Bridges of memory: two kinds of experience, two kinds of history writing

Historians and their readers have always been interested, not just in what people did in the past, but also  in what they experienced. Apart from well-known types of historical research into politics or the economy, other types have therefore blossomed as well, under such names as biography, history of everyday life, and cultural history. These are usually more focused on experience, and they are perhaps more popular now than ever.

What is important when we write or read such histories, is to be aware what form of experience, really, we are talking about. I have come across two kinds.

Most history writing that deals with past experiences in some way or other, is about how people give meaning to their lives. It is about national or ethnic identity, for example. It is about the stories people tell about themselves. It is about how people reminisce about their childhood, or how they process trauma. Researchers who do this kind of history, interview people about their memories of war or revolution, for instance; or they read childhood memoirs.

Surprisingly, a second kind of writing about experience is much rarer. This kind deals with how things were experienced as they happened. What did the past look like, smell like, feel like? What did people pay attention to, what emotions did they move through, and with what thoughts did they respond to these things?

The two kinds of experience are not always clearly distinguished by writers.* This is an issue, because they are really about two very different things, which warrant different research questions, different sources, and an audience that knows what the book they have in their hands is all about. The huge difference that can exist between the two was driven home to me when reflecting on two of my own memories.

I remember standing on a London bridge, years ago. I was feeling low down. A friend comforted me, but it did not seem to help at all.

Later on, I crossed that same bridge. This time, my thought went not to the things that had bothered me while standing on that bridge, years ago. Instead, I saw the happy image of my friend and me, standing on that bridge and looking at the stars.

It is not that I have forgotten the first experience: I can still evoke it if I like. Yet a set of new experiences has been added on top of it: one experience created by reminiscing about the first experience and giving it a place, one much happier than before; the simultaneous experience of crossing the bridge; and these experiences keep on layering, every time I recall that same moment.

This is not just a series of experiences that are spaced out in time, because many pertain to the same moment; they are also experiences of two different kinds. Consider that first event: this exists both as the unhappy memory of the moment, and as the happy memory in the shape in which I gave meaning to it later on. One moment can produce many different memories. And memories of both kinds can end up in the sources used by historians: both can end up in diaries, in interviews, emails or blogs.

As historians, we had better make it very clear which kind we are investigating and writing about. Is our work about what went on in someone’s mind as they were doing something? Or is it about the meanings people have given to events after they happened, and the events they point to when explaining who they are, and what is important in life?

* Nevertheless, Raymond Williams already explained the difference in his famous book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976).


How to pee on a train in the year 1900

It’s summer, travel in Europe is going ahead at full speed again now that the fear of CoViD-19 has lessened, and so, pleasure trips and long-distance train journeys are as accessible again as they always were: more accessible for some, less accessible for others. But even if you are not railing away romantically as we speak, you can always take a peek at this beautiful historical train kept by the German Museum for Technology:

It is a miniature railway carriage from around 1900, part of a series of around fifty carriages and locomotives kept by the museum that were originally built by railway companies to show off their services. The museum has created a wonderful opportunity to walk through them so I encourage you to take a peek. Every little detail of these scale models of real trains can be seen: from the radiators to the little signs that prohibit the eager traveller from peeing while the train is at a station.

In fact, three loos have been recreated on this carriage. But what do we see there?

There are two cubicles for men, and only one for women. Of course, women did travel by train around 1900. Perhaps the logic of these train builders was that each gender should have an equal amount of space allotted to them, but that women had wider skirts and therefore needed a bigger cubicle, while the same space would offer room for two cubicles to serve men?

Yet it is a well-known fact that people with smaller bladders, who are pregnant, or who menstruate – usually women – need the toilet more often and for longer. This piece of unpractical design thinking that we often see nowadays – people who need less space get more space -was clearly already around more than a century ago.

Then again, another remarkable thing is that the cubicle containing the urinal offers no facilities to wash your hands. Another thing that men did not need?

Instead, as an extra service, they received: a horizontal bar to hold on to…


How to colonise a bit of land for four days

On my way from work I saw this:

A patch of grass in the middle of a busy road, with on it five kitchen chairs, a comfy chair, and a cordoned-off area made using small poles stuck in the grass.
A strip of grass in the middle of a busy road, with on it a tree, and two garden chairs and six kitchen chairs surrounded by red-and-white barrier tape, in this way marking off a little 'colony'.
A strip of grass in the middle of a busy road, with on it a tree, a kitchen chair and a sofa, surrounded by red-and-white barrier tape.

Tape and chairs and even an entire sofa on a usually empty lawn along a busy road in an upmarket part of town. What is going on here?

I had seen some things like this before in the Netherlands, but never on such a scale and with such an array of furniture. It had to have something to do with the upcoming hiking event, held annually in the town to which I moved three years back, although because of COVID this is the first time in three years it is happening. The Nijmegen ‘Four Days’. Organised since 1909. Four days of long-distance hiking, seven days of partying. Tens of thousands of hikers participate, cheered on by hundreds of thousands along the route.

More than a week before the start of the trek, the chairs started appearing in the landscape.

A strip of grass in the middle of a busy road, with on it two trees, one of which carries an illegible notice, and six wooden and upholstered kitchen chairs, surrounded by red-and-white barrier tape.

They became more every day. Who put them there, and why?

A close-up of a hand-written note tied to a tree, reading 'Reserved for' (the rest is illegible).

People were ‘booking’ a seat in the audience.

There was something uncanny about these empty seats and stretches of tape. To me, a historian of the nineteenth century, they looked like a colonial gesture.

Two strips of grass with trees between roads. The strips are divided into many individual sections using red-and-white barrier tape, bedsheets, small poles and various other means. Also: one comfy chair and several notices attached to the ground.

Before I go on I want to make it clear that of course the Four Days’s audiences are no actual colonists. They are:

  1. here to enjoy themselves and to cheer people on, not to earn money;
  2. not likely to kill anyone in the process;
  3. leaving again after four days.

However, there are some striking similarities, too, between the claiming of these viewing spots and what Europeans did on other continents in the last five hundred years:

  1. this land belongs to the municipality, to the commons, in other words: to everyone in Nijmegen. And yet small groups of people claim it as exclusively theirs;
  2. they plant their flag and expect this to be enough to make a lawful claim on the land. If I were just to sit down on the grass within one of these marked areas, the people who had claimed it the week previous would no doubt be very angry and expect me to leave. It shows how big is this faith in flags and tape. It is not actual usage and work and daily interaction that makes you belong to a piece of land (sowing crops, building homes), but a superficial, symbolic intervention such as posting a notice on a tree and walking away again;
  3. who gets to make these claims? People who have access to tape and chairs or even sofas and who are able to move these to the designated piece of land. These are people either with a big car and arms and legs capable of moving this stuff (their own arms and legs or those of people willing to help them), or who live in this upmarket part of Nijmegen so that they did not need to lug their sofas very far. In other words: you cannot make this claim if you ‘only’ get up early each day of the hike to be here in time for a good spot (the hike starts at 4am, although from a different location). Your own body isn’t enough. You need capital. Access to labour. A plan. You need to invest, in the capitalist sense of the word;
  4. although people invest in a spot, that does not mean they pay in full for what they harvest. That is not what investment entails. The lawn was designed by the municipality. The trees were planted by the municipality. The grass is cut by the municipality. And after the party-goers are gone, it is the municipality who cleans up their Mars wraps and Aperol bottles. Who is the municipality in this case? For most of this work, it is gardeners and cleaners. Cheap labour provides some people with a seat in the first row.

Is there a connection between Dutch historical colonialism and Dutch people routinely claiming public space to watch a sporting event or sell their wares on King’s Day? How deeply is this ‘claiming logic’ embedded in Dutch normality? I have not seen this form of appropriation anywhere else so far, so there might be something in Dutch culture that normalises this way of thinking. Meanwhile, I have seen many other places where people get up early and go and queue in order to get what they need or want. Or perhaps that’s only those with little money. Perhaps we should see this present Dutch form of appropriating space as a relatively benign way of claiming something that the entitled otherwise claim by using violence?

But let us stop rummaging around in the Dutch soul for a moment, go to a piece of lawn or pavement bordering on the march*, and sit down, loiter, squat, politely request, stand in front of, or get up really early to enjoy a bit of the parade. And let us hope that it is actually the people staying at the hospital next to the road who get to sit or lie in the best parts of the reserved areas.

* The event is partly a military event.

All photos taken by the author, 2022.


Keti Koti: meaningful art breaks chains

This weekend, I visited the Keti Koti festival in Berg en Dal, the Netherlands. At this annual event, the successful fight against the Dutch enslavement of people in Suriname and the Caribbean is commemorated and celebrated. ‘Keti Koti’: the chains are broken.

The day was filled with art: music, dance, ritual, theatre, the spoken word, visual arts… Many of those art works moved me tremendously. For example the stories told by Musivata Onias Akwensetio Gunguka Landveld about his name, its meanings and the ways in which it has been twisted and misunderstood. Or the complex, ever-changing rhythms and paces of the music by Black Harmony and of the Winti dance performance by Untold.

A person with glasses, brown skin, beard and coat stands next to a coat stand with hat and scarf, under stage light.
Onias Landveld in Wortels en Cassave, promotional photo by unknown maker

These art works, speaking of the history and long-term effects of slavery, were deeply political.

It reminded me of a lament I heard several times recently. Several people recently expressed their frustration or disappointment to me that so much art nowadays is political, is engaged, has a message. Sometimes you just want to switch off and have fun, don’t you?

Now this is undoubtedly true. But I have come to believe that art that is meaningful to me – even meaningful by offering ‘fun’ – is never without political depth. Or, to say the same thing differently: that art that only amuses, is eventually uninteresting. Why do I think that?

My visit this weekend also reminded me of an evening I had a few weeks back that seemed designed for just that: to have fun. It was a piece of musical theatre with excellent singing that did not ask too many difficult questions. Or perhaps I should say that the difficult questions it asked were rather abstract (does fate exist?) without relating these to anyone’s actual life or circumstances. This evening left me a little empty, wondering why the show had been created in the first place. The book the show was based on is a magical satire of life and art under a soviet regime (among other things), and was written by someone who knew all about these themes. The performance might have adapted the book to talk about experiences that are equally pertinent to its makers or audiences nowadays. However, I did not get the sense that the makers had done this. They had not searched their own souls; had not looked deeply enough within themselves.

A greater contrast with yesterday’s Keti Koti festival could not be imagined. It was abundantly clear that these art works were about something, that they had meaning: for their makers; for that majority of the audience who are intimately acquainted with the long-term negative consequences of slavery, such as racism; and for that minority, including myself, who are more likely to benefit from racism, and for whom these works were a lesson and a message. Yes, they were entertaining. But they were more. And they made me realise that even entertainment itself only ‘works’ when it is more than a layer of paint: when there are layers and layers of wood underneath, with tree rings going back centuries.

A joke is only funny when it steps on someone’s toes – someone whose toes are not already Black and blue from being stepped on. A dance only makes us want to move along when it is more than a choreography: when we see in the eyes and gestures of the dancer that it stems from a need to dance. Virtuosic mastery of an instrument serves the telling of a story. A metaphor in a lecture should show us something new. I am not talking about art at the service of a party or specific political goal, but at the service of life and people.

After my visit to Keti Koti, I reflected on my recent ‘post-covid’ burst of visits to plays, dances, films, processions, performances and readings over the past months. And I realised that the ones that had stuck with me, and had come to mean something to me, all were somehow rooted in political urgency. The drag shows, the immersive post-human dance experiences, the lectures about faith in a secular society, the dramedies about trans men in cis dressing-rooms, the hilariously audio-described parodies/homages to cheesy Disney songs… They were about the will to speak and be heard, breach loneliness, connect to people, create a sanctuary for life and love, and be allowed time and space for pleasure.

These art works are no abstract experiments in artistic form. They are ways of processing experience, passing on heritage, teach, communicate, and accomplish other things that are directly meaningful for our animal souls, our social bodies.


Pink Film Days 2022: steamy chests on Women’s Day

It is International Women’s Day and Queer History Month.* Therefore, a brief post today about queer women/’women’ – in film.

The annual Dutch film festival Pink Film Days coincides with Queer History Month. This year is the 25th edition. From 10 to 20 March, viewers will be regaled to tens of feature films, short and documentaries, which will screen not only in Amsterdam but also online.

A friend and I were browsing the online programme. It features stills of each film on offer. These stills, together with the titles of the films and the titles of the shorts programmes, suggested to us that many of the films might be divided into three different categories.

There were films about coming out, finding acceptance with family and others, and finding oneself, usually in relation to gender identity. And there were films that centre on romantic relationships: one category for men, and a different one for women, my friend observed. In other words, we saw a striking gender difference in the Pink Film Days programme. This also led to a further observation: the romantic relationships of people with less-binary or trans gender identities do not seem to get much screen time: most of the relationship films at the festival are either about cis-women or cis-men. Trans and non-binary characters do feature in many of the films, but the focus there is on their relationships to their family, friends, colleagues and neighbours.

Excerpt of programme suggesting six film screenings. For two of them, stills are visible: 1) 'Comets': two women sitting on opposite sides of a table, staring at each other; 2) 'The Swimmer': a tight group of five bare-chested men in swimming trunks.
screenshot https://rozefilmdagen.nl/online, taken on International Women’s Day 2022

The films about relationships between women** are mostly advertised in the programme using pictures of fully clothed people throwing troubled glances at each other. Many of the films about men, however, are sold using steamy imagery of naked chests, sensual glances and touches full of sexual tension. The category of shorts about ‘titillating/edgy [prikkelende] variations on the dating theme’ even only features films about men, it seems.

The effect of this selection of stills/movies is that

  1. it looks like more sexual content is available at the festival for those interested in male bodies;
  2. men are portrayed as more sexually interested and more sexually active than other people.

The festival may have had good reason for this decision. Perhaps it was grounded in the idea that sensual films about non-men cater for straight men. The festival may have wanted to counter the fear that programming more of such films would attract a certain kind of straight man, of such behaviour and in such numbers that the festival would no longer be a pleasant space for other visitors to attend.

An understandable fear, but perhaps also one that we are ready to leave behind. It is important that non-male visitors feel they can safely visit the festival, but is it right that we deny ourselves something we want, just because we feel we need to deny it to someone else?

This may need to remain an open question for now. However, this differentiated portrayal is also rooted in something that the festival perhaps did not make so conscious a decision about. It reaffirms the tendency of our male culture to see women as less interested in sex than men. In this way, the festival encourages limiting roles/rules for women and non-binary people, and strengthens the norm that they should present themselves as chaste. Yet it is the task of a queer festival to challenge exactly these gendered assumptions.***

Having said this, the films the festival does screen look fascinating and stunning: the girl films, the other films, and the boy films. And it’s great to see that LGBTI… film festivals are increasingly programming films about all genders, and not just men.

Now my wish for next year: a greater presence of sensual films and stills about people who are not men, and of films that show these people as having an interest in sex. Programming a film festival such as this is no easy task, it is true. But the films are there: they are being made. If they also start to be programmed more, we can look forward to an even more exciting line-up at the Pink Film Days of 2023.

* In the Netherlands.

** Here, I use ‘women’ both where the film festival uses that term, and for people who, on the basis of these stills, would be identified as women by most viewers in the Netherlands.

*** Equally interesting as seeing the festival thematise non-men’s sexuality more, it would be to see them thematise forms of asexuality. And just as I would welcome a greater presence of sexually active women and non-binary people, I would welcome a greater presence of people with a differently paced or no sexual interest. Both sides of our current sex norms need exploring further at art festivals like these.