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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.

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The earliest photos (2): outside in

In the previous post, I commented on the porosity of early photography: the parlour moved into the garden, the city into the home.

A reader sent me a photo of her grandmother which shows the same porosity.

Portrait of Tina Sangen and three other women, by Gerhard Mertens (early 20th century). Probably in the public domain. With permission of the owner.

The photo was taken in a studio: indoors.

It depicts four servants. The grandmother-to-be is the young woman on the right: Tina Sangen.

These four women lived and worked in Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Their portrait, however, was taken by Gerhard Mertens in Aachen, Germany. The distance is about 35 kilometres, which they would have travelled by train.

Gerhard Mertens had several studios in Aachen, and apparently had the reputation, the connections and/or the price to compete with the photographers that must have been available in Maastricht itself. Or perhaps the sitters did not go to Aachen specifically for Mertens’s studio: Aachen was three times the size of Maastricht, so the chances of getting a decent portrait done were simply higher there.

The back of the photo makes you wonder: are the negatives still being preserved somewhere, for new print orders?

Nevertheless, as the reader who sent the photo remarks, it is interesting that these four women made the journey across the border (which up until just before World War One remained pretty porous itself) to have their portrait taken. Partly, the trip must have been an outing, but it was also a work day, because the women are wearing their work costume and I don’t think they would have chosen to do so if this was a day they really had to themselves.

So what we are seeing may be a mixture of a proud employer* showing off their neat servants, and the servants getting a – hopefully paid – day out of the house, and out of the city. Evidently, the borders between work and leisure were porous, too – in terms of space as well as time.

But what also remained porous was the border between interior and exterior. The photo’s background shows a park-like landscape with full-grown trees. The foreground, on the contrary, a carpet and what looks like a very woolly rug. And on closer inspection, the background turns out to be painted.

This photo doesn’t really belong in the category of ‘early photography’, and it was easy enough for photographer Mertens to take pictures indoors. The outdoors clearly had its own charm as a setting – witness the painted trees. Yet at the same time, little effort was made to hide the fact that this scene takes place inside a room – considering the carpet. Or perhaps the photographer really meant the carpet to evoke that traditional outdoor feeling established during the earlier phase of portrait photography?

 

 

* Their employers were the family Pichot ─ Du Plessis.

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The earliest photos: inside out

Yesterday, a generous friend gave me an enormous book: a big fat history of photography.

I had not anticipated that this already splendid book full of beautiful old photos, would also tell me a lot about that other interest I have: space.

One aspect of space that fascinates me, is the distinction between outside and inside spaces. Where exactly do we cross the threshold between being indoors and being out-of-doors? And where do we prefer to be?

Sometimes the distinction is clear. But this is far from always the case:

Tim Green, Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds (2016), CC-BY-2.0, on Wikimedia Commons.

Inside or outside?

Jürgen Sindermann, camp site Prerow on the Baltic Coast (1990), Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst, Zentralbild, Bild 183, via Wikimedia Commons.

Back to the history of photography. Very early photos, taken in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, seem to me to have frequently blurred the boundaries between inside and outside. This is visible in two types of photos discussed in the first chapter of my book.

1)  Most early photographic portraits follow the same pattern: the subject is seated or standing next to a table or column or such, against a simple architectural backdrop or curtain. All of this is placed – and this is key – on a nice, patterned carpet. In short, everything is done to suggest that the photo was taken in a comfortable drawing-room, or in someone’s study.

Portrait of Mary Ann Bartlett (1850 à 1860), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, DAG no. 1218.

However, not only were many pictures taken in professional studios rather than in the sitter’s home, and were those bits of furniture much too upmarket for some of them to even afford them. Many of such portraits were also taken in the open air. Especially amateur photographers often created their portraits out of doors. This could involve hauling quite a bit of furniture outside in order to create a miniature parlour. The amount of furniture is still modest on this example, but it shows clearly how such photos were made:

(Self-)portrait of Alexandrine Tinne in her own garden in The Hague (1860), Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands, Collectie 066 De Constant Rebecque, inventory no. 249 (public domain). Note the carpet. But also the saddle: Tinne was a famous explorer.

Photos such as these would later be cropped. Usually.

2)  A completely different genre was formed by cityscapes, an outdoor genre. Yet again, in early examples of this genre the boundaries between inside and outside were blurred. Out-of-door pictures were often taken while the photographer was standing indoors, working their camera through an opened window; or they were taken from the rooftop of the photographer’s house; or else, if the photographer did leave their front door, quite close to home.

They have that sense about them of a casual look out of the window, or of nipping out for a breath of fresh air on the doorstep.

Eduard Isaac Asser, view from his rooftop, Singel, Amsterdam (c. 1852), Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, RP-F-AB12278-A (public domain).

That this is how early photography operated had two causes, I read in my book. For in order to take photos, you need two things:

  1. your equipment: camera, tripod, plates, chemicals… In the early years, all this equipment was unwieldy and the process of making an exposure complex. It was best therefore not to venture too far from your studio;
  2. of course, in order to take a photo you also need light. And in the early years of photography, with less sensitive materials than now, you simply needed more of this, so the best place to go for all kinds of photos was outside.

It was therefore in the nature of early photography to merge working outdoors and indoors. The very technology itself, which demanded both intricate equipment and a lot of light, turned these artists into amphibious creatures, who brought the parlour into the garden and the city into the home.

 

The first chapter of the book: Saskia Asser, Mattie Boom, Hans Rooseboom, ‘Photography in the Netherlands in the Nineteenth Century: A New Art, A New Profession’, in Dutch Eyes: A Critical History of Photography in the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Waanders, 2007), 57-102.

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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).