wreck, but also a mental defective.

Outside the circle of those with medical knowledge there are but few who have heard of the interesting experiments in this line conducted by that famous surgeon, Dr. George Crile, of Cleveland, Ohio.

These experiments have proved that excessive physical strain, like severe mental shock, results in a destruction of brain cells—the number of cells destroyed being in proportion to the violence of the exercise or shock.

Moreover, these cells once lost are not replaced. Dr. Crile experimented with all kinds of animals. He raced them into states of exhaustion and subsequently examined their brains. In each case he found that cells had been destroyed in enormous numbers.


... This [the destruction of brain cells] applies equally to men and women, but that women must suffer more is obvious when one considers her distinct physical disadvantages as compared with man. For much of her strength has to be sacrificed to meet her special requirements of reproduction for which she pays a monthly mortgage.

Apart from the fact that the fact that woman is ‘the weaker vessel,’ however, and consequently more easily exhausted than man, there is little reason why violent exercise should harm her any more than it does the stronger sex.

But it must not be forgotten that it does harm the stronger sex. ...


Exercise in moderation is beneficial even essential to the well-being of both sexes, but care must be taken not to overdo it. These international contests are, in the opinion of some medical men, pure folly when they are carried to such a pitch of exhaustion as would appear to be not infrequently the case.

Not only do they impose physical strain, but also mental strain, for nervousness is present in practically every competitor prior to a race and is so great in some cases that some, if they fail to obtain the success they hoped for, break down and become hysterical.

One woman competitor was so affected in the Olympic Games the other day.

It is common knowledge, too, that athletes depreciate physically earlier in life than persons leading a normal existence. ...


Just as excessive physical strain destroys brain cells so will mental shock and persistent mental worry lead to their destruction.

It is a fact that illness, and even death, often follows mental worry because a number of brain cells have been lost and the person affected is consequently not in a fit state to combat disease.

Similarly ‘shell shock’ is due to the destruction of brain cells. ....

If a man or woman will observe moderation in all things—exercise, feeding, etc.—then he or she will be on the path to really good health.

But lack of an essential is as bad as an excess of it. Thus people should not starve themselves, or refrain from taking any exercise, but should take sufficient to meet the requirements of their various occupations and habits. Too little is as bad as too much.

Sunday News, 5 August 1928, p. 8.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


Something for the German speakers among you: an intriguing, if sobering, search for what ordinary French people think of Germany, by Olivier Guez in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The author himself notes that, despite suffering from a early Germanophobia, he also experienced some 'unsettling' Germanophile symptoms as a young man:

Daneben fanden sich bei mir auch früh schon beunruhigende Anzeichen von Germanophilie: meine Liebe zur rheinischen Küche meiner Großmutter Stein, geborene Glaser, 1917 im besetzten Lothringen, zu ihrem Rostbraten, ihren Kartoffelpfannkuchen und ihren Spätzle; meine maßlose und von kaum jemandem geteilte Liebe zum Krautrock und zur geometrischen Ästhetik der Autobahn; meine jugendliche Begeisterung für Aristide Briand und Gustav Stresemann, für den Geist von Weimar und dann für die Bücher von Sebastian Haffner, von Sebald, Remarque, Böll, von Thomas und Heinrich, Erika, Klaus und Golo Mann, für die gesamte mitteleuropäische Literatur, jüdisch zumeist, deutscher Sprache immer. 

(The short version auf Englisch: he discovered a love of Rhineland cooking, Krautrock, the Autobahn, the spirit of Weimar and German-language literature written--mostly--by Jews.)

The two world wars play, unsurprisingly if disappointingly, a predominant role.

The quality of German sewing machines is, however, highly praised.

Sleepless in Davos

I'm not familiar with the writings of Clyde Prestowitz, but I found at least three things to like about his recent comments at Foreign Policy on the World Economic Forum in Davos ('Clueless in Davos').

First: he uses the word 'glitteratus', and I've rather a soft spot for the underachiving singular forms of words that are almost always used in the plural (e.g. 'graffito').

Second: he makes reference to the 'gnomes of Zurich', a nickname for Swiss bankers that I first encountered as a teenager while playing Illuminati and which has since stuck in my mind, though I have the feeling it's been largely forgotten. What I never knew (and was inspired by this reference to discover) was that the phrase apparently originated via discussions among British Labour politicians in the 1960s.

Third: he has a rather jaundiced view of the Davos lifestyle, one that jibes well with our own personal experience of the town at the beginning of last month.

Yet, despite his anti-charisma, [WEF organiser Klaus] Schwab has managed to persuade a large number of the world's top CEOs, politicians, academics, media stars, and bureaucrats that they have to be in a cramped, second rate hotel in a cold Swiss village with mediocre skiing and food every year during the bridge weekend between January and February. 

Though I imagine that the kind of 'cramped, second rate hotel' being shared by most of these Davos men and women -- however cramped and second rate -- is in a different class than ours was. (Where the ambience was more 'sleepless in Davos' than 'clueless in Davos'.)

Though, as I noted, there are very nice things about the place.