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If we live in a shrinking world, it is not because transport is becoming faster

Yes: I live a 5 minutes’ walk from the beach.

Yes: I live in the very heart of Britain; as far from the sea as anyone living on this cliff-encrusted island could possibly live.

Both statements are true. Here’s why.

I live in Sheffield, next to the train station, and if I get onto the right train a direct line will take me to Cleethorpes on the eastcoast. There, a station was built in 1863 which was located virtually on the beach itself.

And here’s what’s so remarkable: it does not matter to me whether this train moves at 50 miles or at 150 miles per hour (the truth lies somewhere in the middle, in fact). The beach will remain to feel close. This is something over which I completely agree with the long-dead travellers with whom I work. (Ours is a pleasant arrangement: I read their diaries. They take it easy.) We get on board, we stretch our legs, and… presto: we are on the beach.

The end of the line. Cleethorpes station, 26 August 1983. Photo by Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Now I can do a somewhat similar thing if I want to go to Ireland; to Dublin, for instance. There is hardly any distance my legs need to cross between home and Dublin city centre. Again, public transport takes me from door to door. Still, Dublin is quite a different story from Cleethorpes. I need to change trains three times (Stockport, Crewe, Chester), get on a boat (which departs from sea-tale Holy Island), and finally catch a bus that takes me from Dublin port to Dublin town (where, by the time I arrive, I am more than ready for a whiskey).

Undeniably, Dublin takes me a few extra hours, but the difference is more than that: the journey to Dublin is of an altogether different order from the ride to Cleethorpes. I believe that to a large extent, this is caused by the numerous changes, the getting off and onto trains, the more complex arrangements that I need to make, having to stay focused throughout the journey in case I miss a stop or a departure or a service announcement, the waiting in between, and all the different stations and places I get to see along the way.

Therefore, Cleethorpes does not only make for a journey that feels shorter, but also for a place that seems closer while I am still at home.

A single iron road stretches out all the way between me and the east coast. It almost erases the journey. And it holds the two places – home and seaside – in a single embrace.

These reflections on my own travels while still living in England were stirred by my reading of nineteenth-century experiences of distance.

Some of these experiences can be found in my article ‘Trains, Bodies, Landscapes: Experiencing Distance in the Long Nineteenth Century’, published in The Journal of Transport History (2019). Others can be found in an article I wrote about accessibility which is yet to be published.

These are academic articles, but I have also written about distance here on Historian at large and with the Hakluyt Society, and have written more posts about the history of travel generally.

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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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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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How do you know how far you’ve travelled?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, he writes that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Killing time with cauliflowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stevepb, Coins, CC-0.

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

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

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

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

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

All effort revolves around tangible products, concrete deliverables:

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

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

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

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

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

Or study this painting:

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

 

 

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

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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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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.