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More shared loos: from binary to queer

One more brief post on unisex toilet facilities, before we move on to other things! (Unless this new city which I moved to, keeps surprising me.)

My new office building has many floors. On one floor:

One cubicle for two genders.

On the next floor:

One cubicle for all genders.

(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:

Ain’t they a beauty?If anyone knows who designed this merhuman, I wouldn’t mind being told!

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Tracing the progress of unisex loos

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?

Robin van Persie with Fulham players, photo by Ronnie Macdonald, Flickr (2007).

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.

 

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When we feel our language is under attack

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.

Injured skier on his way to the train station. Labouche Frères, ‘Les Sports d’Hiver dans les Pyrenées / 22. – Au Concours International de Ski de Cauterets: Blessé porté à la Gare dans une Chaise à Porteur’ (Toulouse), from the private Collections de Cartes Postales Anciennes.

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Slow Living: A Paradise Lost?

Do you frequently feel rushed? See the appeal of the Slow Movement? You are not alone.

A harried White Rabbit from Carroll and Tenniel’s Nursery Alice (London: Macmillan, 1890), digitised by the British Library.

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.

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Coffee cups: a ‘circular economy’

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?

Alanthebox via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Coming from afar (Or: watching trains go by)

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.

P.J.C. Gabriël, ‘Il vient de loin’, Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, the Netherlands, no. KM 100.143.

1)

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.

J.M.W. Turner, ‘Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway’, National Gallery UK, no. NG538. Available on Wikimedia Commons.

2)

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.

3)

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.

Robert Louis Stevenson in 1887. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Alitji in Wonderland

In my post about a Swahili Alice in Wonderland I made a call for Alices who would look a little different from the blond English girl we know from so many depictions of Carroll’s classic, even those which are set in contemporary Europe or North America.

The 2018 Pirelli calendar came up. As did Whoopi Goldberg’s variation on the story, with its dazzlingly urban illustrations by John Rocco.

Now a new book has found its way to me: Alitji in Dreamland, (European-Australian?) Nancy Sheppard’s 1975 adaptation and translation into Pitjantjatjara, illustrated anew in 1992 by Donna Leslie (of Australian Gamileroi heritage).

Like Elisi, Alitji makes an attempt at translating Lewis Carroll’s Victorian world into that of a different culture, in this case situated in the central region of Australia. This book, too, seems to start off with the rather safe work of bringing a European cultural gift (Alice in Wonderland) to a faraway culture, without Aboriginal Australian cultures or people conversely impacting on the white homeland (whether this is England or white settlements in Australia itself). In that sense, Goldberg and Rocco’s book is more exciting: there, an African American Alice finds her way through money-obsessed New York City.

But as their story unfolds, Sheppard and Leslie’s work does touch on often dangerous cultural contacts. And in doing so, it gave me a new perspective on Carroll’s original story in the bargain.

The Caterpillar for example, who is often likened to a crabby Oxbridge don, is not only transformed into a Witchety Grub (which, interestingly, would have counted as a food in Alitji’s waking life), but also into a pink, or ‘white’, man. It gives a whole new angle to the famous question ‘Who are you?’ From a university tutorial, the scene has changed into a colonial interrogation. (I was perhaps slightly disappointed that Alitji ends the scene by eating from two sprigs of berries, rather than nibbling the top and the tail off the Witchety Grub.)

Donna Leslie, Alitji in Dreamland (1992)

The Mad Teaparty develops even more ominously.

The Stockman – the Mad Hatter – who seems to have been a light-skinned man in Sheppard’s conception (though not in the pictures), utters his usual

‘No room, no room!’

Of course Alitji retorts:

‘There is plenty of space’.

Territorial politics?

Then the Horse – the March Hare – chips in:

‘Your skin is very dark. You ought to wash yourself.’

Obviously, this is a comment the Aboriginal Australian girls reading the book in the 1970s may in fact have heard (do they still?), and its racism gives a much starker edge to the original Hatter’s ‘personal remark’ ‘Your hair wants cutting’.

As befits her, Alitji again has her answer ready.

‘My skin is always dark, even after washing,’ Alitji replied with dignity.

And so, there were a number of moments throughout this book which made me find the adaptation pretty grim. A final example:

A stockman is an Australian herdsman. The Horse in Alitji would probably have been his work companion. And like the Hatter his watch, so the Stockman has his own accessory.

Donna Leslie, Alitji in Dreamland (1992)

The Horse picked up the Stockman’s rifle and said,

‘Really, this is useless. Why did you tell me to put salt in it?’

Rather embarrassed, the Stockman answered,

‘It was good salt.’

The Hatter’s little machine was a watch, the Stockman’s is a rifle. Not the friendliest of machines to sit next to on a tea visit, especially when one’s hosts are as mad as a Hatter.

But then again, is the Hatter’s original watch so innocent? To what extent have clocks been used since the nineteenth century to terrorise schoolgirls, factory workers, prisoners, indigenous peoples?

Perhaps I’m only thinking this because I have been reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish at the same time as reading Alitji, yet perhaps also Sheppard has simply not made such a violent leap at all when introducing her Alice into rifled company.

After all, is Carroll’s Alice not one of the most violent of children’s stories which we still read? (Children’s stories tended to be more violent in the nineteenth century anyway, but most we have stopped reading.) How about the Queen’s decapitations? How about the Pigeon’s children who continue to be taken away from her by serpents, or by little girls such as Alice? How about Alice’s own repeated laconic confrontation of mice and birds with her mice- and bird-eating pet Dinah?

It’s a cruel book, Alice is, and it seems only right that Sheppard and Leslie did not sanitise it.