Category Archives: History

Books Environmental politics History

From the East Anglian fens to the fragile wilds of Chernobyl

Tim Dee’s Four Fields is a title reflecting a bit of a conceit – it might equally be called “interesting natural things I’ve seen around the world”. It ranges widely from the fens of East Anglia to the horrors of nature distorted around Chernobyl, with a digression to a near-abandoned tobacco farm in South Africa to follow a honeyguide, to the American prairie and site of Custer’s last stand.

But it was the accounts of the fens I found most fascinating, possibly for their combination of history and ecology. Dee reports on the draining of Whittlesey Moor, the last fen mere to be so treated, in 1851. An iron column, 22 feet high was driven into the peat until it rested on the clay, it’s top level with the peat. “The water was pumped from Whittlesey in a matter of days. Locals strapped planks to their feet to walk on the mud and gather the fish that were dwoning in air. Eels and others were taken by the ton… the lake gave up a censer and an incense boat, which the last Abbot of Ramsey had lost in its watery flight from the Dissolution Commissioners of Henry VIII. The skeleton of a gramps (a dolphin of some species, possibly a killer whale) was also found, a leftover from more marine times. The water birds … went with its water. Previously, eight punt-gunners had made a living shooting its ducks. Three thousand wildfowl had been taken from the decoy on Holmes Fen in one week. Eight bitters or buttercups had been shot on Whittlesey in one day.” And on the column, Dee says … “its crown is now 12 feet clear of the earth, an iron-green stick in the birch-crowded day.” (p. 28) – a result of the peat soil shrinking.

Yet the earlier, pre-drained, fenland had been immensely productive, a part-wild, part-farmed place. “there were always people in every field and on every fen… reeds and sedges scythe for teaching; duck and fish tapped for food; peat dug for fuel; litter … off marsh plants for coarse hay. … Reeds grew in the wetter part of the fen. After winter frosts stripped them of their flags, old stems of four years or more were cut for roofing and younger stems were mixed with litter for fodder… Coopers sought the bullrushes on the fen, their long round stems were dried and placed between barrel staves where, on contact with fewer or whatever else was in the barrels, the stems would swell and keep the joints watertight. … Osiers from willows on the fen were cut for baskets, eel traps and foggot binds; thicker branches made good scythe handles. To keep the stick swollen and the fastening firm between harvests, scythe would be stored under the fen water, like moon-slivers of rusting silver.”
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Books Feminism History

The more things change … girls and moral panics

Have been reading Carol Dyhouse’s excellent Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women.

It begins with the white slave panic of the late 19th and early 20th century, concluding “girls travelling along in the 1900s were much more likely to be accosted by social workers determined to protect young innocents than pumps or predators. England’s ports and railway stations were by then swarming with voluntary social workers undertaking to safeguard young country girls about to enter they big city.” The panic had real consequences – “The social historian Dorothy Marshall, who grew up in the North of England before the war, recalled an unhappy year spent at a boarding school in Blackpool where she was subjected to lurid accounts of white slavery from other girls in the dormitory. Dorothy’s parents … instilled anxious warnings. Looking back, Dorothy considered that these early fears ‘provided one strand in my make-up, it is one I should be very happy to do without’.”(p 26)

I hadn’t previously heard about the Girls’ Friendly Society, which was obviously huge for decades, and vicious…. Dating from 1875, “stood for an uncomprising standard of purity. Loss of virginity meant loss of virtue and disqualified a girl from being or becoming a member. An early attempt (in 1878-9) to soften this rule, in order to allow work with girls who repented of any ‘lapse from grace’ met with opposition from both the founder, Mrs Townsend, and the bishops. The society’s aim was the prevent girls from ‘falling’. Upper-class lady ‘associates’ took it upon themselves to act in a semi-maternal capacity towards unmarried, working-class girls,…. astonishingly successful in the UK and even internationally, with strong links throughout the British Empire…. peak membership in 1913, with 39,926 associates and 197,493 members in England and Wales….a massive publishing endeavour… the aim was to combat the appeal of ‘shilling shockers and penny dreadful’ … offered uplifting stories of moral endeavour and self-sacrifice, often illustrated with images of female saints, and with floral motifs. White flowers, of course, carried a special symbolic charge. Snowdrops and lilies were emblems of feminine purity and heavily resorted to by Victorian sentimentalists. A separate group of organisations calling themselves Snowdrops or White Ribbon bands flourished alongside the GFS from around 1889 to 1912, particularly among factory girls in the North and the Midlands. … All this flowering-plant imagery became somewhat stretched at times: The Snowdrops featured an obituary column under the subtitled ‘Transplanted’. (p. 28-30) Reformers in the GFS “only succeeded in changing the rule as late as 1936 and even this was in the teeth of strong opposition, and many of the old guard resigned” (p. 34)
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Books History Politics

Snippets of recent political history

From A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s by Alwyn W Turner

p. 161 “Starting in the 1970s, but reaching a peak in the ten years from 1985, the big chains had concentrated their expansion on building huge superstores on out-of-town sites, to the detriment of smaller outlets and high streets…. ‘It’s a cancer,’ remarks a character in Peter Lovesey’s novel Upon a Dark Night, ‘scarring the countryside and bleeding the life out of city centres.’ The environmental impact was substantial, for the out-pf-town stores came complete with massive car parks, and the average distance travelled to go shopping rose by 14% between 1990 and 1995. A potential answer to this latter issue was the introduction of statutory parking charges for such shopping centres, a policy that was tentatively proposed by the Labour Party before being dropped in 1998. Some saw a connection between the abandonment of the idea and the donations made to political parties by the supermarkets and by individuals associated with them. Tesco was a major sponsor of the Millennium Dome project… and a key partner in Labour’s New Deal programme, while David Sainsbury, chairman of the family grocery business, was said to have become the biggest individual donor in Labour Party history: following the award of a peerage in 1997, he was appointed as a science minister the following year.”

p. 331
“the shadow cabinet … Blair had been continually irritated by the way that its proceedings found their way into the press, presumably as a result of unauthorised briefings. ‘ I’ll have to tell then that if they cannot be trusted to have serious discussion in the shadow cabinet, we won’t have them,’ Blair huffed in 1995. Given how much damage Labour was doing to the Major government by the judicious use of leaks from within Conservative ranks, such caution was perhaps understandable, if undesirable. Less tolerated should have been the continuation of the process in government, when cabinet meetings were downgraded still further. ‘They’re a farce,’ remarked Ivor Richard, leader of the House of Lords, in 1998: ‘nobody says anything.’ Lance Price, one of Blair’s spin doctors, attended a meeting of the cabinet in 1999 and concluded that all he had learnt from the experience was ‘how little real influence it has as an institution’. When someone tentatively suggested that a decision might be made, Blair replied: ‘Oh, I don’t think we should go that far.’ The inherent problem with a cabinet, of course, whether shadow or real, was that it shared power between its members, leaving its leader with the basic principle that his position was that of ‘first among equals’. Since Blair didn’t wish this to be true in his own case, it was self-evidently a system desperately in need of reform. Peter Mandelson addressed the issue in his 1996 book The Blair Revolution (co-written with Roger Liddle) arguing that ‘The cabinet is a rather inflexible vbody’ and that decisions should rather he taken in ‘bilateral and ad-hoc meetings’. As Will Hutton pointed out in a review of the book: ‘No prizes for guessing who plans to attend as many ad hoc meetings as possible.”

p. 406 On Britain entering the euro: “In October 1997 an attempt to clarify the position was concocted by Brown and his advisers, in conjunction with Alastair Campbell, and resulted in an article in The Times under the headline ‘Brown rules out single currency for lifetime of this parliament’. …. A Panicked weekend of retractions, re-briefings and repositioning ensued, and the confusion and conflicts became the story… To answer the question of when it would be right, Brown and Ed Balls came up with five tests to determine whether Britain was ready to enter the euro. It was a largely cosmetic exercise … but for the next few years, the five tests were constantly referred to as though they had some objective meaning, even if few government ministers or spokespeople could ever remember when asked what they were … The only one that revealed anything much was the question about whether joining the euro would be good for the City of London, which at least demonstrated how large the City loomed in Brown’s thinking. Derek Scott, then Blair’s economic adviser, was later to observe that ‘making a decision on one industry is like making a view on the Gold Standard based on what was good for the textiles business’.”

p. 436 On Asbos … “the talk of feral children and teenage thugs reinforced an impression that society was slipping out of control and needed the firm hand of authoritarian government to restore order. But such an image was far from new: it had been a commonplace for centuries, from the gin-sodden 1740s … to the `1820s, when Surrey magistrates expressed concerns about ‘the almost unchecked parading of the streets by the notoriously dissolute and abandoned of both sexes’. One could even go back to the 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury, writing about the people encountered by the Norman invaders in 1066: ‘They were accustomed to eat until they became surfeited and drink until they were sick’ As Harry Pearson noted, when considering the pitch invasions and hooliganism that marred professional football in the late Victorian era, it was only the alleged causes that changed, not the behaviour: ‘In the days before violent videos and the abolition of corporal punishment in schools you just had to face up to the sad truth: some people like fighting.’… In recent years the cause of social disorder was said, by those on the right of politics, to be the breakdown of discipline that resulted from the liberalisation of the 1960s. New Labour’s rhetoric suggested that it shared that perspective,, implying a moral failure on the part of working-class youth and their families. It’s response was the endless introduction of new initiatives. In its first term, the government brought forward 31 Bills on law and order and introduced new criminal offences at a rate of around two a week…. The prison population continued to ruse far beyond the levels inherited from Michael Howard.”

P 446 “an emerging pattern, summed up by Michael White of the Guardian, as ‘the all-party trend towards the professionalization of politics: school, university, party functionary, MP.” … it wasn’t only in the Conservative Party that candidates were increasingly selected from what Edwina Currie called ‘idenitikit young men’. …youthful adviser surrounding the key figures in New Labour. Some of them remained backstage figures, but others went on to be elected to Parliament, including James Purnell, Pat McFadden, Ed Balls and the Miliband brothers, David and Ed. Then there was Yvette Cooper, who had been part of John Smith’s team even before the 1992 election, and Derek Draper, a researcher for Peter Mandelson. All were still in their twenties when Blair became leader of the party. Also known as ‘the creche’ .. Mike Marqusee of Labour Briefing… ‘Thye may be young, but they are socially conservative, they exist in a self-enclosed world, and they are utterly unrepresentative of young people. What have they got to say, for example, about the huge grass-roots campaign against the Criminal Justice bill?’ It was a purely rhetorical question. The reality was that policies, philosophies and positions were less important now than the appearance of competent management, in emulation of Brown and Blair. ‘This generation exudes an air or responsibility,’ remarked Dominic Loenhis, the 25-year-old adviser to the Conservative minister peter Brooke, in 1993, ‘but I don’t think there is any visionary feel or coherent philosophy.”

p. 449
“in the three elections from 1951 onwards, the two main parties attracted between them the votes of three-quarters of the registered voters; in the three elections from 1992, they secured only a half. Whatever causes one wished to ascribe to this trend – the drop in turnout, the rise of the third party, the decline of ideology – it came to the same point: the only two parties capable of forming governments were fas losing the consent of the people. And as the gap between politicians and the nation widened, it was the younger generations who felt it most acutely. According to a survey published in the Demos pamphlet Britain, 68 % of those aged 55 or over were proud of British democracy; just 7.5% of those aged under 55 felt the same.”

Environmental politics History Politics

Definitely worth reading: The Village (Marinaleda) Against the World

The Village Against the World is an affectionate, but not hagiographic account of the development of Marinaleda, with a strong focus on its leader Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, a farming community in Andalusia, southern Spain that over three decades transformed itself from being a landless, poverty=stricken peasant community with 60% unemployment, population 2,700 to being a land-owning, communally run community with its own farm, processing plant, bar and much more. One of its achievements is a community that is to be eventually of 350 homes; the Andalusian regional government provides the building materials, the villagers build the homes themselves and pay 15
euros/month mortgage

Hancox is realistic about its special nature “for centuries, Andalusian day labourers have settled in … tidily-sized pueblos, rather than in big cities or isolated cottages … and this has forged a unique spirit, an ultra-local micro=patriotism,… a thriving collective personality develops of its own volition, independent of
trends outside”.

But this is no ordinary pueblo – it’s as politically sophisticated as they come. Hancox tells the story of how the village went on hunger strike to demand land, since earlier occupations had come to nothing, sometimes violently, since police can’t beat up someone for not eating. Topping it was a letter from the villages’ children, some of whom had joined the hunger strike, apparently entirely on their own initiative, to the young crown prince of Spain. Political genius.

But … “Before the land seizures, before the collective farm, before economic democracy, before virtually free housing, before the assassination attempts, before the supermarket raids, before utopia, came organisation… in 1976 the field workers’ union, the Sindicato de Oberos del Campo was founded and soon after the Mirinaleda chapter formed … a union for day labourers, focusing on direct action, with a broadly anarchist philosophy. … at that time Spanish law prohibited voting in union elections until you had worked for the same employer for more than six months, ruling out 98% of the 500,000 Andalusian field workers, severing an entire class from labour organisation.” (p. 73)

What they acquired was part of an aristocrat holding of 23,000 hectares of land … were planted with labour-light dry crops like cornand sunflowers. “The Marinaleda proposal was to sow crops that created substantially more work, like tobacco, cotton or sugar beet, and to create secondary industries for processing them. This, they argues, would instantly lead to a 30 per cent reduction in unemployment in central Andalusia.” (p. 79)

“It was land reform from below, not above, delivered by direct action, and always pacifist ; their rule was to leave when evicted (although this did not prevent countless lawsuits for trespassing, roadblocks and other related incidents.) They fell into a routine whereby the Guardia Civil would evict them every day at the same time, around 5 or 6 pm, when they would go peacefully and walk back to the village. They following morning they would walk the 10 miles back again, flags held high. In the summer of 1985, in the blistering heat,
they made the same journey every day for a month – taking only Sunday off.” (p. 97)

“In 1991 they were finally granted El Humoso’s 1,200 hectares, the Duke of Infantado was quietly paid off by the regional government… In Sanchez Gordillo’s reading … it was the first time in 5,000 years
that the Andalusian farm labourers had been given the land that was rightfully theirs.”

Well worth a read … an extract.

Books Feminism History Women's history

Early modern women healers – a further blow to traditional views

First published on Blogcritics

The traditional view of women healers of the medieval and early modern period has been that they were marginal, distrusted figures, at risk always of being cast as witches, enjoying little or no respect, if some fear. It’s a view that modern scholarship is gradually overturning. I was fascinated when I was reading about early modern England to learn of the respect with which midwives were held, and how, particularly in London, they were subjected to rigorous training and a strict licensing system that involved testimony from women they had attended in childbirth.

Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany by Alisha Rankin is a further piece of the story, showing how a wide cast of noblewomen enjoyed considerable respect for their medical knowledge, not just from their peers but also professional physicians, with whom they operated in general in concert, rather than competition.

Indeed the final chapter in this book, focused on Elizabeth of Rochlitz, who had a modest reputation as a healer, but here is studied most as a patient, provides a fascinating Insight into the actual experience of being treated for illness in early modern times.

Physicians – classically trained in book learning dating back to classical times, and with a traditional contempt for empirical evidence (although Rankin suggests that was fading) – tended to prescribe regimens, particularly diets, to match what they saw as the underlying problems of the patient, rather than treat particular symptoms. Barber- surgeons dealt with wounds and at least some of the time dressings. pharmacists, including the gentlewomen described here, were the true scientists of the time, testing and trying herbal and chemical treatments, sharing and comparing them.

Elisabeth – it is a sad story, suffered more than a decade of illness, which she resolutely refused to allow to be diagnosed as “the French disease” (syphilis). Rankin maintains her professional uncertainty in saying we can’t be sure, but given her father and brother died of it, this seems highly likely. There was of course stigma attached, which Rankin says may have been one reason for refusing to accept the diagnosis, but another may also have been her dislike of regimens- one suggested to her involved giving up garlic, onions, mustard, horseradish, spices, smoked protein, all food fried in butter, beans, lentils and sauerkraut, and wine. Quite a lot to ask of an aristocrat, even a minor one.

Instead, she put her faith in herbal remedies, aqua vitae (distilled strong liquor – which certainly must have made the patients feel better) and a barber surgeon’s plasters of egg white, honey, saffron and flour. (Which might actually have done her some good.)
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Books History Politics

European food, from hard tack to Oyster Ketchup, Roquefort to fish fingers

First published on Blogcritics

The Food Industries of Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (edited by Derek J. Oddy and Alain Drouard) is a dry collection of academic articles that is written in what is often the dullest possible prose. So why am I telling you about it? Well because the subjects are so fascinating that they overwhelm the format and, while encouraging skipping to the narrative bits, are well worth hanging in for. It also has a broad pan-European view that’s quite unusual and illuminating.

We begin with the start of industrial food production – somehow it’s unsurprising it’s a war that provides the impetus, or rather the Napoleonic Wars. Britain needed salt beef and hard tack to feed its navy, and suppliers started to gear up for the bulk production.

But for products more recognisable today, it’s the last four decades of the 18th century that advertisements for branded pickles and sauces started to appear in the London newspapers. “John Burgess, for instances, offered West India Pickles, Cayenne Pepper, Bengal Currie Powder, Japan Soy, Lemon Pickle, Oyster Ketchup, Shallot Ketchup and Devonshire Sauce.” These were, if not exactly reserved for the wealthy, certainly not reaching far down the social scale, in part because they were designed to go with fish or meat, households in which animal protein consumption was increasing.

Popularity of a new flavour led to mass production. There’s a lovely example of Elizabeth Lazenby who in 1793 was given a fish sauce recipe by her innkeeper brother, Peter Harvey, so she could support her family. She manufactured and sold it from Portman Square (you wouldn’t want to try that now), and when she retired Harvey’s Sauce (why are women’s names never preserved?) delivered her a substantial annuity of £300 a year. The brand continued, becoming Lazenby Pickles, operating from 1808 from a Southwark factory, where they remained until 1926.
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