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The Silent Skill of Sharing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same carriage, standing in the museum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(photo: APHG, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Quotations from

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

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

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How the tsars started a Mexican wave

The Mexican wave: seemingly bound up with the world of modern sports and television, my work as a travel historian has recently brought me face to face with a much older instance of this clever bit of mass coordination.

Souffreau, stadium audience, 2007. Wikimedia Commons.

Bram Souffreau, a stadium audience (photographed in 2007). Wikimedia Commons.

The past few weeks of UEFA competition have seen the Mexican wave do its round of the stadiums again. This year, the UEFA even turned the wave into a symbol for respectful football. Such spectacles of human coordination always do nicely on a TV screen. It seems indeed that you need the technology, the crowds, and the entertainment focus of modern televised sports for the wave to work at all. And so, according to popular lore (and according to the Oxford English Dictionary), human waves started to be observed at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Others have seen the phenomenon slightly earlier, in North-American college football, but this does not alter the story much. However, no one, to my knowledge, has as yet dug up the much deeper, much older history of the Mexican Wave.

That history goes back at least to the early nineteenth century, and I recently caught a glimpse of it in the most unlikely of places: in a manuscript that I was examining in the stables of a quiet country house which used to belong to one of the wealthiest and most reclusive aristocrats of the Low Countries.

 Jean-Baptiste Van der Hulst

Jean-Baptiste Van der Hulst, Marie Cornélie van Wassenaer Obdam (oil on canvas, 1829)

Her name was Marie Cornélie van Wassenaer Obdam. She preferred spending time on her estate, eschewed most forms of social entertainment except music, and died long before the invention of association football and newsreels. So how did she come to write about the Mexican wave?

It happened on a journey in 1825, though not to Mexico. Marie Cornélie accompanied a Dutch princely delegation on a state visit to the tsars’ court in Saint Petersburg. In Russia, she was shown around several charitable institutions funded by the tsarina, where the pupils demonstrated their skill and industry. One such visit ended in an enormous, colonnaded hall where all the pupils had gathered to present themselves:

at our approach, the double doors swung open and the young persons, arranged by class, the little ones in front, from both sides of the hall dropped a curtsy together, like ears swaying in a field of wheat. it was not without some awkwardness that I returned this greeting, aware of all the eyes that were fixed on us at that moment.

Evidently, the visual pleasure of this coordinated wave movement, performed by human beings, was already realized one and a half century before the 1986 waves that we normally read about. But equally evident are the differences that distinguish the Russian wave as seen by Marie Cornélie in 1825, from the Mexican waves seen in stadiums today.

In the first place, the context of her Russian wave was not sports, but education. Secondly, the milieu in which it took place was not a broadly popular one, but consisted of aristocratic ladies.

Yet most importantly, the wave Marie Cornélie was treated to, was not a spontaneous expression of enthusiasm. It had been carefully orchestrated by the teachers of the educational institution she was visiting. It aimed to show the school’s success in raising well-behaved, disciplined young ladies.

In that sense, the wave was akin to a military parade, although it wore a more friendly and welcoming face. This welcoming face played a role in a second aim we can expect the institution’s directors to have had: to persuade their wealthy visitors to leave a donation. We could therefore call this wave of 1825 a ‘pr wave’, or a charity wave.

That brings us back to the UEFA, and their request to share waves on twitter for their Respect Campaign. So far, this request has mostly attracted rehearsed bits of action. But, seeing that the wave may be older than we thought, has it not changed for the better by abolishing the separation between audience and spectacle that made Marie Cornélie feel awkward two centuries years ago?

Is what makes it so wonderful today not the very fact that it springs from a spontaneous decision by spectators to make themselves part of the spectacle, by bursting forth from a ‘curtsied’ position into full-body swing?

The original diaries, in French, of Marie Cornélie’s journey are property of A. Graf Solms Sonnenwalde. A Dutch-language edition has been prepared by Aafke Brunt as Marie Cornélie. Dagboek van haar reis naar het hof van Sint-Petersburg 1824-1825 (Amsterdam, 2003).

An earlier version of this post appeared on the University of Sheffield’s History Matters.

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Carefree in China

I have just returned from a month in China.

Before I went, I was not sure how much I would like it. I had been reading things like Een barbaar in China and Carolijn Visser’s travel stories, both written in the 1980s. I held on to the comfort that, if the worst came to the worst, the excellent food would pull me through.

I have a completely different image of China now. In fact, it has been the people that I have come to love most of all.

My overnight stays in China. Adapted from Joowwww’s map on Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, China is vast and varied, but in the places I visited, I encountered one cultural feature again and again, one that completely differs from the European North-Sea culture I am used to. This was the people’s openness, their physical freedom, their carelessness almost, but an accommodating, elegant sort of carelessness.

Of course, most of the places I visited were very crowded. You may argue that this makes it simply impossible for people to maintain some distance to each other. Still, when you look around you on the London underground, you notice that people can succeed at this, if they want. In eastern China, however, people did not seem to mind touching each other. In fact, I have often seen strangers touch each other on the back to ask them for room to pass, instead of only saying ‘excuse me’.

And then there is the infamous pushing and bumping into each other on the street, which annoys a lot of visitors (yes, that includes myself). I received the impression that, instead of estimating the way of least resistance through a crowd, most people just walked; and instead of giving way to pedestrians with a determined look on their face, as in Europe, they stuck to their own swerving path… and let the bumping happen. Or perhaps I should say ‘we’ instead of ‘they’, because by the end of my journey, I was doing the same.

In motorised traffic, this habit gets a little more dangerous. Cars as well as the uncountable electric bikes, scooters and mopeds, all approach you uncannily closely before giving way. What is more, the lanes for pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles are usually one shared space, and usually they contain traffic both ways.

And yet, I did not often feel unsafe. With all the millions of people I have seen pass during that month on the road, I did not witness a single accident.

Most of all, I think this is because 1) drivers keep to a modest speed, much more modest that you would expect in a place where most formal traffic rules become irrelevant. And 2) people look at you. They ‘do’ traffic through a continuous visual and aural negotiation with each other, rather than by ‘blindly’ obeying traffic lights. The result is a general worming and pushing, rather than people flashing past (or into) each other.

The same happened on the sleeper trains. You share a single space with 66 people. Everywhere, bodies sleeping or eating or brushing their teeth. Feet and heads sticking out from the berths. People happily come by for a chat or for dinner on your bed. I was not always ready for this, but that was just me being from a different culture. So I had to get used to it!

But what I wanted to come back to, was the fact that people look at you. Of course, I was obviously a foreigner, and this seems to have been quite a bit of an attraction to many Chinese. However, a strange person in Wiltshire or Drenthe is not looked at in the same way as a European in the prefectures of Guilin or Yichang (which are both popular tourist destinations). In Europe, I think parents would admonish their children: ‘Don’t look!’ In China, they might sooner ask their child to take a photo. People stare at you unabashedly in the street – and they smile. I don’t think I have ever smiled back at people so much in my life. In fact, much of our interaction was so weird (to me), that a giggle was always lurking near the surface.

In this highly touristic place - for Chinese tourists - people would nevertheless watch us curiously, and actually shout to each other: 'Look over there, foreigners, foreigners!' (in Mandarin)

In this highly touristic place, people would nevertheless watch us curiously, and actually shout to each other: ‘Look over there, foreigners, foreigners!’ (in Mandarin). After all, the place is primarily touristic for tourists from China itself. They received some laowai spectacle for free. (Photo by author)

A lot of strangers also came to us with, for us, rudely personal questions. Most were just either being friendly/curious, or showing off their English (this group did not understand our answers anyway…). Yet it made me realise that there is a third option between either getting angry or complying completely with demands you do not feel comfortable with: you can always laugh and move on to the next topic. As a visitor, you want to respect the fact that norms are different in different places, and what is impolite in one place may be polite in another. However, at the same time, you have to protect yourself from your own cultural ignorance that makes you so vulnerable to abuse from the more mercenary types. Accommodating to the people you are visiting does not need to be an all-or-nothing question.

I won’t go into any post-colonial issues now, or the current goverment’s policies, though of course these also played a role in creating my experiences. But the simple fact that so many Chinese people whom I met, were so easy in looking at you, touching you, sharing things with you (or from you), talking to you (or shouting at you), made me in fact feel very free. It was not always nice; it was not always pleasant; but I felt a certain carelessness come over myself as well.

A fellow European tourist may have experienced something similar as we visited a hot spring. In order to take her mud bath, she had to change into her bathing costume. Afterwards, she reported that there had been no other option than to change in an open space full of strangers, women and men. As she told this, the horror in her voice mixed with elation and carefreeness.

By the end of the journey, I was no longer minding other people’s bodies so much, nor my own. I no longer cared so much where it was, what it was doing, whether it had the right degree of visibility or invisibility or normalness, and what or whom it might bump into.