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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).

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Greetings from a [insert weather] place!

It’s a holiday cliche.

‘We’re having a great time here and the weather is nice.’ Or: ‘rain every day since we arrived.’ Or: ‘even the locals complain about the heat.’

On our postcards home, we write about the weather.

And not just we. As I examine letters from a century or more ago for my work, I find the same preoccupations, the same themes, the same wordings.

Here is a postcard from 1905. It was sent by a father who had to be away from home for work and regularly reported to his daughter about his activities.

Postcard, in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Postcard from a father to his daughter, sent in 1905, now in the collection of the Library of Congress.

On 14 August, he wrote:

The weather much cooler to day.

The same kind of texts can be found on postcards and in letters and diaries throughout the western world.

Now many scholars agree that such statements form a mere convention. Talk about the weather, as talk about hotels or sight-seeing, consists of cliches, slavishly repeated from existing models. Travel writing, in their opinion, consists largely of stereotypes and set topics that do not tell you much about what travellers really thought or felt.

I beg to differ. When we talk about the weather, usually it actually means something to us.

Yes, the weather is conventional in the sense that it is quite a common theme to broach in a letter or on a postcard. Yet we are not obliged to mention it. Nor are we obliged to always describe it in the same terms. If it were just a mark of good manners to say something like, for instance, ‘we are seeing some bright days here’, in the same sense as you would say ‘thank you’ when receiving a gift, that would be a full-blown convention, a formula. But except on those Gobi treks which your grandpa treats you to on your birthday, you would be perfectly free to write to him that where you are staying, the weather is miserable.

And if the weather is miserable, this really matters to you! If it’s raining all the time, this may make you cold or depressed. If it is 40 degrees Celsius in the shade, you may feel equally awful. The weather can prevent you from visiting certain places and from participating in a lot of enjoyable holiday activities.

So conventions come on different levels, in varying degrees. The weather happens to be a thing that affects us a lot, which is why, as a topic, it has become a convention in travel writing, while in its content, it remains highly specific and meaningful to the people involved.

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Dirt or development?

British air is too dirty, the newspapers reported this week.

But who decides what is dirty? As a historian, I see norms of cleanliness shift over the centuries. What is more, I see some of the roots of current norms going back to the nineteenth century or beyond.

According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, dirt is ‘matter out of place’.

In the case of British air, that matter is nitrogen dioxide. And it is out of place because it should not leave car exhausts in such great quantities as it does, building up in our cities. At least, that is the opinion of the European Commissioner for the Environment, who is about to sue Britain for breaching EU legislation. Environmental NGOs like Client Earth agree. They even have the UK Supreme Court on their side.

Yet local and national governments are failing to implement the legislation. Clearly, their norms and priorities differ from those who want to see British cities cleaned up immediately.

Charles Marville, Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel, mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

Picturesque or dirty? Charles Marville photographed the Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel in the course of Haussmann’s improvement project of the mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

In my work, I find similar conflicts over what matter is ‘out of place’. Take the case of early-nineteenth-century Dutch travellers. The place where they lived contained hardly any steam engines as yet, and little industry that might blow out polluting particles, when compared to Belgium or Britain in the same period. The Dutch economy ran largely on cows and sailing ships: two things which, although involving a certain amount of smelliness, did not usually concentrate in the streets of their cities.

So when Dutch travellers visited foreign towns, they were not so concerned with smoking chimneys. What they found dirty instead were unpaved roads, dust and mud. Indoors, matters were even worse as they encountered stuffy rooms which occupants kept the windows shut while smoking pipes or even keeping animals in the same space. Where other people felt snug and homy, these travellers felt sick.

On a typical stroll through an Italian city, they complained about streets being ‘[n]arrow, close, irregular, steep and crooked […] The heat […] was unbearable […] The smell, fuming towards me from the black, dirty, six-story high houses, I found insufferable [and I found] grimy rags [hung out] to dry’.

All in all, these travellers associated dirt with a lack of civilisation. In the undeveloped state in which much of Europe remained, according to these Netherlanders, matter had not yet found its way to the right places. Medieval alleys had not yet been straightened out, gutters not been cleared, ventilation shafts in houses not yet constructed. Nothing moved, everything was stuck.

This nineteenth-century ideal of movement and progress is oddly reminiscent of the behaviour of many governments today. Still thinking in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century terms, they like to see things move. They focus narrowly on economic growth, but do not invest in infrastructures that would make this growth a (literally) healthy one.

Of course, this has also much to do with the historical growth of an energy and transport sector that depends heavily on internal-combustion engines. This sector, and those parts of western governments that rely on it financially, have become entrenched: they resist the investments necessary for a shift towards different forms of energy storage (such as water reservoirs) and more efficient forms of releasing this energy (such as public rail transport).

Their public expressions of what is dirty and what is not have by now become pretty old-fashioned. If we follow their norms, the nitrogen dioxide in our streets is not matter out of place at all. It is precisely where it should be, and the sign of a roaring economy.

This text was published earlier on University of Sheffield’s History Matters, in slightly altered form.

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With a little help from my strangers

Last night, I was in trouble.

I live in a city. It is a hilly city. I try to cycle around as much as I can, but yesterday I was on foot, quite a long way from home, tired, hungry, and… near a tram stop. Isn’t modern city life wonderful?

I got into the tram and discovered that I did not have enough cash on me to pay for my fare.

Now we have to move back a few hours, to the moment I was still at work. My task was to get better acquainted with theories of modernisation. One of the most famous theories, and one that many of the newer ones rely on, is that of Georg Simmel. Simmel lived in another city, Berlin, around 1900 (okay, I have to admit that even in 1900 Berlin was somewhat bigger than the city I live in). He believed that life in the city made people blasiert: hard, arrogant, unsocial. People in the city, he wrote, were only interested in treating each other correctly; not in getting to know them. People in the city were rational, unfeeling. They treated other people like things, machines to be used to get on with one’s own life and then discarded.

All in all, my situation was looking pretty grim, there in the tram-car on a cold night in the big city.

Honoré Daumier, 'Entre onze heures et minuit', from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

Honoré Daumier, ‘Entre onze heures et minuit’, from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on http://www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

At that moment, a single modest individual stood up and proved Simmel and his succeeding generations of theorists wrong by a simple but brave act. She offered the conductor the amount for my fare. And was interested in chatting with me for the rest of our shared journey. In fact, she was a city dweller if ever there was one: she was born in one, and had lived in various cities and metropolises around the world. So she was certainly not the Last of the Mohicans, taking a fading country-side mentality with her into the modern metropolis.

It is true: the town or city makes different demands on its inhabitants than the village. It has always done so, and it always will: there is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about that. As soon as a place grows so big that you cannot know everyone, your attitude to your fellow citizens necessarily changes. This is because we cannot follow up on most of the social encounters we have: we will never build relations to most of the people who serve us in shops, check our parking permit or sit with us in tram-cars. Therefore, we can never ‘reward’ the people we are grateful to, nor ‘punish’ those that have done something wrong in our eyes.

This is also why begging homeless people form such a ‘challenge’ to city councils and affluent ‘homed’ people alike. Their unboundness, their freedom of sorts, makes giving to them scary. People want to know what happens with their money: ‘If we start giving to them without asking anything in return, where will it all end?’ Another city where I used to live explicitly advised its new (homed!) citizens not to give any money to those directly asking for it, but donate to an official charity instead.

Whether this is a sound advice, I do not know. Probably, the answer cannot be general but has to be specific to the circumstances: somewhat intellectually handicapped, freedom-loving 60-year-old tramps for life are a different matter altogether than (to give a quite different example but one that operates under the same mechanism) ministers of poor countries, which may be better off with trading opportunities than guilt-assuaging money.

But I know that this city’s warning appeals to the desire most people have to control the recipients of their charity. And, perhaps, also, not to come too closely to them. Strangers feel safer at a distance: in that sense, Simmel was absolutely right. Therefore, I called my ransomer’s small act brave.

She was acting from the age-old hope that the good you do will return to you some day. Was her decision therefore old-fashioned, un-modern? I believe not. Urban disinterest, which is inevitable to some extent, does not govern all we do. Just think back to the past year: I am pretty sure you can remember some instances when someone (in the city!) has done something good for you without expecting anything in return from you.

And that almost turns this column into a Christmas wish (aaargh)…

(Ok, lets get it over and done with:) I will close with the same two words spoken every day by Ellen DeGeneres:

‘Be kind’.

This post was written on Tuesday 10 December.

P.S. I know there are some critical readers out there who might object that acts of charity, like this one, tend to reinforce social (‘class’) distinctions (crudely put: we help the people who look like us). I do not believe this is completely true – I am not as pessimistic as that – and even to the extent that it is: that story needs to be told some other time and, I think, does not undermine today’s.

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Cycle for freedom

I spend much of my time debunking technological myths.

What is a technological myth? ‘The railways have democratised travel.’ You come across that one a lot.

But the social and administrative structure around the technology may well be at least as important as the technology itself. The way the business of the railways is run, matters a lot. The Trans-Siberian Express, for example, can hardly be called democratic. Those who want to approach the picture they know from the movies to any degree, have to spend many thousands of pounds; and a simple fare costs hardly less.

Photo of the similar repro-Pullman Orient Express by Simon Pielow, CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Photo of the similar repro-Pullman Orient Express by Simon Pielow. CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Rather, it is the government-regulated administration of a reliable, simple-to-use and relatively cheap system of rail transport that has made trains such a success in some countries (and not in others). And even there, it took about half a century from the introduction of passenger trains in the 1830s, to get to that point.

A technology exists, however, of which I am convinced that it is largely the technology itself that makes it so great. That is cycling.

Admittedly, effective cycling depends on surfaced roads (all-terrain biking excepted), people’s ability to cycle and to buy a bike, and some shared sense of traffic rules when the roads get very busy. But then again, it is inherently

  1. cheap. Bicycles (and monocycles, tricycles and, I hope, hand-cycles) are cheap vehicles, and cheap to repair or have repaired. Of course, it depends on where you are in the world whether they are easy to get by, but at least they are cheaper than most other means of wheeled transport (motorcycles, active wheelchairs, cars, trucks…; excepting, I suppose, roller skates).
  2. easy. Cycling is much easier to learn than driving a car.
  3. versatile, global. Although you need surfaced roads for effective cycling, which are hard to get by in many parts of the world, bikes need less room than cars, less ice than skates, less water than rowing boats… Many places around where humans live, are potentially accessible to cyclists. Of course, the good old pedestrian trumps them all…
  4. useful. Bikes do not only carry you: they carry the goods you sell, your groceries, your children…
  5. empowering. Most important of all, cyclists are independent. You don’t need anyone to ride a bike. The most common repairs you can do yourself – even though they cost some time, they require little expertise. You do not have to rely on sheikhs and oil barons getting along to hit the road.You are the one doing the moving. The bicycle is truly an auto-mobile.
This Mountaintrike, designed by Thies Timmermans, does not even need a road surface to roll. Found on http://commons.wikimedia.org. CC-BY-SA-3.0

This Mountaintrike, designed by Thies Timmermans, does not even need a road surface to roll. Found on http://commons.wikimedia.org. CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

Not for nothing, bikes have been much-contested: people have been explicitly forbidden to ride a bicycle (servants!), and many others have been strongly discouraged, either by fears for their decency (women!) or by prohibitive parameters set by governments (obligatory helmets!). Employers, patriarchs and wealthy technological industries (such as the car industry) are no big fans of the independence cycles bring.

Jean Béraud, 'Le Chalet du Cycle au Bois de Boulogne', probably from the 1890s, found on http://french-painters.blogspot.com/2011/04/jean-beraud-1849-1935.html

Jean Béraud, ‘Le Chalet du Cycle au Bois de Boulogne’, probably from the 1890s, found on http://french-painters.blogspot.com. Free of copyright.

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Second strike, second chance

Today, universities and other education institutions in the United Kingdom saw another day of strikes. In an earlier post, I was trying to find a way of positioning myself with regard to the strike of 31 October.

In the meantime, I have learnt a lot about work relations in education in this country (and, again, similar things are going on elsewhere). Those doing the most ‘manual’ kinds of work, and therefore (?) receiving the lowest pay, were a minority among participants last time. (I have to say that professors were spotted this time around!) Today, the same was the case: cleaners, for example, did work as usual. Now I see that this may actually have a lot to do with the business models universities have adopted over the past years. Instead of employing everyone who works for them, universities have been outsourcing more and more of the work they need done. Their cafes and restaurants, their cleaning and their security are often run either by external companies or by daughter companies that universities create for this specific purpose. As a consequence, the staff employed by those companies are not directly employed by the university and can therefore not become a member of university labour unions. They are unable to officially participate in a strike organised by education unions, and, as far as I can see, get no legal protection or financial support from them if they were to decide to take any action.

Considering this, speaking out in solidarity with them has only become more important. Another remaining concern is the gap in salaries between female and male academics, as well as support staf. (which is very real even if you just consider the fact that women tend to end up in (economically) poorly appreciated jobs such as cleaning and caring, and men in highly appreciated ones; but even in comparable functions, men get more on average than women).

These concerns, however, run up against the realities of collective action: strikers have to make a single, clearly defined demand. The present demand for an inflation-matching rise in wages/salaries across the board, is what put me off last time. By now, I have learnt that many of my colleagues have similar feelings: demanding higher salaries for themselves, they feel, is unnecessary, unethical, and might lower academics’ image to the level of bonus-chasing bankers’. At the same time, strength still lies in numbers: only by showing up in person employees, students and other allies can really demonstrate they are serious about their worries. Luckily, we have some leeway in deciding how to contribute to this effort. So, instead of teaming up behind a ‘we want more than 1%’ -sign, I did some handicrafting this morning…P1020341… and was very happy that this contribution was well-received in town.

However, looking back, I should have gone for this one:

by Cobrophy on Reddit

(N.B. Short-term contracts have a way of boomeranging on the current academic system: having to move home every few years does leave employees with cardboard that’ll last a few rallies…)