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Posts Tagged ‘history’

I wish I could remember the name of that camera shop on Pall Mall. That’s Pall Mall in Chorley, not the more famous Pall Mall, in London. It’s forty years since it closed, but I can still hear the sound of the doorbell as I enter, feel the hollow ring of the place, the scent of it, see the weird photographic contraptions on the shelves: the bellows, the enlargers, the developing kits. The guy rises to meet me, suit and tie, yellow fingers from the nicotine. He knew cameras, lived and breathed them, and he didn’t mind sharing his knowledge, even with the pocket-money teenager I was then, and who could barely afford the price of film.

My father was a frequent customer. He bought second hand equipment: cameras, developing tanks. I remember ancient box enlargers too, with fixed focal lengths and grubby lenses. The stuff was always dusty, and smelled of the cigarettes of past owners. By the time it fell into my father’s hands, it was next to junk. But he’d bring it home with a gleam in his eye, like one who had discovered treasure and was eager to share it. Thus equipped, through the haze of an already bygone era, we learned the rudiments of developing film. That’s no small feat when you’re living in a small semi, without the luxury of a dark-room. Needless to say, we improvised a lot.

Our rewards were few, but precious all the same – soft images that took ages to tease out, and which would all too often fade back into the paper again for want of fixative. I couldn’t help feeling the effort taught us little, only that we needed better kit.

I swore I would have a darkroom one day, a bees-knees enlarger, and bags of space to set out those trays of sweet smelling chemicals. But then the world changed, and I didn’t need any of it. You could do it all on your computer, even on your telephone. Nowadays, I lift the ‘phone and produce effortless images in seconds, enlarge or shrink with a swipe of the finger. I can post-process too, add any number of effects and have them beamed round the world for other eyes to see. He’d be ninety now, my father. I imagine him with an iPhone in his pocket – second hand of course – but still pushing the limits of what you could do with it.

I don’t know what we were searching for back then, what rich seam of enlightenment we’d hoped to strike. Was it something in the images we sought? But those images were like ghosts, and hard to bring out, to materialize. Or was it more about the technology, such as ours was then, I mean it being near Victorian, in an age of rockets? Sure, that might have been the thing. The world can be intimidating in its complexity if you think too wide and too deep about it. But if you can master one small part of it, you feel in some way something less than small. That’s the gist anyway. We never produced enough images to get into the mystery of them. That was another universe altogether.

My father’s best camera was an early Russian SLR, again from the dusty, cigarette scented shelves of that shop on Pall Mall. It had no doubt been cast off by a more well heeled amateur, who’d upgraded. The only mode it possessed was manual. There was no metering. We read the light with a hand-held selenium meter, and dialled it in, or more often we got a feel for what would work – aperture and shutter speed – and we trusted to luck.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But then a timely “follow” on the blog interrupts the flow of my thoughts, and promises I can: “acquire abundance of wealth, and confidence.” Also: “Happiness, and can address change smartly, what many would observe as impossible.

This is no small claim, and bears closer scrutiny.

It goes on to tell me I can: “Feel, act and live happy, because happiness is the objective of everyone’s life.”

Well okay, feel act and live happy. Nothing wrong with that, but as an aim itself it’s somewhat simplistic, and a common enough trap for the unwary, though useful for the vendors if they can harness it to the cause of commerce at our expense. Still, I’m grateful for the interruption, for my reaction points me in the right direction, closes the arc, so to speak, and we have our conclusion.

I have some decent cameras now. But in using them, the aim, the drive hasn’t changed. It’s the same as when my father and I struggled developing film in the bathroom, half a century ago, a towel over the window and a safelight that took ages to fix up and take down again when the bathroom was required for more conventional purposes – often urgently and in the middle of timing an exposure. It’s about exploration, and the desire to understand a thing bigger than oneself, for such a thing serves as the surface proxy for another kind of quest, something archetypal, something transcendent, and internal. I glimpse it now and then in the images I’m taking, and more often by chance – the camera seeing something I do not. It’s an abundance of something, call it a wordless insight. We can reject it of course, seek instead our “health, wealth and happiness” in the material world, through material things, and become ever dissatisfied slaves to it. Or we can say yes please, more of that transcendent thing, and then the world becomes at once a place of magic, and much more the worthy objective of a man’s life.

Yes, it was a treasure trove my father shared, that dusty old kit from the camera shop on Pall Mall, but mostly it was his enthusiasm for the quest, and for the insight one could still pursue the transcendent through the symbolism of the mundane. He knew something of the nature of things, I think, and was kind enough, to pass it on.

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surface-hands-ellerbeck-abt-1913

If you and I traced our ancestors back, say a couple of thousand years, we’d find we were related. But that’s the thing with family trees. The further back you go, the branches widen, sweeping up more and more of us. Even a couple of hundred years is enough to ensure you’ll score some landed gentry among your lot. There’s likely the occasional murderer, too. But you’re only one in tens of thousands of souls, all related in the same vague way, so it doesn’t mean anything, does it?

I used to think there was nothing worse than some ardent genealogist banging on about his family tree. On and on they’d go, like you could be interested. I mean, what did it matter that so and so married so and so a hundred years ago? But then you get the bug yourself and you begin to see things differently. You begin to understand the fascination.

First, you simply want to honour your family by getting all their names in order, names you heard as a child but never met because they were long dead. Or maybe they’d branched off a few generations ago and gone to live on the other side of the world. So now you want to get them straight in your head. You want them with the right spouse, the right children. You want to pass them on to your own kids, a neat little package of heritage – like your own kids could be bothered. But then you tap into something else, you experience a “wow” moment,  and you realize there’s much more going on here.

Tracing your family history is like sketching out a story, and stories are powerful things. Suddenly, they can transform those dimly remembered names into heroes, into characters of mythological status, and myths are strange things. Once we tap into them our lives change, because that’s what myths do. They come from our deepest past, and they energise our present.

My Irish grandfather, Michael, came to Lancashire to work the quarries as a farrier. Whilst here, he had a fling with a mill-girl called Lizzie. Then he lost his job and went back to his parents’ farm in County Mayo, leaving Lizzie behind. But Lizzie discovered she was with child. So, urgent letters were exchanged and Michael returned to a hasty marriage.

He settled in a village on the edge of the Western Pennines, raised a family of four, one of them my mother. If he’d been a different kind of guy, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story. I imagine a hard-working, happy-go-lucky character, a bit of a charmer, and full of stories, not all of them true, but when things got serious, he’d always do the right thing.

That mill-girl had a brother called Richard. He married another mill-girl called Annie. Then he got swept up in the Great War, and died of fever in Mesopotamia, never saw home again. Annie struggled for years on a war-widow’s pension, then left for Australia on the promise of a better life. There, she married Fred, a German guy – at a time when German guys were still unpopular. I’ve not followed him up yet, but I’m thinking Fred must have been something special. Anyway, the two of them went on to pioneer land near Pingaring, and they seemed to make a go of it. That’s where her story peters out for me, them living a cowboy and cowgirl kind of life in the vastness of Western Australia.

This is not to say my family is any more or less fascinating than yours. We can all find the archetypal stories if we look. It’s not about the bloodline. Blood means nothing unless there’s money involved. Annie’s not a blood relative, but I think about her story a lot. Romance, tragedy, courage, adventure and triumph over adversity. It’s got everything and I find it inspiring. Even across time, something about her story, played out a century ago influences the way I think today.

But there’s more. I’ve researched the life of an obscure Victorian man of letters. He’s no relation at all, yet I ended up living his story as intensely as if it were a part of my own. So it doesn’t need to be even a vague family connection either. It runs much deeper than genealogy. It transcends blood and kin. It reaches back to the collective from which all stories rise.

If by some magic we were able to meet those people for real, there’s a chance we might not like them very much. We would find them too human, rather than the perfected heroes and heroines of our imagination. What we’re doing then is projecting parts of our psyche upon a bare structure of names, dates and events. What we tap into are latent energies that seek passage into consciousness, and they take powerful form as stories.

As we unearth these stories, we’re not uncovering the literal truth of a past life. Rather, we are exploring pieces of our own selves. Doing so, we grant new life to the mythical foundations of the past, all our pasts because the thing with myths is they seek renewal for each generation who stumbles upon them. And they reward us with fresh meaning and direction.

I’ve discovered no celebrities, no toffs, no great statesmen, in my family tree, at least not between here and the early Victorian period. Any further than that, who knows?  Four generations seems plenty for keeping it real. Four generations, and the stories are still plentiful, still of sufficient resolution for one’s imagination to get to grips with.

The best stories do not need kings and queens to act them out. We find them in the ordinary. That’s why they’re of such universal appeal. Colliers, labourers, crofters, weavers, quarrymen, farriers, domestics, pioneers and conscripted soldiers. That’s my lot. Plus of course life, love and adversity,… the stuff of stories and the bedrock of existence.

It turns out, genealogy isn’t boring after all.

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italian lake

Leverhulme’s Italian Lake

If you wander up the side of Rivington moor, towards the Pike, you’ll come across what looks like the remains of a lost citadel. Is this the ruin of some ancient Lancastrian civilisation? No. It’s the remains of a summer palace, created by Thomas Mawson in the early part of the last century for the pleasure of the industrialist, William Hesketh Lever (Lord Leverhulme). Known as the Terraced Gardens, photographs from the period suggest a stunning arrangement of architectural and botanical wonders, crowned by Leverhulme’s residence, “The Bungalow” which played host to glittering parties for the region’s well-to-do. Leverhulme died in 1925 and – sobering thought this – almost at once, the place fell into ruin.

There have been various attempts since to stabilise the remains and preserve them as some sort of amenity, the most recent being a Heritage Lottery funded project which is making perhaps the biggest effort I can remember, and which I believe has been largely successful, rolling back nature a little and revealing much more of the structures we had thought lost for ever. Not entirely ruinous, there are various summerhouses, the Italian and the Japanese lake (with waterfalls), the stupendous seven arched bridge, and the iconic Pigeon tower, to say nothing of winding terraced pavements, are all intact and accessible for free, to be explored at will.

terraced garden steps

As we wander among these romantic ruins today, it’s hard not to slip into contemplative mode, thus you discover me sitting a while by the newly renovated “Italian Lake” thinking, among other things, about that scourge of modern times (forgive me): BREXIT! The other things, we’ll get to in a moment, but for now whether you’re a Remainer or a Brexiteer, the one thing we can agree on is the disruptive influence it has had on the nation’s psyche these past few years. Internet, TV, radio – the first thing you hear is BREXIT. And everyone is angry about it and with each other, about it.

For myself I’m viewing it all somewhat darkly, though with a grim resignation now, watching as politicians manoeuvre themselves, and seemingly in such a way as to guarantee the coming hammer-blow inflicts the most damage on those who can defend against it the least. If a foreign power had set out to undermine, and collapse the United Kingdom, politically, socially and economically, they could have done no better job than we seem to be doing ourselves. But is it reasonable I should feel this way? I mean is it rational? Not that I am mistaken, but more that I should care at all?

World events are what they are, and while they do seem parlous at the moment, and on many fronts, there is nothing I can do about any of them, and this has always been so for the individual down the generations, and for all time. The world is like Leverhulme’s garden, for ever in need of repair. Take your eye off it for a minute and the stones are coming out, the tiles are slipping, the water is getting in and spoiling the carpet. In short there is no Arcadia, only at best a continual effort to maintain the good, and the progressive, in the direction of least harm.

twin arches

But then there are times when I wonder if it isn’t the other way around, that I am creating the mess myself in my head, and faithfully manifesting what I feel through the decay of the world. So is the solution to the macrocosm’s disintegration, not also to be found in working towards the restoration of the microcosm of my own self? It’s a silly way of thinking perhaps, but such are the run of my thoughts this afternoon, and if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to follow them wherever they take me.

I’ve been reading competing theories of human development – one of them essentially spiritual and inactive, letting be what will be, and the other active, secular and psychological, addressing the flaws of the self which, in me, seem no less abundant than they were decades ago, the same neuroses flaring up at the slightest provocation, the same doubts, the same ignorance.

It’s Ken Wilbur who talks about vectors, though he may not call them that. When a solution to our ills seems to rush off with a certain energy and in a particular direction, and then another solution, seeming just as convincing, rushes off in another direction, it’s likely neither solution is correct but it’s reasonable to assume the greatest gain might be found somewhere in-between the two, so we sum the vectors and see where they lead us. But what if the vectors are diametrically opposed and of equal energy? Then they cancel out and leave us right back where we started, only with one hell of an internal tension – or there would be if, this afternoon, I wasn’t simply watching raindrops fall on the Italian Lake.

He would swim in this lake – Leverhulme I mean. I see him now, coming down the steps from the bungalow, maybe even a cool, wet day like this. A butler follows him at a respectful distance with towel and umbrella. He lowers himself into the water, (Leverhulme, not the butler) and pushes off. The water is peaty and scummy this afternoon, and full of tadpoles, so I’m thinking he must have had a serf in waders skim it regularly. And now, a century later, here I am, thinking about him, wondering what it is he means to me, and most likely it’s nothing other than a convenient lever against the fulcrum of thought, trying to move something otherwise immovable into the realms of a murky understanding.

A week ago, I was up by Angle Tarn in the far eastern fells, remote from the world, my thoughts moving much more freely than now. Now I’m back in the thick of it, and wondering about the pointlessness of so much of the suffering we see, day to day. It’s the default position, I suppose, when we stop believing in God, empirical reason alone just circles the plughole of its own bath-water, leaving us with nothing by way of a sense of meaning, only this gnawing feeling we’ve missed a trick somewhere.

terraced garden trail

True, it has to be said the evidence isn’t overwhelmingly in favour of a benign, interventionist deity either. But I’ve noticed life does go better when we err on the side of caution, and allow room for some form of mystical thinking, if only because it enables us to transcend the noise of our Twitter feed, pull our snouts from the trough for a moment and glimpse the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture is that for long periods of our history we have lived with the expectation that every day will be just like the last, generally peaceful and prosperous, and that such a happy state might last for ever and be passed on to our children. But every now and then events arise that deny us the comfort of familiar times. And while it’s at such times there is the greatest potential for personal and national tragedy, there is also the greatest opportunity for self knowledge and understanding.

It’s hard to say what it is that’s coming exactly, and what kind of harm it will inflict, but whatever it is we’d each be wise to look more closely at the mending of ourselves, for it’s only through such self-healing we discover we are better able to understand and take care of one another. From what I see at present though, and in increasingly vivid colours since the cloud of BREXIT burst over our heads and washed all manner of demons from the sewers, looking after one another seems the least of our priorities. Instead we withdraw to the boundaries, or rather to the fissures, of our respective clan identities, project evil onto the rest and then, for want of a simple bit of maintenance, the whole damned lot comes crashing down.

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rtpI was given this book in 1983, a time when British Socialism was on the wane and Thatcher’s blue revolution had already lit the touch paper to a firework of freemarket capitalism. It was odd then to be given a book of this nature, one that explains how and why Socialism came about, at a time when Socialism seemed to have burnt itself out in a muddle of lunacy.

The story is written in the decade preceding the first world war and concerns a group of painters and decorators in the employ of the unscrupulous firm of Rushton and Company. Day to day, they are at the mercy of the ruthless hire-em and fire-em foreman, Mr Hunter, or Old Misery as he is known behind his back. Jobs were scarce. Then, as now, it was strictly an employer’s market, the only difference being that then to lose one’s job was an infinitely more serious matter with bastards like Old Misery literally holding the power of life and death over you and your family.

Our hero Frank Owen is seemingly alone in his understanding of the causes of the deprivations and humiliations he and his colleagues suffer. His frequent brew-time lectures on the evils of unbridled Capitalism are met with derision. It seems to Owen that his workmates are blind, that even though they grumble and suffer terribly at the hands of their money-corrupted masters, they are at pains to maintain the status quo, to “know their place”, to even vote for the very system that perpetuates their oppression. Thus Tressel labels them the titular philanthropists, making do with rags and starvation, so their masters can thrive and grow fat.

Clearly a political book, Tressell’s work is a classic for all students of the history of British politics, left or right, and for anyone seeking a more visceral understanding of the origins of Socialism and the trades union movement:

A snippet:

Owen saw that in the world a small class of people were possessed of a great abundance and superfluity of the things that are produced by work. He saw also that a very great number – in fact the majority of people – lived on the verge of want; and that a smaller but still very large number lived lives of semi-starvation from the cradle to the grave; while a yet smaller but still very great number actually died of hunger, or, maddened by privation, killed themselves and their children in order to put a period to their misery. And strangest of all – in his opinion – he saw that people who enjoyed the abundance of the things that are made by work, were the people who did Nothing: and that the others who lived in want or died of hunger, were the people who worked. And seeing this, he thought that it was wrong,…

Re-reading the story now, it’s comforting to know the likes of poor Owen and his crew would be spared many of the indignities and premature deaths they suffered in those days, Socialism now having won the fight for access to free healthcare, welfare, paid holidays, a state pension, and strict health and safety legislation. Such things did not exist at the time of writing. But while much has changed, it’s striking how some things remain the same, such as the ease with which a country’s ills are apt to be blamed by certain factions of the press on all these “damned foreigners”. It’s also interesting to see how the principles of Capitalism, carried to their extremes ensure that a decent job of work never gets done, that it will always be scrimped, and bodged, the cracks papered over in pursuit of maximum profit. Tressel’s book also serves as a sober warning that the gains of Socialism over the last hundred years cannot be taken for granted, that they can be lost, and in this way the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists gives us a glimpse of a world to which we risk returning.

Socialism has enjoyed something of a reawakening, and for those perhaps confused by it all, are terrified by the word, or who are too young to have lived it the first time around, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is an enlightening text, one that will explain much of what is going on today, the same as it did a hundred years ago. But this not a dour political treatise. It is a story, engagingly written, with a clear, concise prose and characters both sympathetic and repulsive. Nor is it without its moments of wry humour, all be it usually at the expense of the employers.

We have wonderfully blunt and descriptive names for characters such as Slyme and Crass, also Mr Oyley Sweater, Didlum, Grinder and the monstrous Sir Grabball (Bt). We are left in no doubt where Tressell is coming from, but it’s also sobering that he has no sympathy either for the working man, who, when presented with the means of awakening and doing something about his suffering, makes no effort to do so.

The Church, Private Rent Landlords, the drinks industry, corrupt councils, the tendency among the more affluent classes to dismiss the poor as shirkers and scroungers, all these things come under the microscope as social and cultural vultures which in some way demonise and prey upon the working man, and here too, the book has maintained its relevance today.

Owen is depicted as a bit more of an artisan than his fellow painters. For him are reserved the jobs that require more skill and an artist’s eye, not that these attributes are appreciated by his employers, at least not to Owen’s advantage, who is left as impoverished as his workmates. His employers value him only to the extent his skills can be exploited to undercut the work of other firms. Sickly and possibly even consumptive, Owen’s future looks bleak. What then of his wife? What of his young son? What future for any of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists when they are only a twist of old Misery’s bad temper away from being laid off, and no Welfare State between them and starvation? Tressell says we would be better dead than suffering this kind of life, and it’s hard not to disagree with him.

This book still arouses and inflames opinion. Whether you agree with it or not will obviously depend on your politics. If you are to the left you will find nothing here to disagree with, if you lean to the right, you might gain some insight into the reasoning and the suffering that underpins the passions currently arrayed against you. The problems of inequality and economic tyranny in society are not, as has been alleged recently, “yesterday’s problems”. They are cyclical, born of the natural swing of the political pendulum between the parties of the rich and of the poor. It remains to be seen if we are doomed to repeat the history of Tressel’s day, or if the forebears of Owen and his crew can redress the imbalance and prevent that pendulum from smashing us all in the face once more.

Get the text here (legally) for free.

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british and german casualties ww1 - wikipedia - Photographer Ernest BrooksOn July 28th, this year, it will be a hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War. Already the commemorative columns and books are hitting the press. This is to be expected and indeed welcomed because the lessons taught by the trauma of the Great War cannot be overstated or too often repeated. But less expected has been an attempt by voices within the British establishment and the media to repackage the war in a less than cautionary light. Of particular note, TV presenter, historian and “personality” Dan Snow writes that most of what we think we know of the war is a myth, and that much of the bad press surrounding the war has been overplayed – that as conflicts go, it wasn’t so bad. Indeed he writes there is much in our (allied forces) conduct of the war to be proud of, and that far from being worse off, most men who fought were better looked after than they would have been had they stayed at home.

You can read that article here.

This came as a shock to me since my own impression of the war comes from other writings, all of which paint a very different picture, one that is much at odds with this rather more “upbeat” view, but the argument runs that the things I’ve read were written by authors equally bent on a re-visioning of the truth, so all we are left with now are the myths.

But what it was really like for the men who fought? Can we no longer get at the truth of it? Was it simply too long ago? Well, let’s not forget the personal accounts, both poetic and narrative. These words cannot be massaged to suit the prevailing mood of the times, and therefore remain for ever the most forcible in persuading us of the horror, the inhumanity and the sheer stupidity of war. In this centenary year, I will not be “celebrating” the conflict in the sense of making a flag-waving Jubilee out of it, but I will be marking it by reading more of the stories of those who fought: the colliers, the quarrymen, the farmhands, the weavers and the tram-drivers. They alone have earned the right to teach us the lessons that a certain class of society seems incapable of remembering for very long.

They are gone now, those men who fired the rifles beneath an unimaginable deluge of shells. The last of them was Harry Patch, who passed away in 2009. He did not speak well of the Great War, indeed he did not speak of it at all for eighty years. But their stories are written down for us, and we should make it our business to read them. The ordinary people of the world do not learn much from the careful analysis of historians and statisticians. We learn from others, like us.

I trust this revisioning of the conflict is not a first attempt at inspiring us still beleaguered Brits to a flag-waving patriotism, as a diversion from our continuing economic woes. Such things will not wash. Anyone who has traced their ancestry will be familiar with those trails lost in the mud of that gargantuan conflict; of grandfathers and great-uncles who did not return. It’s quite plain to me that something awful happened, something on a scale never before experienced, something that has left its mark on the memorials in every town and village in the land, and has left its mark too in the ancestral memory.

How all of this touches me is in part through the story of my grandmother’s brother who enlisted as a private in the King’s Liverpool Regiment, 2nd Garrison Battalion. He died in Salonika, in October 1918, aged 26. In my wife’s family, there are two other young men who served in the war. One was killed at Ypres, aged 19. His name is engraved at the Menin Gate memorial. The other, aged 21, was lost at the battle of the Somme and is remembered at Thiepval as one of the 70,000 “Missing”. Uncovering the stories of these young men still comes as a shock to the gut, even after a hundred years. It makes the remembrance personal and it exposes all historical revisioning as ultimately meaningless.

One of the ten myths “busted” by Dan Snow is the one that says most men who went to the war did not come back. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard that said, but anyway it’s not true say the statistics, and the statistics may be right, for all I know. But what I also know is that of the sons of enlistment age I have chronicled among the ancestry of my own sons’ family, we have three who fought, and who did not come back.

It was Joseph Stalin who observed that the death of a single man is a tragedy, while the death of thousands is a mere statistic. To the politician, to the historian, to the chroniclers of war, sixteen million deaths can be counted and cut and spun at us any way they like. But the real story of war, its lessons, and the measure of its waste, can only be found in the hearts of the individual families for whom each man lost is indeed a tragedy, and one that still echoes down the generations.

I am not so naive as to think that war can always be avoided – sadly sometimes it cannot. But let those who would make war imagine first that it will be their own sons they are sending out under a rain of shells. Let the remembrance Sundays continue to be occasions for solemn reflection. It still matters that we think of this, and keep the lessons close. And let us keep also at arms length those who would paint a rosy picture of armed conflict, seeking to convince us those involved in it had anything like a jolly time. Let us remember too that from the higher human perspective, it is always war itself that is the enemy, the real struggle being against those so often intangible forces within the human psyche that would subvert a lasting peace in favour of yet one more bloody conflagration.

 

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