Best Search Engine Term of the Day

Goes to… lucy worsley’s arse.

Hopefully this inquiry led to a review last year of the lovely Dr Worsley’s documentary on the roles played by women in the 17th century: Harlots, Housewives & Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls. In 3 parts, with links to the following 2 episodes.

Wee Picture House

Campbeltown’s art deco Picture House is celebrating its centenary this year. There’s to be a gala celebration on the 26th, with a screening of The Great Gatsby, a pipe band, and fireworks over the harbour. Which reminds me, I need to get a ticket.

There are cars parked in front every time I try to photograph the building. Very frustrating. So this morning I went out early and caught the car-free worm. And very tasty it was, too.

An earlier photo, with car, but better reflections.

PS Waverley Docking at Campbeltown

PS Waverley is the last seagoing paddle steamer built on the Clyde. Beautiful ship. If you get a chance to go on one of the Waverley excursions, jump at it. Sailing ships are beyond the reach of most of us, but you can still experience a real paddle steamer. Get it while you can – they won’t be with us much longer.

I took these photos on an excursion from Campbeltown to Oban in 2010.

The Construction of the Forth Railway Bridge 1882 – 1890

Forth Rail Bridge Construction

Never let it be said that Beautiful Railway Bridge is parochial in its appreciation. While the Tay Rail Bridge is indeed one of the wonders of the world, there are other bridges, and the Forth Railway Bridge (pictured above during construction) is a strong contender. Below is a period photograph demonstrating its structural principles.

Forth Bridge Suspension Demonstration

I stole the following poem from a post by Diane McWade on KILTR, a new social media platform with Scottish affiliations. Well worth checking out if you’re Scottish, live there, or feel a connection to the place. Colin Donati‘s poem rings with the sound of the Forth Bridge’s construction. I loved it.

The Construction of the Forth Railway Bridge 1882-1890

Knitting and riveting
pinning and weaving,
knitting and riveting
pinning and weaving,
building the girders out
over the water;

gangers in rivet-teams
sweating at furnaces,
wielding the rivet-tongs,
hammering plates in place,
hanging the arms
of the great cantilever;

decking the space with them
over the water,
complex equations
for cross-beams in tension,
joints in suspension,
engaged with all weathers –

wind blow the bridge-bays
the bridge-bays distort with it,
sun swing from south to west
arms bend away from it
till they’re braced rigid
warping the measure;

the bite of the ice air
through jerkins of leather,
a shower of rain adding
weight to the structure
already supporting
chain, crane and timber

stage, winch and hawser,
furnace and hammer,
the winds of the firth
exerting their pressure
on three growing galleons
sailing the water;

the struts that the jacks lift,
the ties where no pin shears,
the skewbacks through which all loads
pass to the bridge-piers,
building the girders out,
building them further,

the light through the structure
that turns on each girder,
each tubular tower,
the ring of the worker,
macramé of metal,
tracery of shadows.

The man with the camera
slides other plates in place,
times each exposure
then snaps shut the wooden case,
captures the moment,
freezes the hammer.

Colin Donati

And finally, here’s a video of a steam train crossing the bridge.

A History Maker

James Hogg Statue and St Mary’s Loch, Scottish Borders

A History Maker, by Alasdair Gray (Canongate, 1994)

This is a Scottish science fiction novel about a flawed utopia and a misfit who unwittingly brings about necessary change.  As the title suggests, it’s also about the role history plays in how we think about the present, particularly the tendency to think in terms of historical epochs.  And about how disastrously wrong we can be.  You might remember Francis Fukuyama and all that nonsense about The End of History when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.

Gray opens with a quote that sets the tone for the whole novel:

Economics: Old Greek word for the art of keeping a home weatherproof and supplied with what the householders need.  In historical times this word was used by British governments and their advisers to mean political housekeeping – the art of keeping their bankers, brokers and rich supporters well supplied with money, often by impoverishing other householders.  They used the Greek instead of the English word because it mystified folk who had not been taught at wealthy schools.  The rhetoric of plutocratic governors needed economics as the sermons of religious governments needed the Will of God.  (From The Intelligence Archive of Historical Jargon.)

Alasdair Gray

Spot on.  Can’t say fairer than that.  Set in the early 23rd century, the world has changed beyond recognition.  Biogeneticists have created powerplants that tower into the sky, their roots tapping into geothermal energy, to provide households with all their food and everything but the bulkiest of household goods.  They even extrude the living quarters where extended families raise their children communally and monogamy is a thing of the past.

As a result, there is now a domestic economy with no need for money or government, and people no longer have to live in cities.  Women are literally instrumental in supplying the necessities of life, through their ability to play them into existence on the keyboard of the powerplant. It’s an intuitive art akin to music, though Gray doesn’t say why men could not do the same.

Men no longer have any crucial role to play in their communities, apart from those who leave Earth for the Moon and Solar System to prepare those places for human expansion, or go into science and the entertainment industry.  Their new role is to become warriors in televised battles, based on a region’s history.  The battles are real, brutal, lethal, and while medical science can regrow hacked-off limbs, people still die.  It’s all strictly regulated by a future version of the Geneva Convention to ensure that the domestic economy is not harmed.  Young girls stick posters of their favourite warriors on their walls and, since a warrior’s function between battles is to maintain the population, have a good prospect of bearing their children.

Not everyone is happy.  Wat Dryhope is a misfit – he’s been to the Moon and returned because he can’t bear the loss of Earth and the past it represents.  As a warrior, he’s still discontent because there are no real consequences (apart from his death) of the battles fought for television audiences.  At heart, he wants monogamy and something to fight for that really matters.

I said this is Scottish science fiction, and it is deeply rooted in that country’s history, but it’s also set in a very specific place – St Mary’s Loch in the Scottish Borders.  So the historically appropriate form of warfare is a recreation of the battles between the Borders and Northumbria that occurred for centuries during the Middle Ages and beyond.  There’s also a touch of the football teams about them in the way they’re presented on television – Borders United v. Northumbria United.

Dryhope Tower, where Wat’s mum lives

Wat Dryhope is the catalyst for change in this very civilized, but somewhat smug, matriarchy.  He pulls off an audacious, only just within the rules, draw for Clan Ettrick against overwhelming odds, becoming a world-wide celebrity.  Unknown to him, a few other misfits in the entertainment industry are pumping up the publicity to destabilize society.  It begins to work as pressure builds for bigger and better battles, creating a new appetite for militarism.  And there’s worse to come – he’s about to meet the love of his life.

I’ll not say more.  This is a stunning, complex novel, with roots deep in Scottish history and culture.  The story is told by the characters, first Wat’s mother, representing the matriarchy, and then Wat’s account of the 7 days encompassed by the novel.  At the end, she adds a section called Notes & Glossary Explaining the Obscurities, an essential coda to the story.  And there are some splendid illustrations and maps by the author, which work together with the text to bring out the ethos of this society.

I can’t recommend A History Maker too highly.

St Mary’s Loch

Return of the King – Huzzah!

Richard III

Great news from Leicester that the bones found beneath a car park belong to Richard III, last of the Plantagenet kings. I’m chuffed pink that he’s been found, and hope the discovery breathes new life into the question of whether he was a Bad King, as portrayed by that shameless Tudor propagandist, William Shakespeare. Here’s a video of the dig from the University of Leicester, who did a brilliant job.

I will admit to being somewhat influenced in my historical perspective by this splendid song from Horrible Histories.

According to the news reports, he died a horrible, brutal death, which prompts reflection on the fact that kings and queens, the high and mighty in general, are only human. All that swank and swagger is merely whistling in the dark. This scene from Richard II, says it all. Yes, I know it’s the wrong Richard, but the words are spot on.

Here is Shakespeare’s character assassination, as portrayed by Laurence Olivier in the 1955 film.

And for something completely different, a trailer for the 1995 film, with Ian McKellen in the title role. I want to see this.