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How do you know how far you’ve travelled?

‘It’s a small world’ – nay, a positively ‘shrinking’ one. How often do you not hear these words used in order to praise the newest communication and transport technologies? Or, equally, to condemn mass tourism?

(‘The world is getting too small. Nowadays, every Tom, Dick and Harry flies to the other end of the world as if it’s the shop around the corner.’ (People who fear that the world is shrinking typically speak from an economically comfortable position.))

The truism can be found in sales and politics, journalism and academic research alike: since we no longer have to walk in order to get from A to B, or sit on a horse, or even drive a carriage, our bodies no longer feel how great a distance we are covering. Trains and planes have annihilated space. Our journeys have become ‘disembodied’.

What is more, we have stopped noticing the landscape we are travelling through, because we stow ourselves away in cabins and compartments that isolate us from the trees and the rocks and the waves that surround us. We therefore no longer register the journeys we are making: the only things left now are departure and arrival.

Modern technology captured in a Blue-Riband-winning ocean liner: RMS Etruria, built in 1884, as shown on a postcard. Bavinck would have sailed on a roughly similar ship. Wikimedia Commons.

Economically speaking this is true: the cost of carrying people across the globe has been on the decrease for centuries, as ships and roads and other transport technologies have become ever more efficient.

But is it equally true when we consider how we feel about distances? Do we no longer notice that Cape Town is further from Budapest than it is from Kinshasa, simply because we might take a plane (rather than walk) to go to either place? And does the ocean literally feel narrower now than it did a hundred years ago, because we have boats that take us across faster?

With this question in mind, my work as an historian led me to scrutinise dozens of historical travel narratives and the titles of many more. In the end, I had to conclude that at least European experiences have not in fact changed so much.

However up-to-date and speedy their mode of transport, people could not help keeping a physical sense of distance.

There were many factors which contributed to this: the work that went into every step of the journey, and its many discomforts, even if just that of sitting still for any length of time; complicated communications with the home-front; cultural differences between place of departure and arrival…

This photo of RMS Etruria already gives a better impression of the lonely situation of ships like these when under sail or steam. Before 1910. Wikipedia.

Another major factor was the landscape. A nice example is offered by Herman Bavinck, a Dutchman who in 1892 made a three-month journey to America. Over the course of the preceding century, sailing times from Europe to North America had been vastly reduced, from several weeks at the start of the century to just 130 hours in Bavinck’s days. 130 Hours were therefore comparatively quick in the eyes of his contemporaries, and his journey would also have been relatively comfortable. We are talking the time of the Titanic, and on his own ship, Bavinck would certainly not have travelled third-class.

And yet, he writes that

130 hours [. . .] is quick to say, but one feels the length and the cost first, when one sees nothing but water — infinitely wide, everywhere — day after day, night after night’

For Bavinck, the transatlantic distance was vast, the voyage boring and America ‘far’ and ‘distant’. This is because what mattered to him was not the objective duration of his journey – a little over 5 days – but the insistent repetition of a single landscape type: water, and nothing but water.

A ‘wondrously large’ space: Niagara Falls used for its water power. Photo published in 1890. Wikimedia Commons.

Distances felt long to him within America as well, even though he only travelled in the area close to the Great Lakes and used all the most modern means such as steamers and railways. Again, this had to do with his relation to the landscape: he was impressed by the sheer size of America’s natural phenomena, such as its rivers and falls. He therefore found the country

wondrously large […] We do not understand its expanse.

Bavinck is just one example of the many travellers for whom their own bodies and the landscapes they travelled through continued to give them a pronounced sense of distance – or proximity – with no hard and fast relation to the ever shortening lengths of time it took to get somewhere.

This post is based on my article ‘Trains, Bodies, Landscapes: Experiencing Distance in the Long Nineteenth Century’, published in The Journal of Transport History (2019), which contains many more stories about distance in travel writing.

Quotes are from James Eglinton’s translation of Bavinck’s ‘My Journey to America’ which appeared in the journal Dutch Crossing, 41 no. 2 (2017).

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Killing time with cauliflowers

I have been reading essays by the nineteenth-century writer Vernon Lee. In some of these essays, the reader gets the uncanny sensation that Vernon Lee, despite dying back in 1935, knew all about TV shows and Instagram.

Nicolas Raymond, Green cauliflower, CC-BY-3.0.

I am standing on a railway platform. Waiting for the train to arrive, I look around me and see people absorbed in their screens. This image, so familiar to many now, helps us understand what Lee was on about when she wrote:

The fear of boredom […] encumbers the world with rubbish, and exhibitions of pictures, publishers’ announcements, lecture syllabuses, schemes of charitable societies, are pattern books of such litter. The world, for many people […] is like a painter’s garret, where some half-daubed canvas, eleven feet by five, hides […] the Venus in the corner, and blocks the charming tree-tops, gables, and distant meadows through the window.

Art, literature, and philanthropy are notoriously expressions no longer of men’s and women’s thoughts and feelings, but of their dread of finding themselves without thoughts to think or feelings to feel.

That’s easy: the daubing artists and performers of Lee’s day are the celebrities of today – we want to know what they get up to – and her publishers’ announcements and lecture syllabuses are our click-bait – we like to be distracted, and hate to miss the talk of the day.

There’s much more to Lee’s essay, however. It is not just a critique of mindless consumption. It is also a critique of mindless production: of plodding on unthinkingly, or under the powerful bane of status anxiety. She continues:

So-called practical persons know this, and despise such employments [bored art – or bored web browsing] as frivolous […]. But are they not also, to a great extent, frightened of themselves and running away from boredom? See your well-to-do weighty man of forty-five or fifty, merchant, or soldier, or civil servant; the same who thanks God he is no idler. Does he really require more money? Is he more really useful as a colonel than as a major, in a wig or cocked hat than out of it? Is he not shuffling money from one heap into another, making rules and regulations for others to unmake, preparing for future restless idlers the only useful work which restless idleness can do, the carting away of their predecessor’s litter?

Stevepb, Coins, CC-0.

In short, this work, too, though ‘practical’ and ‘productive’, is undertaken ‘to kill time, at best to safeguard one’s dignity’.

So what’s with the rush, the frenzied activity?

The quick methods, the rapid worker, the cheap object quickly replaced by a cheaper – these we honour; we want the last new thing, and have no time to get to love our properties, bodily and spiritual.

According to Vernon Lee, still writing in the 1890s, this emphasis on churning out cheap products fast creates self-asserting and aggressive people. And this is where the cauliflowers enter her essay:

Such persons cultivate themselves, indeed, but as fruit and vegetables for the market, and, with good luck and trouble, possibly primeurs: concentrate every means, chemical manure and sunshine, and quick! each still hard pear or greenish cauliflower into the packing-case, the shavings and sawdust, for export!

All effort revolves around tangible products, concrete deliverables:

So long as this be placed on the stall where it courts inspection, what matter how empty and exhausted the soul which has grown it?

Vernon Lee’s critique sounds familiar. Stripped of its uplifting elegance, it is printed in our newspapers. It is murmured at birthday parties. And do we not often think it ourselves?

Every period in history, it seems, has its critics of mindless production and consumption. Each epoch, complaints about the social rat race are renewed, and the boredom is deplored that masquerades as meaningful activity.

By quoting Lee’s essay, however, I do not want to say that we got it really bad this time round. Nor that the issues raised by Lee are of all times and therefore inconsequential, and we should stop sulking.

Rather, I want to say that she gives funny and subtle expression to a set of structural issues that almost all of us grapple with in our lives, to do with stress, status and self-worth, with an information overload and with the imperative to work. She also offers us the foundations of a solution. But for that, you will need to find the leisure to read the entire essay ‘About Leisure’.

Or study this painting:

Vincenzo Catena, Saint Hieronymus (early 16th century). Now in the National Gallery, London, no. NG694. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

The quotes are from Vernon Lee’s essay ‘About Leisure’, published first in 1897, in Limbo and Other Essays.

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How to sell a sad thing

Sad things can be funny. But sad. But funny.

Here’s something spotted a while back by my partner. A bag of peanuts containing peanuts…

… as well as…

… the same volume of air.

Then we found this unbelievably cool DIY mural in a shopping centre:

… which made me worry a little about the people who wrote it.

And a little later, I ran into a street scene in our eminently postindustrial city, equally to do with the world of buying and selling:

It’s always good to assure potential visitors of Sheffield that, whatever we may look like from the outside, we do have Total Quality Within.

 

Photos taken by JHMS.

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Elisi in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland is one of the most adapted books ever. That means that by studying one of its many translations you could learn to read almost any written language. It also means that by studying its illustrations, you are in touch with artists across the globe, and with the iconographies and visual imaginations of cultures around the world.

This, for instance, is an edition published for the Eastern African market in 1940:

Elisi katika nchi ya Ajabu is a Swahili translation and adaptation. It was a created by Ermyntrude Virginia St Lo de Malet (also known as Conan-Davies). Whether she also drew the illustrations, I do not know.

Saint Lo was a missionary and it is interesting to see that someone whose aim was to save souls for the Christian Church should translate such an irreverent, even positively anti-authoritarian book. (The translation was self-commissioned.)

The text makes an effort to transpose the setting of the story from England to Eastern Africa. And so do the images, sometimes less successfully, but sometimes also more so.

The images take the original Tenniel drawings as their basis. They are modified, however, to turn the Dormouse into a bush-baby, for instance, and the White Rabbit’s umbrella into a cane. Significantly also, they turn white Victorian Alice into a barefoot girl with braided hair, wearing a kanga: Alice/Elisi is now a Swahili girl.

This scene from Chapter IV offers a particularly interesting comparison:

Alice’s hand has been copied from Tenniel’s drawing and more heavily hatched in order to suggest a darker skin colour. But another thing has changed.

When there’s no longer any room for Alice’s arm inside the Rabbit’s nice little brick house, she sticks it out of the window. Then,

after waiting till she fancied she heard the Rabbit just under the window, she suddenly spread out her hand, and made a snatch in the air. She did not get hold of anything, but she heard a little shriek and a fall, and a crash of broken glass, from which she concluded that it was just possible it had fallen into a cucumber-frame, or something of the sort.

Tenniel, on reading the text, duly drew a cucumber-frame.

But the nice thing in this scene is Alice’s limited perspective: she just hears the crash and therefore concludes she has broken ‘something of the sort‘ of a cucumber-frame. Even if it sounded more like glass than anything else, this is an ideal spot for an illustrator to seize some extra freedom.

The illustrator of the Swahili edition indeed chose to make a complete cultural translation. Instead of a greenhouse for growing cucumber, they drew a cluster of ceramic pots. Equally breakable. And just as likely a thing that you might encounter at the corner of a house. Importantly also, since so much of Alice is about eating and drinking, the illustrator chose an object that is used for food: these pots are probably used by the Rabbit to transport and store foodstuffs or drinks.

Translating images from one culture to another can be just as challenging as translating words. In this scene, it seems to me that the image translator has done a fine job.

Now Elisi is a transcultural translation, aimed at making it easier for readers in Eastern Africa to relate to Carroll’s story. (See Byron Sewell’s Indigenous(-looking?) Australian illustrations for another example.)

But how about new illustrations set in North America, Europe, or urban Australia? How about the millions of different girls and boys living there, reading Alice for the first time? Almost all those translations depict pink (‘white’) Alices. It is very hard to find much variation in the way she looks, even in those editions which are not set in Victorian England but in contemporary locations, which in real life are filled with an abundant variety of children.

So let me use Black History Month to turn an endemic problem into a ‘news item’: who can help me find an African American Alice? An African French Alice? A Sri Lankan British Alice? …

 

I have used Lewis Carroll, Elisi katika nchi ya ajabu, trans. St Lo de Malet (London: Sheldon Press, 1967). There is a more recent translation by Dr Ida Hadjivayanis, Lector in Swahili at SOAS in London.

Regarding copyright and my reproducing the 1940 images here: since the illustrator is anonymous, I have counted 70 years from the year of first publication, but please comment if you have further information.

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The silent failure of sharing: an update

Earlier this year, various cities in the UK saw the introduction of the yellow Ofo bikes, part of a new bike-sharing system. In an earlier post I suggested that it is going to take some skill to do this sharing successfully. So how have these skills fared so far in the lovely city where I live, the city of Sheffield?

It seems the pessimists’ fears have come true: this sharing in our city has not worked out. At least, that has been the conclusion of the company who put the scatter bikes in place.

Unrideable bike. Photo by the author.

Apparently, the initial vandalism which bike-sharing companies consider part of their collateral damages, did not wear off in Sheffield. In June, the company investing in Sheffield even created a ‘rapid response team’ in order to tackle this vandalism, but to no avail. The company will now concentrate their efforts in other UK cities.

Empty parking spaces. Photo by the author.

That is also the public story supporting the withdrawal: vandalism is not officially cited as the reason for removing the bikes from Sheffield.

The sad irony is that, when Ofo introduced its scheme in January, which happened on an impressive scale, the existing bike-sharing scheme run by the University of Sheffield was folded. This scheme had the advantage of using fixed docking points.

Fixed docking points were also its main disadvantage, however. The old scheme benefited a much smaller number of people. However, it might also have enjoyed a much longer life, with the potential of growing slowly but surely into a sustainable practice that would benefit larger groups of people in the city, including those living and working further away from the university and its (elite) communities.

Old university scheme ‘ByCycle’. Promotional photo. From a review by Cycle Sheffield.

Of course, the withdrawal of Ofo from the city has not been accompanied with the same display and splendor as its arrival. It all happened rather silently.

It looks like in this case we witnessed – or rather, did not witness – the silent failure of sharing. Or, to give the phrase a somewhat cynical positive spin: the silent skill of failing.

Let’s hope Ofo has at least given Sheffield’s many latent cyclists a good taste of the pleasures of cycling. Perhaps another bike-sharing scheme will come and fill the gap – but perhaps also, we can do this on our own: ‘get on your bikes and ride’?

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Postmodern toilet

As readers may know, toilets interest me. Each time we decide which cubicle to visit in a semi-public space, we show who we think we are: a man or a woman.*

I recently visited the International Archive for the Women’s Movement in Amsterdam. In my break, I found a single toilet cubicle, marked with the following pictogram:

By AIGA (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

This confused me – which only goes to show how seriously we take these symbols. Women’s movement? Were women expected to look for a different loo?

I moved on. Suddenly, the WC door showed a different picture:

By AIGA, converted by Lateiner (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikipedia Commons.

Another moment of confusion. Had I misread the picto the first time around?

And then: but of course, a tilt card (a lenticular print, or ‘hologram’). Both images were really there, but which one I saw depended on my standpoint.

A common description of postmodernist art is that it contains an ontological flickering (‘onto-‘ from the Greek word for ‘being’). This means that you are presented with multiple realities; a story in which the protagonist moves in two different worlds, for instance. Only, whereas in non-postmodernist art, one of these worlds usually turns out to be a dream-world from which the protagonist wakes up, in postmodernist art, both worlds are equally real. The Neverending Story would be a classic example.

I could enter the loo a woman, and come out a man. Or vice versa. Or perhaps more accurately: as long as I was inside, I would always be both woman and man. A little like Schrödinger’s cat, but a cat which remains both dead and alive even after someone has opened the door to check.

The archive in Amsterdam therefore presented me with a wonderful ontological opportunity. (And no: no one opened the door to check. This had been firmly locked from the inside.) And I had the pleasure of being postmodernist for a brief while.

Luckily, after these few minutes I did not much mind to give up being female and male, and to just be me again.

 

* Or that which is often presented to us as a third option: disabled. Which raises a whole number of additional issues.

More on ontological flicker: Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (1987). Years ago, I used his (her?) ideas in an essay on postmodernist children’s literature, which included Michael Ende’s Neverending Story (Die unendliche Geschichte).

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Small relief

Once upon a time there was an artist called Lucia. At least, that is what it said on the card:

lucia pintoretta

conceptual art
on the margins between 2D and 3D
oil / mixed media / miniature screen prints

@smallrelief

But deep in her heart, Lucia knew she was really a house painter. A wall-coverer. A primer. A coater.

Mornings, she would arrive in her studio and with a sigh take up her brush to finish an abstract portrait or satirical landscape which she had started months earlier. She hated the delicate dabbing and the minute mixing of colours that seemed to be needed to create her works. The endless search for fresh ideas. The pressure to surpass herself every time, as her critics demanded. To excel. To ‘help art ahead’.

She was fed up with art fairs, prize juries, artist-in-residence applications. She was tired of twittering about her own work. Every morning she was unsure how to make it to the end of the day. How to stay on her chair, staring at Illustrator or at a bit of canvas the size of her phone. Every evening, she had grown a little humpier, a little lumpier.

But she would spring back into shape whenever she allowed herself to stretch a big new canvas. She would gesso it with all the violence of a herd of cows on first leaving their byre in spring.

She knew that the larger works did not sell that well. Miniatures were her thing, miniatures was what she had been in the New Yorker for, so miniatures was what she had to produce. Ever since she had been little, teachers and scholarship committees had begged her to use her talent: her ‘sensitive touch’, her ‘delicate shadings’. So much practice, so much sweat. So much sensible investment. A waste to let that go unused.

Beneath the window, the primed canvases were piling up.

But that is what she dreamt of: covering surfaces; measuring her progress in square metres. Changing the entire aspect of a room in a single day. Flinging paint at walls by the pot-full. Instead of creating subtle satires for a sniggering collector to explain to his private guests, she would brighten up someone’s day with a yellow footbridge, or a sky-blue brick wall bounding with the train track. And at the end of each day, something material would have been accomplished.

While doing her work, she might stumble over an old nail or a rusty spot. But she would simply paint them over! And even if she missed a bit here or there, it would not make a difference in the grand scheme of things. O wonderful meeting of light and labour! O concrete paradise! Acrylic dream!

O, flimsy dream…

Abby Flat-Coat, Hogeweide Bridge near Utrecht (2010). Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

But one night, Lucia’s followers were able to read the following message:

#greatrelief @smallrelief

And that was that.