For all the differences in the way they lived, their experiences, expectations, even life expectancy, the people of the past had more in common with “moderns” like us, than perhaps we appreciate. As part of my research into William Scoresby Jr.’s whaling voyages, and in an attempt to reach a workable understanding of early nineteenth century life, I’ve been reading Thomas De Quincey’s Recollections of the Lakes and Lake Poets Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey, first published between 1834 and 1840., and first published together in 1862. I’ve been reading a battered, rebound copy of the 1862 edition, which I picked up for £1 a few months ago (we live in remarkable times). Anyway, De Quincey is an eccentric and opinionated writer, known for his racy style (for the time), and anecdotal digressions.
I first read Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), and On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827) as an undergraduate. De Quincey’s restlessness appealed to me then, but what I find fascinating now, in this later work, and in my middle age, is the way his sensibility grates against the modern world: how terrifying must the railways, and the growth of industrial towns, have been to a generation that grew up without them? In that respect, he reminds me of my own generation, with our pre-digital childhoods and hyper-connected adult lives. Here he is on the poet Wordsworth’s older brother, Richard:
… he had become a thriving solicitor, at one of the inns of court in London; and, if he died only moderately rich, and much below the experience of his acquaintance, in the final result of his laborious life, it was because he was moderate in his desires; and, in his later years, reverting to the pastoral region of his infancy and boyhood, chose rather to sit down by a hearth of his own amongst the Cumberland mountains, and wisely to woo the deities of domestic pleasures and health, than to chase after wealth in the feverish crowds of the capital.
This afternoon I’ve been writing a piece about G.K. Chesterton and while doing some research I found this little gem in his book What’s Wrong with the World (1910) on public schools, the truth, and the problem of the British ‘party system’. His description here of the people running the show is depressingly familiar 100 years later:
Surely, when all is said, the ultimate objection to the English public school is its utterly blatant and indecent disregard of the duty of telling the truth. I know there does still linger among maiden ladies in remote country houses a notion that English schoolboys are taught to tell the truth, but it cannot be maintained seriously for a moment. Very occasionally, very vaguely, English schoolboys are told not to tell lies, which is a totally different thing. I may silently support all the obscene fictions and forgeries in the universe, without once telling a lie. I may wear another man’s coat, steal another man’s wit, apostatize to another man’s creed, or poison another man’s coffee, all without ever telling a lie. But no English school-boy is ever taught to tell the truth, for the very simple reason that he is never taught to desire the truth. From the very first he is taught to be totally careless about whether a fact is a fact; he is taught to care only whether the fact can be used on his “side” when he is engaged in “playing the game.” He takes sides in his Union debating society to settle whether Charles I ought to have been killed, with the same solemn and pompous frivolity with which he takes sides in the cricket field to decide whether Rugby or Westminster shall win. He is never allowed to admit the abstract notion of the truth, that the match is a matter of what may happen, but that Charles I is a matter of what did happen—or did not. He is Liberal or Tory at the general election exactly as he is Oxford or Cambridge at the boat race. He knows that sport deals with the unknown; he has not even a notion that politics should deal with the known. If anyone really doubts this self-evident proposition, that the public schools definitely discourage the love of truth, there is one fact which I should think would settle him. England is the country of the Party System, and it has always been chiefly run by public-school men. Is there anyone out of Hanwell who will maintain that the Party System, whatever its conveniences or inconveniences, could have been created by people particularly fond of truth?
Read the whole opinionated thing over at Project Gutenberg.
This week Melvyn Bragg’s excellent In Our Time radio programme has as its subject ‘The Whale’, a favourite topic of mine. The enthusiastic discussion between Steve Jones, Eleanor Weston and Bill Amos on the evolution of the whale made my train journey this morning a lot more pleasant and interesting. The programme is available on the BBC’s ‘Listen Again’ service until the end of the current series, and is downloadable as a podcast. Get it while you can:
Of all the whales in literature, among the most famous is Moby Dick described by Herman Melville:
“Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw. But soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded and went out of sight”.
Melville’s story is one of drama and grim portent, but far more extraordinary is the story of the whale itself. For the manner in which the whale has evolved is among the finest exemplars of the changes evolution can bring to bear upon life on Earth.
Until now I’ve managed to miss the fascinating and slightly spooky Evidence series at Readerville, which picks over ephemera that happens to be left behind: “shreds of evidence that at some time, in some place, someone was intently focused on, well, something, and a bit of correspondence or a faded photo is all the proof that remains of that convergence of energy, thought and attention.” There’s an open invitation to submit your own in the introduction, but for now, here’s Karen Templer’s recent strange contribution:
When we took possession of our house, there was a package on the kitchen counter—an old plastic Borders bag, the size of a single book, stuffed full. There was a square of paper scotch-taped to it, on which was written, “INFO LEFT BEHIND FROM FIRST OWNER, GLADIS.” It went into one of our boxes, and it was months before we slid the musty pile out of the bag to see what it was. [more]
Anyone with children over a certain age will tell you that one of the best things about being a parent is how much time you get to spend playing games with your kids. In my case–I have three boys, aged 2 to 7–the experience has always had a split-screen quality to it: half belonging to the 21st century, the other belonging to my childhood in the mid-seventies. We spend a ton of time together playing Little Big Planet on the PS3–or more accurately, we spend a ton of time with me marveling at their skills at Little Big Planet and woefully attempting to keep up with them. But there’s also the parallel track, where I get to revisit the games that I played as a child. Just last week it was Battleship. Before that it was Sorry, Bingo, Go Fish, Candy Land, and so on.
There’s a consistent theme to all these old-school game introductions: almost without exception, I have been mortified by the pathetic game that I’ve excitedly brought to the kids. Not because they’re made out of cardboard and plastic, instead of 1080p HDMI graphics. (My boys still spend just as many happy hours with Lego as they do the PS3.) What’s irritating about the games is that they are exercises in sheer randomness. It’s not that they fail to sharpen any useful skills; it’s that they make it literally impossible for a player to acquire any skills at all.
The Norwegian philosopher and environmentalist Arne Naess died on Monday, two weeks short of his 97th birthday. The Associated Press announcement, along with most of the tributes now being paid to Naess, focus on his ecological work and appropriately so; the ‘Deep Ecology’ movement, which he founded in 1970, is his greatest intellectual legacy. But Naess is also a significant figure in the history of analytic philosophy. He was the last surviving philosopher to have attended meetings of the Vienna Circle in the 1930s … [More]