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Your trouser back pockets

It’s a dreary November morning, I am on my way to the office. But suddenly a laugh bubbles up from my stomach. Only a very small thing has happened, but it is a tiny revelation.

Imagine someone, a grown-up person, placing their hands on their ribs and keeping them there. Not during some yogic breathing exercise, but while walking to work, along the whole way.

Or putting their hands over their groins, while standing in enthusiastic conversation with a colleague.

Would we not think this behaviour highly peculiar, even inappropriate, unless that person were in some specific pain they were helping relieve in this manner?

B. Kuppenheimer & Co., “In trousers again: No. 10. Trousers” (1900), The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Children are allowed something which adults are not: to touch themselves in public. I am not necessarily talking about sexual touch (many children even are discouraged from this by their elders), but the distinction between the young and the old definitely applies to more generalised forms of sensual touch. Yes, adults are permitted touch with a clear ‘practical’ purpose, such as removing a splinter or applying make-up. But usually these touches are much briefer than the sensual self-hug. And they are not about the pleasure of touch in itself: their touch merely accomplishes an ulterior goal. Simply to touch themselves for an extended period of time is not done.

But grown-ups are clever people: they find ways around their self-imposed rules. They invent clothes, for instance.

So. A woman walking from one end of the campus to the other with one hand on each bum cheek, would be an odd sight. We might wonder: is she trying to point out her special attractions? Is she playing a children’s game? She might simply be warming her bottom, or her hands, but still: do we really accept people warming themselves in public in this manner without question?

But this woman whom I really saw, on my way to the office, had cleverly tucked her hands inside her back pockets. And presto: a ridiculous gesture transforms into an accepted, everyday sight.

Clothes are not just there to protect us from the elements or to show off our taste.

They exist so that grown-ups can claim back some of that childhood freedom of touch. They are an excuse. A cloak under which touch can hide.

Photo by Gentle07, Pixabay.

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A very reverent Alice

In a previous post, I made a call for African, African American, or otherwise non-European-looking Alices in Wonderland. Several reached me, including two Australian editions, Whoopi Goldberg’s urban retelling, and the 2018 Pirelli calendar.

Now, designer Marlon McKenney has published Alice in Wonderland: Re-Mixed.

The book is a drastically shortened, retold version of the classic story, richly illustrated with digital images. These illustrations do an excellent job at normalising the depiction of brown-skinned people in picture books: exactly as I wished for when I made my call last year:

The book also includes some nice finds in the genre (yes!) of Alice art: there is a water-clock tea set; the Cheshire Cat practices voodoo; the White Rabbit is a DJ carrying a bling-bling watch; the game of croquet has been turned into a singing contest; and the Queen of Hearts’s children have been turned into – white – security guards, carrying guns, batons and tasers: ominous, but no less ominous than Carroll’s original.

The special aim of this publication is to bring African American children in touch with African American heritage.* The book thus aims to help consolidate a canon of art works and ideas created by people with African roots. Or, as it seems in some parts of the book, the aim may even be to create a canon of non-whites from across the entire world.

Unfortunately, this has resulted in a book with a didactic tone and little humour. During Alice’s long fall down, for instance,

She saw mystical books, ancient symbols, and pictures of important historical women. Alice was dazed and confused by the images circulating through her mind, yet somehow, they felt vaguely familiar. She’d have to remember to ask her sister about them. [bolds in the original]

At the end of the story,

everyone from Wonderland finally decided to stand up to the Queen and stop her from hurting anyone else anymore.

And after Alice’s return above ground, she says to her sister:

‘I’m just glad to be back where things are really what they seem[.]’

What chafes most in this respect, is that Lewis Carroll’s intentions and methods – to entertain children with nonsensical conversation – have been lost.

And perhaps this is inevitable. The makers of the book clearly thought: what better way to strengthen a new canon than to attach it to an existing canonic work?

But in many ways, the original Alice is an anti-canonic work. Irreverence, critique and irony are at its very heart: Shakespeare is reduced to a textbook portrait of a man with a finger pressed against his forehead; the Battle of Hastings, focal point in the British self-image, is the driest story a crowd of animals can come up with; there are the ineffectual King and Queen of Hearts; haughty Humpty Dumpty falls off his wall; and afternoon tea is a never-ending affair. Every bit of British canonicity is ridiculed.

To create a similar, humorous critique of African American figureheads might, Marlon McKenney may have deliberated, undermine the purpose of his book, which was to offer its readers a first introduction to these people and make it unambiguously clear that they are our heroes. In a typical sentence therefore, Alice’s sister Kenya

was reading aloud from one of her favorite books by the great poet Maya Angelou.

On the other hand, the Re-Mixed retelling also offers a refreshing take on the idea of a canon by mixing up what in books is usually demarcated as two separate realms: that of low culture and of high culture – of street art and salon art: Tweedledee and Tweedledum figure as two breakdancers on cardboard, next to the novels of Maya Angelou; vodou stands next to the high politics of Nelson Mandela.

Refreshing, but also a little risky. Because by following this tactic, and by including icons from across the history of the world, ranging from the Bhagavad Gita, via shamans, Frida Kahlo, and a southern-Asian caterpillar, to Queen Nefertari, all in a text of only a few thousand words, McKenney runs the danger of creating the impression that African American history offers little material that is worthy of a cultural canon. It is as if he only had a few people and works of art to choose from. Granted, every canon-building endeavour has to start somewhere. But by limiting himself to, for instance, twentieth-century North America, the author would have made a much stronger case for the global significance and influence of African American culture.

And perhaps the best service McKenney could indeed have done his heroes, would have been to treat them with a little less reverence. (Okay, apart from Maya Angelou. But Haile Selassie?) Because: once we can laugh with our cultural icons, we know that they have undeniably made it to the canon.

 

A digital copy of the book is available for free from Conscious Culture Publishing.

This post also appears on Culture Weekly, a ‘weekly bilingual culture blog on the creative industries, arts patronage and cultural policy written by scholars at the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands’.

* This is my interpretation of the publisher’s blurb, which reads:

CCP is an independent publishing company committed to creating a platform for diverse content that push the boundaries of traditional storytelling. Through the creation of narratives that are a reflection of the people both creating and experiencing these stories, we empower young readers to reach their fullest potential while embracing their history and culture.

Our stories are a reflection of the global community and we believe it is important that young people of color not only see themselves reflected in stories but also have a platform to provide their own authentic voice, culture, and experience. Storytelling is an extraordinary way to educate and empower young readers and show them that they are limitless.

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If we live in a shrinking world, it is not because transport is becoming faster

Yes: I live a 5 minutes’ walk from the beach.

Yes: I live in the very heart of Britain; as far from the sea as anyone living on this cliff-encrusted island could possibly live.

Both statements are true. Here’s why.

I live in Sheffield, next to the train station, and if I get onto the right train a direct line will take me to Cleethorpes on the eastcoast. There, a station was built in 1863 which was located virtually on the beach itself.

And here’s what’s so remarkable: it does not matter to me whether this train moves at 50 miles or at 150 miles per hour (the truth lies somewhere in the middle, in fact). The beach will remain to feel close. This is something over which I completely agree with the long-dead travellers with whom I work. (Ours is a pleasant arrangement: I read their diaries. They take it easy.) We get on board, we stretch our legs, and… presto: we are on the beach.

The end of the line. Cleethorpes station, 26 August 1983. Photo by Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Now I can do a somewhat similar thing if I want to go to Ireland; to Dublin, for instance. There is hardly any distance my legs need to cross between home and Dublin city centre. Again, public transport takes me from door to door. Still, Dublin is quite a different story from Cleethorpes. I need to change trains three times (Stockport, Crewe, Chester), get on a boat (which departs from sea-tale Holy Island), and finally catch a bus that takes me from Dublin port to Dublin town (where, by the time I arrive, I am more than ready for a whiskey).

Undeniably, Dublin takes me a few extra hours, but the difference is more than that: the journey to Dublin is of an altogether different order from the ride to Cleethorpes. I believe that to a large extent, this is caused by the numerous changes, the getting off and onto trains, the more complex arrangements that I need to make, having to stay focused throughout the journey in case I miss a stop or a departure or a service announcement, the waiting in between, and all the different stations and places I get to see along the way.

Therefore, Cleethorpes does not only make for a journey that feels shorter, but also for a place that seems closer while I am still at home.

A single iron road stretches out all the way between me and the east coast. It almost erases the journey. And it holds the two places – home and seaside – in a single embrace.

These reflections on my own travels while still living in England were stirred by my reading of nineteenth-century experiences of distance.

Some of these experiences can be found in my article ‘Trains, Bodies, Landscapes: Experiencing Distance in the Long Nineteenth Century’, published in The Journal of Transport History (2019). Others can be found in an article I wrote about accessibility which is yet to be published.

These are academic articles, but I have also written about distance here on Historian at large and with the Hakluyt Society, and have written more posts about the history of travel generally.

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More shared loos: from binary to queer

One more brief post on unisex toilet facilities, before we move on to other things! (Unless this new city which I moved to, keeps surprising me.)

My new office building has many floors. On one floor:

One cubicle for two genders.

On the next floor:

One cubicle for all genders.

(Including, apparently, the ‘wheelchair gender’. Odd how wheelchairs keep being presented as some kind of stick-on gender feature. Or genderlessness feature: most wheelchair-accessible loos are shared among all genders. But that’s a slightly different topic.)

And then there was this one:

Ain’t they a beauty?If anyone knows who designed this merhuman, I wouldn’t mind being told!

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Tracing the progress of unisex loos

A brief instalment of the toilet picto saga.

In an earlier post, I shared an androgynous, or trans, or two-gendered WC symbol which I had found in an English café.

This week, I found something even more exciting:

Granted, it is somewhat curious that the person in the dress does not seem to possess any shoulders/arms. Or perhaps her hands are clasped firmly in free-kick position?

Robin van Persie with Fulham players, photo by Ronnie Macdonald, Flickr (2007).

But for the rest, this toilet sign clearly signals that you do not need to look/feel like a man or a woman to enter these cubicles. (All genders in these WCs also share the same spaces, by the way.)

And what made seeing these signs even more special to me, was that they were located in a town hall, in the place where new citizens go to be registered. It is truly, therefore, how the Dutch city of Nijmegen presents itself to the world.

 

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When we feel our language is under attack

I am still living in the UK. One morning, a campaigning leaflet falls on my doormat: ‘Show your English pride!’, ‘English values, English History & English culture in our schools!’.

Meanwhile, in the papers, the British vox pop expresses its fear that ‘we will soon all be speaking German’.

In the US, too, cars brandish bumper stickers with ‘We Speak English Here’ or ‘One Nation, One Language’, whilst their drivers are waiting for their president to ‘Make America Great Again’.

These anxieties around the status of the language we speak find a precedent in the nineteenth-century Netherlands. There, it was the idea of an English, French or German linguistic dominance that went down badly with some. One of these people was Marie Adrien Perk, brother of feminist Betsy Perk and a Protestant minister in Dordrecht. Although he may not have shared the political vision of the campaigning leaflet, his sentiments were much the same.

In a short article for The Low Countries, I show the level of chauvinism the nineteenth century already reached when it comes to language; or rather: how much of our present chauvinism has been learnt from our nineteenth-century predecessors.

Many people spoke condescendingly about other languages. This has everything to do with the photo below, explained in the article. But in particular, Marie Adrien Perk shows people’s anxieties about the status of their own language. You can find the full article here.

Injured skier on his way to the train station. Labouche Frères, ‘Les Sports d’Hiver dans les Pyrenées / 22. – Au Concours International de Ski de Cauterets: Blessé porté à la Gare dans une Chaise à Porteur’ (Toulouse), from the private Collections de Cartes Postales Anciennes.