Category Archives: History

Wherein I make the acquaintance of the most prominent citizen of Dorset

Aerial photo of the Giant, courtesy of Wiki Commons

Aerial photo of the Giant, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago, when I was living in Belgium, my parents came to visit, and we drove over to England to see a cousin who lived here. (Well, we crossed the Channel by hovercraft, but you know what I mean.)

I don’t remember where we ended up going sightseeing, but I remember very well where we didn’t go: to the little village of Cerne Abbas, in Dorset, to see the Cerne Abbas Giant.  My cousin diplomatically vetoed that as inappropriate for the conservative sensibilities of the party there assembled; you can see why from the photos.

The naked and decidedly male Cerne Abbas Giant is one of many, many displays known as hill figures or chalk figures in the UK, but one of only three—the others being the Uffington White Horse and the Long Man of Wilmington—that are thought to date from ancient times.  Nobody knows who made them or why, but made they were, by cutting through the green turf and down to the white chalk beneath, and filling up, with more chalk, the troughs that were cut.   (You knew southern England is built on lots of chalk, right?  Chalk is what puts the white in the White Cliffs of Dover.)

The Giant, as included on an Ordnance Survey map of 1891, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Giant, as included on an Ordnance Survey map of 1891, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I finally saw the Giant last week, though he looked a little the worse for wear.  His head was pretty much gone, for starters, at least when looking with the naked eye—nakedness being something of the point of the priapic Giant.  Lots of the interior details—the lines that you might see as ribs or as a six-pack; the pectorals and nipples—that makes this figure different from most others, which are plain, seem to have disappeared, too, along with his left arm and a good bit of the club he holds in his right hand.  What he had instead, when I visited, was a somewhat polka-dotted (UK: spotted) midriff, with sheep as the polka-dots.

It takes a lot of work to keep the grass from growing back over the white outlines of a hill figure; it turns out that one good way of keeping the plants in check is to allow sheep to graze the hillside. (Not cattle; their hooves would mar the lines, apparently.)  But sheep don’t have the ability—nor yet the tools—to do the job entirely by themselves.  The National Trust, in charge of the maintainance, says it costs £1 per metre to re-furbish the white lines, which are about a foot wide (or 0.3 metre, if you prefer not to mix your measurements).  As the Giant is the largest hill figure in these islands at 55 metres (180 feet) tall and 51 metres wide, and carries a club 37 metres long, that’s a lot of metres of outline to keep up, and it looks like it’s been a while since the Giant has had an overhaul.

The Giant as I found him, lines fading, and dotted with sheep, who are clearly no respecters of persons

The Giant as I found him, lines fading, and dotted with sheep, who are clearly no respecters of persons

During WWII, the Giant was covered over on purpose, to prevent German planes from using him as a landmark.  More recently, he’s been used to advertise a variety of products, including condoms and, in 2007, The Simpsons Movie.  For that, a comparably scaled (but non-aroused) Homer Simpson, in underpants and waving a doughnut, appeared on the hill next to the Giant.  Funny, but…unfortunate.  Let the Giant have his gravitas.  (Homer was rendered in water-soluble paint, and washed away in the next rain, so that’s okay.)

Another man-made feature, known locally as the Trendle, sits over the Giant’s left shoulder.  That’s a rather odd name for a rectangular geoglyph (design on the ground) since trendle comes from earlier terms meaning round or circle or wheel.  The Trendle is also called the Frying Pan (again, a round name for a square figure); the Giant is also called the Old Man, or the Rude Man (or so say internet sources; I’ve never heard anybody use those names); and the hill itself is call Giant Hill or Trendle Hill.

Renovation work in 2008

Renovation work in 2008, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And while we’re on place names, what about Cerne AbbasCerne may be related to words meaning a circle, or a cairn (a pile of stones), while Abbas indicates an abbot. And in fact a nearby abbey, complete with abbot, flourished there until Henry VIII rousted out all the monasteries and took their lands and money in the 16th century.

It’s not clear why the monks and their abbot allowed such a pagan symbol to dominate the skyline—and maybe they didn’t.  Some people claim the Giant isn’t as old as all that, and the lack of criticism from the abbey is part of their evidence.  The first solid written record—which describes money spent on the never-ending task of clearing the weeds from the white lines—seems to date from the 17th century, whereas writers in the middle ages mention the White Horse of Uffington; the late appearance of written records, too, might suggest that the Giant didn’t appear much before the records did.

A Roman depiction of Hercules with club and lion skin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A Roman depiction of Hercules with club and lion skin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are some—particularly since more lines, now obscured, seem to indicate the Giant used to carry a cloak or skin over his left arm—who say the figure is a traditional Roman depiction of Hercules, which would make him about 2000 years old, but then again, there are those who think some 17th-century servants cut out the Giant to criticize the way the landowner ran his estate.  I can’t imagine how servants had the time or the energy to organize such a protest, or how they thought it would help their situation, but that’s no more strange than the theory that somebody cut the figure to insult Oliver Cromwell (who helped overthrow the monarchy for a while in the 1600s) or that the monks themselves did it, to irritate the abbot.  Okay, this was before television and paperback books, but I thought the monks filled their long quiet evenings with prayer and/or flagellation, and besides—any monks, servants, or Royalists who started work on the figure would surely have been caught before they finished it; all the powers that be would have had to do was wait for them to come back.  (The Trendle, in any case, is an Iron Age construction, probably a fortification.)

Homer Simpson with the Giant

Homer Simpson with the Giant

A local legend says that a real giant was killed on that very hillside, and people cut an outline in the turf around his body, which would make Giant Hill the first crime scene to sport a chalk outline of the victim.  (Textbooks for modern detectives point out that such chalk outlines are seldom required, but also admit that every force seems to have at least one “chalk fairy” who can’t resist drawing them.) Many local people have, rather than speculate, accepted the Giant as a fertility symbol, whether they believed a woman who slept on the hill would conceive soon afterward, or that having sex on the giant assured fertility, or that dancing around a maypole in the Trendle assured fertility, or…there are probably infinite variations.  Some said a woman who walked around the figure three times would ensure that her lover was true; I’d say your lover could get up to a lot of mischief while you were hiking around and around.  In any case, every May Day, a troupe of Morris Men still dance in the Trendle and in the streets of Cerne Abbas to ensure good crops.

So I finally made the acquaintance of the most prominent citizen of Cerne Abbas. Long may he ensure the fertility of the beautiful Dorset countryside.

Panorama including Giant Hill (the Giant is in the red circle).  Courtesy of Ernest Adams

Panorama including Giant Hill (the Giant is in the red circle). Courtesy of Ernest Adams


Filed under Culture, History, Travel

Gotland Rocks 1: Fårö

[I’m back in the UK, but my mind is still on Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic]

According to the Guta Saga, the ancient tale of the origins of the place,

Gotland was first discovered by a man called Tjelvar.  Then, Gotland was so bewitched that it sank beneath the waves by day and rose again at night.  This man, however, was the first to bring fire to the island, and afterwards it never sank again.

As Gotland is a solid—if small—island, that’s some powerful bewitchery going on.  In fact, “Gotland” is not only the name of one island; it’s also the name of the whole province including a few smaller islands, only one of which is inhabited enough so’s you’d notice.  This is the first post of three or so that make up something of a photo safari through the remarkable stones—natural or erected—of the island of Gotland and of that smaller island, sometimes called its ‘sister island’, Fårö.

That's me in the purple parka, at Langhammers, on the northern tip of faro

That’s me in the purple parka, at Langhammers, on the northern tip of Fårö

The most famous of the stones of Fårö (pronounced something like FAW-roo) are the rauks (pronounced, um, pretty much like rocks) which were left behind on the west cost of the island when the glaciers of the last ice age retreated.

And that one's not by any means the only one; when you see a cluster of them, you can imagine folktales about trolls or giants very easily.

And that one’s not by any means the only one; when you see a cluster of them, you can imagine folktales about trolls or giants very easily.

Now, if these stones look familiar, it’s likely that you’ve been to a Bergman film; Ingmar Bergman lived on Fårö and used it as a backdrop more than once.  (Visitors can stop in at the Bergman Center to see exhibitions and learn more about Bergman and Fårö, though it was closed for renovation when I was there.)

Lighthouse on Faro

Lighthouse on Fårö

A Victorian-era lighthouse and…

This labrynth on Faro, half-covered by snow, could have been built last summer or centuries ago -- hard to say

This labrynth on Fårö, half-covered by snow, could have been built last summer or centuries ago — hard to say

an unexpected, unsignposted labrynth  rounded out the day on Fårö, where the most interesting stones were posed by nature; on Gotland itself, the stones arranged by humans were more interesting, starting with the Bronze Age, boat-shaped, burials.

Which I’ll tell you about in the next post (if the island I’m on doesn’t sink beneath the waves in the meantime).


Filed under Culture, History, Travel

He’s Nailed It (or in Swedish: “Spikning”)

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

Visby (see previous post) is a summer town, where most visitors go to enjoy the beach.  Sure, the medieval walls and the museums are there year-round, but some tours and other visitor services only run mid-June to mid-August.  So why would I go there in an unseasonably frigid April?  To watch my husband, Ernest Adams, take part in a strange European ceremony left over from the Middle Ages.

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest's was added

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest’s was added

But first, you need a little paragraph of history to get the background:  The Protestants split off from the Catholic Church in the 16th century as the result of a movement called the Protestant Reformation, which was kicked off by a German monk called Martin Luther, who famously nailed 95 theses to the door of a church.  The biggest bee in Luther’s bonnet was about the selling of indulgences, that is, people paying money to the church for official documents saying that their sins would be forgiven.  Luther was appalled that the tremendously wealthy Pope Leo X would defraud people of money when surely only God could forgive sins (and without money changing hands, even if the church did need the money to repair St Peter’s Basilica), and Luther not only said so, he pretty much wrote down 95 reasons why and nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, in Germany, in 1517.

Selecting a place for the nail (Stephen on the bench, Ernest standing by)

Selecting a place for the nail before the audience arrives (Prof. Stephen Batchelder on the bench, Ernest Adams kibbitzing from the floor)

Now, having learned about that years and years ago, I had always assumed this was a bit of seriously in-your-face vandalism in the cause of religious activism, and that nailing his opinions up on the church door was a slap in the face of the establishment, but I’ve recently learned that I’d gotten it absolutely wrong.  Nailing your thesis to the door—or to whatever other bit of architecture was traditional where you lived—was, back then, a valid means of scholarly publication.  You wrote your argument and nailed it up so people could take your paper down off the door, read it, and put it back for the next person to read.

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

And in some parts of Europe they continue the practice to this day, generally nailing up the theses (US: dissertations) of new PhDs. The author pounds in a nail and hangs the thesis on it by a loop of string, the idea being that the public can take down the document, read what someone has written, and then come to hear the author’s defense (aka their orals,  oral examination, or viva), prepared with questions to ask.  And that’s why I went to Visby: because my husband’s colleagues at the Hogskola på Gotland, a university where he’s a part-time lecturer, asked him to nail up his PhD thesis—something of an honour, since he earned his degree elsewhere.

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest's dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest’s dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

The spikning (nailing) ceremony didn’t actually involve a church door, or any door at all.  Spikning ceremonies at Gotland  use a plank of wood set into the wall of the library’s café.   And they haven’t been nailing theses on Gotland for very long; the Hogskola there is the youngest university in Sweden, although it’s merging this summer with the prestigious university in Uppsala (established 1477) where they’ve been nailing up papers for centuries.  Some new PhDs in Uppsala, it seems, use hand-forged iron spikes; my husband actually ordered some of these, but they didn’t arrive in time for him to use one. (So now we’ve got a couple of hand-forged iron spikes lying around.  Any ideas on what we could use them for?)

Ernest's hammers in the nail

Ernest hammers in the nail

At some Swedish institutions, your adviser signs off on your thesis by writing Må spikas—meaning “May be nailed”; at some, nailing up your thesis is a requirement for getting your degree.  Some require you to give a copy of the thesis to the university library as well, as that’s a bit more practical for readers, and some have gone over to what’s called e-spikning or e-nailing—posting theses on-line.  I rather like the sound of the Institute of Technology at Linköpings Universitet, where PhD candidates nail their theses to “the oak outside…building C”, which seems much more authentic than the bulletin boards and such that other places use.

Ernest and the Rektor

Ernest and the Rektor

The University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies advises students to “contact the reception for borrowing a drill, hammer, and nail.”  That would have been handy at Gotland, where staff made arrangements for the hammer and nail to show up at 2:00, but they didn’t arrive until 3:00, brought by a young woman in blue jeans, a striped T-shirt, and running shoes, whom Ernest thought at first was someone from the facilities staff.  She turned out to be Erika Sandström, Rektor of the university, that is, the head of the whole institution, what in the US we’d call the President and in the UK we’d call the Chancellor.   That mix of formality and informality is particularly Swedish, I’m told, and I rather like it; they seem to value substance over formalities.

Colleagues and game design students at the party

Colleagues and game design students at the party

At 3:00 the speeches started, with professor Stephen Batchelder introducing Ernest, and then turning the microphone over to Ernest to talk a little about what he’d written, after which Stephen drilled a hole through a copy of the thesis with an electric drill (whatever they used in the Middle Ages, it must have taken a lot longer).  Then we all trooped into the café where Ernest stood on a bench to reach the empty spot they’d chosen in advance (and into which they’d secretly drilled a pilot hole).  He pounded in the nail, hung up the thesis, got a bouquet and a gift (and a hug from the Rektor), after which we all had drinks and canapes.

The process works!  Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

The process works! Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

The punchline here is that Martin Luther probably didn’t nail his theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, or at least that’s the most recent word from historians who’ve looked at the evidence.  That church burned down in 1760, but was rebuilt, and in the 19th century it was given new doors, with Luther’s 95 arguments inscribed in bronze.

In any case, now my husband is not just Ernest, but Dr Ernest; his dissertation/thesis—Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling—is the last student paper he’ll ever have to write; and you could say, using an American expression, that he’s nailed it.


Filed under Culture, History, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

An English Christmas 3 (Revisited) : Bring Us a Figgy Pudding

This post, part of the sequence that first ran in the Christmas season of 2010, should have been gone live yesterday, but my hosting duties got in the way of my posting duties.  Hope you’ll enjoy the original post and updates in any case.

Don’t want to make your own? posts this photo with a suggestion that you buy your pudding from Fortnum & Mason.

It’s Christmas day as I write this so, since I’ve told you about Christmas cake and mince pies, there’s just time to tell you about Christmas pudding before the holiday is over, and I’ll have covered the Big Three.

Christmas pudding is traditionally a steamed concoction of dried fruits and suet held together with a minimal amount of breadcrumbs or flour. It’s also called plum pudding, but doesn’t have plums and probably never did; the name comes from the prunes that it used to have and that some recipes still call for.

Update: But as I learned from a guest at Christmas dinner yesterday, at one time raisins could be called plums.  In fact, any fruit that in any way resembled a plum could be called one; the Oxford English Dictionary features a quote from the 18th century in which somebody refers to a “great Plum” that “is called Mango”.  Hmmm.

Some recipes use a lot of dried figs; puddings like today’s Christmas pudding probably inspired the “bring us a figgy pudding” line in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.

And Christmas puddings are soaked with spirits—as is pretty much everything in the United Kingdom at Christmastime, including the inhabitants.

There are some pleasant traditions associated with Christmas pudding. For starters, for at least the last 150 years there’s been a tradition that everyone in the household should take a turn stirring the pudding, and the longer you stir, the more good luck you’ll have in the next year. Clearly some sly cook 150 years ago came up with this as a labour-saving idea.

In another tradition, the cook adds coins or other inedible prizes to the pudding, and each diner has a chance of finding one—if not breaking a tooth on it. Christmas puddings are best eaten carefully.

Originally the prizes were coins, and if you found one in your portion, you got to keep it. Nowadays it’s more likely that the cook will stir in symbolic objects, little trinkets about the size of charms on a charm bracelet, though the symbolism varies from family to family. For some, a tiny horseshoe means good luck, or a tiny anchor means you’ll find a safe harbour (which could be interpreted as a new home, a new job, or anything else you like).

Here again, I’m lucky enough to have heirlooms handed down from my mother-in-law. In our Christmas puddings, you might find a silver sixpence, a button, a thimble, or a ring said to be a grandmother’s wedding ring, though if it was, the grandmother must have had truly tiny hands. The coin predicts wealth in the new year, the button says you’ll get new clothes, the thimble means plenty of work, and the ring stands for love. (You can keep the luck, but you have to give the prizes themselves back. In the first place, they don’t make silver sixpences anymore.)

We had our Christmas pudding earlier today—flaming Christmas pudding at that. You pour warmed brandy over the pudding and put a match to it. If you dim the lights before dessert, it looks pretty impressive, with blue flames flickering all over and around the dark pudding. And in case there isn’t enough liquor involved in the making of the pudding or the flaming of the pudding, you serve it with a hard sauce made of butter, sugar and brandy, that melts over the hot pudding.

I was asked for fruitcake recipes after the Christmas cake article, so I’ve put recipes for Christmas cake and for Christmas pudding in the Featured Link section (right hand side of the screen). My favorite Christmas pudding comes from a chef called Nigel Slater; his is the only one I’ve seen that calls for dried apricots. The first time I made it, I didn’t have all the dried fruits it called for, so I substituted more apricots for anything I didn’t have, the result was fabulous, and now I add extra apricots on purpose.

Of course, you’re supposed to make the pudding ahead—in earlier times, some people made the pudding at New Year’s and kept it to eat at the following Christmas. For those who don’t have time for such things, or confidence that a pudding made 12 months ago is still edible, there are plenty of Christmas puddings in the supermarkets, most of them in microwaveable bowls so there’s no steaming.

Or you could order Christmas pudding at High Timber, a restaurant in London that serves the dish, but only to diners who sign a legal waiver. They’re afraid you’ll sue if you chip a tooth, or swallow one of the charms. A serving isn’t cheap, either, at £7, but that’s because you get to keep the charms—and they come from Tiffany’s.

Merry Christmas!


Filed under Culture, Current events, Food, History

A Last Word about Isaac Newton and a First Word about William Blake

Sorry that there hasn’t been a post here for a couple of weeks; sometimes real-world deadlines intrude. I hope to get back on schedule soon.

A peek through the main gate of the British Library in London, where you can just make out the colossal statue of Newton, hunched over, measuring with a compass, or as the British would say, with compasses.

Although I’ve never posted about the British Library in London, it’s one of my favorite places over here. Heck, it’s one of my favorite places on the planet—and while that’s mainly because of the books, manuscripts, maps, and more that they keep inside, there’s also the sculpture outside to consider.

The first thing you see if you enter through the main gate is a statue of Isaac Newton, by artist Edouardo Paolozzi. With a name like that, of course he must be…Scottish. He came from the north side of Edinburgh, but perhaps, given that his parents were Italian, he felt at home in the pedestrian court enclosed by the wings of the British Library, as it’s officially called the piazza.

Paolozzi’s Newton

Paolozzi’s bronze version of Newton is almost 4 metres tall—that’s about 13 feet, and that’s to the top of the curve of its back.  If that hunched-over giant stood up, it would tower over the rest of us. That’s common enough for public statues, but perhaps especially appropriate for Newton, who said that if he saw farther than others had seen, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants—those scientists and mathematicians who went before—and Einstein presumably stood on the metaphorical shoulders of the giant Newton in his turn.

Blake’s Newton

But the giant Newton in the Library’s piazza isn’t standing at all, nor is it looking out at the world, because Paolozzi based his design on William Blake’s painting of Newton. While Blake would have appreciated the monumental size of the statue, I’m guessing that’s about the only thing he’d approve about the piece. He wouldn’t have found Newton a fit subject for a national institution dedicated to human thought, life, art, philosophy, and more. The Blake engraving that inspired Paolozzi is actually titled Newton: Personification of Man Limited by Reason.

Blake’s The Spiritual Form of Nelson Leading Leviathan

I say he’d approve of the scale of the bronze Newton because Blake lamented, back in the earliest 19th century, that huge civic artworks had fallen out of fashion, because he liked the idea of getting to paint 100-foot-high versions of his works The Spiritual Form of Pitt and The Spiritual Form of Nelson. That would be something like an American artist today saying it’s too bad the country has lost its taste for what Blake called “paintings on a scale that is suitable to the grandeur of the nation” and proposing 100-foot-high interpretations of The Spiritual Form of Obama and The Spiritual Form of General Petraeus. Even in 1805, I think that was probably seriously weird.

Blake was a poet, a painter, a visionary, an illustrator, a prophet, an engraver, and possibly a madman. He began seeing visions at age 9 and saw them all his life, so you can see how, since he thought these were glimpses of something eternal, divine, and true, he’d think that using reason might but a damper on things.

A page from Blake’s America: A Prophecy, typical in that he printed the page from his own engraving, and colored the illustrations by hand.

Blake eventually worked out an entire mythology involving a pantheon of figures you might call demigods, as an illustration of his ideas of the divine and eternal, and of mankind’s place within the grand scheme of things.  He presented his creations in epic poems as well as in artwork, usually in illuminated books which he engraved and then, helped by his wife, painted on the colors by hand.

In this mythology, mankind’s long-ago fall from grace was a fall out of eternity and into time and space, which fractured Albion—the Cosmic man and, while we’re at it, the personification of England—into four parts. Now, here it really gets messy, because everything is overloaded, carrying more than one meaning. But we only need to look at one of the four: Urizen.

The title page of The Book of Urizen. Behind him there’s a tree which has bent over and re-rooted, to grow again. If you read the previous post, you might recognize that as something you’ve heard of before…

Urizen is a creator god (except that he isn’t) and maps in some ways to the Biblical Jehovan (except that he doesn’t; I told you Blake was seriously weird). Urizen is man’s reason, without the stabilizing balance of the three other qualities Blake found essential—emotion, imagination, and instinct—and is an oppressor, an enslaver, of humanity.  His name is a pun on horizon, indicating that his vision is limited, and on your reason.

Urizen as The Ancient of Days

Blake’s painting of Newton casts him as Urizen (compare the illustrations), and shows him measuring and calculating, having turned his back on the beauty and variety of nature as shown in colors on what looks to me like lichen-encrusted rock. Blake despised Newton’s approach; 100 years or so after Newton, when rest of the world venerated Newton in large part for his experiments with light and vision, Blake said Newton brought us night rather than light, and that Newton’s single vision didn’t compare to Blake’s own fourfold vision. Newton might have stood on the shoulders of giants, but Blake suggested that Newton saw so little from his perch that he might as well have been asleep. He lumped Newton, materialist philosopher John Locke, and Francis “Father of Empiricism” Bacon together as what has been called an infernal trinity. They were to Blake ‘the three great teachers of atheism, or Satan’s Doctrine’, though Newton was not an atheist at all, but quite the contrary; he thought the precision and mechanics of the universe was evidence of the Creator.

In this view of the sculpture, the bolts/pivots for the joints show up a bit better–look at his shoulder, and at his ankle

Paolozzi took Blake’s view of Newton as advocating a mechanistic universe and ran with it, making his Newton out of metal and making the features of his body segmented, idealized, and symmetrical; removing the colors, the lichens and the rock entirely; seating his figure on some kind of rectilinear constructed box; and even showing the bolts that hold the body together, the pivots of the joints, making sure we can see the linear divisions between the pieces of the head, suggesting Newton’s head was made of precisely manufactured units. Paolozzi might as well have said “Yeah, Newton gave us a measured, understandable, reasonable, quantifiable view of the world—and isn’t it great?”

In any case, Paolozzi’s Newton provides the perfect segue from the previous posts on Newton to the next posts, which will involve Blake—because it was Blake who wrote the lines of the hymn “Jerusalem” that one little choirboy sang near the beginning of the opening ceremony of the Olympics, and I figured there must have been lots of Americans who, if they understood what the song was about at all, didn’t understand why the English apparently chose a piece about Jerusalem as a patriotic song. It’s just one more basic fact of British life in the collection of elements of Britishness set out in that ceremony, and one I plan to tell you about next time.


Filed under Architecture, Arts, Culture, History, Travel

Isaac Newton and the Paralympic Apples

Apple dancers at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics

Olympic sports have continued here; the Paralympics don’t end until tonight. British viewers saw the full Paralympic opening ceremony, and we’ve had 4 channels showing events live all day long. I gather that in the US, NBC showed only about 5 hours of the Paralympic action, total—hard to believe.

A performer enters, riding in her wheelchair on a gigantic apple, which sits on a book. Books made up another theme of the ceremony, representing, among other works, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Newton’s Principia Mathematica

The Paralympics’ opening ceremony, like the Olympic ceremony, tackled a revolution, in this case the scientific revolution. The connection between Newton’s apple—represented in many forms, including the real apples given to each spectator on arrival—and the Paralympics might not be obvious, though when you watch some of the people who run on those remarkable blades instead of feet, it’s clear that science and technology underpin some events. But I’d guess that the choice of theme had much to do with the contemporary world’s most famous disabled person being British and a scientist: Stephen Hawking, who narrated the production.

Professor Hawking, looking very small on the main set in the enormous arena

The UK can’t actually claim that the scientific revolution began here—can’t leave out Copernicus for starters, and he was Polish—but I guarantee you that a good proportion of the population finds that the phrase “scientific revolution” brings to mind that apple hitting Isaac Newton on the head 100 years after Copernicus. Newton wasn’t actually conked on the head, but there was an apple tree, he did watch an apple fall and, watching it, wondered why apples always fall down and never out to the side or something, a bit of daydreaming that led to the universal law of gravitation. Descendants of Newton’s apple tree still grow in the same orchard at his home in Lincolnshire, which I visited just a couple of days before those apple-wielding performers (see illustrations) appeared on my TV/telly, so I’m using that as an excuse to write about Newton in the middle of my streak of Olympic-ceremony posts.

A 430-voice chorus sings Principia , a violently discordant piece by composer Errollyn Wallen inspired by Newton’s work

Isaac Newton was born prematurely at Woolsthorpe Manor on Christmas Day 1642, so small that the nurse said he could fit into a quart jug (in the US we’d have said pitcher; Brits think pitcher is as quaint and old-fashioned as Americans think jug is). Servants sent out for supplies for the baby sat down and goofed off rather than hurry, as they didn’t expect him to be alive when they got back anyway.

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, where Isaac Newton was born, grew up, and did some of his most famous work.

On the other hand, local superstition at the time held that it was lucky to be born on Christmas Day. It was also supposed to be lucky to be born after the death of your father, as odd as that sounds, and the baby’s father had died a few months before. When his mother, Hannah, remarried, she left three-year-old Isaac at Woolsthorpe Manor with his grandmother. Lots of books will tell you that this meant her new husband didn’t accept his step-son, but the National Trust (historic preservation group that maintains the house) says it’s more likely that Hannah shrewdly left her son in the Newton home to make sure no one questioned his right to inherit the place.

The farm at Woolsthorpe Manor

When he was older, his mother also demanded he do his familial duty and work on the farm—Woolsthorpe Manor sounds grand, but it was really just a glorified farmhouse. Had that worked out, he might have remained illiterate like his father, who never learned to write his own name. (There’s a grid of small cup-shaped gouges on a plaster wall at Woolsthorpe Manor that historians think is an inventory of livestock; presumably that was how you kept track if you couldn’t read or write.) But Newton’s mother found she could lead a scientific genius to the land, but she couldn’t make him cultivate it.

Newton, first scientist ever knighted, was granted a coat of arms; claiming descent from a certain baron, he was allowed to adopt that baron’s ancient symbol. The crossed bones are not uncommon on arms and don’t imply piracy; National Trust staff suggested they are sheep bones, as the family made its money in sheep.

In the end, she allowed him to go to school, and from school to Cambridge, where she expressed her feelings about his choice not to be a farmer by giving him so little money that he had to work as a servant for richer students. It doesn’t seem to have mattered much. The only thing that could keep him away from Cambridge was the plague, which closed the place down in 1665.

As far as is known, this is the apple tree from which Newton said he saw the apple fall, one of several in the orchard that lies just outside the front door at Woolsthorpe Manor. It’s certainly over 400 years old. The variety is Flower of Kent, and it’s a cooking apple.

So Newton went back to the farm and sat there by himself, totally revolutionizing science, later saying “I was in the prime of my age for invention”. He not only saw the apple fall and worked out his theory of gravitation, but developed the three Laws of Motion, invented calculus, worked out principles of mechanics and of planetary motion, and did famous experiments with light. His work always began with observation, and he was such an inveterate experimenter that, rather less famously, he stuck a blunt needle into his eye to see how pressing on his retina would alter his vision.

Performers pull giant apples into the stadium

A trip to Woolsthorpe Manor includes a chance to see the window that Newton covered, leaving only a small opening so that he could direct sunlight through a prism and break white light up into colours. Newton didn’t invent the prism; people knew them from way back. Ships used prisms to let light in below decks, for one thing, and Newton bought his prism at a country fair, maybe sold as toy for children. In any case, before Newton, people thought that prisms added colour to light, and that all colours were mixtures of dark and light, so that (I’m not making this up) one theorist said that red was produced by the purest white light with the least amount of dark mixed in (I know, I know) and black was pure darkness, but if there was just a little light mixed into the darkness, you got a sort of dull blue. Newton used a second prism to bend the light again, merging the colours to produce white light, which pretty much knocked the ol’ prisms-apply-colours theory off the table (and at least it didn’t require any of that needle-in-the-eye business).

A giant apple floats in.  Before Newton, people thought objects contained more or less of properties called gravity and levity, which made those objects heavy or light.  This, then, is an apple full of levity, I suppose.

Isaac Newton ended up the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, an extremely prestigious position. One of his professors had the job, but resigned so Newton could have it; he was that good. Three-hundred and ten years later, Stephen Hawking got the job*, which leads us back to the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, in all its apple-y glory.

Apples floated in on wires. Performers rode in on gigantic apples, dragged in enormous apples on carts, tossed around beachball-sized apples, juggled apples. On cue, everyone in the stadium bit into their free apples for one thunderous communal crunch.

Apples everywhere…

And Professor Hawking told us via his synthetic voice that “There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being”. True, but some are less run-of-the-mill than others, and watching Paralympic athletes you can’t help but be majorly impressed. I’m going to miss the games. (I’ve already looked up a wheelchair basketball team near me and hope to go see them play.) But at the moment, I’m looking forward to tonight’s closing ceremony. Just in case there’s audience participation, I’ve got some apples standing by.

* Lucasian professors are required to retire at 67, so Professor Hawking left the Lucasian Chair in 2009, replaced by physicist Michael Green.

Photos of Woolsthorpe Manor are mine; others are screenshots from the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Paralympics


Filed under Arts, Culture, Food, History, Sports, Technology, Travel

Brunel, part 2: A Visit to the SS Great Britain

The iron hull

In the previous post, I wrote about Isambard Kingdom Brunel, depicted as a cigar-wielding luminary of the industrial revolution in the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

The bow

That post ended on Brunel’s three ocean-going steamships, one of which—the SS Great Britain—sits now in the same drydock in which it was built in 1843, an attraction for historically minded visitors.

Remarkable gilt decorations on the bow

Being an historically minded visitor, I went along to Bristol a while back, and visited.

The stern, showing the water seal that makes the ship appear to float

A glass seal keeps the elements from corroding the iron hull;  visitors can go below the seal and see the hull up close, while climate control systems minimum corrosion. A few inches of water on top of the glass completes the effect so that the ship appears to float.

The ‘Mr Brunel’ I met on my visit

Very clever design – but then, clever design is what made Brunel famous.

The dining room for first class passengers

And the Trust that maintains the ship and museum is passing that legacy on to promising schoolchildren by naming a few “Future Brunels”.

Steerage, anyone?

These are 11- and 12-year olds chosen for their interest and aptitude in science and engineering and for their ability to work well in groups.

The deck, with a budding mariner at the ship’s wheel

They take part in 6 activities per year for 5 years, including such events as trips to an amusement park to study the physics and engineering behind the mechanical rides.

Only way to have fresh milk during the voyage was to bring along sufficient livestock

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Future Brunel to visit the ship and the museum, which together make up an award-winning heritage attraction on the Bristol waterfront.

Brunel’s innovative propeller

If you can’t get there yourself, please click on the Featured Link and have a look at the SS Great Britain‘s official website.


Filed under Culture, History, Technology, Travel

The Greatest Britons: Two Guys With Cigars

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, played by Kenneth Branagh in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics

The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics each featured, near the beginning, a guy with a cigar reciting from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  A lot of viewers would have recognized Winston Churchill in the closing ceremony, whether from war movies, history class, or documentaries; he was  Prime Minister of the UK during the second world war.  But the cigar-chewer in the opening ceremony was someone non-Brits aren’t likely to have run across.  Some people thought it was Charles Dickens and some went for Abraham Lincoln, but in fact the actor was playing Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

As that probably doesn’t tell you much, I’m here to answer the question “Who was Brunel?”, which is the easy part.   “Why were these guys quoting Shakespeare?” is harder.

Winston Churchill, played by Timothy Spall in the closing ceremony at the 2012 Olympics

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a 19th-century engineer who designed and built bridges, tunnels, viaducts, railway lines, and ships in an era in which that kind of civil and mechanical engineering was comparable to today’s Silicon Valley for excitement, new technologies, and transformed economies.  Victorian industrialists—of the type in the Olympics’ opening ceremony, who raised the smokestacks of the factories and presided over the change from the agricultural to the industrial—invested in the huge projects that engineers such as Brunel dreamed up.  Note I have to say “such as” Brunel because I can’t say “like Brunel”, as nobody else was like him:  he was the greatest.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself

Brunel was born into engineering.  His father, a civil engineer and inventor, could have been wealthy if only he’d remembered to patent his inventions, but died nearly penniless, dependent upon his more famous—and more solvent—son.  ‘Our’ Brunel’s father, despite being knighted by King Edward VII and boasting membership in the Royal Societies of multiple countries, spent time in debtor’s prison, until the government bailed him out on condition he wouldn’t leave England.  An imminent deal with the Tsar scared them into forking over the money; they didn’t want Brunel (Senior) moving to Russia and building marvelous things there.

Straight out of school, 16-year-old Isambard began to work for his father, soon running the era’s hottest project: building the world’s first tunnel through the soft mud that lies under a navigable river—in this case, the Thames.  The Brunel tunnel is still there,and still in useby the London Overground Railway.  Opened to the public in 1843, it didn’t even need refurbishment until the 1990s, though building the tunnel cost several lives and almost killed young Isambard.  After a terrible accident and a long recovery Brunel (Junior) went on to different kinds of engineering work of his own, most notably for the Great Western Railway.

Statue of Brunel at Paddington Station in London

On the first train ride Brunel ever took, he jotted down some notes, the jagged letters showing how jerky the train was, and added “The time is not far off when we shall be able to take our coffee and write, while going noiselessly and smoothly at 45mph – let me try”.  He got his chance to build a railroad–only two years after his first ride.

The financial backers of the Great Western Railway wanted to connect London with the popular holiday (US: vacation) spots in southwest England by rail, which was no small thing in the 1830s.  You had to get approval from Parliament, and counter the arguments of people who claimed railway passengers wouldn’t survive going through tunnels (they’d smother), or feared that cattle would be harmed by walking under a railway bridge, or—my favorite—were concerned, as was the provost of Eton College, that the railway would be “dangerous to the morals of the pupils”.

The SS Great Britain in drydock today

Brunel had to testify before Parliament for eleven days, but eventually Great Western got permission to build the railway.  Then Brunel suggested they go one better: why not operate steamships, too?  A passenger ought to be able to buy one Great Western ticket, he said, and travel all the way from London to New York.  While they chewed on that, Brunel surveyed the new line himself and did ingenious things with the gradients and with the gauge (distance between the rails) to smooth out the ride.  And a few years later, they let him design the ships.

People clearly thought he could do whatever he set his mind to do.  He experimented with trains propelled by carbon dioxide (the Gaz Engine), which didn’t work, and with trains pushed by air rushing to fill a steam-engine-generated vacuum (the Atmospheric Railway), which did work, but not very well. One modern author suggests that if he had wanted to build a steam rocket to go to the moon, someone would have paid to let him try it.

The SS Great Britain in 1844, believed to be the first photo ever taken of a ship

But before designing ocean-going ships for treacherous Atlantic crossings, his only experiment in nautical design was the Bertha, a dredger that removed silt from the Bristol docks.  Even more formidably, the general wisdom said steamships couldn’t cross the ocean; steam for short stretches, sure, but for the Atlantic you had to have sails.  But where Brunel was concerned, the general wisdom often proved wrong.

If you visit the SS Great Britain today, you might meet “Mr Brunel”. Photo by Paul Blakemore, used here by courtesy of the SS Great Britain Trust

He’s probably best remembered for his ships (though Britain’s fascination with the sea may be a factor there).  First came the SS Great Western—in its day, the largest steamship ever, wooden-hulled with paddle wheels for propulsion and a few sails to keep it upright. Next came the SS Great Britain—even larger, with an iron hull and a screw propeller.  You can visit the ship today in Bristol, where it sits as a museum in the same shipyard, in fact in the very same drydock, in which it was built. It was so big they had to adapt the locks between the shipyard and the ocean before it could get out, but Brunel’s last ship, the SS Great Eastern, was even bigger than that.

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol. The toll hasn’t changed since 1952, so drivers pay 50 pence to take a car across, though they don’t bother to collect the 5 pence from pedestrians and cyclists anymore.

Brunel died not long after the SS Great Eastern’s maiden voyage.  As a memorial, some of his fellow engineers drummed up funding and completed the Clifton Bridge, which Brunel had designed and begun building almost 30 years before.  (The original project had been abandoned when the money ran out.)  The new bridge was finished in 1864, though without the decorative sphinxes on the tops of the towers that were part of the decorations called for in the original design.

Kenneth Branagh, when he isn’t playing Brunel. He’s one of the UK’s leading Shakespearian actors, but a wider American audience might remember him as Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter movies.

Back in 1836, the first iron rail of the Clifton Bridge, when laid across 700 feet of empty space over the Avon, had fallen into the water 300 feet below. Brunel said as soon as they could put another in place, he’d ride across it in a basket to show it was safe.  He got stuck halfway across, and had to swing himself out of the basket and up to the bar to get it going again.  That’s where the analogy with today’s Silicon Valley breaks down: people like Steve Jobs have given us marvelous new technology, but they never had to risk their lives to do it; they didn’t contend with exploding steam boilers, they weren’t caught in unfinished tunnels when the river decided to flood in, they didn’t have to do death-defying aerial acrobatics to prove their projects were safe.  You can’t call Brunel the chief geek of his day; he was a bit more Indiana Jones and a bit less Bill Gates, though it’s mindboggling to think what Brunel might have created if he’d had a Bill-Gates sized bank balance to draw on.

And finally, Timothy Spall when he’s not playing Churchill, although in this photo he is in costume for another film. He’s also a major actor here, but going with the people-have-probably-seen-the-Harry-Potter-films approach, I’ll say you might have seen him as Peter Pettigrew, aka Wormtail.

Getting back to the Olympic ceremonies where we started, I should mention that Brunel and Churchill are linked by more than just being British public figures often photographed with cigars; Churchill came first and Brunel came second in a poll a few years ago for “The Greatest Briton” in all of the history of Great Britain.  The BBC aired new documentaries on the lives of the candidates, current public figures presented the cases of their favourites, and the viewers phoned in their votes. Bookies started out giving 20-to-1 odds against Brunel, but they hadn’t counted on the loyal engineering students of Brunel University in London, some of whom voted multiple times (perhaps the railway had undermined students’ morals; the bookies eventually had to close the book).

So Churchill came first and Brunel came second.  Going on down the list, Princess Diana was third, Darwin fourth, and Shakespeare fifth, which brings us back to why Churchill and Brunel were quoting Shakespeare.  But on that question, your guess is as good as mine.

Except for photos of the opening ceremony, which are screenshots from the BBC video of the event, and the photo of “Mr Brunel” at the wheel of the ship, which is used by permission of the SS Great Britain Trust, all pictures are from Wikipedia and are used under the Creative Commons license.


Filed under Architecture, Culture, History, Sports, Travel

The Windrush, part 2

Mohammed “Mo” Farah (in screen shot from BBC interview footage)

Mohammed “Mo” Farah, who won two gold medals for distance running in the London Olympics, was born in Somalia and lived in Djibouti before moving to England when he was 8—yet the usual anti-immigration voices in the UK press seem to have gone quiet.  This guy’s British; nobody’s going to quibble.

News about immigrants always catches my eye, maybe because I’m an immigrant, too—though my path to the UK was certainly smoother than most.  But maybe that’s why I’m fascinated by the Windrush story.  I’d meant to write only one post on that topic (click to read it), but I’m giving you another one today, because I can’t seem to let the subject drop.

Trevor Phillips, author. Photo courtesy of HarperCollins, which requires this caption: Trevor Phillips is a leading name in the world of broadcast journalism and is best known as the presenter of LWT’s The London Programme. He currently writes a column for the Independent.

The 1948 arrival of the Empire Windrush caused anxiety among authorities here, but not, from what I’ve read, the kind I would have expected.  Mike and Trevor Phillips, in Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of  Multi-Racial Britain, suggest that officialdom was mainly worried about how they were going to house and feed 500 extra people in a country still recovering from war, still rationing everything from bread to furniture to clothing.

But citizens of British West Indian countries were British subjects with British passports then, so they had every right to move to the UK.  West Indians of the day, by all accounts, considered themselves to be as authentically British as anybody in what they routinely referred to as the mother country.  The Minister of Labour in London said “They are British citizens and we shall we do our best for them when they arrive”, but there was enough opposition for another Ministry official  to write a memo emphasizing that “there is no logical ground for treating a British subject who comes of his own accord from Jamaica to Great Britain differently from another who comes to London on his own account from Scotland.”

Mike Phillips, author. Photo courtesy of HarperCollins, which requires this caption: Mike Phillips was born in Guyana, came to Britain as a child and grew up in London. A journalist, broadcaster and university lecturer before becoming a full time writer, his series of crime fiction novels began with ‘Blood Rights’ (1989), adapted for BBC television, and his reputation as a historian was established with ‘Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain’ (1998). Mike writes for the Guardian, and works as Cross Cultural curator at Tate Britain.

It’s not clear to me who ran the ads in Jamaican papers asking for immigrants to bolster the UK work force.  The Windrush went to Kingston to pick up British military personnel who had been home on leave; according to one Caribbean serviceman on the trip, an unspecified “they” wanted to fill empty births on the way back “to sort of make up some money.”  Certainly, it wasn’t the government’s doing.  When the governor of Jamaica sent a telegram to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies saying that 500 people were on their way, Parliament had no idea who’d placed the ad or authorized reduced-price tickets.

That telegram misled British officials, describing the newcomers as unskilled when the group included engineers, builders, carpenters, and miners, shoemakers, tailors and cutters, experienced factory workers, famous calypso musicians, workers who already had jobs waiting for them at Tate & Lyle (a famous British sugar company which I’ve written about before), and at least one French polisher (French polishing is a special type of furniture refinishing; I’d never heard of it until I moved here, so it may have another name in the States).  And there was a whole team of boxers.  I don’t know whether Britain particularly needed boxers, but a couple of experienced telegraph operators came in handy well before the ship docked; they sat outside the window of the ship’s telegraph office, ostensibly playing dominos but actually overhearing and translating the telegraph signals that went in and out, keeping passengers up to speed with what was being said about them in England.

Aldwyn Roberts, a famous calypso musician under his stage name, Lord Kitchener, a Trinidadian who came to England on the Windrush

Parts of the British press seem to have taken against them early, and had plenty of time while the ship crossed the Atlantic to make sure everybody knew it.  The Daily Express referred to the Windrush passengers as “unwanted people” who were coming to the UK after recognizing “the futility of their life at home”. You might say the Daily Express must have had to extrapolate from limited information, or you might very well think they were just pulling this ‘news’ out of thin air.  Yes, the passengers were looking for jobs, but as one told the story, he had sold three cows to raise the £28.10 for his fare when most Jamaicans at the time didn’t own three cows; the Windrush passengers generally came from families with significant means, and those who didn’t have personal assets had community support behind them. The Caribbeans had fine suits and snazzy hats that the Windrush crew envied; they had enough money to treat crew members to rum, and better rum than the crew generally got, at that; and they were used to far better food than that served on board.  Those who had visited the mother country before warned others that even shipboard food was better than what they’d eat once they landed (which I take as a reference to cooking with rationed supplies rather than as a low blow at British cuisine).

I’d love to give you a photo of Sam King here, but the photos I found were all from the Getty image library, and cost US$ 39 each, even for nonprofit bloggers who like to think they’re providing educational posts, alas.  Try this link:

England gave them a mixed welcome.  Jobs were easy to find, but housing wasn’t, in an era in which some landlords added “No Coloured” (or worse) to their existing “No Irish” signs. But landlords who didn’t want to rent to people who’d “just come over on the banana boat”—a slur slung around in those days—were turning away people who clearly had drive and ambition, or they wouldn’t have traveled 4700 miles to be here.

But Mr King’s history gives me an excuse to use photos of the Notting Hill Carnival anyway

For example, the Caribbean serviceman I quoted before was Euton Christian, who settled in Manchester and became the city’s first black magistrate.  The passenger who sold his cows was Sam King MBE, a veteran of the Royal Air Force who worked for the post office, helped start the first British newspaper for the Caribbean community, and helped produce the first Notting Hill Carnival , still Britain’s premier Carnival event.  In 1983 he was elected mayor of Southwark (a borough in London), the only serving black mayor in the UK at the time, and the designation MBE shows he’s a member of the Order of the British Empire—a great honour, received personally from the Queen for service to the realm.

More people from the Notting Hill Carnival

Identifying Mr. King and Mr. Christian as individuals, distinguishing them from the crowd, brings up another point: the photos of the big group of well-dressed dark-skinned people coming ashore, sensational in 1948 and reprinted time and again since, carry an unfortunate political message.  As the Phillipses write, repeated use of the famous shots over half a century emphasized that “black citizens, the Caribbeans and their children, were…aliens forever.” Whatever Britishness is, the photos seem to say, it must not include these people, or they wouldn’t be news.  That didn’t help the struggle.

And yet more people from the Notting Hill Carnival

Going by the Olympic opening ceremony, today’s Britain is colour-blind, which with the best will in the world has to be seen more as wishful thinking than accurate depiction. But I agree with the Phillipses when they say, “It would be impossible to describe [today’s UK] without awarding a role to the Caribbean immigrants”.*

James Berry, poet. Photo courtesy of Bloodaxe Books, his publisher

The poetry of James Berry, who came from Jamaica at 24 on the next boat after the Empire Windrush, and who is still publishing today, reflects the mix of cultures.  In “Englan Voice”—note: not ‘England Voice’—the narrator’s blend of accents could easily stand for the blend of island cultures: the damp northern one he and I live in, and the sunnier southern one where he came from.  (To hear him read the poem, click here  and scroll down to find the video).

“Team GB”, as the press referred to our side, was full of newcomers like Mo Farah, as well as athletes whose immediate family came from other countries; by that definition, immigrants won more than a third of Britain’s medals.  Laura Bechtolsheimer (two dressage medals) came from Germany.  The father of Anthony Joshua (that’s Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua; gold in heavyweight boxing) came from Nigeria.  As I said before, I cheered for lots of teams, but for the moment I’ve decided to focus on my identity as an immigrant to the UK.  For one thing, that’s the only way I’m ever going to be in the same boat with Olympic champions.

* The Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, however, seemed to describe Britain with almost no reference the contributions of the Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Nepalese, which astonished me.

Photos of the Notting Hill Carnival and of Lord Kitchener are from Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license.


Filed under Culture, History, Sports

The Windrush

Continuing the series on aspects of Britishness that appeared in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.

A group of Victorian industrialists, played by a multiracial (admittedly mostly white) cast of actors in the opening ceremony of the Olympics, 2012

After the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, some British political figures said the presentation had been too political, that it had too left-wing an agenda, and reports here seem to show that some Americans agreed.

I’m left (as it were) struggling to see how a production introduced by a Greek chorus of Victorian industrialists can be seen as left-leaning.  Okay, under those top hats and behind that facial hair we saw skin tones not normally seen in British boardrooms of the period, but surely no one could have thought the production was meant to be realistic—the stylized movements of industrialists and workers were a bit of a giveaway.  Any way you look at it, those guys represented the economic powers behind the industrial revolution, which was hardly a socialist love fest.  As right-leaning mayor of London Boris Johnson even said (though not in these words), the Eton Boating Song and the Queen of England are icons, and not ones associated with the proletariat.

Over here, BBC commentators told us the theme of the evening was revolution, from the industrial to the digital, but perhaps change would be a better characterization.  Yes, votes for women was once a revolutionary idea, but surely nobody today would argue that including suffragettes reveals a left-wing agenda.

An articulated model of the Empire Windrush enters the arena in the opening ceremony.

Other countries were free to cut whatever portions of the production they didn’t like, and the USA made some surprising cuts, including a nod to the social revolution British people refer to with the shorthand “the Windrush”.  I sat down today thinking “Surely a good many readers of this column must have wondered why a model ship came into the arena, accompanied by a lot of well-dressed black people carrying suitcases”—but then I read that NBC cut that sequence, so today I find myself answering a question nobody asked: What’s the Windrush, and why include it?

The British vessel Empire Windrush started life as the Monte Rosa, a cruise ship built in Hamburg in the early 1930s.  The Monte Rosa became part of the Nazis’ Strength Through Joy program/programme (the party rewarded deserving members with cruises), and eventually part of the German war effort.  She stayed in military service but changed sides when the British captured and renamed her in 1945, adding her to a series of troopships with two-word names beginning Empire and ending with the name of a UK waterway.

Newbridge, spanning the Thames near the confluence of the Thames and the Windrush (photo courtesy of Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license)

(The Windrush is a minor river that joins the Thames way upstream in Oxfordshire at Newbridge, a bridge so named, rather unimaginatively, because it was the newest of three built in the area.  By monks.  During the reign of King John.  So it must have been before 1216, though the existing stonework dates only (only!) to the 1300s.  I wonder what people will call the proposed modern bridge that is being considered, which if built would give Newbridge some relief;  its 600-year old stonework is beginning to show wear.  They could instead consider raising funds for bridge maintenance the way people did back then: get a bridge hermit.  It sounds like something out of a folktale, but apparently you built a hermitage at the foot of the bridge, installed a hermit, and got your hermit, when not doing his daily hermiting, to collect contributions from travelers.)

The real Empire Windrush (photo courtesy of Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license)

But when most British people today refer to the Windrush, they don’t mean the river or even the ship, but specifically the voyage it made in 1948 from Australia to England via Jamaica.  Ads in Jamaican newspapers offered inexpensive berths to encourage relocation to the UK to help bulk up a labour force depleted by the war, and so the Windrush brought what’s generally taken to be the first substantial group of Caribbean immigrants.  Nearly 500 people took up the offer (and at least one stowed away), mostly Jamaicans and Trinidadians, some to join the Royal Air Force, some just to get a look at Britain, some to make a new life, but most to make good and then go home again—though mostly they stayed.  (As my own much less dramatic and completely historically unimportant 2- to 3-year British adventure has lasted 13 years so far, I understand how this can happen.)

Actors playing passengers disembarking from the Windrush

These were mostly skilled people, not the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ who come to mind when most Americans think about groups of immigrants.  Some had places to stay, but authorities found beds for those who didn’t in the Clapham South deep shelter, one of 8 air-raid shelters dug during the war with the idea that afterwards they would be used as tunnels for London Underground (US: subway).  That was prophetic for the many Windrush passengers who eventually went to work on trains or buses. (In the 1950s, the UK held recruitment drives in the Caribbean specifically to hire bus drivers.  That came up on my citizenship test, actually.)  As for the rest, a sizeable contingent went to work for the newly formed National Health Service.

More actors playing more Windrush passengers

The closest Employment Exchange (now Jobcentre Plus; US: Unemployment Office) was in Brixton, so some looked for lodgings in that part of London, which still has strong associations with what’s called here the West Indian or the Afro-Caribbean community.  On the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Windrush, one of the squares in Brixton was renamed Windrush Square.  Scholars, historians, and teachers use phrases such as the “Windrush Generation”, and “pre-Windrush Britain”, and there’s a move afoot to have a national Windrush Day.

Two kids from the choir singing “Flower of Scotland” in the opening ceremony: one a lass with traditional Scottish red hair and freckles, one a lad with dark skin and a charming gap-toothed smile; both adorable, both British.

Everybody here recognizes the Windrush as a symbol of modern, multicultural Britain.  (It’s a shame that NBC didn’t.)  The Angles and the Saxons were after all just immigrants who got here earlier (okay, about 2 millennia earlier). There were Afro-Caribbean communities in Britain by the 18th century; the Windrush passengers weren’t the first, but the Windrush stands for the larger, post-war changes in the complexion and the complexity of the British population, and the contributions of recent immigrants—some from Commonwealth countries, some from non-Anglo-Saxon peoples—to the cultural mix.

Today in British boardrooms you are liable to see some of the different skin tones we saw in the opening ceremony’s group of industrialists (and–gasp!–you might even see a woman).  And if that’s a left-wing agenda, that’s okay by me.

Note: Belatedly it occurs to me that whatever your nationality, if you’ve read Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel Small Island you may know something about the Windrush already.  I hope you feel you know more now, and that it’s worth knowing.

[Images from the opening ceremony itself are screen shots; I’m assuming that as it was a BBC broadcast and I’m a taxpayer, I have the right to use the image for a nonprofit purpose.]


Filed under Culture, Current events, History, Sports, Travel