Pushing the Envelope

Pharmaceutical Chemists, by appointment to her majesty and to HRH the Princess of Wales, At their dispensing establishment, 177 Regent Street

Sifting through my late Grandmother’s scrap-books, I found this set of Pharmaceutical envelopes from the Victorian/Edwardian era. They were collected by her uncle (so that’s my Great-great Uncle) Thomas Lewis, who was a Chemist in Pembrokeshire, Edinburgh, and London.

Walker & Son, Member and Associate of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain

The two things I enjoy about these designs are the innocent and polite text, and the use of typography. One would think that employing several different typefaces would look odd and discordant, but the combination of stencil, gothic, serif and sans-serif faces somehow seems to work. I’m reminded of the illustrator Kevin Cornell’s work, which is unsurprising really – He has an obvious affinity with this era.
Continue reading “Pushing the Envelope”

The problem with Live Earth

Much as I applaud the ideals of Live Earth, I think I have been afflicted by GMEF (That’s Global Music Event Fatigue). The frequency that we have huge telethons and transatlantic concerts means that we also need TV presenters to remind us just how historic this concert will be:

“Just how historic is this concert going to be, Jack Osbourne?”
“Its going to be very historic, Jonathan…”

The eagerness to define and document this kind of history, as it happens, is a particular symptom of the 24 hour news culture world in which we live. As we watch these programmes, we (and their producers) seem ignorant of the fact that they will not persist in our collective memory like the original Live Aid concert in 1985. Why? The clue is in the word “original” – Live Aid was the first event of its kind.

These other concerts are mere fakes, fabrications, exercises in nostalgia. They may be bigger, and they may even have better music. But the lack of novelty in the idea renders them free from the radicalism and urgency which characterised Live Aid. The result is a cruel pastiche, and each global music event yields diminishing returns for longevity, historical impact, and probably money too. And with so many other channels to watch, they are also ineffective as a shared cultural moment. This last point is crucial when there is a wider political message to be communicated. If people do not feel an ownership for the event, then the message is less likely to be discussed.

And to see acts like Duran Duran and Kanye West playing on two consecutive weekends surely devalues both events. There is little incentive to tune in for the event of the year/decade/century/your life, if you’ve seen the same event the week before.

Simon Le Bon
Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran sings at Wembley Stadium for Live Earth. or was it Live Aid? Or the Concert For Diana?

The Palace at Whitehall

From the rich and rewarding Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson:

The Palace must have been a single building at some point, but no-one knew which bit had been put up first; anyway, other buildings had been scabbed onto that first one as fast as stones and mortar could be ferried in, and galleries strung like clothes lines between wings of it that were deemed too far apart; this created courtyards that were, in time, subdivided, and encroached upon by new additions, and filled in. Then the builders turned their ingenuity to bricking up old openings, and chipping out new ones, then bricking up the new ones and re-opening the old, or making new ones yet. In any event, every closet, hall, and room was claimed by one nest or sect of courtiers, just as every snatch of Germany had its own Baron.

I suspect we have all encountered buildings like this at some point. Perhaps not as extensive as Whitehall, but still with that organic quality that tells us that the building has had more than one author. Another form of labyrinth, I suppose.

Quicksilver is packed with descriptions to the growing, evolving London of the seventeenth century. A city built around the river, for the barrow not the motor-car. How different to the meticulously planned New Towns of the United Kingdom, where soulless, empty roundabouts (with their obligatory crop of daffodils) take the place of the thriving ‘gates’ into the heart of the city.

A Most Respectful Letter from an Englishman in Scotland, to a Scotsman in England; In Which the Subject of Their Shared Britishness is Discussed at Some Length.

This was my shortlisted entry into the Ben Pimlott Essay Prize. The winning entry, by Rowland Manthorpe, was published by The Guardian last week.

Read close, o my best beloved, and picture the scene. It is a cold and idle weekday in February. The dance-floor at L— Nightclub is barely a third full. The clientele are young, but in this light it is difficult to be sure that they are over eighteen. Many wear those jumpers with hoods you will have seen in photographs. Thin girls in white denim dresses have braids in their hair. Three youths in turbans lurk in the corner, by the dirty pillar that blocks the view from the bar.

Chunky hip-hop performer ‘Sway’ saunters on stage with the arrogance of a MOBO winner (for that is what he is). Behind him bounces his accompanist for this evening, DJ Turkish. They are both wearing Union Jack tea towels over their faces, like patriotic bank robbers. “These rappers couldn’t see me coming if they were vaginas with spectacles,” shouts Sway, before telling us a story about the mysterious Land of Harveynicks. The entertainment has begun.

We are in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital – yes, you know it well, my friend! – in the shadow of the famous castle, where legions of tourists flock each summer to watch the tartan fuelled military tattoo. It is a place where English residents of the city complain that, these days, it is being over-run by Australians. It is a place where a man with a Ghanaian name is reciting American-inspired slam poetry, to a beat hammered out by a Turk from North London. And what of this young audience? Believe me when I tell you, if you were to conquer the countries of their parents, then truly the sun would never set upon your Empire.

Let us be clear, so we make no mistake. Your task in 2009 will be to unite all these people: The tartan tattoo day-trippers, the snobbish English students, the sullen Sikhs… and Sway, who waves the Union Jack proudly, just as you asked. You must convince them that they are one people, and that they all belong to the same privileged club. You must describe the values and the traditions that they must learn to love.

Continue reading “A Most Respectful Letter from an Englishman in Scotland, to a Scotsman in England; In Which the Subject of Their Shared Britishness is Discussed at Some Length.”

July 1st, our fateful day

A company of the Public Schools Battalion

More from Great-uncle Roland’s diary:

Friday 30th June 1916. 7pm.
I have just got back from the trenches, which were squelching with mud … It was a lovely afternoon with a fresh wind blowing. Some of the trenches were badly knocked about. I looked over into Hunland as I came out – the wood in front looking like currant bushes with the blight.

Some trees were down in our wood. I passed the cemetary, as I came back, and looked at [Lt. Wilfred Dent Wroe’s] grave. I am moving up by myself at 8.30, having a little time here to wash and have a meal. I had three letters tonight and the Observer, rather delayed, all posted on Sunday.

This ends the diary before the “push” as I must pack up.

Thirteen hours later 2nd Lt. Roland Ingle was dead. He is buried in the same Becourt Military Cemetery he had visited the day before.

Fast forward ninety years. The World Cup is building to a crescendo, and we are bombarded by war-time allegories. Meanwhile, The Times carries a picture of Wayne Rooney in a Kitchener style pose, accompanied by the famous slogan “Your Country Needs You.” My brothers have answered the call, and are in Germany. They have been mingling with the German fans, jubilant after their victory over the Argentines.

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

Bill Shankly’s famous quote persists. I hope he said it firmly with his tongue in his cheek, because it is, of course, utter tosh. Football doesn’t matter like wars matter. Actually, I think most fans know this, despite the hyperbole. There are those who would say that clearly, I haven’t been visiting the right sort of pubs in the wrong parts of town… and yet today in Edinburgh, arch-rivals Hearts FC and Hibernian FC have joined together to commemorate The Somme.

The fun of the game is precisely giving yourself over to a set of arbitrary rules, and ‘buying into’ the theatre that ensues. Sure, one has to suspend disbelief, pretend for a moment that it does matter. But the party atmosphere that my siblings have reported back can only exist if one ultimately acknowledges that is all a game. Something done purely for fun, for enjoyment, for escapism. Those who allow the boundaries to be crossed, as Shankly suggests, are idiots. They are just like those who believe that soap-opera characters are real people.

Contrast the “a game as a war” analogies, with the attitudes of the men at The Somme. I read today that some British soldiers there had a competition, to try and kick a football into the German trenches as they went for the big “push” at 7.30am. No-one claimed the prize, because all those who had competed were killed. As Roland Ingle wrote, they took chances of life and death as all being “part of the game”.

And so over ninety years the analogies are mirrored, reversed. The ball kicked over the trenches in 1916 lands at Rooney’s feet. His “shot” is fired back through the decades, and men fall over, never to stand again. We use the language of war, words like “this fateful day” and “our hero,” to describe events and people that are no such thing. The real heros have already met their fate. And now, because of The Fallen, we are free, to play a game with the Germans and the Portuguese, united by a complete triviality, the one excuse for a party. This is how we honour them.

Look, Uncle Roland! Now they are our friends.

English and German Fans mix in Cologne, before a World Cup 2006 fixture

Somme Diary

Below is an excerpt from the diary of 2nd Lt. Roland Ingle, my Grandfather’s uncle, written in the days immediately preceding the start of the Battle of the Somme. In a long Sunday entry, Roland describes the ‘preliminary bombardment’, and thoughts on the imminent push.

Sunday 25th June 1916

I went up the hill again last night after mess – about 10pm; we could hear no noise down below, facing to the wind, but when I got up top, it was obvious that the bombardment was proceeding. Sharp flashes, like sheet lightnening, showed our guns firing – on right and left; our guns in front were silent just then. All along the horizon there were red flashes – not sharp and white like gun flashes, but just blazes with sometimes a little cloud above. It was, of course, a wonderful sight; flashes right and left caught your eye in quick succession. And all the time, beyond was the red burst of the shells falling on their target. I stood some time looking and two sergeants came up – we talked the usual gossip that we had all heard; any story passes these days and the funny thing is, on-one seems to mind if it is something in our favour or decidedly against us. It is a story or a rumour to carry on with – some things are true, but anyhow it is something to talk about. I have heard two distinct rumours that the anxious would find unpalatable – one , that a doctor…

… another, that our latest and most wonderful aeroplane has settled peacefully behind Hun lines. Nobody worries if they are true or not. As the time for us to move approaches, I suppose we shall be excited and nervous, but now for most people, and I should think for the most thoughtless and unimpressionable, it is just a contemplative pause and a rest. Excitement braces the muscles in healthy people, and that is the feeling you have at the thought of this ‘great push’ beginning. As I said before, as an alternative to trench warfare it is welcome – to me especially, with my doubtful powers of endurance.

Someone made the inevitable remark last night (I forgot to tell you I am in the headquarters mess of the batallion we are attached to) – that we are now taking part in what may be an historic event – for us personally, of course, historic but also possibly in years to come a historic event in The Great War. One man’s part in any move nowadays is so small that he is not likely to be nervous about the effect of his work on the final result; and fortunately the habit of “carrying on” – (that immortal phrase) – is by this time so engrained in him that in spite of great shattering of everything else he has a hope that he will be able to do it. And no-one should forget that a free throwing of yourself into a forward move gives the thing a momentum that nothing else can – beyond any mechanical discipline. If the least thoughtful could analyse his feelings, he would say, I suppose, that provided he was hitting hard he didn’t care what happened to him. And the men who are going to be knocked out in this push – there must be many – should not, certainly, be looked on with pity; because going forward with resolution and braced musceles puts a man in a mood to despise consequences; he is out to give more than he gets; he really dies fighting, and a man, who is used to sport, takes these things – even in the great chance of life and death – as “part of the game”.

britishoverthetopsomme