Friday, 31 May 2013

Rotherham on celluloid

I'm a big fan of British New Wave cinema, although I have to admit my interest is somewhat geographical: I'll feast on anything filmed or set in the north, but can't seem to work up the same enthusiasm for London. That means I haven't seen the New Wave canonical Up The Junction, but I have seen the almost-forgotten 1958 noir thriller, Tread Softly Stranger.

Starring Diana Dors and set in a fictionalised Rotherham ("Rawborough"), with some scenes at a racecourse in what I assume must be Doncaster, Tread Softly Stranger is a noir-ish thriller that adopts a very kitchen sink approach to setting. We see sweeping, stylised long shots of the savage industrial sublime: cramped rows of back-to-back houses, smoke rising over the satanic mill. Although a lot of people (including myself) love the kitchen-sink genre for its realism, at the time that most of the films were released, before the late '60s completion of the M1 motorway, the northern, working class panoramas on screen were, for many English viewers, incredibly exotic.


Incidentally, if you're interested in the M1 motorway* (or the "London-Yorkshire Motorway" as it was then called), I recommend the excellent BBC Radio Ballad "Song of a Road", which tells the stories of the 19,000 men that built it. You can read the full transcript here, but of course it's better to buy it on CD so you can listen to the music.

*And who isn't?

Picture credits go to Movies Gone Mouldy.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Victorian cities, scandalous food

Giles Coren presented a very good programme on Radio 4 today: Food, a Scandalous History.

Coren compared the modern horse meat scandal in the UK to the widespread practice of food adulteration in Victorian Britain, where a newly urbanised proletariat were simultaneously cut off from traditional food production practices and placed at the mercy of an unregulated push for profit in cheap foodstuffs. Death from food contamination was common, with adulteration practiced widely - such as using plaster of paris and ground bone to bulk out flour (The Great Lozenge Maker, Punch 1858, above).

I recently found another fascinating resource on historical food adulteration (on Tumblr) - the fantastically bound "Death in the Pot", A Treatise on the Adulterations of Food, published in 1820.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Bulgaria's goat people

The above images are of the Bulgarian Kukeri ritual, a means by which, early in the new year, evil spirits are scared away from villages and urban communities. This springtime ritual also personifies fecundity, harvest and fertility. This pagan performance is thought to be extremely old, and could possibly descend from the Hellenistic worship of Dionysius, who was the greek god of wine, ritual madness, intoxication and ecstasy. 

It was banned during the Communist era but still survives today. Similar practices can be found throughout the Balkans. Young people (traditionally only men, but now of both sexes) dress up in elaborate, animalistic and celebratory costumes, usually made of goat skin in some way representing the goat. At the culmination of the festival, a kukeri is strapped to a plough, 'dies', and then sprinkled with seeds and is 'reborn'. His goatskin costume is then buried in seven different fields.

Goats play a fascinating role in European paganism. In Finland, Father Christmas (or Santa Claus) traditionally takes the form of a goat, and in Norway, men would dress in goatskins and go from house to house singing songs during the Yule period. In Sweden, a man dressed in goatskins would be 'sacrificed' and 'reborn' in midwinter, and giant goats made of straw often adorn towns at Christmas.

The Christmas Goat at Gävle, Sweden.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Second Amendment

Today I went with some friends to a firing range in Baltimore. Handguns are illegal in Britain, so this was the first time I'd either seen or shot one, making it a significant (and surreal) cultural experience. 

The 'silence' created by the mandatory ear protection (which blocked out all noise except the resounding boom of gunshot) was reminiscent of Gus Van Sant's Elephant, which made the experience even more eerie. We shot with both a .22 revolver (which I enjoyed) and a 9mm semi-automatic (that terrified me). Guns are such a huge part of the visual culture exported from Hollywood that the act of shooting - the 9mm especially - occurred in a strange space that occupied as much fantasy as it did reality. 

It's hard not to succumb to instinctive fear when surrounded by gunshot and almost-present death. As time went on, however, we became more comfortable in the liminal safety/danger of sport and murder. The mastery of fear (and its shaking hand) combined with the shot of endorphins released by a skilful hit of the target makes shooting an extremely rewarding physical experience. You're not only fighting (all the targets at the range are unashamedly human shaped) but you're winning. Winning, unsurprisingly, feels good.

Watching a tragedy like Sandy Hook unfold from a distance, it's hard to understand anyone who would fight an attempt to tighten US gun control. Moving to the other side it's easier to comprehend. To regular and skilled shooters, regulation is not about safety; it's about removing a significant source of self-esteem. You may instinctively (and I do) associate a gun like the one above with death. But for others it can mean the opposite. Mastery of the body, exercise of power, a simultaneous denial and embracing of mortality: using a gun can provide a momentary glimpse of the visceral essence of life. This, I believe, is what the pro-gun lobby is fighting to retain - a sense of self identity that is inextricably tied in to the affective labour of the fire.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Taughannock Falls

Today I visited one of the tallest waterfalls in the United States of America, in the charmingly named town of Ulysses, near Ithaca. The "sweet sister of Niagara"  was described in an 1866 guide book thus:

"At the bottom of the ravine and at the foot of the fall, looking up the great height, and watching the extremely graceful and beautiful descent of the spray, (for the water begins to break into spray almost at the moment when it begins its plunge over the precipice,) you feel that nowhere in the world can it be possible that a more perfectly beautiful waterfall can be in existence.

"The coquetting air takes the cataract by its curls on the very forehead of the crags, and tosses and frays it into millions of tiny, fleecy jets, and tangled, shining threads of diamonds and dewy light. Each drop gives way to the temptation of a separate display, and with white wings, as of a thousand doves or albatrosses, the vision lights softly at the bottom of the gorge, with no more noise than the wind makes when it stirs the leaves of a mighty forest."

The guidebook then goes on to discuss the waterfall's place in the area's history:

"No doubt the wild "children of the forest""felt awe as deep and reverential love" toward the Great Spirit, whose hand they recognized in the works of nature, as do many of their more enlightened pale-faced conquerors, who boast so loudly of their mental and moral superiority. 

"In no other part of North- America had the aborigines made such advances in civilization as upon the shores of these lakes and in the Genesee country. Those of our readers who have been accustomed to think of the Indians as wild and savage warriors will be astonished to learn how far they had advanced in the arts of peace.

"We quote from an authentic account of General Sullivan's expedition against the Indians, in 1779: 

"After the battle at Newtown [now Elmira] the American army pressed forward between Cayuga and Seneca lakes, driving the Indians before them. Here the lands were found to be cultivated, yielding corn abundantly. Extensive orchards presented fine fruits to the invader. The apple, pear, and plum were abundant. A regularity in the arrangement of their houses indicated long-continued prosperity and enjoyment of property. Many houses were rudely framed, with chimneys, and some few were painted. All, however, were destroyed." 

"We are informed, by early settlers, that, at the time of the first emigration of the whites into this region of country, there were unmistakable evidences that a large and long-establislied Indian Village had existed on the point now known as Goodwin's, below Taughannock Falls. At the time of the coming of the whites the village had been abandoned, probably on account of the gradual decimation of the tribes, but the Indians still cultivated corn-fields on this point, and had also an orchard here. 

"For many years hatchets and other Indian implements would often be turned up by the plow, and it was no uncommon thing for laborers in the cornfields to discover quantities of the wampum, or large red beads, used as money by the Indians. 

"The Indian apple orchard was near the mouth of the stream, and some of the trees were standing only a few years ago... Mr. George Goodwin, of Jacksonville, related that a long time after his father settled at 'the point', although the land had been nominally sold to the white men, the Indians claimed the fruit as their own."

Sunday, 12 May 2013

High Line, Wild West

Yesterday I visited the High Line, Manhattan's park on a disused elevated freight line.

A fascinating article by Annik La Farge talks about the history of the High Line and its horseback precursor, the West Side Cowboy. Apparently, the freight service that the elevated High Line was built for once shared the centre of Tenth Avenue with other traffic and pedestrians, caused so many fatalities that the street was locally dubbed "Death Avenue". 

Death Avenue. Photo courtesy of Friends of the High Line, reposted from Bowery Boys.

Because of these risks, a horse and rider were employed to precede the trains waving a red flag - or at night, a red lantern - warning other road users of their approach. Annik has posted a fascinating video of a cowboy at work on Tenth Avenue in the 1930s on her excellent High Line blog.

Cowboy at work. Source: the Bowery Boys.

The cowboys walked Tenth Avenue between December 1850 and March 1941. As the article "Cobblestone Cowboys" from The London Terrace Tatler, January 1934, tells us:

"Every resident of London Terrace knows , and we believe, likes the cowboy riders of the New York Central, who day and night, rain or shine, majestically precede the electric trains along Tenth Avenue. For over eighty years this unique custom has been in existence, but now, even as the riders of the West have faded into glamorous limbo of romance, their own day is drawing to its close. With the early completion of the overhead roadway, they will disappear from the streets of New York, leaving many to change "The Last Round Up" as the brass bands announce the official opening of a modern Manhattan miracle.

The  "Modern Manhattan Miracle" in 1934. Source NYPL (via the  Bowery Boys again).

Law of the Range

"The story of these riders goes back to December 4, 1850 when the City Council passed a law compelling trains on the streets of New York to be preceded by a rider on horseback, on block ahead of the locomotive, waving a red flag by day and a red light by night to warn pedestrians and prevent runaways of horse-drawn vehicles. This quaint law is still in force, and the New York Central must, until it rises above the street, provide its riders or suffer revocation of its franchise.

Two Mile Ride

"The Tenth Avenue freight route extends from 30th Street south to St. John's yards below Canal Street, a distance of about two miles. To cover the operation of the various trains, a staff of twelve riders is maintained. These boys, who must all be over eighteen years old, are almost wholly recruited from Tenth Avenue and West Street, and strange as it may appear, riders are difficult to find, and only those who have, by strange fortune, learned to ride in the county are used, because a country boy knows and understands horses, and is thus prepared for any unexpected excitement that might affect his steed.

"The "Ranch Boss" of these cowboys is the Superintendent of the New York Central Freight Yards, and since the law has been in effect two of the riders have risen from the range to the important position of Yard Masters.

The Ponies

"The horses used in this unusual service are tried and true, and are perfectly aware of their important mission in life. They know traffic and excitement, thick fogs and blinding storms, the deep-throated adieus of departing liners and the tremendous thrill of screaming fire engines, but through it all they move surely and serenely, carrying out the Law of the City Council and giving opportunity for their gallant riders to amuse the passerby with amazing variation of the routine waving of the red lanterns. The effective term of duty of these mounts for this service is over eight years, duet to the special care and the use of rubber padding on their hoofs, and when their usefulness on the city pavements is over they are auctioned off at the Bulls Head Horse Market to continue their lives on softer turf in greener pastures."

A tree for topping

Yesterday was the date of an important topping out ceremony in New York, as the new "One World Trade Centre" ceremonially reached its highest point.

I happened to attend another Manhattan topping out ceremony on the same day, a little further uptown. I joined a group celebrating the highest point of a new social housing block in Harlem by watching a tree be planted on top of the unfinished building.

Apparently this practice is Scandinavian in origin, with references to the Vikings performing similar ceremonies as early as 700 AD. Some sources attribute the ceremony in its current form to the Vikings. Others claim this early practice of topping out involved not trees but sheaves of grain (to feed Odin's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir), and that this was adapted by pre-Christian, tree worshiping Europeans, with a tree placed at the top of a new structure to appease any spirits displaced in the activity of building.

Sleipnir in Odin Rides to Hell (1908) by W. G. Collingwood. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The spirituality of trees was historically celebrated all across Europe. Celtic (such as the Gauls and Britons) and Germanic tribes (such as the Angles, Saxon and Jutes, as well as the Norse) all recognised spirits residing in trees, and many of these customs remain. You can read more about the place of tree worship in modern Europe, particularly in association with the celebration of May Day, in Chapter 10 of James Frazer's The Golden Bough.

A Jack-in-the-green ceremony in Hastings, England. Source: Properganda

Although Harlem - particularly the Sugar Hill area to the North, where we were - is surprisingly green, it's unlikely any trees were felled when this steel-and-concrete building took the place of an early 20th century garage. Yet the tradition endures. The tree now symbolises growth and sustainability, and promises good luck for the building's future residents.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Water is water, wherever the spring

Photo: Tomas Munita, New York Times

Nueva Germania was founded in 1886 by German émigré and proto-Nazi Bernhard Förster and his wife Elisabeth, whom he married on Wagner's birthday in 1885. Elisabeth, incidentally, was the sister of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. 

Bernhard felt uncomfortable with a rapidly modernising, urbanising Germany, and longed for a return to a personal - albeit widely held - volk-imaginary of Germany as it 'should' be: a rural world neither materialist or individualist, of bright skies over rich earth commonly worked by strong protestant mind and morals, where hard work was put to good purpose, and the right and proper order of homo and terra was sustained. It was these values, Bernhard argued, rather than the nominal presence of the state, that made up the quintessence of what it meant to be German. 

In fact, Germany as commonly understood, a European nation, a collective of people under one rule in a given place, had become so corrupted, so culturally attenuated, so irretrievably far from this folk ideal that Bernhard declared it lost. He decided the only way to recover the true Germany - the Germany of the spirit, not of the flesh - was to remove all the cultural debris and create a clean space away from it all in which it could flourish anew: to hew a new Germany from virgin soil, far away from the capitalism and cultural assimilation that had destroyed the old. With this aim, one year after their marriage, the Försters moved to Paraguay. 

The Försters' plan (or at least Bernhard's - who can tell what a 19th century wife thought of her husband's harebrained schemes?) was to establish a community that would embody Bernhard's moral and spiritual ideals. And, as the spirit of that ideal community was fundamentally embodied and fundamentally Germanic, the paramaters of this new society were fundamentally racist. Fourteen 'racially pure' families were selected to establish lebensraum in the new world. In time, Bernhard reasoned, the group - as they were superior to any proximate non-Germanic peoples - would go on to rule the entire continent. 

Things didn't go entirely to plan: life was harder than they anticipated. Some settlers starved. Others gave up and returned to Germany. Others gave up even further, and took their own lives. A member of this latter group was Bernhard himself, who killed himself with strychnine in 1889, only three years into his new habitat.

Others of the party survived and remained, and in 2013 Nueva Germania still exists. Now, the descendants of those most hardy of the original settlers have long since intermarried with their Paraguayan neighbours - a perfect illustration, perhaps, of what early proponents of Social Darwinism didn't understand about evolution. 

The town's dominant language is Guaraní, the indigenous tongue of the area, although German spatters the speech of local people regardless of their ancestral footprint. Other Germans came to the town during the Stroessner years, in which Paraguay also became an infamous refuge for Nazi war criminals, yet Nueva Germania is very much Paraguayan, merging both in kith and kin with its surroundings. 

This post was inspired by a recent article by Simon Romero in the New York Times, most particularly because I wanted an excuse to share Tomas Munita's lovely photos of Nueva Germania. It's also based in large part on the writings of Robert C. Holub in the book The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and Its Legacy.

17 years, on the dot

Cicada, painted by Jasper Johns in 1979, two swarms ago.