Stuff vs. Theory

In a rather acid moment, my publisher once said that all my books could secretly be titled Fun Stuff I Have Found Out. He did not mean it unkindly, or at least I tell myself he didn’t. And up to a point it’s a fair cop, guv. I came to history-writing by the back door. I was writing a biography of four Victorian women, and to understand their own particular lives I felt I needed to know more about the lives which most women of their background and time
lived. My next four books, to a greater or lesser extent, focused on exactly that: how did the people of the time live; what did they do, what did they see, feel, smell; how did they amuse themselves, what was available to them on a day-to-day basis? If we don’t
know about ordinary life, goes my brain, how can we understand what motivates the less ordinary?

The historian Robin Winks divided history into ‘three things: what happened in the past, what people believe happened in the past, and what historians say happened in the past’. This tripartite division is a good description of what history is. History-writing, however, can just as well divide into two schools: theory, and ‘stuff’. Stuff falls into Winks’s ‘what happened in the past’ category, while theory spills across the other two. But stuff encompasses more than just ‘what happened’. It is also ‘what was it like when it happened’.

Take urbanisation, for example. Theory discusses the broad sweep of city growth and the socialisation of populations. Stuff uncovers that, in the new cities, when traffic began to be
segregated according to different types of transport, carts went in one lane, pedestrians and horses in another: the division was wheels versus legs. Not an insight that alone will set the world on fire but one that, nonetheless, does indicate a mindset revealingly
different to our own.

The source-materials for stuff are also pleasantly far-ranging. I would never take Tennyson’s description of ‘streaming London’s central roar’ as evidence of ‘what happened in the past’. It might mean the city was noisy, or it might be a flight of fantasy. Nor Dostoevsky calling London a city filled with ‘the screeching and howling of machines’ – he is hardly known as being the most even-keeled of writers. But then there is Dickens. Novel after novel abounds with throw-away lines like this from Our Mutual Friend, where one character asks another, ‘Would you object to turn aside into this place… where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?’ Add in visitors’ reports of being
unable to hear a sermon in St Clement Danes on a Sunday over the sound of the traffic in the Strand, and Jane Carlyle complaint of the ‘everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, waggons,
carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay…’ from her small by-street in Chelsea, and Tennyson and Dostoevsky now appear to be merely reporting.

I do understand the qualms of the theory-ers, who question whether the experiences of individuals alone can be the basis on which to formulate more abstract ideas about society. Yet stuff allows us a mosaic-style formation of a picture. One tile tells us
little: it is too highly coloured, or too pale; but combine the many, many tiles that make up stuff, and a vivid picture emerges. We can stop with these pictures – that may be all we ask of ‘what happened in the past’. But my view is that, carefully assessed and
weighed, stuff can indeed lead more naturally to theory, to understanding how the people of the past thought about what happened.

It took me a phenomenally long time to discover exactly how a doorstep was whitened in the 19th century. Every household management book assured its readers it had to be done daily, but detailed instructions were scanty, for the simple reason that it was done daily, so everyone knew how. I was finally enlightened not by a book, but by my great-aunt (born 1905). The step was scrubbed down with boiling water. After it dried, a white paste
was applied. (Details to be found in The Victorian House, should any of you kids decide to try this at home.) It was done first thing in the morning, she said, before they went to school, so she and her sister had to jump from the threshold to the path, because
walking on the step would mark the white. How, I asked, wondering, did they get back in again after school? This was the revelation: ‘You could walk on it after eleven; everyone had seen it.’

This stuff therefore has two parts. First, the step was scrubbed before it was whitened; the whitening was not part of the cleaning process. And secondly, whitening a doorstep was not about cleanliness, it was about status. The very transience of the white announced the householder’s respectability: she had cleaned that day, and would clean again the next. So here, stuff leads to theory. What happened, what people thought about it, and why.

For the book I am currently working on, an attempt to outline the development of the idea of home, I am by the nature of the subject dealing more with theory than I ever have before. For the first year, I felt like a cow in ice-skates: please let me have my stuff back, I cried. I can trace the development of artificial lighting with no trouble. I can do it with both arms tied behind my back. Please please please don’t make me write about why, as lighting
became brighter, cheaper and more accessible, window-curtains moved from being rarities to being routine, or why the trends in decoration pronounced darkened rooms more aesthetically pleasing. (Although my stuff-nature leapt upon the nomenclature. In Germany in the late 19th century, one especially gloomy tendency was known as the braune Soße – gravy – style of interior decoration.)

Sometimes I think theory is like dealing with a particularly inquisitive five-year-old. Why was there an Industrial Revolution? Because of the consumer revolution. OK, so why was there a consumer revolution? Because of the… and we’re off, an endless series of ‘whys’ pushing each question further and further back.

At other times, I am amazed not so much by the material (although that is astonishing too), as by Winks’s second category: ‘what people think happened’. Or, in some cases, what they refuse to believe happened; we refuse to move from stuff to theory. Dutch academics have produced exceptional work on 17th-century inventories, comparing the paintings of the Golden Age to the actual design and contents of the houses supposedly
depicted. There is, they show, little overlap – barely any houses had marble floors, brass chandeliers, carpets on tables, or owned musical instruments; meanwhile many items that were in common use, such as strip-matting on the floors, were rarely or barely ever painted. The Dutch of the 17th century knew these pictures did not depict reality; it is we, in the intervening centuries, who have lost sight of that.

But the fascinating thing is how little purchase this work has had, how rarely it has been incorporated into the mainstream of general knowledge, despite – or indeed because – of the popularity of the paintings. The reason for this obscurity, of course, moves us from stuff (the inventories) to theory. The pioneering curator and design-historian Peter Thornton knew of this work, but continued to argue for the verisimilitude of Dutch
Golden Age art: the departure from reality for artists ‘is never all that large’, he wrote. And how, he challenged, if there were no carpets in houses, could artists ‘find carpets on floors to depict so accurately’, taking for granted that artists paint only the world about them, that they do not own props, nor create staged settings to paint.

In part, Thornton’s rejection of the research may have been one of age. He had relied heavily on paintings and engravings for his great histories of interior decoration; to accept the symbolic nature of supposedly realist works as he reached his eighties would bring into question a lifetime’s work. But his refusal mirrors the seemingly inexplicable obscurity of such fascinating material.

His refusal is ours. We really don’t want to know that these paintings are not realistic. From their re-popularisation in the 19th century, these paintings have been a major component in what we think of when we think of the word ‘home’. We want those tranquil, golden-lit rooms to have been real, to be, now, a place that once existed, and might therefore exist again. If we accept they are imaginary, we must accept that our own notions of home are, in part, imaginary too.

Is this theory correct? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: stuff doesn’t lie.

This article first appeared in The Author.

‘Stuff vs. Theory’: Types of history-writing

In a rather acid moment, my publisher once said that all my books could secretly be titled ‘Fun Stuff I Have Found Out’. He did not mean it unkindly, or at least I tell myself he didn’t. And up to a point it’s a fair cop, guv. I came to history-writing by the back door. I was writing a biography of four Victorian women, and to understand their own particular lives I felt I needed to know more about the lives most women of their background and time lived. My next four books, to a greater or lesser, extent focused on exactly that: how did the people of the time live; what did they do, what did they see, feel, smell; how did they amuse themselves, what was available to them on a day-to-day basis? If we don’t know about ordinary life, goes my brain, how can we understand what motivates the less ordinary?

The historian Robin Winks divided history into ‘three things: what happened in the past, what people believe happened in the past, and what historians say happened in the past’. This tripartite division is a good description of what history is. History-writing, however, can just as well divide into two schools: theory, and ‘stuff’. Stuff falls into Winks’ ‘what happened in the past’ category, while theory spills across the other two. But stuff encompasses more than just ‘what happened’. It is also ‘what was it like when it happened’.

Take urbanization, for example. Theory discusses the broad sweep of city growth and the socialization of populations. Stuff uncovers that, in the new cities, when traffic began to be segregated according to different types of transport, carts went in one lane, pedestrians and horses in another: the division was wheels vs. legs. Not an insight that alone will set the world on fire but one that, nonetheless, does indicate a mindset revealingly different to our own.

The source-materials for stuff are also pleasantly far-ranging. I would never take Tennyson’s description of ‘streaming London’s central roar’ as evidence of ‘what happened in the past’. It might mean the city was noisy, or it might be a flight of fantasy. Nor Dostoevsky calling London a city filled with ‘the screeching and howling of machines’ – he is hardly known as being the most even-keeled of writers. But then there is Dickens. Novel after novel abounds with throw-away lines like this from Our Mutual Friend, where one character asks another, ‘Would you object to turn aside into this place…[to one] where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?’ Add in visitors’ reports of being unable to hear a sermon in St Clement Danes on a Sunday over the sound of the traffic in the Strand, or Jane Carlyle complaint of the ‘everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, waggons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay…’ from her small by-street in Chelsea, and Tennyson and Dostoyevsky now appear to be merely reporting.

I do understand the qualms of the theory-ers, who question whether the experiences of individuals alone can be the basis on which to formulate more abstract ideas about society. Yet stuff allows us a mosaic-style formation of a picture. One tile tells us little: it is too highly coloured, or too pale; but combine the many, many tiles that make up stuff, and a vivid picture emerges. We can stop with these pictures – that may be all we ask of ‘what happened in the past’. But my view is that, carefully assessed and weighed, stuff can indeed lead more naturally to theory, to understanding how the people of the past thought about what happened.

It took me a phenomenally long time to discover exactly how a doorstep was whitened in the nineteenth century. Every household-management book assured its readers it had to be done daily, but detailed instructions were scanty, for the simple reason that it was done daily, and so everyone knew how. I was finally enlightened not by a book, but by my great-aunt (born 1905). The step was scrubbed down with boiling water. After it dried, a white paste was applied. (Details to be found in The Victorian House, should any of you kids decide to try this at home.) It was done first thing in the morning, she said, before they went to school, so she and her sister had to jump from the threshold to the path, because walking on the step would mark the white. How, I asked, wondering, did they get back in again after school? This was the revelation: ‘You could walk on it after eleven; everyone had seen it.’

This stuff therefore has two parts. First, the step was scrubbed before it was whitened; the whitening was not part of the cleaning process. And secondly, it was the very ephemerality of the white that was crucial. Whitening a doorstep was not about cleanliness, it was about respectability. The transient nature of the white indicated to others that you had it: you had cleaned that day, and would clean again the next. So here, stuff leads to theory. What happened, what people thought about it, and why.

For the book I am currently working on, an attempt to outline the development of the idea of home, I am by the nature of the subject dealing more with theory than I ever have before. For the first year, I felt like a cow in ice-skates: please let me have my stuff back, I cried. I can trace the development of artificial lighting with no trouble. I can do it with both arms tied behind my back. Please please please don’t make me write about why, as lighting became brighter, cheaper and more accessible, window-curtains moved from being rarities to being routine, or why the trends in decoration pronounced darkened rooms more aesthetically pleasing. (Although my stuff-nature leapt upon the nomenclature. In Germany in the late nineteenth century, one especially gloomy tendency was known as the braune Soße – gravy – style of interior decoration.)

Sometimes I think theory is like dealing with a particularly inquisitive five-year-old. Why was there an Industrial Revolution? Because of the consumer revolution. OK, so why was there a consumer revolution? Because of the… and we’re off, an endless series of ‘whys’ pushing each question further and further back.

At other times, I am amazed not so much by the material (although that is astonishing too), as by Winks’ second category: ‘what people think happened’. Or, in some cases, what they refuse to believe happened; we refuse to move from stuff to theory. Dutch academics have produced exceptional work on sixteenth-century inventories, comparing the paintings of the Golden Age to the actual design and contents of the houses supposedly depicted. There is, they show, little overlap – barely any houses had marble floors, brass chandeliers, carpets on tables or even owned musical instruments; meanwhile many items that were in common use, such as strip-matting on the floors, were rarely or barely ever painted. The Dutch of the sixteenth century knew these pictures did not depict reality; it is we, in the intervening centuries, who have lost sight of that.

But the fascinating thing is how little purchase this work has had, how rarely it has been incorporated into the mainstream of general knowledge, despite – or indeed because – of the popularity of the paintings. The reason for this obscurity, of course, moves us from stuff (the inventories) to theory. The curator and design-historian Peter Thornton knew of this work, but continued to argue for verisimilitude of Dutch golden age art: the departure from reality for artists ‘is never all that large’, he wrote. And how, he challenged, if there were no carpets in houses, could artists ‘find carpets on floors to depict so accurately’, taking for granted that artists paint only the world about them, that they do not own props, nor create staged settings to paint.

In part, Thornton’s rejection of the research may have been one of age. He had relied heavily on paintings and engravings for his great histories of interior decoration; to accept the heavily symbolic nature of supposedly realist works  which emerged as he reached his eighties would bring into question a lifetime’s work. But his refusal mirrors the seemingly inexplicable obscurity of such fascinating material.

His refusal is ours. We really don’t want to know that these paintings are not realistic. From their re-popularization in the nineteenth century, these paintings have been a major component in what we think of when we think of the word ‘home’. We want those tranquil, golden-lit rooms to have been real, to be, now, a place that once existed, and might therefore exist again. If we accept they are imaginary, we must accept that our own notions of home are, in part, imaginary too.

Is this theory correct? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: stuff doesn’t lie.

First published in The Author

Duncan Wall: The Ordinary Acrobat

When John Major, who started his career in a bank, became British prime minister in 1990, newspaper articles recounted his father’s early days as a music-hall performer. Mr. Major, the wits quipped, was the only person who ever ran away from the circus to join a team of accountants.

Duncan Wall is the anti-Major: Born in Milwaukee, the son of accountants, he fell in love with the circus on a trip to Paris as a college student. This was not your usual red-hatted extravaganza but a particularly French form of “new” circus, with acrobats who quote Proust. The Midwestern boy had preferred Disneyland, but the theater-major adult was now hooked, and by dint of a Fulbright scholarship he returned to enroll in Paris’s École Nationale des Arts du Cirque. Since then he has continued his academic love affair by teaching circus history and criticism at Montreal’s École Nationale de Cirque, Canada’s main circus school.

In this chronicle of the circus past and present, Mr. Wall delightfully revisits lost celebrities of the 19th century: Mme Saqui, the French rope-dancer, in her white tulle skirt covered in blue-spangled stars; Isaac Van Amburgh, the American animal trainer who was reputedly the first man to put his head in a lion’s mouth; and William Wallett, an English clown who wowed Paris with Shakespeare burlesques. (“Is this a beefsteak I see before me?”) He visits the great circus venues of the past, including Paris’s Boulevard du Temple, which in the 19th century was the home of the Théâtre des Funambules, famous for acrobatic pantomime. (It seems an opportunity missed not to mention the film “Les Enfants du Paradis” (1945), in which Jean-Louis Barrault depicted Baptiste Debureau, the great mime of the early 19th century.) And he puts into context how the contemporary art-and-entertainment spectacle that is Canada’s Cirque du Soleil came to be the phenomenon it is.

The circus was invented in the 1760s by a British cavalry officer, Philip Astley, who started with trick riding, moved on to “hippodrama” (plays in which horses took center stage) and established many of the basics of circuses, including brass-band marching tunes, a broad center ring and even the “big top” itself. Only when P.T. Barnum retired from his American Museum in New York and went on the road, in the 1880s, did the circus take the form we know: that mixture of short acts, animals, skills such as juggling and tumbling, and, most important, the gigantification of everything.

A new technology, the railways, enabled circuses to travel the world, reaching ever more people. But technology also killed the “old” art. As the performers continually found new audiences, there was no reason for them to develop their acts: The audience was new each week, not the show. Ernest Hemingway wrote that the circus is a “happy dream” but, as Mr. Wall suggests, in a dream the dreamer reconnects with what he already knows. “You didn’t go to a circus, you went to the circus,” said one historian about Barnum-esque circuses: They were, in truth, all the same.

With ever newer technology—film, then television—the circus as grand spectacle was doomed, as fantasy worlds could be found more easily, and more cheaply, at the cinema or even at home. Cars, and urban sprawl, also devastated the old means of drumming up excitement and a sense of community—parades and the big top became meaningless in towns with no center.

In Europe, where smaller circuses worked locally, innovation remained a primary requirement for each company, to lure in repeat customers. It was in altering the predictable formula of touring circuses that the new-style French circus—the kind that beguiled Mr. Wall—came into its own. It features longer pieces than the episodic performances of the traditional three-ring venue, along with narrative sections and musical interludes.

The Cirque du Soleil is a return, in many ways, to P.T. Barnum’s gigantism, with its 4,000 staff, revenues nearing $1 billion a year and a dozen touring and permanent shows. To its detractors Cirque du Soleil is Wal-Mart, or Disney DIS +0.83% : the blandification of the circus. In France, by contrast, the circus is considered an art, deserving of subsidy—€9 million annually helps support more than 400 circus companies and more than 150 schools.

It is with these practitioners that Mr. Wall’s interest really lies, with jugglers such as Jay Gilligan, an American who mostly works in Europe, or Jérôme Thomas, a Frenchman who has revolutionized what juggling can be, merging circus skills with existential profundities as only the French can. These men are as far from corporate junkets, or Las Vegas hotels, as it is possible to imagine. They see themselves instead as the inheritors of the great 19th-century traditions, even as they develop productions that push the boundaries of performance history.

Their seriousness of purpose does make one wish, however, that Mr. Wall’s own engagement with the broader sweep of history was a little more robust. Sometimes it sounds as if he is simply repeating ancient press releases without engaging his critical faculties, as when he tells us that the belle-époque juggler Cinquevalli “purchased diamonds for journalists.” Other events are simplified until they become meaningless. A ballet master patronized by Marie Antoinette and the Empress Maria Theresa is really not a good representative of the flattening of the class system. After England’s “Glorious” Revolution, in 1688, the price of horses did not drop until “anyone” could afford one. Workers in Industrial Revolution cities did not live in “ghettoes.”

But when he sticks to his own subject, Mr. Wall allows readers to share his wonder at the circus world’s arcane jargon: a “board muffin” (assistant standing on the top perch to help the trapeze artist) uses a “noodle” (hooked staff) to catch the trapeze. Mr. Wall’s technical descriptions of what happens on a trapeze, or even of how a somersault is turned, make you look afresh at what had previously seemed obvious. And that may be the greatest trick of all.

Ticket, Brandy, Pistol: All you need on the first Tube ride

On 9 January 1863 was both a day of celebration, and sheer relief. 650 of the great and the good travelled three and a half miles by underground railway, from Paddington to Farringdon Road, stopping to admire all six intermediary stations before lunching at Farringdon Station to mark the completion of what, two decades before, had seemed nothing more than fantasy: a railway under the earth. Palmerston, the Prime Minister, had refused the invitation, saying that he thought it prudent, at the advanced age of 79, to stay above ground for as long as possible. (Allegedly. Almost as many bons-mots are attributed to Palmerston as they are to Churchill. And some of them are even true.)

Most Londoners thought the day would never come. When the Great Northern Railway arrived at Euston in 1850, a few visionaries – or fantasists – had seen that, in the world’s most densely populated city, underground was the only way to go. As with HS2, from the beginning the political will was there, but money was harder to come by. It was 1859 before Charles Pearson, solicitor to the Corporation of the City of London, persuaded his paymasters to invest in the project, and building began.

London had been a building-site for most of the century. If it was not gas-pipes being laid for street-lighting, it was Bazalgette’s great sewer, or water-mains, or new bridges, or streets. But what followed was worse than anyone had imagined. The word ‘Underground’, despaired the Daily News, implied ‘mole-like secrecy’, but ‘this is a great mistake.’ Just as Crossrail today has devastated whole neighbourhoods, nothing was more visible to Victorian Londoners than the installation of the supposedly invisible tube. (And while Crossrail – theoretically – will take eight years, construction of the underground continued for three decades.)

The first Metropolitan Railway used the ‘cut-and-cover’ system: a trench was dug, the railway was inserted and then the ditch was covered up again. Endless streets were therefore boarded off, or narrowed to a single pathway for carriages and pedestrians alike, for years at a time. For the creation of the District line, Parliament Square was one great pit for much of the 1860s, resembling some hideous natural disaster.

Certainly enough disasters, natural and man-made, occurred along the way. In 1860 a locomotive exploded, killing two; in 1861 there was a landslide; and in 1862 the Fleet River, long covered over and filled with sewage, ruptured. The western embankment of the new railway, its brickwork eight feet thick, was tossed up in the air by the power of rushing water, and a hundred feet of wall was carried away in an instant.

Meanwhile, the poor were more permanently disrupted. Where possible the railway lines followed the roads, but often whole neighbourhoods were demolished. As usual, the poor suffered the most. Compensating large tenement-owners was cheaper than compensating individual homeowners, with less chance of vexatious lawsuits. (The Duke of Buccleuch’s claim for compensation when his house was razed to make way for Bazalgette’s sewer took eight years to grind its way through the courts.) Theoretically the railways were obliged to declare how many people they displaced, but without oversight their reports were plainly fiction: a mere 307 people, they claimed, had been made homeless between Paddington and Farringdon Street, whereas contemporary observers put the number at closer to 12,000 for just half that distance. Between 1850 and 1900, as many as 100,000 people may have been evicted, their homes destroyed.

In 1848, a Royal Commission had drawn a line around central London, into which the railways would not be allowed to stray. Instead of one or two mainline stations in the centre of the city, therefore, as in most European capitals, London is ringed by terminals. A mere ten years later this seemed like the natural order of things, and so the first underground silently follows this path: its later extension followed the border too, creating the loop we know as the Circle line.

Then as much as now, great civic projects routinely overran. One newspaper wrote in exasperation in 1862, the opening ‘was fixed for May last; then it was positively promised for the 1st of October; and, finally, for the 1st of January next.’ It wasn’t quite the 1st, but on 10 January 1863, the public was finally allowed to see what all the fuss was about.

As with the overground, the underground trains had first, second and third-class carriages, all lit by gas. Fares were 6d., 4d. and 3d., and 30,000 people were happy to pay that the very first day. By evening Farringdon station was so crowded, it looked like the opening of a West End play. Nearly a quarter of a million more travelled underground the following week, and by the 1870s the Metropolitan line alone was carrying 48 million passengers annually.

Not that it was always, or even often, an enjoyable experience. An American tourist was at first disappointed: it would be no more exciting than going through a tunnel, he grumbled. But he soon realized that, between the smoke from the steam-locomotives and the lack of ventilation, a voyage underground ‘was more disagreeable than the longest tunnel the writer had ever passed through’, and the foggy, smoggy London air above was, by contrast, as limpidly pure as that found on any Swiss alp. For below-ground, travellers’ mouths filled with the taste of sulphur, breathing was difficult. In 1867 a woman’s death was attributed to ‘natural causes, accelerated by the suffocating atmosphere of the Underground Railway’.

‘First’ is not always best. Other undergrounds learned from London’s early foray, and even today some of London underground’s problems arise from those first designs. Air-conditioning requires larger tunnels than the early engineers could have foreseen. And later systems were designed for electricity, not steam-power. (Glasgow and Liverpool’s Mersey Railway were exceptions.) Most countries, too, relied on central planning, whereas in Britain, private development rather than state control produced a spaghetti-bowl of lines.

By the 1880s, Punch magazine satirically recommended that essential equipment for any tube voyage include smelling-salts, a fan, potted shrimps, a brandy-flask, a pistol and a lamp. There was, however, no mention of a map: such were the constant additions to lines that it took over four decades for one to become available.

Finding your way, therefore, was a challenge. Station staff were just as bewildered as passengers. ‘If they do attempt to advise you, take some other ticket than the one recommended’: the odds are against them being right, claimed a west London resident. He added: ‘How many Kensington stations there may be…I do not know; but I know…that the officials always send you to the wrong one… All very well to say that we should look at the map at home and ascertain our route: firstly, there is no map.’ (After that ‘firstly’, pragmatism suggests he needed to go no further. Harry Beck’s iconic diagram, still the basis for us today, did not appear until the 1930s. The special Johnston typeface designed for clarity and reading at speed, and used across the underground came earlier, in 1916.)

Yet to the pioneers who had dreamed of an underground world, and then made those dreams concrete, these were details. They were men who failed to be daunted. Explosions, floods, wars, they overcame them all. A route was blocked by a canal? They re-purposed it as the bed of the new District line. Rivers were in the way? They moved them. (The Westbourne was culverted, and is still visible over the District and Circle line platforms at Sloane Square station.)

And so the oldest underground in the world, a matter of compromise, and patching, and scrabbling, is today still the third largest system in the world (surpassed only by Beijing and Shanghai), carrying 1.2 billion passengers a year.

On that triumphant 9 January 1853 at Farringdon Station, toasts were made to Charles Pearson, that forward-thinking solicitor, who had not lived to see his dream a reality. Let us hope that next Sunday, when the newly restored Met Steam Locomotive No. 1 runs along the original route, glasses will be raised once more to the man who, as his project neared its brilliant conclusion, rejected a cash bonus from the Metropolitan Railway Company: ‘I am the servant of the Corporation’, he said; ‘they are my masters and entitled to all my time and service.’

We shall not see his like again.

Sunday Times, 6 January 2013

Selfridges, history and TV: a rant

In 2008, I reviewed Lindy Woodhead's book, Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge. It was, by a long way, one of the worst books I had ever read: sloppy, repetitive, self-contradictory and filled with factual errors. It has, of course, now been made into a television 'period drama'. I reprint my review, with no further comment.

 

Harry Gordon Selfridge is a terrific subject for a biography. A hustler and a go-getter, he built one of the great department stores of the twentieth century, was a brilliant publicist and, over two decades, an astute reader of consumer trends. When he lost his touch, his fall was as spectacular as his rise. Born in Wisconsin in 1856 to a mother who had lost her husband in the Civil War (Mr Selfridge senior wasn’t dead, he just took the opportunity to vanish), he started work at Chicago’s foremost department store, Marshall Field’s, in 1879, as a stock-boy; within eight years he was the general manager, and a junior partner three years after that. Refused a full partnership, he moved to London, planning to take on London’s retailers, who were coasting by on the innovations of the previous half-century.

Selfridges department store opened on Oxford Street in a blaze of publicity in 1909 – a blaze entirely engineered by Selfridge, who spent Pounds 36,000 on advertising in his first week. He sent lavish gifts to newspaper editors, set up a club room in the shop for journalists, complete with typewriters, telephones and a bar. When Bleriot flew the Channel, Selfridge hurried down to Kent to get permission to display the plane in-store, with advertisements boasting “Calais – Dover – Selfridges”. In 1925, John Logie Baird demonstrated his “televisor” at Selfridges (Baird was grateful for the £25 a week).

But Selfridge’s extravagances were growing alarmingly, both at work and at play. He took fifty of his staff on a whistle-stop tour of the United States to inspect American merchandising methods, insisting on including the store’s wine buyer, although Prohibition was in full swing. His private life became public when he took up with the Dolly Sisters, dancers by profession, who actually lived off rich men and gambling, the former subsidizing the latter. By the time the Prudential, a major shareholder in Selfridges, engineered his retirement, he owed the Inland Revenue a quarter of a million pounds and his “account” with the store was £100,000 in the red. Lindy Woodhead describes his pathetic last days, living in a small flat in Putney, taking the bus into town every morning to stand outside what had once been his store. The pathos is affecting, but Woodhead fails to remind us that Selfridge was the Conrad Black, or the Robert Maxwell, of his day; he used the money from a public company as if it were his own.

This lack of context and analysis is unfortunately typical of Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge. There is no exploration of character – the most the author says, in attempting to explain a man who lived with his mother his entire life is that they were “such great friends”. Instead, Woodhead relies heavily on Selfridge’s own words, taking them at face value, without exploring the motivations behind the arch-self-publicist’s statements. She retells the story of his daughter, disguising herself with a wig, in order to get Selfridge to donate money a bogus charity. It passes belief that he didn’t recognize his daughter, but the anecdote is recounted unquestioningly and without comment here. More worrying is the book’s lack of sources. The “notes” are simply a list of book titles, and there is a sentence expressing the “hope” that “by early 2008” detailed sources will be available online. It is not as though the text does not raise questions for the reader now. Sentences begin, “It has been said”, and Woodhead is filled with a biographer’s certainty: Selfridge “must have”, “no doubt”, “would have” known.

It is, however, the historical foundation that is shakiest. It is one thing for Selfridge to claim he had built “London’s first custom-built department store”, but that doesn’t make it so, and his biographer should surely point that out: the Bon Marche, purpose-built, opened in Brixton in 1877, thirty-two years before Selfridges. Woodhead writes that Selfridges was the first, “possibly”, of any “retail store in the world” to light its windows at night. (In fact, Johanna Schopenhauer, a visitor to London in 1803, particularly admired the city’s night-lit shop windows.) Woodhead says Selfridge “pioneered the policy of browsing”. (Sophie La Roche, in her diary of the 1780s, records hours of browsing.) Marshall Field’s is described as “a monument to new technology” in 1902, with its elevators and pneumatic cash-carriers. (Wylie and Lockhead in Glasgow had lifts in 1855; pneus were everywhere from the 1880s.) At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the “world’s first pre packaged tea” appeared. (Tea was sold packaged as early as 1786.) And so on.

The age Selfridge lived in – from the gilded excesses of the 1890s, through the First World War and the frenzied 1920s – is presented to the reader as a series of out- of-focus photographs, the background a blurry haze, while Selfridge himself is a gross caricature. Unconvincing in broad outline and full of misinformation, Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge is a wasted opportunity.

TLS, 4 April 2008

Lawrence Norfolk: John Saturnall’s Feast

What makes the great novels great? There are as many answers to that question as there are novels. If you narrow the question to “What makes a historical novel great?” the answer that rises to the top is, probably, sense of place. Historical novels create new worlds in our minds, worlds where, even if we know the facts, we don’t know the feel. It is through this type of virtuosic specificity that Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy, now two-thirds complete, established for her readers a newly concrete notion of Tudor England.

Lawrence Norfolk takes a different route. “John Saturnall’s Feast” opens with an almost fairy-tale tone. Packhorses “creep” down the side of a valley, the reader’s distant perspective established by a simple verb. Leading the horses, “a tall figure leaned into the drizzle as if pulling them away from the dark village above.” In three sentences Mr. Norfolk sets out his stall: He will magnify this mysterious world for us, and he will, with an extraordinary use of ordinary language, make us see it not as a historical construct but as a place of wonder.

It is the 1630s and John Sandall is 11 years old. He has lived all his life on the edge of a tiny village in an isolated valley—on the margin of the margins—where his mother is admired and feared as the local wise-woman and midwife. When the village falls under the influence of a Puritan zealot, he and his mother snatch up their scanty valuables—her collecting bag for herbs and her single book—and retreat to Buccla’s Wood, which the locals fear to enter.

These woods are a remnant of a mythical past when “Saturnus’s people” lived and feasted in the valley as equals under Buccla, a beneficent female spirit who ruled after the Romans abandoned Britain. His mother informs John that they are in reality not Sandalls but Saturnalls, descendants of Saturnus and the keepers of the feast. John has powers to match his mother’s: He has merely to breathe in and odors “anchor themselves within him, their invisible trails fanning out around him.” We read of “wild garlic, mulched leaves, a fox den somewhere and a sweeter scent. Fruit blossom, he thought. Then that smell mystery was eclipsed by a larger one. A stranger scent hid among the blossom, sweet and resinous at once. Lilies, John thought, drawing the scent deeper. Lilies mixed with pitch.”

For the book’s first half, Mr. Norfolk’s use of child’s-eye view and lush, incantatory prose give the narrative a hushed air of magic, as though Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” were being recounted by the hero of Patrick Süskind’s “Perfume.” Then, like light through a crack in a wall, the real world breaks in on the boy’s enchanted castle.

John’s skill has gained him work in Buckland manor, home to the lord of the valley, where he is taken under the wing of the master cook. The king, Charles I, visits on the eve of the Civil War, and before long John’s master marches off to fight for his monarch, with the culinary staff trailing behind to service the field kitchens. The war is not recounted in any detail, but British readers only need the place-name “Naseby” to understand that the royalist army will be destroyed.

Here something curious happens. John Saturnall, as a child, lived through his senses. Yet in the second half of the book these senses are abandoned. A camp kitchen must be dense with smells—burning wood, raw and roasting meat, unwashed men and latrines, not to mention pus and blood and death. All this is absent. The descriptions become like soldiers’ temporary encampments, cursorily thrown up by the author and just as speedily torn back down.

Mr. Norfolk has previously published three dense, playful, highly arcane literary novels with multiple storylines. Now he appears to have set himself a new challenge: to tell one single, straightforward story dealing with the most essential human states.

Nowhere does Mr. Norfolk succeed as well as when he is at his most minimalist. When Puritan thugs threaten to cut off John’s hand because he had raised it against one of their own, the entire Buckland kitchen staff volunteers, one by one, “My hand too”—each claiming that it was he who had delivered the blow. This “I am Spartacus” moment could easily have become comic bombast, but Mr. Norfolk merely shows it, then cuts away. At the Battle of Naseby, King Charles’s doomed troops cry “For God and Queen Mary”; behind the lines, those men with no say in their own lives and deaths have a simpler, more heartfelt prayer: that they might live to eat “supper at Buckland.” With three plain words, Mr. Norfolk wrings your heart.

William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow

William Morris has been in and out of fashion so often that the sympathetic watcher can get whiplash following his reputation. Lauded by his contemporary, the great critic John Ruskin, by 1904 he was merely “a great man who somehow delighted in glaring wallpapers”.

Yet Morris, the forerunner of the Arts and Crafts movement and pioneer of furniture and fabric design, was never only about design. As a pioneering socialist he wrote: “I do not want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few.”

And in this ebullient, confident reopening of the William Morris Gallery, we see his life and work spread out for the many, as he would have hoped. Morris grew up in Walthamstow, and lived in this splendid Georgian villa as an adolescent (an indication of his background is that the three-storey Grade II building was where his mother downsized after his father died).

The building has been sensitively restored, with its features respected and enhanced. The curators have opened a world, moving from conception through creation to the sale of the goods.

Morris opened “the Firm”, as he called Morris & Co, to produce well-designed objects of daily life, be they wallpaper, textiles, glass or furniture, for the middle classes.

There is a splendid interactive game where you can “be” Morris and try various business plans to keep the Firm afloat. (I swiftly bankrupted the company.) Then the workshop techniques of printing, dyeing, weaving and tile design are explored (with more excellent interactives), where many of Morris’s designs are on display, followed by a room dedicated to end-products – jugs, stained-glass windows, curtains, chairs.

There is a “book” room, showing Morris’s vast contribution to both the art of the book and the art of the woodcut, and a final space, dedicated to his campaigning work. Along with socialist causes, he also established the world’s first conservation movement: the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (known to his family as “Anti-Scrape”), one of the main influences in the formation of the National Trust.

The gallery’s renovation, undertaken by Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects, is not only sensitive to the original fabric of the building but has also created an equally sympathetic surrounding for temporary displays.

The first is Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry (2009), all 15 metres of it. For our consumer world, Perry’s tapestried cavalcade transforms the Seven Ages of Man into the Seven Ages of Shopping, beginning at birth, following along a red river – of blood? – waltzing through adolescence alongside Topshop, before ending in old age with “grey-power” brands: the National Trust, the Post Office, PG Tips and the Duchy of Cornwall.

It is fitting that these rooms face Lloyd Park and William Morris Gardens, community spaces in keeping with Morris’s belief in art and craft not simply for the elite, but for the population at large.

The gallery was for decades a place for Morris enthusiasts to visit once. Now, with this attractive new face to show the world, the gallery is likely to become a place for enthusiasts and locals alike to revisit regularly, once more situating the old socialist in the middle of the people he served.

Holyrood bed-trick?

The historian of design Mario Praz reports that, when Darnley was ill at Kirk o’ Field, Mary Stuart had her bed moved to Holyrood, saying she would sleep there: that night, the house blew up. The assumption is she liked the bed well enough that she didn’t want to lose it, and had it moved, knowing the explosion was going to happen. (Moving your furniture with you was of course an old aristocratic tradition.)

Praz gives only an oblique source for this story — it appears to be either from Stefan Zweig or from Swinburne (or even Zweig quoting Swinburne?). Does anyone reading this know if the story has any foundation in fact?