Reader C. contributed this sign, found in the modern art museum in Stockholm:
My new office building has many floors. On one floor:
On the next floor:
(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:
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?
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.
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.
Do you frequently feel rushed? See the appeal of the Slow Movement? You are not alone.
To give an example from just one country in the world – a country that, incidentally, scores high in the happiness indexes: the Dutch, too, live a stressful life. Their national institute for social research reports that they have difficulty combining work, care, education and leisure. Many always feel behind schedule.
When under such pressure, it is not uncommon to envy one’s ancestors’ slower-paced lifestyle. Because this is often said: that the culprit of our stress is the acceleration of modern life. Before the arrival of smartphones, cars and steam engines, of highly regimented work hours and the capitalist fear of wasting our time, we kept a considerably lower pace. And even if we are aware that the trade-offs of going back in time may include having a more repetitive job, fewer possessions, fewer modern conveniences and a more limited social circle, we sometimes crave that old-life simplicity.
But has stress really become normalised only recently? I try to answer this question in an article for web magazine The Low Countries. The article looks at the diaries of four travellers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Based on my research into these and related texts, I argue that many people were in fact already anxious about their own efficiency even before the Industrial Revolution. They had ambitious schedules and constantly felt they needed to catch up with their own rushed lives. Interested? Please read on on The Low Countries.
It’s labour day! I think you may at least have earned a cup of coffee by now.
My employer organised a Sustainability Week this year. At the start of the week, I received the following cheerful message:
The University offers a discount of 20p per drink to anyone who brings their own reusable mug […]
Throughout Sustainability Week you can […] pick up your own reusable cup from any University or SU cafe, or from the Zero Waste Shop in the Students’ Union, for only £5 (£6 for a large).
I’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that my employer is trying to seduce me to hand some of my hard-earned wages straight back over to them.
But we can recognise in this e-mail a message so many companies are sending us these days. A message which performs a clever bit of PR. We are invited to feel good about replacing our disposable cups with a lasting one. But who was it who gave us the disposable cup to begin with?
Within the span of only a few years, coffee joints across Britain and in other rich countries have replaced ceramic drinking ware with paper and plastic cups. Not just for take-away orders, as had been the case for much longer,* but for customers who ‘sit in’ as well.
When travelling to see family for Christmas this winter, hands frozen, I had difficulty finding a place where I could have a nice sit-down to the tinkle of a warm cup of cappuccino on its saucer, instead of a hasty bite in a soggy piece of cardboard. There was one such place left in the entire station: a commiserating passer-by pointed it out to me as she saw me protesting at another coffee counter.
The sensual pleasures of hot beverages aside – and they are of eminent importance – there is also an ecological side to this story, not to mention the economic side.
As to the ecological side, my employer’s message itself already informed me of the following:
Of the 2.5 billion single-use cups used in the UK every year, only 1% are recycled.
And the makers of my own reusable travel mug (which I of course speedily procured) explain how I am helping to remedy this:
The outer thermal insulation layer of [the reusable cup] is made from used paper coffee cups. Every one of us throws away 350 paper coffee cups each year on average. By switching to [this reusable cup] you save these from landfill and contribute directly to the recycling of the used coffee cups that slip through the net. (company website)
And so, I am now the proud owner of
One great cup made from 6 rubbish ones. (product leaflet)
It is these and similar data which not only the sellers of travel mugs use (and I don’t blame them, in as far as they operate independently from the coffee sellers), but the PR-departments of cafés bombard us with when urging us to carry around our own durable cups. We must be very bad people do be doing this to our planet (to be sure, I think we are – but that’s stuff for another post).
Yet such durable cups form a solution to a problem that was never there to begin with. Or rather: they form a solution to a problem that was created only recently by the coffee companies themselves, and in full awareness of creating it; the same coffee companies who are now making us feel guilty for the paper cups they introduced.
For of course, coffee bars’ own old-school ceramic cups had no larger ecological footprint than the ones we now carry around with us. On the contrary: professional whiteware lasts far longer than the average plastic or bamboo travel cup you buy on the high street.
So let us move on from the ecological story to the economic one:
If Adam Smith were still alive, he might have said: what we see here is yet another marvellous example of how economic incentives – getting 20p off your coffee – stimulates moral behaviour and benefits society as a whole.
Karl Marx, on the other (quite visible) hand, might call it yet another marvellous example of the owners of large companies shifting the responsibility for their resource depletion onto the individual consumer and worker (and most of us are both).
Now Adam Smith was a clever guy, but he does not seem to always have been very precise in describing where the benefits go. Not only is it now the customers’ responsibility to buy a cup, previous to visiting a coffee joint; they also have to carry it around in their bags (leaky and all) and do the cleaning (of their bags, too), a cleaning which is both economically and ecologically less efficient than professional cafés can do it.
Here it may be good to remind ourselves that labour performed in rich countries makes up the largest part of the cost of anything we buy, far greater than coffee beans or hot milk. Therefore, companies can save a fair bit of money through such measures. What this also means, is that the costly labour which is now performed for free by coffee consumers, would otherwise have provided jobs for people.
All this while not so long ago, it used to be a customer’s reasonable expectation that a café would take care of all this. What business are cafés in, if not that of bringing us cups of coffee? So, to look at it in terms of money instead of work: half the product that we used to get when we gave two pounds to a coffee seller, is now provided by ourselves. Instead of coffee and cup, we now just get coffee. We only still get half our money’s worth.
And all it took for coffee companies to convince us to donate them a pound every time we buy a hot drink, was a few years of making us drink from paper cups, plus some clever guilt-tripping.
We are a forgetful people.
* though not always! A century or so ago, people would bring their own vessels to filling points. Of course, those vessels were not filled with American barista coffee, but with water, soup, or potatoes.
Earlier, I wrote about the meanings of distance for travellers on the early railways. But what did distance mean for those who observed the new engines on wheels from the outside, as they came thundering past?
An important painting from the 1880s addresses precisely this question. ‘Il vient de loin’ – he/it comes from afar – by Dutch impressionist Paul Joseph Constantin Gabriël has at least three things to say about distance.
Most obviously, this painting problematizes progress. Many visual and literary artworks of the nineteenth century set up a dichotomy between tradition and progress, between nature and technology, between a supposedly static country-side and a dynamic industrial sector. Some artists were enthusiastic about technological developments, others critical, a third group ambiguous.
Gabriël, too, clearly referred to these contemporary concerns in his work. Not for nothing, Gabriël’s painting is reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s famous ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, which like many works of its time emphasised both the beauty and the threat of steam technology.
Take even just Gabriël’s title. It makes sense to read this from the perspective of the angler resting against the gate in this Dutch polder landscape: representing the local and the traditional, the angler sees the train ‘coming from afar’. Indeed, the technology of steam locomotion arrived in continental Europe from across the sea: developed in Britain, steam trains may initially have been considered an exotic technology in the rest of Europe. The steam engines used on the early Dutch railways even continued to be imported from Britain for quite some time, for lack of a local industry.
Of course, ‘afar’ may refer to the individual train in the picture, too. The angler looks like he has just come sauntering into the scene from a nearby farmstead. Within his frame of reference, it might be argued, the train has already travelled a lot of track before entering into view – although we are probably talking about a few tens or hundreds of kilometres at most. Trains cross vast distances; farmers and fisher-people stay put, the painting seems to say.
In all these cases, the new technology can be read as an alien presence in this landscape, and if this was indeed the predominant perception in the 1880s, we should not be too surprised if the railways occasionally met with a hostile reception.
What makes this painting interesting, however, is its ambiguity: who exactly is coming from afar? Rather than the train, the title could refer to the angler.
This interpretation makes a lot of sense if we follow the painter’s cue to look at the angler: an Everyman. It is he who comes from afar. That is: humankind has got far: from humbly hunting for food, through shaping the land to make it suitable for farming, to the modern industrial economy. This second interpretation sits equally comfortably with prevalent nineteenth-century views. And so, when looking at the steam engine, the angler is really looking at his own achievements, perhaps pondering whether they please him.
But possibly the most interesting view this painting offers on distances has little to do with nineteenth-century debates. Instead, it has everything to do with a sensation that cannot have been unique to the nineteenth century.
We see: a polder landscape. A canal in the middle. On the right: anglers, some ducks. On the left: a telegraph line, the approaching train still in the distance. And two thirds of the painting: sky. A single vanishing point, a simple composition.
What’s more, the entire picture is permeated by the single element of water. The sky is filled with clouds, the air with steam; the land is bisected by a canal and the earth saturated with groundwater. The anglers find their food in the water; the travellers power their movement with the help of water turned into steam. This is a thoroughly wet scene, a scene with much less contrast or conflict than for instance Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’.
And so, everything about this balanced picture speaks quiet. (Apart perhaps from the already restlessly vertical telegraph poles.)
Yet we know the train is coming. Its approaching cloud of steam seems to progressively envelop the land. Not just that, but it moves from the central vanishing point to the front of the scene. It gets all the attention, that of the angler as well as ours.
It will enter the landscape and for a brief moment be at its very foreground, dominating the scene with its noise and its steam, its hard wheels on the track, its smells and its black body towering on the embankment; for a few seconds the angler resting against the gate will hear or see nothing but the train… and then it’ll be gone.
It is this ephemerality, the fleeting quality of this sensation of a train passing by, that Gabriël pictures. He pictures not just the brief moment of the train’s overwhelming presence, but also its absence on either side of that moment.
‘Coming from afar’ then means: being there for an instance only, and soon belonging to another place again.
It is a sensation we know all too well, and one that overlaps with some of the sensations had by people on a train.
And so, in the same decade of 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson published his memorable ‘From a Railway Carriage’:
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!
This post grew from my article ‘Trains, Bodies, Landscapes: Experiencing Distance in the Long Nineteenth Century’, published in The Journal of Transport History (2019).
It was also published on the website of the Hakluyt Society.