Sunday, January 25, 2015

Frederick Douglass and coffee at the embassy

Group photo in the embassy, includes Swedes - Tom's book - Tom (right) presents book to ambassador
Last Monday to a coffee morning hosted by the Irish ambassador in London. We have Frederick Douglass to thank, a major figure in US 19th century history, though little known on this side of the Atlantic.  Indeed I had never heard of Douglass till Tom told me about him. That’s Tom Chaffin, partner of my Swedish cousin Margareta and a professor of history at the University of Tennessee. The occasion was Tom presenting the ambassador with his book Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary

Frederick Douglass - Daniel O'Connell
When they met in 1845
Douglass was about 27, O'Connell was 70.
So you could say these images are ill-chosen, for which I can only apologise
A memorable day, and what I didn't expect, the ambassador, Dan Mulhall, was himself an historian and a specialist on Daniel O'Connell, so had a real and not mere diplomatic interest in Tom's book, which includes Frederick Douglass's meeting with O'Connell in 1845. O'Connell is himself a colossus of Irish 19th century history. Dublin’s main street and bridge are named in his honour. A little digression here, the original name was Sackville Street changed in 1924 amidst a flurry of patriotic post-independence re-naming, and I always assumed O'Connell Bridge got its name at the same time as the street. But I crossed the bridge last week and was surprised by a plaque saying the Dublin Corporation re-named it in 1882. And to heap digression on digression, according to Wikipedia O'Connell Bridge is unique in Europe as the only traffic bridge wider than it is long: a circumstance evident in the photo below, though it had previously escaped me. Douglass’s bridge is in Washington DC, but I've sought in vain for any idiosyncratic facts about it to entertain you with.

Top, O'Connell Bridge over the Liffey in Dublin: broader than it is long.
Bottom, Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge over the Anacostia in Washington, D.C: rather dull.
A bit more about Douglass. He escaped bondage in Maryland in 1838 aged about 20, and eventually earnt a living as an abolitionist lecturer, travelling widely across the North, enthralling audiences and raising funds for the campaign. When his prominence brought him into danger from slave catchers he crossed the Atlantic to lecture in the British Isles. Tom’s book is about the four months he spent in Ireland, and Daniel O’Connell’s influence on him. There were complex reasons why Douglass avoided taking sides on the Irish national question, which Tom deals with in this 2011 New York Times article.  Also worth reading, this one about Douglass and Lincoln, and how he influenced the president’s thinking on the emancipation question in the latter half of the Civil War.  An aspect of Irish and American history that I find of abiding interest, is the widespread Irish-American support for slavery, and hostility towards abolitionists. Here's a review of Tom’s book that focuses on this, and also on Douglass and the famine.

A salute

Can't finish this post without saluting John Green, Chairman of the Glasnevin Trust, who was the fixer for the day. Not only did he fix the embassy meeting, but also a lecture for Tom at Dublin’s Glasnevin Museum a couple of days earlier, and moreover he fixed a guided tour of London’s Tower Hill Memorial where my Swedish great uncle Axel is remembered. My mother’s sister Barbro was especially keen to see this. Axel lost his life on a torpedoed British merchant ship in 1917.

No space here for an essay on Glasnevin Cemetery. Originally established by Daniel O’Connell in 1828. If you’ve an interest in Irish history, the cemetery and museum are a must. My cousin Meta and I had a guided tour in twilight, magical! 

And finally, I said Douglass is little known on this side of the Atlantic. But Meta tells me our uncle Gösta used to give his books as presents, so maybe I ought to have said “little known to me” …  

John Green, fixer and Chairman of Glasnevin Trust

Thursday, December 25, 2014

On Christmas trees and the Garden of Eden

Titian imagines Adam dissuading Eve from plucking another apple.
1570, Prado Museum, Madrid
I've retold the Adam and Eve tale as one of my children's stories.  
At a Christmas Eve night mass, where Martha was the little drummer boy in a nativity pageant, my eye was caught by a parish leaflet featuring a "prayer round the Christmas tree".  Having recently become curious about the history of Christmas trees, I read on, and was informed that the Christmas tree should remind us of the tree in the garden of paradise, a tree of wisdom and knowledge laden with every good thing, and god's gift to all human beings.

Huh?  What sort of theology is this?

Unless my memory deceives me, Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge, and when they did, were slung out on their ear.  How is that god's gift to all human beings? Whoever wrote this church leaflet is trying a bit too hard methinks. Striving to gloss over the Christmas tree's history as a pre-existing pagan tradition sitting uneasily within Christianity  ...

… and warming to my theme, I could have written a nice little blog in this vein, but for the fact that some googling has revealed there's more to the history of Christmas trees than I knew.   I assumed them to have been part of Northern European culture for generations before the missionaries arrived, but it seems it's not as simple as that. So far as I can tell they're much more recent, around 1500, and come from Germany, in one region of which they used to be hung upside down.  Scandinavia not mentioned to my surprise. And Martin Luther seems to have had a hand in the matter.  I must get my ducks in a row (the first time I've used that expression
and dare I hope the last) and write something more considered this time next year.

And lastly why are Christmas trees shaped like Christmas trees? They’ve evolved that way to let the snow slide off. More on

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Monkeying with the clocks

Here in Cork we get half an hour extra daylight in the evening, though our mornings are dark. That’s because we use the same time zone as Britain whilst lying half an hour west of Greenwich. So the gloom and darkness complaint that arises at this time of year affects us less acutely. Here's a sample, in The Observer’s editorial last Sunday:-

For the next five months, the nation can again anticipate evenings marked by their gloom and darkness, thanks to Greenwich Mean Time, which was reintroduced early this morning.

Few welcome the abandonment of British Summer Time, one of the least appetising events of the calendar, and opinion polls in England and Wales make it clear there is a healthy support for the halting the practice of putting clocks back in autumn so that we have earlier sunrises and sunsets and darker evenings.

The editorial goes on to suggest that retaining British Summer Time in the winter, with the addition of an extra hour to clocks in March (Double Summer Time), would save money and lives. Lives on the roads because the evening rush hour wouldn't be so dark, and money because there would be less need for electric light in the early evening.  This kind of scheme is always referred to as daylight saving.

Greenwich Observatory. Where midday really is midday.
And it's said every year at this time when the clocks go back.  But the point I'm coming to is this: how have we got ourselves into this back to front way of running a society?  When The Observer talks of “gloom and darkness, thanks to Greenwich Mean Time”, they make Greenwich Mean Time sound like an unnatural invention purposely designed as a kind of torment.   But hey, all it means is that the Sun is at its highest in the sky at midday (in Greenwich that is). Which is exactly as it should be.  (In York too; in Bradford the Sun doesn't reach the zenith till almost 7 minutes past midday; here in Mitchelstown Co Cork, 32 minutes past.)

If we feel so strongly about dark evenings, the answer is clear. Bed at 8. Up at 4. Standard working day from 7 am to 3 pm, which even in midwinter finishes in full daylight. Outlandish? Of course. But only because sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries our forebears did something called nocturnalisation.  Staying up half the night and sleeping till half way through the morning. The daylight saving that The Observer is calling for amounts to this:  to monkey with the clocks so as to wind this nocturnalisation back, nearer to the way things once used to be. 

Jiggery pokery

I'm not really against monkeying with the clocks. I just want to get it off my chest that the whole thing’s mad.  We’ve nocturnalised our society and now we want to unnocturnalise it. Just why nocturnalisation occurred is a puzzle I wrestle with from time to time.  I touched on the history of it a couple of years ago in a piece called How we colonised the night.

As a postscript I should add that the foregoing is entirely a parochial mid-latitude issue. In Scotland monkeying with the clocks probably wouldn't work. And in Luleå no amount of jiggery pokery is going to stretch out the three or four hours of watery light that’s the midwinter ration. In the tropics on the other hand, the Sun never rises and sets far from 6 o’clock.  I remember when I was in Trinidad in my youth observing that the earliest sunset was 5:45, and the latest sunset was 6:15. Here's a flavour of the conversation you would have sitting on the porch sipping rum and coke and the crickets chirping. “You noticed the sun’s setting much later now?” ... “Yes,
tonight it was 7 minutes past. Two weeks ago it was 4 minutes past.”

Finally, here's a useful short history of daylight saving measures. Double Summer Time was first used in Germany in the First World War, quickly followed by Britain and many other countries.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Of the Irish Constitution and half a red beard

1924 portrait of Darrell Figgis. The beard is red.
This is about a red beard and knives, but you'll need to bear with me while first I give a bit of context. In University College Cork's library yesterday I picked up the American Journal of Legal History and found an article on the Irish Free State Constitution. It's by Laura Cahillane who used to be at UCC, and as I narrowly missed a seminar she gave on this very topic a couple of years ago, I was delighted to find it. What I was actually looking for was something on the law of outer space but that’s another story.

The Irish Free State Constitution was the first Constitution of independent Ireland. Drawn up after the close of the Irish War of Independence, it was born in the midst of the Civil War, which broke out over disagreements as to the status of the embryonic Irish State and the continuing ties with the British Empire. The Free State Constitution was in force from 1922 until 1937, when it was replaced with a new constitution: Bunreacht na htireann.  However Cahillane’s point is that the 1937 constitution was not a completely new document; on the contrary, it contains (with certain additions and subtractions) most of the Free State Constitution, which still forms the spine of Ireland’s current constitution (now widely recognised as out of date).

She intends to rescue the Free State Constitution from undeserved obscurity, claiming that because of its Civil War birth pangs, it has been the subject of controversy and misinformation, and indeed the butt contempt and derision; as a result of which it is (she says) one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Irish legal system, neglected by legal and historical scholars.

That’s the preamble. Now we're getting nearer to the beard. It belonged to Darrell Figgis, known as an fear fēasōgach, the bearded one, and deputy chairman of the 1922 constitution drafting committee.  Michael Collins appointed himself chairman of the committee but whilst chairman in name, he did not have time to become actively involved in the drafting process. Apart from the initial meeting, he attended only one other, but he did keep in regular contact with some of the members and his instructions guided the committee in its work.

The Constitution Committee meeting at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Figgis is seated fourth from the left.
Darrell Figgis was a renowned literary figure in Ireland. He had also been an active member of the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Fein. Cahillane thinks that in many ways, Figgis was a curious choice as he was very unpopular.  Despite this, he was highly talented and a major influence on the shaping of the Free Sate Constitution, both in his daily attendance at the committee and in the subsequent debate in the Constituent Assembly.  Figgis applied himself to the study of constitutions and developed specific ideas on how the new constitution should be structured. He was the author of one of the three eventual drafts submitted by the committee to the Provisional Government.

Half of his beard

He was moreover famous for his red beard, of which he was immensely proud. In a footnote - and here we come to the nub of the matter - Cahillane relates a strange incident in June 1922. Three men broke into Figgis’s house in the middle of the night with knives and cut half of his beard off. Details of the attack remained vague until one of those responsible broke his silence 36 years later. He was the future Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, who explained that Figgis had been attacked because of disobliging remarks about the IRA.

You can find an account of the incident and an extract from Robert Briscoe’s memoir in the Wikipedia article on Figgis.  It specifies a glittering razor rather than knives, and there is no mention of only half the beard being cut off.  So here we have a discrepancy, which after some soul-searching, I've decided I don't have the time to resolve.

The constitution had to be approved by the British government as well as the Irish parliament. This was by virtue of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. And because the draft sounded too republican, and didn't say enough about being part of the British Empire, the British government threatened to go to war with Ireland again. But I won’t say any more on that as I really just wanted to tell you about the beard, and let you know that if the only reading material in front of you happens to be a journal of legal history, that may not be as dull as it sounds. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

On being British

The day of the Scottish referendum is a good time to say a few words about being British. Which is something I'm not.  I sometimes say I'm English, and sometimes half English and half Swedish. But never British.  Half English and half Swedish is an ungainly expression, so I think in future I'll say “both English and Swedish”.  The other day I caught myself calling Luleå my home town.  A surprising thing to say, perhaps, seeing as the longest I have ever spent there is six weeks when I was 17. But though I was brought up in the south of England, there's no one place we lived more than a few years. Consequently no place in England I can think of as my home town.  I spent more than half my life in York. But you can't call a place your home town if you didn't get there till you were 23. Whereas Luleå is the one place that has been in my life ever since I can remember. I still have my mother’s sister Kerstin there and my cousin Tolle, and we visit every other year or so.  By contrast, when I go to either Bristol or Brighton (which I haven't done for a long time, and maybe never again) I don't feel as if I'm going home, and I have no connections there. 

Luleå: my home town in the north of Sweden
But I've drifted from the Scottish referendum. I just need to comment that it was a disappointing result.  A vote for an independent Scotland would have shaken politics up a bit. Whether it would have shaken English politics up in a good way is a question worth pondering. Maybe it would have boosted English nationalism which has always been a right wing phenomenon. Unlike Scottish nationalism which has a wholesome social democratic flavour. Taken all in all, nationalism has been and remains the bane of world politics and if I could abolish it I would. A foolish and unhistorical thing to say, but there I've said it.

But back to Scotland. The question has to be asked, and would have been asked loudly had the vote been for independence: independence from whom and from what? Who would have governed Scotland, the government in Edinburgh or the multinational corporations? Escaping from under the neoliberal Tory yoke suggests a hopeful answer to that question; but the soon to resign Alex Salmond’s support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and the United States (TTIP) suggests a bad answer. 

The TTIP deal hands sovereignty to multinationals, but according to Salmond “For Scotland, given that the United States is our largest individual trading partner outside the UK, this agreement will be especially good news”. 

Feeling English

This essay, I am beginning to see, is a ramshackle affair. Because now I am going to tack back to the beginning and say something about feeling English and not British. And I just want to address those who, for fear of being suspected of Ukippery or racism, would be shy of saying they feel English.  Whilst England is a place, Britain and British to me are political expressions and suggest the Empire.  My father was a big believer in the British Empire and its unique civilising mission in world history, and was always intensely proud to call himself British. But that’s not for me. English is Shakespeare, Milton, the Lollards, the Levellers, William Blake’s Jerusalem (which requires a separate essay but I'll spare you it on this occasion), Thomas Paine, the Luddites (another essay), the Tolpuddle Martyrs.  When I say I'm English, that’s what I associate myself with.

Finally, these ramblings have been an exercise in displacement activity, since what's really important, and what's stopped me writing on this blog for the past month, is the Islamic State. I still haven’t yet worked out what to say about it - and until I do, I don't really feel like writing about anything else. But the Scottish referendum handed me an excuse for this riff on Britishness.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Will Ireland defy tobacco giants?

Were this image from a 1930’s film poster it would suggest cool and sophisticated (though perhaps in the 1930’s cool didn't mean sophisticated). Be that as it may, the image is actually from the Irish Examiner website where it's meant to suggest sinister and harmful, and it heads a story that Irish prime minister Enda Kenny has got a letter encouraging him to scrap plans to become the second country in the world after Australia to impose plain packaging regulations on cigarette companies.

The letter is signed by 27 members of the European parliament, nearly half of them members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party. They say plain packaging legislation could threaten Ireland’s financial recovery, and according to an Irish Examiner editorial of 12th August,  the letter is a thinly-veiled threat.  Which is good news in a way as it confirms that existing tobacco controls in Ireland, and plain packaging already introduced in Australia, are working. The Australian regulations came into effect in December 2012. Clearly, tobacco companies fear that these measures might be replicated across an ever-more health conscious European Union.

The Irish Examiner’s main leader last Tuesday flew under the heading “Fighting the tobacco giants - Government should defy lobbyists”, and began “Tobacco conglomerates spent decades challenging the science that proved nicotine was addictive. They dishonestly spent decades rubbishing the science that identified their products as cancerous and the root cause of fatal diseases.”

Read it in full to be reminded of the issues. It concludes by urging the Irish government to press ahead with their plans to make it ever more difficult to sell tobacco in this country and to tell the German lobbyists where to get off.

Other links

Irish Examiner analysis piece, by their political reporter, 12th August
Wikipedia, for a history of plain packaging around the world, evidence, criticisms, opposition
From this blog

January 2013: Irish cancer report gives the lie to Big Tobacco 
September 2011: Australian plans to force tobacco companies to use plain packaging carrying graphic health warnings

Monday, August 11, 2014

Of fundamental particles and logs

This is a plug for the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast. In fact for Guardian podcasts overall. I reckon that were the Guardian a radio station it would be up there with BBC Radio 4 as one of the world’s best. The episode of Monday 28 July featured British physicist Professor Jon Butterworth discussing his work at the Large Hadron Collider.  Just a lot of quite ordinary people getting on with their jobs in a building with shabby corridors, he says, yet they're unlocking the laws of nature and the secrets of the universe.

The whole episode lasts 44 minutes and the Jon Butterworth interview takes up the second half, starting at minute 22:40.  If you have time for just a three minute snippet, try from minute 36:30 to 39:36. Listen to the professor’s thoughts on finding that the Higgs particle is really there, and seeing confirmation of the Z-boson.  By the way don't worry, there's no need to understand exactly what the Higgs or the Z are, other than to know that they are fundamental particles that it takes expensive equipment to detect ... and upon their existence or non-existence rests our whole conception of the laws of nature.

Hear Jon Butterworth say “The fact that we understand nature so well, that when we turn on the Large Hadron Colider for the first time, we see the Z-boson, and it's where it should be, still impresses me, I still get goosebumps even talking about it now.” 

A bicycling engineer leans on a magnet in the 27km-long tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider
(Image: Cern/Maximilien Brice)
The thought he's expressing here isn't new, but when I hear a scientist say it gives them goosebumps, I get goosebumps myself.  I'm put in mind of another physics professor Frank Close, commenting on Dirac’s achievement in predicting the particle known as the positron (a positive electron). Dirac predicted the positron using maths alone, four years before the particle was actually discovered by experiment in 1932. 

“To me it’s remarkable, in a strange way I find it quite uncomfortable, that Dirac is writing things on paper, and the equations say: you can’t just have an electron, you must have a positive version as well.  And it turns out the equations know about nature; for then we go out and do an experiment, and we find that’s how it is.  It’s a very profound, in some way, a disturbing thing.” 

Prof Close was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time in 2007. His words made such an impression that I included them in my personal collection of quotes from scientists talking about science.

To conclude about that episode of Science Weekly, Prof Butterworth was invited into the studio to talk about his new book Smashing Physics, his insider's account of the discovery of the Higgs boson. And the first half of the episode is a report from a symposium on the origins of life - did life begin on Earth or elsewhere, and how likely is it that we are alone. Science Weekly is presented by Guardian journalist Ian Sample. The episode of 4th August is another must-listen-to: “How AI could be the end of us”, in which Nick Bostrom believes if we're not careful, the creation of a super-intelligent computer could be our last invention. 

I listen to Science Weekly through my headphones as I go about my morning yard duties, and here's a picture to prove it:-

The log carrier by the way is a little thing of my own invention, loosely based on a traditional Swedish carrier made of birch bark.