Tag Archives: History

Cinefilm Footage of the 2003 anti-war protests

I have just uploaded some digitised super 8mm cinefilm footage I took in 2003, of the anti-war demonstrations in London.

I sent the original reels to the producers of the We Are Many documentary. They have crowd-sourced footage of the biggest mobilisation of people in history. Sadly, my footage did not make it into the final cut (too much panning, maybe!?) but they provided me with the digitised footage anyway. I am making it available online under a Creative Commons Licence.

Watching the footage a decade after I took it, I am amused by how the vintage cinefilm adds an extra sheen of history to the images. Its also serendipitous that I received this footage back just as Instagram launched its video service. The quick cuts and grainy film in my clips are mirrored in the new content being produced today by social media enthusiasts. I was using Instagram Video before it was cool!

I am also reminded of these wonderful lines from Karo Kilfeather in her essay ‘The Art of Narcissism‘:

The impulse to create art is as powerful as any other thing that drives us because art connects us to experiences and to one another. Good is besides the point when the need behind it is to create something honest and true to the way we see the world. It’s not about realism. The vintage-tinted Instagram filters are derided for adding a nostalgic cast to the mundane, but what they do is allow users to share their world in the same emotional shades they see. The photo becomes not just a document of a moment, but a story told from a point of view.

This speaks to why I chose to document the protest with Super 8mm cine-film in the first place. The political mobilisation of early 2003 felt historic, and I wanted to convey that in my personal record of the day.

Harriet Bennett's Album Panel 30

Papercuts and Curses

Last year I uploaded a collection of Victorian portrait photographs to a set entitled ‘Harriet Bennett’s Photo Album‘.  Swollen with the sharing spirit of the Internet, I gave the images a permissive Creative Commons Licience.  My hope was that they might act as a prompt or support for other people’s creative projects.

The first instance of this hope being realised is ‘Papercuts and Curses‘ by Sam Meekings. It uses my scanned image of a young and now anonymous aquaintance of Harriet Bennett to illustrate a story about a young adventurer.  Sam begins his story with a liberating broadside against an old writing cliche:

The standard advice to those thinking of becoming writers is to write what you know. The fact that this is clearly the most ridiculous and restrictive piece of advice imaginable does not seem to put people off from repeating it again and again. Edward Gregory Charles was determined to follow it to the letter: with the pragmatism typical of the late nineteenth century, he made it his mission to fill up his mind with experiences.

Read the entire piece on Medium (Twitter founder Evan Williams‘ new project).

I would be delighted if other authors (on Medium or elsewhere) wrote stories based on other images in the Harriet Bennett collection.

The World of An Insignificant Woman

Over the past year, I’ve been working on a creative publishing challenge I set myself. It’s time to blog about it here and draw a line under the project.

A few years ago, my parents showed me a faded typed manuscript of a memoir, The World of an Insignificant Woman. It was written in the mid 1980′s by my grandfather’s sister, Catherine Thackray, about their parents and family. It is based in a large part on the handwritten memoirs and letters of my great-grandmother, Hilda Marjory Sharp (born 1882).

In recent years I’ve taken a particular interest in new forms of publishing. I drink in the columns of Cory Doctorow and the experiments of James Bridle (two London-based thinkers I have had the pleasure of meeting a few times, through English PEN and Free Word Centre activities). The potential of print-on-demand and eBook publishing is huge, and I had begun to think seriously about getting in on the micro-publishing action.

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Technological Time Travellers

I’ve just started reading The Information by James Gleick (Fourth Estate). It is about the history of information, writing, and IT, and it won the English PEN Hessel-Tiltman Prize this year.

I was struck by a passage in the book, discussing ‘African Talking Drums’:

Before long, there were people for whom the path of communication technology had lept directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages.

This rang a few bells.  First, this nugget from Alain de Botton:

If technology is developing well, what was normal when you were a child should by now seem ridiculous.

Which seems to me to be a variation on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous suggestion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.  What’s interesting with regard to the African Talking Drums is that they are seen as a kind of primitive technology, even thought (as The Information explains) the language is so complex it appeared to be a form of magic to the white slavers, colonialists and anthropologists who heard them.

These technological leaps are interesting, I think, because so much of our culture is tied up in technological advancement.  It dictates what kind of jobs are necessary and profitable, of course, but also influences design.

I am reminded of Jason Kottke’s posts on Timeline Twins (for example, watching Back to the Future today is like watching Bridge on the River Kwai in 1985, because the gap is 27 years in both cases), and also Human Wormholes and The Great Span (for example, this old man who witnessed the Lincoln Assassination).

It also makes me think of my great-grandfather, who (along with everyone else of his particular generation, I suppose) was alive to hear the news of the Wright Brothers achieving powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and also to watch the Apollo landings on the moon from 1969-72.

Think finally of the uncontacted tribes of Puapa New Guinea and the Amazon, who must consider the aeroplanes that fly overhead to be magic.

Feminism Enabled Gay Marriage

Feminism enabled gay marriage, and that’s a good thing.

Last week we heard the Catholic bishops parroting the tired old line about marriage being “between a man and a woman”, and that the secular government was somehow redefining the concept for the rest of us. This argument sounds more and more pathetic every time I hear it.

Marriage has often been redefined! In the Old Testament we had polygamy, a practice that continues in many parts of the world to this day. When that fell out of favour, the bond of marriage was still very much a transaction in which the girl had no input. This practice, of a father arranging a marriage on his daughter’s behalf, is still very popular in many parts of the world and many British citizens still submit to it. The idea of romantic love leading to marriage is also a new innovation (at least, new when compared to the idea of marriage itself). Literature, from Tristan & Isolde, to Romeo & Juliet, to the Jane Austen œvre, is full of stories of romantic love colliding with the more traditional view of marriage as a financial arrangement.

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Lost Tribes and Human Nature

I found this video, of an uncontacted tribe meeting a white man for the first time, utterly compelling.

I admit that the Enigma style sound-track (actually Yeha-Noha by Sacred Spirit, a new feature on YouTube helpfully reveals) helps churn the emotions.

But there is a beauty in the images, in the actions of the startled men and women on film. Initially, they are clearly shit-fucking scared. Although they are armed, and could have let loose an arrow into the explorer’s gullet at any moment, they do not give in to their fear. Curiosity is the more powerful emotion. They dare to touch the hand of the explorer and his cameraman. And crucially, they trust him enough to shake his hand, taste the salt, and take him to their village. For his part, the white explorer (film-maker Jean-Pierre Dutilleux) appears honest and sensitive, and the moment early on where he reaches out his hand is just sublime.

Its an imperfect experiment, but these uncontacted tribes are the nearest thing we habe to a tabula rasa, a mind unpolluted by the sensibilities and preconceptions of our infinitely connected world. And, untrained and unprepared for the moment, they win it. Its a blow to the idea that humankind is essentially destructive and violent, and that politics must essentially be about protecting ourselves from others, in the pursuit of self-interest.

The video is actually from 1978, but these tribes-people are totally outside of time and only Dutilleux’s short-shorts date the piece. But I came upon it because of a more contemporary campaign to help preserve uncontacted tribes in the Amazon Rainforests. There is a lot more fascinating imagery, and a petition to sign, at UncontactedTribes.org.

Some Words on Primogeniture

Primogentiture is the right of the first born to inherit titles, estates and thrones. At present the UK has a form of male primogeniture, which sets the Duke of York and Prince Edward above the older Princess Anne in the line of succession. In the 21st Century, this is absurd. With the #RoyalWedding suggesting the possibility of new heirs being born soon, there are plans afoot to legislate for a more equal form of primogeniture.

Keith Vaz MP is quoted in a BBC report:

I hope that they will give their full support to my bill which is currently before Parliament.

If they do so we can resolve this matter before any child of Prince William and Kate Middleton is born, not afterwards. The clock is ticking. We need to act fast.

Ignoring the distasteful idea that legislation has to race against one woman’s fertility, this is still not quite right. The legislation will only become awkward after a second child is born to Prince William and Princess Catherine. When their first kid is born, he or she will become 3rd and directly in line to the throne (bumping Prince Harry off the podium and, probably, into drunken obscurity). Only when a second child is born, and only if that second child is a boy and the older child is a girl, will there be any awkwardness. Assuming Wills and Kate do want kids, and assuming they want more than one kid, and further assuming this is biologically possible (because for some women it is sadly not) then it’s a 25% chance, and will likely take at least half a decade to occur.

So there is no urgency to this, just a bizarre set of sensibilities to spare the feelings of Royal toddlers who probably wouldn’t care anyway. Altering the law right now would mean demoting Princes Andrew and Edward and their offspring in favour of Princess Anne and her issue, and we don’t seem to worry about that.

Interestingly, had full cogniatic primogeniture prevailed, Queen Victoria – our longest serving and one of our greatest monarchs – would not have ascended to the throne. It would instead of passed to the family of Princess Caroline, a sister of George IV and William IV who was older than Victoria’s father, Edward. And since our current Queen is a direct descendant of Victoria, she would not have reigned either! This is doubly true, because Queen Victoria’s oldest child was a daughter (also named Victoria) who died in 1888. Had full primogeniture been law by the time Victoria died in 1901, the throne would have passed to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Great War would probably have been avoided.

On the other hand, that other great queen, Elizabeth I, would have ascended to the throne at exactly the same time, on the death of her sister Mary. However, since Catholic Mary would have have had an extra six years on the throne (with the sickly Edward VI being passed over) she may have maneuvered to exclude her Protestant sister from the succession.

In the last century however, Royal succession has been indifferent to gender. The eldest children of all the monarchs since 1901 were male, except for George VI who had only daughters, so questions of gender primacy never arose. Had a more equitable law of succession been passed when (say) women’s suffrage was introduced in 1918, there would have been absolutely no difference in the Royal lineage.

Its not an idle point about Women’s Suffrage. I would say that the argument over women’s equality was settled when they won the right to vote, so legislation on women having equal right to the Throne is at least 93 years overdue! I find it amazing that anyone in Britain or the Commonwealth needs to think about this. When Nick Clegg says that the issue still requires “careful thought” he is being utterly disingenuous… and I really don’t understand why.

On How We Go To War

Amid all the frantic late night comments about the UN resolution to finally act in Libya, this tweet from @techsoc stood out:

All intervention is risky & w/ great downsides. A non-intervention is also an intervention; letting Gaddafi kill using weapons we sold.

I think this an interesting companion thought to Sunder Katwala’s bolshy piece on the subject of whattaboutery (a topic Johann Hari previously dealt with in this hardy perennial). Sunder explains why it is worth intervening in Libya when we might not do so elsewhere. First, there has to be a clear and present humanitarian crisis (this is not present in most examples of despicable oppression, a small mercy). Second, intervention has to be possible and practical. This generally means the support and assistance of major regional players like the Arab League or African Union, who are notoriously lethargic. And third, the intervention requires a legitimacy, again related to what important external stakeholders think, but also what those inside the country ask for. These three checkboxes provide a case for what Sunder calls contextual universalism. It matters – at least to me – because it articulates why I had a gut feeling that the Iraq war was wrong, and the current intervention is right. This is despite the fact that the documented brutality of Saddam Hussein was ever bit as bad as that of Colonel Gaddafi.

The cautious approach is clearly a response to the bungling of Iraq. I watched some of the collegiate House of Commons debate on the issue yesterday, and most of the contributions, from Nicholas Soames to John McDonnell, were infused with the considerations that Sunder lays out. This approach to Foreign policy – the need for practicality and legitimacy, the need to be seen to be going to war for the right reasons – is obviously influenced by how unsuccessful the hawkish and shameless approach of Bush/Blair turned out to be. in 2006 I wrote in this space how protest actually serves to influence future policy more than current policy. I quoted Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads, who wrote:

… someone has to be called to account or the next batch of power-mad bastards – here or abroad – will think they can get away with exactly the same thing.

Well, Tony Blair was not forced kicking and screaming from office in the way Tim hoped. Nevertheless, the way the British and American Governments have acted during this current crisis is telling. It is clear that they have been profoundly affected by the uproar we caused last time. David Cameron is rightly being praised for his handling of the crisis, but his course of action was defined by the parameters set for him by recent history. And those parameters were set by us, the awkward squad of protesters and dissenting bloggers. For that, I think we can claim some credit.

Update

I did not see The Andrew Marr Show but @DrEvanHarris did:

Shami points out Blair Iraq effect coming home to roost. No public appetite for deploying ground troops even in humanitarian cause. #marr

#Egypt, The Most Important Data Nexus on the Planet

Amid all the uncertainty and violence happening in Egypt, I was struck by a story from Alexandria.  Youths have been organising to protect Bibliotheca Alexanadrina, ‘The New Library of Alexandria’.

The young people organized themselves into groups that directed traffic, protected neighborhoods and guarded public buildings of value such as the Egyptian Museum and the Library of Alexandria.  They are collaborating with the army.  This makeshift arrangement is in place until full public order returns.

The library is safe thanks to Egypt’s youth, whether they be the staff of the Library or the representatives of the demonstrators, who are joining us in guarding the building from potential vandals and looters.

A major early move by the Egyptian government was to ‘flick the switch’ and choke Internet communications.  In the short term this has clearly given Mubarak and his cohort the upper-hand, by keeping the pro-democracy groups divided and chaotic.  However, the short-term gain might weaken them in the future.  As the the freelancer journalist Ashraf Khalil just tweeted from Cairo:

Told Nile TV that the main economic damage to #egypt is from Net shutdown (estimated $90 mill) and images of violence scaring away tourists

The stories of the Library and the net shut-down recall an old Wired article by Neal Stephenson, where he traces the paths of fibre-optic cables around the world (I actually mentioned it last December when discussing Wikileaks). Stephenson’s travels take him to Egypt, where a major new communications cable is being landed in Alexandria, at a most historic location:

If you turn your back on the equipment through which the world’s bits are swirling, open one of the windows, wind up, and throw a stone pretty hard, you can just about bonk that used book peddler on the head. Because this place, soon to be the most important data nexus on the planet, happens to be constructed virtually on top of the ruins of the Great Library of Alexandria.

Just one more reason why we are all bound up in Egypt’s fate.  Let’s hope that the people who marshalled to protect their museums, are the ones to prevail.

War Anniversaries

The new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, ‘Outbreak‘, commemorates 70 years since the start of The Second World War. When I saw the poster on the tube this morning, it took me back 20 years to primary school, when we did a whole term’s class project on the war: gas mask boxes, rationing, evacuation, Vera Lynn, &ct.

That was for the 50th anniversary, which still seemed fairly recent. Seventy years seems a much more distant time. The experience of learning about the Second World War in 2009, must be a little like learning about the First World War back in 1989: I am reminded of Kottke’s Timeline Twins.

I note that, since the First World War lasted from 1914-19, and the Second World War from 39-45, there is never a year when we are without a x10 year anniversary for some event or other in one of those great conflicts. That’s a good thing: lest we forget. But I cannot help but wonder at what point the anniversaries start to get less attention. The Battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar only seem to raise interest on the x50 year markers; Banockburn, Bosworth Field, Naseby, The Boyne and Culloden only on the centenary.