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The Silent Skill of Sharing

The following brief chapter recently appeared in a book called Railway Cultures, which forms part of my collaboration with the British National Railway Museum. It’s a chapter about trains and bikes. Unfortunately, the editor had no space for images of trains or bikes. Luckily, space is not an issue in an online publication like this.

Sharing is en vogue. The past few years have seen a lot of initiatives for shared transport, whether they grew from environmental concerns, economic necessity, or simply because sharing is a highly marketable concept. However, if sharing is what we talk about, that does not necessarily mean we are also good at it.

Although this is a third-class interior, it shows the sort of compartment Virginia Woolf would have been familiar with from her suburban journeys. Southern Railway 4-Sub electric motor coach S8143S (built 1925), National Railway Museum no. 1978-7069.

In her story ‘An Unwritten Novel’, Virginia Woolf encounters the figures that people her literature in the train compartments of the Brighton line, which she frequents between London and the south coast:

Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of […] Five faces opposite – five mature faces – and the knowledge in each face. Strange, though, how people want to conceal it! Marks of reticence are on all those faces: lips shut, eyes shaded, each one of the five doing something to hide or stultify his knowledge. One smokes; another reads; a third checks entries in a pocket book; a fourth stares at the map of the line framed opposite; and the fifth – the terrible thing about the fifth is that she does nothing at all. She looks at life. Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the game – do, for all our sakes, conceal it!

As if she heard me, she looked up, shifted slightly in her seat and sighed. (18)

Had Woolf lived in 1990 instead of 1920, she would have owned a car and driven up and down between her two homes. As it was, she lived in the golden age of rail travel, and, more specifically, in an age during which people were used to sharing their means of transport.

When we take a peek into one of the carriages from that time, kept by the National Railway Museum, we immediately sense what it meant for six strangers to share this confined space for a few hours. The space only seems the narrower because of the textile flowers that push themselves forward from the benches. Every sigh could be heard, every neighbour’s pulpy page read from the corner of one’s eye. Woolf’s journeys therefore offered the author a natural space from which to observe and imagine the tangled lives of the anonymous figures whom she loved so much, and on whom such a great part of her work centres.

The same carriage, standing in the museum.

Trains might be called the pinnacle of public transport. In no other vehicle do we habitually share a single space with so many other people, while also sharing an infrastructure – the railway – with many, many more.

Such sharing carries a high moral status in our world. Whether we look to the Bible for guidance or to Sesame Street, we are admonished to be hospitable, generous and accommodating.

Sharing spaces, services and goods also has practical benefits: it is cheap, it is social, and, if the shared service is centrally or collectively managed, it takes away some of the hassle and responsibility faced by individual owners. When it comes to transport, trains, together with trams and buses, form the most energy-efficient technologies for the middle and longer distances, while also saving their passengers time and work. For the shorter distance, the same can be said of bicycles.

Although the benefits of sharing have long been known, low incomes, housing shortages, climate change and a range of technical innovations have made sharing a serious option for a growing number of people over the past decade. Some of them have been motivated by the desire to cut greenhouse gas emissions. For many more, hit by the Recession, sharing is a bitter economic necessity. As they move in with their parents or take their children back in, opt for the tram or hire a bike, they share in order to save money.

But the marketing departments have also done their work. They have turned sharing from an embarrassment to some, into the new cool. Now, all who can afford any choice want to be a part of the sharing economy. Some of this successful marketing has been done by those commercial services that have been in the news so much in recent years (Über, Airbnb…). These companies make a profit by skimming the turn-over of the old-school independent entrepreneurs who provide the goods.

The new cool may benefit yet another type of provider: those companies that provide shared services themselves, for instance the rental services that replace the things we traditionally owned – the bulbs in our lamps, or the bike in our shed.

Passenger transport is one of those sectors currently seeing a surge in experiments in sharing. The most successful often build on the experiences of decades of smaller and sometimes failed initiatives. Looking at one of these recent developments, the development of shared bike systems, we can draw inspiration from two centuries of railway history.

Vandalised Ofo bike in Sheffield (photo: APHG, 2018).

The first system of free bike sharing seems to have been proposed in Amsterdam in the 1960s. At that point in time, the scheme failed, at least in the city. In De Hoge Veluwe National Park, the free white bikes were a success. Today, no one could imagine the park without them.

The problems faced by the white bikes in Amsterdam are some of the classic problems of collaborative consumption more broadly: the problem of the vandal (who makes the service unfit for further use) and the problem of the freerider (who takes of the service without paying for it). Both ignore the terms of use agreed by the other sharers. The fact that the national park is completely fenced off undoubtedly contributes to the success of bicycle sharing there, but since a fence does not eradicate the problems of joyriding and abandonment, a certain ethic or etiquette also seems to play a role, more about which below.

(photo: APHG, 2018)

More recently, bike-sharing has taken off in cities as well, and even across entire countries where bikes are allowed to cross local boundaries. These schemes have rarely been free, however, and they have always had fixed docking points.

The technology needed to manage subscriptions and payments across a large number of renting stations – often unstaffed to make the system more effective and efficient than traditional bike-rentals where bikes need to be returned to the original outlet – this technology has only been developed over the past two decades. What this technology does, in effect, is offer our somewhat feeble human sharing ethic a helping hand. After registering our identity, and paying for our bike by the day or the hour, we are less motivated to steal it, abandon it or use it ‘indefinitely’.

The newest innovation has been the provision of bikes without stations. After use, these bikes may be parked anywhere. Essential to this has been the development of mobile payment and identification technologies, as well as location tracking. This allows users to find a bike in the first place, but it also helps the company to make sure that their bikes stay within their designated area.

This new way of renting bicycles has been both welcomed and criticised. On the positive side, we do now find bikes in locations that the owners had not anticipated as potential customer bases, which seems to encourage a demographically more diverse take-up of such schemes. Yet the bicycles are also parked in obstructive and dangerous locations, and they take up parking spaces of privately owned bikes. A professor at the University of Amsterdam has called them ‘scatter bikes’ or ‘litter bikes,’ and various cities have already restricted their rollout.

‘Litter bikes’ in Sheffield (photo: JHMS, 2018).

The yellow bikes which have recently started to populate Sheffield are also frequently vandalised, with people taking lock, lights or basket, or simply destroying the bikes’ chain, mud guards or breaks, leaving behind a sorry sight. Such vandalism is made all the easier because of the bikes’ scattered and less visible locations. Although they are checked and redistributed on a regular basis, it does not take any effort to find a few vandalised specimens for a photo, even without using the app.

A few weeks after their introduction, the trail of abandoned bikes had started to resemble that other track of industrial wasteland that runs through Sheffield, the derelict railways.

So sharing does not just happen. You have to do it. Or rather: we have to do it. Sharing is a skill, and a social skill at that. The question is, therefore: can we, the citizens of Sheffield, York, or any other town or region, deal with this innovation in transport sharing?

I believe that there is every chance that these initial abuses will lose their novelty and decrease to a manageable level, and that with the right levels of support in both popular culture and infrastructure policy more people will get into the habit of using shared bikes responsibly. Earlier examples of successful sharing may inspire us in this process.

Before the age of sharing: George Keate, ‘Manner of passing Mont Cenis’ (drawing, 1755), British Museum no. 1878,0209.304.

When, two hundred years ago, railway pioneers first attached a steam engine to a carriage, they too were asking their passengers to experiment with sharing.

To be sure, shared transport was not altogether new. Public coaching services existed across Europe, as did barges drawn by horses over tow-paths, and packet-boats that sailed at regular intervals.

Nonetheless, travellers of the early nineteenth century arranged the bulk of their transport themselves and did not share it with strangers. The rich would take out their own carriage or rent one locally; or they would pay carriers to carry them in a sedan, or hire riding animals. The same applied to the poor: they would enlist an acquainted skipper to help them cross a river; during wartime, soldiers would commandeer farmers’ wagons; and the overwhelming majority of journeys were made, of course, on foot. Public transport, in contrast, made up only a small proportion of the passages made by travellers in the early nineteenth century.

As we enter the second half of the nineteenth century, we find a quite different situation. Travellers across Europe had come to prefer trains, stagecoaches, steamboats, omnibuses and tramways. Trains, specifically, had quickly become the default travel option for longer distances over land.

One example demonstrates how such choices were made. In 1861, a well-to-do Dutch preacher, Marie Adrien Perk (1834-1916), made a journey across the south of Europe. We can discover a lot about the way he travelled in the account he published soon afterwards. Although both private road carriages and shared trains were available to him, the railways were his first choice. Only when on one particular stretch of the journey he learnt that his train would not depart for another two hours, he secured a private carriage instead.

Travel accounts from the 1850s all the way up to the early years of the twentieth century show this predilection for shared transport. And then, as now, sharing was encouraged by the transport companies that might benefit from it. From its very beginnings, the railway sector promoted collective leisure activities. Railway lines organised cheap group excursions, published hiking guides, and facilitated everything from temperance meetings to great exhibitions.

After this period of busy sharing, individual transport gained the upper hand in Europe once more. From World War Two onwards, private bicycles and automobiles in particular came to form the dominant means of mobility. Yet the lesson I think that this story has to offer is that it is possible for a culture to adopt a new ethos in travel and other ‘consumer preferences’ – and adopt it quite swiftly, too.

So how did this shift in attitudes occur? Various incentives may have contributed to it.

Perhaps the most obvious reason people have to choose public transport is that it is cheaper. When sharing a vehicle, passengers benefit from advantages of scale. Naturally, this had been the case for earlier public transport as well, but since labour has been growing more expensive from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, the effect became more pronounced.

What was new, of course, was the railway and the steam locomotive. Trains and trams introduced faster and more comfortable ways of travelling, and since it is difficult to operate individualised transport over rails, a preference for rail transport would inevitably also mean a preference for public transport.

Yet an even broader development was on its way. A first clue is that the development just sketched did not coincide with a shift from road transport to rail transport. In both, the same tendency towards sharing was manifest. Although the railways may have spurred such developments along, road carriages and trains continued to co-exist, and in road carriages too, the shift from private to shared usage can be observed.

A second clue is that even wealthy travellers – for whom the wish to save money and time were less pressing motivations, possibly even diminishing their status – participated in the shift.

Finally, other cultural norms also changed, norms that were only tangentially related to the choice between rail and road. Travellers began to take considerably less luggage on their journeys, being less attached to the food, linen, furniture and other comforts from home, and more interested in partaking in their host cultures. Travellers started to cultivate a pragmatic and flexible attitude. To travel light was the new ambition, also promoted in the media and education: the scouting movement evolved in the same period (prompted too, it must be admitted, by increased militarism). To share things and spaces therefore became desirable in itself.

Rather than a golden age for just the railways, we can speak of a golden age of sharing.

It is important to acknowledge that this does not mean that the people of that era always found it pleasant or easy to share. As anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson is said to have remarked: ‘sharing is sometimes more demanding than giving’.

Consider the following episode that took place in Austria in the winter of 1910-1911. Frans van der Hoorn (1886-1946) came from a family of greengrocers, had finished his primary education and, after starting work as an Esperanto teacher, decided to make a round-the-world trip with three equally idealistic friends. On a daytrip that winter, he experienced a rather familiar drawback of sharing:

The train had been so full with people returning from a match, that many, amongst whom he himself, had not even been able to secure an inside seat, but had had to satisfy themselves with a [standing place on the balcony], where they were not sheltered from the weather. Exposed to the strong, cold air current [and] unable to stir a limb because of the crowdedness, this is how he’d had to pass the entire journey back. (The episode is retold by his travel companion Abraham Mossel, 160.)

Now as then, to share things or spaces can result in a host of discomforts: a lack of privacy; irritation by what is conceived of as noise and dirt, caused by other travellers; and other conflicts that stem from a disagreement about how a space ought to be used. The joyrider and the freerider have already been mentioned. Another threat, the one posed by aggressive co-users of the same space, is among the more serious problems of sharing. And as Van der Hoorn already experienced, a shared service such as a train seat is not always at one’s disposal where and when one likes.

Note that Van der Hoorn’s story differs markedly from Woolf’s: even though we are all sharing, the availability and comfort of the shared services we use depends literally on our class. So too does our safety. Rooftop travel on crowded carriages may not be as common in Britain now as it was during the nineteenth century, but it has by no means disappeared globally. Some people have always had a greater say than others in the conditions under which they share, and the selection of the people whom they are sharing with.

Nevertheless, during that earlier peak in collaborative consumption, everyone knew what it was like to wait for a train, regardless of their wealth. All sharers had to contend with a wide range of drawbacks, and although occasionally they complained, the point is: they managed. They planned their activities to coincide with shared schedules, they stuck to previous agreements, they coped with their lack of privacy or comfort. Whether sharing was pleasant or not, it was normal.

That normality has disappeared in the age of the automobile. Is it now coming back? Are we in the midst of another fluctuation in our culture of sharing – one that has already swung from reluctance to the embrace of sharing once before?

In past decades, it has been car ownership that has consistently been portrayed as the ultimate symbol of and means to independence. But our perspective may now be turning, freedom increasingly lying in not owning an expensive vehicle, which, after all, needs to be selected, insured, maintained, parked… In situations where we can establish the right levels of mutual trust and tolerance and do not become too attached to the things we are sharing, sharing may even become enjoyable.

Of course, there is more than one way of sharing. In Woolf’s story, sharing is accomplished by most passengers through reticence and concealment. But for Woolf herself (and, perhaps, for her readers) it is also achieved through the pleasures of the imagination.

After the necessary financial and design conditions have been met to make collaborative transport a realistic alternative for more people, a new culture of sharing may reach a critical mass. Sharing may become routine and even desirable once more.

Even if we do not yet know exactly what that potential new sharing culture for Britain or Europe entails, or what its rules will be, what we do know is that we have acquired the skills to share at least once before. This offers the hope that we can do so again.

 

Quotations from

  • Mossel, Abraham. De wereldwandelaars. Een zwerftocht door Europa. Maatschappij voor Goede en Goedkoope Lectuur, 1917 (translation by APHG).
  • Perk, Marie Adrien. Uit Opper-Italie [sic]. Schetsen, ontmoetingen, indrukken. Roelants, 1864.
  • Woolf, Virginia. “An Unwritten Novel.” The Mark on the Wall, Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 18-29.

Chapter slightly modified from Railway cultures (Longbarrow Press, 2018).

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Women at Work and Men Too

Two weeks ago, the following notice appeared on the fence of a building site in the northern-English town where I live:

Warning: men and women at work*

Men and women: the text is a sign that the construction industry is finally starting to recognise the many female workers it employs. The text, by being so unusual, also invites passers-by to reflect on this fact: that is, that some of the people who build our homes and offices and bus stations, are women.

I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first: Sweden and Hong Kong.

I’ve just returned from a journey to Sweden, where I got my first sight of the latte pappas: Swedish fathers who care for their children full-time. They can be seen out on the streets with prams and diaper-changing bags, and they walk around completely independently, without being accompanied by a mother.

If this presented a culture shock to someone living in Britain, that does not mean Sweden is the only place in the world where independent fathering is normal. In fact, the latte pappas reminded me of something I saw in Hong Kong years ago:

This poster in the underground of Hong Kong was warning against pickpockets, but it did something else as well: normalise fathers who take care of their children unaided by any mother. And it looks like baby and daddy make a good team.

Meanwhile, back in my English town last week, the notice on the construction site had been ‘corrected’:Warning: men and men at work

Who did this? A humorous passer-by? It that case, the deletion only emphasises the newness of this language: the corrector must have found the incongruousness of working women so huge, that to draw attention to it seemed funny.

Or was the sign defaced by a worker him[?]self? Perhaps someone with an obsessive compulsion for correctness who wanted to point at that at this particular site, no women were employed? Or a male worker who thought that no women ought to work there? Or someone else still?

Perhaps a Hong Kong latte pappa can come over and teach his mates here a lesson in new gender roles?**

 

 

* It seems justified to insert a colon here: the warning is not directed at those who are at work.

** I haven’t touched on the issue of class here – the term ‘latte pappa’ at least sounds privileged –  for which we would need to combine knowledge about the person(s) who defaced the construction notice, what classed message is transmitted by the Hong Kong poster, what use Swedish working-class fathers make of the state’s care benefit system, etc.

Photo credits: women at work by JHMS; Hong Kong father by APHG.

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What we’re allowed to wear on Women’s Day

Today is Women’s Day. These weeks’ news again brought plenty of reminders of why this day is necessary.

In the Dutch North-East Polder, the police report, a fourteen-year-old was pushed off her bike, kicked in the head and back, and left on the pavement with bruises and brain injury.

Who did this? Two blonde boys aged c. 18.

Why?

Because she was a woman.

Because she was exercising her right to education and independent mobility, by cycling home from school alone.

And, finally: because she had the guts to say ‘no’. She said ‘no’ to the boys’ demand to undress.

Is this then ‘simply’ another case of gendered sexual assault? Not quite.

Because the fourteen-year-old was also wearing a headscarf.

And although most Dutch newspaper readers will have reacted with shock to the assault, its underlying mechanisms are perpetuated by a large proportion of those same newspaper readers. They are women and men from western-European, largely Christian extraction, and they are not so sure whether Muslim women should be wearing a headscarf.

It’s the people I’ve spent most of my life amongst. I think I understand them a little, and therefore I would like to ask them something.

I would ask them to imagine emigrating to a distant planet. The local inhabitants look just like us. However, there is a striking difference in the way they dress: everyone, whether male or female, wears the same skirt (pretty progressive, what?). And nothing else. Wherever they go, they go dressed like this; to parties, but also to work.

Most European immigrants are taken aback by the naked breasts of the local females. And all of the immigrant women continue to cover their own chest in public spaces.

In the eyes of the locals, however, this constitutes an act of repression, and they wonder what masculinist ideology forces these women to hide themselves. They decide to help them. Female employees and schoolchildren are sent home, bikini-wearing humans are chased off the beaches, and everyone is ordered to only come back after throwing off these absurd symbols of self-humiliation.

If for a migrant to Europe, wearing a headscarf is like wearing a T-shirt, surely their European hosts can sympathise and forbid neither. 

Of course, my comparison here highlights only one of the reasons women have to cover their hair or their face – but I think a fundamental one. It suggests that wearing or not wearing a specific headdress is largely a cultural matter. By that I mean that someone’s decision to (not) wear an item of clothing can best be understood by placing oneself in the position(s) that person occupies in the culture(s) she lives in. In the end, what we wear is often a matter of what we feel comfortable in, and that is not based on abstract choices but on the signals we emit with these clothes and the response we get from the people around us. (British physician and columnist Qanta Ahmed has also underlined the cultural rather than religious background of the hijab, though arriving at a different conclusion than I am.)

So European anxieties over Muslim dress are really about migration and the intercultural misunderstandings this leads to.

A few images to illustrate the cultural and regional nature of female dress decisions:

Women of three different religions in Israel (all three anonymous: 2012, 2010 and 2012, respectively)

 

These images should not feel unfamiliar. Nor should these:

Anonymous woman working a buzz-saw, probably in Hungary, 1955

Another anonymous model (Spain, 2013)

 

In a nutshell: not all Muslim women want to cover their head, while many non-Muslim women do.

So far, I’ve argued that to wear a piece of clothing is often a matter of conformity rather than repression. However, it can also be a part of personal style or identity. Of fashion. Or of shyness. Of distinction. Of rebellion against previous (migrant) generations; or of defiance of the locals who lack the experience of living in two cultures at the same time. Or it can function as a reminder and token of religious commitment… all depending on women’s cultural backgrounds, their interpretation of their religion, whether they are migrants or have long been settled, and many more factors.

But in the end, do we even need to understand women’s motivations in order to accept their decision? A decision which, after all, concerns their own bodies? (The same does not apply to the actions of their critics: these always concern other people’s bodies.) Do people need to justify the way they look? Perhaps public figures, who act as role models, may expect some form of public interrogation of their choices – but at the moment, this unfortunately means that we should in fact be talking a bit more about how men look.

To return to the student who was not allowed to attend school safely: our public discourse about what women and specifically Muslim women should wear, gave her attackers their motivation. Remember, this was not mindless bullying: the boys were 18, not 8. Their actions were the practical manifestation of a way of thinking which they had gleaned from their less violent neighbours.

As non-scarf-wearing Muslim Tahmeena (no surname) has said in Broadly magazine when asked about European employers’ bans on headscarfs:

There’s no liberation in being told what to wear […] in order to ‘become’ liberated

 

(An English rendering of the Dutch news item can be found on The World News.)

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January reminder

It’s a chilly January day in the city. I’m walking near the high street. From a distance, I see a homeless person lying on the pavement, huddled away in their sleeping-bag.

As I get closer, I flinch. It’s not a person at all.

It is three grey bin bags, waiting to be collected.

This is what five years of living in a northern English city does to you. Your expectations make a U-turn for the worse, especially on days like this.

Yes, we learn that we have to keep our hopes up. Toughen up, look ahead, don’t despair. That’s our duty. As grown-ups. As citizens. As teachers, nurses, social workers…

But at the end of the day, that’s just public relations. Essential to our lives, to our living together, but not always true to our feelings. And not – dare I say it – not always the best course of action.

Once in a while, might I be permitted to accept the gloom? For if everything is shiny and hopeful, I may lose my powers of judgement.

I see this city today, and am reminded that it needs changing.

 

P.S. Will the reader forgive me for not including an attractive picture in this post?


This was written in January. That month, however, seemed to need something written in a different tone.

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Crying men are here again

Let’s start the new year with something positive. Crying. (I am not being sarcastic.)

A young man weeps in grief by the death bed of a young woman. Engraving by Joseph Brown after James Baker (1846). Held by the Wellcome Library, no. 17312i.

Over the past years, TV shows seem to have shown an increasing number of crying men. The Great British Bake Off; interviews with ex-servicemen; sitcoms like Big Bang Theory; the hugely popular Farmer Wants a Wife programmes across the world: they regularly feature men who let it all out.

This development is not to everyone’s liking, as this interview with Mary Berry suggests, but it remains a fact: crying on TV is pretty acceptable nowadays – yes, desirable in some shows – even for men.

Over the past century or so, however, such public show of emotion has hardly been possible for people of the male gender. North-western Europeans, at least, were living under a strict emotional macho regime under which men were not supposed to show their weaknesses: stiff upper lip and all that.

This has not always been the case. In earlier centuries, crying was much more acceptable for men.

Plate 2 from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Chapter VII: ‘Low Spirits, Anxiety, Grief, Dejection, Despair’ (London, 1872). Photos by Duchenne and Rejlander. Held by the Wellcome Library.

Take for instance the 1782 novel Sara Burgerhart, famous for being the first literary novel in the Dutch language. It was written by Elizabeth Wolff and Agatha Deken in response to Samuel Richardson’s novels in letter form (Pamela, Clarissa). Sara Burgerhart was popular straight away and went through three editions within five years. Even though Wolff and Deken professed to resist the sentimental fashion of their days, their novel carries the traces of it.

Rhijnvis Feith’s novel Julia (1783) was ‘even’ more sentimental than Sara Burgerhart.

One of the most sympathetic characters in the novel, Sara Burgerhart’s guardian, the middle-aged bachelor Abraham Blankaart, shows himself to be a sensitive man from the very beginning. Returning a letter to Sara Burgerhart’s landlady, a widow who has told him the tragic story of her life, he writes:

Would you believe, Madam, that your letter cost me perhaps as many as four tears? Yet it’s the truth. [Again, no sarcasm involved here!]

Sara Burgerhart’s noble love interest, writing to his own brother, also calls himself ‘a sensitive man’. And the third valiant man in the novel (which really is all about a Lovelace-type deceiver) is described by his sister as someone who would ‘dissolve in happy tears’ just from hearing about his sister’s engagement.

The same public approval of male sobs can be gathered from the even greater popularity of Nicolaas Beets’s Camera Obscura, which has gone through countless editions since first appearing in the Netherlands in 1839. For the seventh edition, of 1871, Beets wrote a new preface. It was directed at one of his best friends, the friend to which the book had been dedicated from the start. Just before the new edition came out, this friend had passed away. In his preface, Beets sketches the scene of the funeral. His own ‘lonely heart’ filled with sentiment, Beets recounts how even his friend’s trusty carriage driver had

thick tears rolling into [his] sideburns.

Vincent van Gogh, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’, lithography (1882). Image from the Vincent van Gogh Gallery.

So we are talking actual tears, streaming down bearded cheeks. In these popular texts, crying was a sign of civilisation; sentiment the mark of a good man. A decent man showed that he was capable of feeling for his fellow creatures.

In the later nineteenth and particularly the twentieth century, ideals of masculinity shifted. In that age of nationalism and militarism, each man instead had to demonstrate he was up to the task of defending his nation. If you were a good soldier, you were a good man.

Although I am necessarily simplifying things here, it looks like there has been a genuine going back and forth in this region’s history of emotions: from an approval of a sentimental masculinity around 1800, to emotional rigidity around 1900, and perhaps, now, back to an appreciation of the more vulnerable emotions of men. Crying is permitted again.


N.B. Nicolaas Beets himself felt that his century saw the dawn of a new emotional regime for men. In his essay on grave memorials he deplores the ‘cold’ macho rhetoric of forerunners like Byron, quoting from his ‘Euthanasia’:

WHEN Time, or soon or late, shall bring
The dreamless sleep that lulls the dead,
Oblivion! may thy languid wing
Wave gently o’er my dying bed!

No band of friends or heirs be there,
To weep, or wish, the coming blow:
No maiden, with dishevell’d hair,
To feel, or feign, decorous woe.

But silent let me sink to earth,
With no officious mourners near:
I would not mar one hour of mirth,
Nor startle friendship with a fear.

[…]

But vain the wish—for Beauty still
Will shrink, as shrinks the ebbing breath;
And woman’s tears, produced at will,
Deceive in life, unman in death.

References:

  • Wolff and Deken, History van mejuffrouw Sara Burgerhart, with an introduction by L. Knappert (Amsterdam, 1919), pages 60, 63, 135.
  • Hildebrand/Beets, Camera Obscura (Utrecht, Antwerp, 1982), pages 297, 313.
  • Poetry of Byron, ed. Matthew Arnold (London, 1881).
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Why is a Delft vase like a zipper bag?

Europeans can have an uncanny sense of recognition when observing certain aspects of Chinese popular culture. I just had such a moment when, absent-minded, my eyes fell on a zipper bag I bought in China years ago:

Food bag, acquired in eastern China, taken home to western Europe, photographed by author.

Not only had I transported words such as ‘sweet’ and ‘breakfast’ back from China to Europe – this was weird enough, because these words mean completely different things in China where the bag was sold (in as far as English words in Latin script make any sense at all), than in Europe, the place where the words had come from and which I had now brought them back to.

But the bag also pictured a series of household items which, in this style and combination, seem designed to evoke a snug English cottage, or perhaps a Polish farmstead kitchen, a nice old-fashioned home in the Romanian country-side, or any other place sitting firmly on the European continent. The coffee-pots, the loaf of bread, the stew pot, the single-leafed apple: they are European images, or else images associated with European settler cultures – please correct me if I’m wrong. And these images have become part of a European nostalgia, a nostalgia for the perfect home, imagined perhaps to have existed in the late nineteenth or the early twentieth century, a home, one might daydream, where there would always be a mother, a grandmother, a sister at home to tend the flowers in the garden and put them in the old coffee-pot.

Yet as if such nostalgia isn’t unsettling (and delicious) enough, the European viewer is here also confronted with an outsider’s perspective on his or her private nostalgia. To the Asian producer of this bag, the existing, European nostalgia apparently made enough sense to use it for marketing purposes. Although the objects on the bag and the nostalgia attached to them probably have a different meaning to its Chinese users than to most Europeans (for one thing, bread in China tastes completely different from bread in Europe) – something must ‘click‘ for them.

And although a rooted European will never be able to gauge exactly what these images mean to someone raised within Chinese culture, the European user nevertheless senses that the images have changed in the process of cultural transfer: not just because they are now surrounded by Chinese characters, but because they have been reimagined by someone with a different cultural baggage. The coffee-pot, the loaf of bread, all so familiar to me, have undergone a process of estrangement, of alienation. They have left my kitchen, circled the globe, and come back to me with a twist – a twist that might feel uncanny, because I do not know what has happened to them.

However, if I were to go and live in China, the uncanny feeling would no doubt weaken: my alienation is only a lack of cultural knowledge.

And the feeling also becomes less strong if I take a look at our shared history. For many Europeans, China has the name of being a culture of imitation: Chinese factories, Chinese pop singers, Chinese fashion designers, they say, take ‘western’ ideas and reproduce them more cheaply. Of course this stereotype ignores a vast range of ideas, fashions, technologies and tastes that originate in China itself. But what’s more, it ignores Europe’s own history of imitation.

Painted pot and lid with Chinese figure in landscape, made in Delft (Holland) around 1750. Public domain; made availably by Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, object BK-NM-12400-114.

How will Chinese traders have felt when they first saw Delftware, which imitated Chinese porcelain including even representations of Chinese landscapes and Chinese people?

And what did the image on this vase mean to its first buyers – probably Dutch – in the mid-eighteenth century? It seems plausible that part of their satisfaction was the same as the Chinese owners of Chinese ceramics will have felt – admiration of the crafted pot, the painted surface, the landscape with the dotted bushes and the fashionable flaneur. The Delft buyers, however, will have experienced something extra: as a bonus, they were in touch with an exotic culture, one that was all the rage across the globe.

Although a plastic food bag is no dainty vase, I can imagine that the coffee-pot and the white loaf, too, bring a tiny element – not too much, because European-American images are more accessible to today’s Chinese than Chinese art was to early modern Europeans – a tiny element of the exotic into the Chinese kitchen. And back into mine.

Box the bag came in, photographed by author.

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Same day as the US

I was rushing through town on my way to work when I saw a large ad:

Same day as the US

If you watch American TV series and you live outside the USA, you know what this means: a local TV channel is publicising the fact that it broadcasts a popular series (was it Game of Thrones?) on the same day as it is first broadcast in the US.

But why does it matter to a European audience to see a TV drama on the same day as people in America can watch it – so much so that it becomes the central slogan to promote the series?

I can think of two answers to this question.

by Hans, Pixabay, CC0 1.0.

The first one is the most popular one with academic researchers (sociologists, geographers, literary historians…) who study questions like these. They tend to see simultaneity as a symptom of the modern age: these days, we get more and more opportunities to experience things at exactly the same moment as others are experiencing them. After all, we have telephones and the internet, and, more generally speaking, satellites and all types of wires that connect us with the rest of the world.

And because simultaneity is now possible, we also feel compelled to do things at the same time as everyone else. We are rushed along to stay in touch, to remain up to date, to keep ourselves informed. We would be ‘so yesterday’ if we couldn’t tell who betrayed who in yesterday’s soap, or what’s the latest foolish thing a president across the ocean has said.

Some of these researchers and critics would also add something about the US holding a global cultural monopoly: why do we need to watch everything on the same day as in the US?

In my research job, I read a lot by these authors, so this is the explanation that immediately sprang to my mind.

And the explanation certainly has an aspect of truth to it. It keeps us on our toes when it comes to considering who decides what is important in life – do wealthy American production companies decide what to do with our free time? do our own governments tell us how to be fit for the job market? do IT corporations tell us what hardware to use to be cool? And why do we give those people so much power?

But it’s also a one-sidedly pessimistic view on human motivations, one that risks dividing people into meek sheep on the one hand and clever critics on the other.

Sani ol Molk/Abu’l-Hasan Khan Ghaffari Kashani, illustration (1849 to 1856) for One Thousand and One Nights

Perhaps these researchers and critics forget to look at a second possible answer, a more pedestrian one.

Because why, really, do you look forward to the next episode in your favourite series? Because you want to know what happens next.

We all love a good story. We all love an interesting character. This has nothing to do with modernity, and only a little with powerful corporations.

Think the Odyssey, think One Thousand and One Nights, think animal-trickster cycles such as the African/American Ananse-Tori. You don’t (just) want to be up to date with your peers when listening to a story. You’re simply dying to find out what happens next. It’s not (just) a social or economic pressure: it’s something personal between you and the story.