Didier Daeninckx: Cannibale

book cover imageDidier Daeninckx
Cannibale
Paris: Editions Verdier, 1998

96p
ISBN : 978-2-86432-297-9

 

 

 

For a period of over fifty years, many thousands of people were conscripted to be exhibited as caricatures of themselves in the various world fairs, mostly in Europe and North America. They came from Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Arctic. One of the first was the ethnic village at the Paris World Fair in 1878; and these so-called ‘human zoos’ were staged frequently until at least the Second World War.

From contemporary documents we know something of the way these events were planned and managed, and the reactions of visitors. But very little testimony of the people on show have made their way into print. A notable exception is the diary of Abraham Ulrikab, the father of one of two Inuit families who were taken to Hamburg in 1880 and who embarked on a tour of several European cities that winter during which they all died of smallpox because their handler forgot to vaccinate them.

This book concerns the Colonial Exhibition held in Paris in 1931. It offers a fictional reconstruction, narrated by Gocéné, one of the Kanaks shipped from Melanesia to people an ethnic village. While Daeninckx gives Gocéné every opportunity to dwell on their appalling treatment by the organisers, he chooses to avoid portraying him as a hapless victim of circumstance. Most of the novella takes the form of a thrilling adventure, which ensues when he and his friend Badimoin hear that some of their compatriots have been selected to be taken on a bus tour of city. Distressed at their unannounced departure – especially because Badimoin’s cousin Minoé is among them – the two friends decide to escape from the Exhibition and try to catch up with them.

Their unfamiliarity with Paris – they come across a Metro station but are hesitant to descend into the unknown, for example – makes Gocéné’s narrative resemble those satires that render Europe strange in the tradition of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. But the pace picks up as the two men hear that the sight-seeing tour was a ruse and that Minoé and the others were actually on their way to Germany (in a deal struck between the Exhibition organisers and a circus in Frankfurt).

They make their way to the Gare de l’Est where – after a bizarre encounter with a Salvation Army band – they arrive just too late to intercept the train. By this time the police are in hot pursuit and in the nick of time they are saved by Fofana, a Senegalese cleaner, who conceals them. When they ask why he helps them, Fafana explains how he always sides with the noirs when they are chased by the police and recalls how the white officers sent many of his comrades to their deaths in the trenches during the War. Out of immediate danger, they emerge from their hiding place and after learning that there is not another service to Frankfurt for several days, they return, disheartened, to the Exhibition.

The episode will end tragically, but not before the two friends are astonished to see a protestor gatecrash the compound and denounce the cruel charade of the exotic performance. Echoing the words of a famous tract printed at the time and signed by André Breton and others, she appeals to the visitors, ‘Don’t Visit the Colonial Exhibition’.

If Deaninckx is keen to emphasise the various ways in which both the Kanaks and Parisians resisted and challenged the Exhibition, he also situates the episode in a longer history. For the novella begins with Gocéné as an old man in the 1980s, back home in New Caledonia, in the midst of the armed struggle to win independence from French colonial rule. He tells the story to two rebels at a roadblock who want to know why he is travelling in a car with a white man. His companion, it turns out, played a decisive role in the events in Paris with which the novella culminates. And now, in his retirement, has succeeded in renewing his acquaintance with Gocéné, and has travelled to the Pacific to meet him.

In a later edition of the novella (which includes a sequel, Le detour d’Ataï) the author notes that just a few months after it was first published, the Kanak footballer Christian Karembeu was in the French team that lifted the World Cup at the Stade de France. His great grandfather was Willy Karembeu, who makes a cameo appearance in the book as he was one of those taken to Germany from the Exhibition in 1931.

‘Some of the Names Have Been Changed’

People walking in park (only legs visible)

In the text, some of the names have been changed to protect identities (Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport)

Most of the names in the book have been changed (Roger Green, Destination Nowhere).

Minor Characters and Travel Writing

We’re all familiar with this disclaimer – or something similar – that appears at the front or back of certain works of non-fiction.

On the one hand, it is a way of reminding us that this indeed is a work of non-fiction. It would sound ludicrous in a novel, at least a highly imaginative one. ‘Harry Potter (not his real name)…’ It is saying: the people who appear in this book are not made up, they really have an independent existence. People who know them – friends, enemies – may well be reading this book.

On the other hand, by admitting that their names have been changed, the writer (or publisher) is already alluding to a process of fictionalization. And one which, we must assume, does not stop at names. In order to protect the privacy of an individual, it is likely one must adjust their place of residence or their job title, remove distinctive features of speech or appearance, and so on. A whole textual witness protection programme would seem to be required.

The practice of changing names is common in investigative journalism, where whistle-blowers need to be protected, or in certain kinds of confessional writing. In travel accounts, we come across it less often. For here, the first-person protagonist cuts a rather lonely figure. The minor characters who appear in the narrative are often very minor indeed, their purposes crudely instrumental. Even when the narrator explicitly engages them in conversation, the sense that they have life histories or powers of observation that would match the writer’s own is conspicuously lacking. The idea that other people might travel often seems particularly threatening.

One kind of travel narrative in which other people feature more strongly is the one in which the first-person protagonist remains stationary and focuses his or her attention on the comings and goings of everyone else. A genre that might be called travellee writing. Here, at last, perhaps, the minor characters may have a greater claim on our interest.

In this post I want to explore the the different ways transit-ing passengers, customers, guests – and their backstories – are brought to life on the basis of a very brief (and sometimes indirect) acquaintance, in three books of this type:

  • A Week at the Airport (2009) by Alain de Botton. A short book about a week he spent as writer in residence at Heathrow.
  • Destination Nowhere (2004) by Roger Green. A diary recording multiple visits to South Mimms motorway service station north of London over a year and a half.
  • L’Hôtel (1984) by Sophie Calle. Another diary, this one full of a housekeeper’s observations of rooms in a Venice hotel.

The first two of these (as I have indicated) employ such disclaimers. Sophie Calle’s book does not, but her text does redact the surnames of the hotel guests, which is a related practice.

I’m going to take one example from each book to indicate some of the ways in which minor characters are presented: the evidence on which their personality or history is – or is not – extrapolated; and the extent to which this involves some imaginative embellishment.

But, drawing on Alex Woloch’s richly suggestive study, The One Vs. the Many, I also want to insist that minor characters can’t really be understood on their own; their relationship with the protagonist is important.1 The protagonist needs minor characters in order to be, well, a convincing protagonist. How well they meet this need is an open question.

Alain De Botton

De Botton gives the people he meets quite detailed backstories. Sometimes these mini-biographies are explicitly hypothetical (where the intention seems to be simply to evoke a ‘type’ rather than accurately identify an individual). Occasionally the stories are more developed and idiosyncratic, suggesting that they derive from an actual conversation with the person in question. But it’s often hard to tell the difference.

Let’s take this passage.

A full 70 per cent of the airport’s departing passengers were off on trips for pleasure. It was easy to spot them at this time of year, in their shorts and hats. David was a thirty-eight-year old shipping broker, and his wife, Louise, a thirty-five-year-old full-time mother and ex-television producer. They lived in Barnes with their two children, Ben, aged three, and Millie, aged five. I found them towards the back of a check-in line for a four-hour flight to Athens. Their final destination was a villa with a pool at the Katafigi Bay resort, a fifty-minute drive away from the Greek capital in a Europcar Category C vehicle.

The detail here is so excessive, and though this family and their holiday are entirely plausible, it is difficult to imagine an interview that would yield so much information, unless it took place in a police station. It seems likely that if de Botton did meet someone matching the description of David and Louise, at least some of the ‘facts’ here have been supplied by the author. He continues:

It would be difficult to overestimate how much time David had spent time thinking about his holiday since he had first booked it, the previous January. He had checked the weather reports online every day. He had placed the link to the Dimitra Residence in his Favourites folder and regularly navigated to it, bringing up images of the limestone master bathroom and of the house at dusk, lit up against the rocky Mediterranean slopes. He had pictured himself playing with the children in the palm-lined garden and eating grilled fish and olives with Louise on the terrace.2

We have long since left behind anything that might have come out of a conversation and de Botton has entered the realm of the fictional with a third-person omniscient narrator who renders David’s thoughts and feelings in the language of an Anglo-Swiss philosopher (rather than reporting it in direct or free indirect speech that might have conveyed the more colloquial idiom Dave himself might have used).

Roger Green

If one can reconstruct a multitude of different stories from A Week at the Airport (from the businessmen who occupy the executive lounges to those who clean up after them) (and this is the one of the book’s great merits), they remain rather indistinguishable at the level of discourse. Their accents, idioms and idiolects disappear in the uniform narrative voice that is used to paraphrase them.

De Botton’s antithesis is Roger Green. While there are some silent encounters, by and large Destination Nowhere is a cacophony of different voices: sentences he overhears, dialogues in which he participates, and longer sections where he transcribes (and presumably abridges) the confessions of a few customers and staff who agree to be formally interviewed.

Here’s an extract:

‘He’s got the fucking key. Why can’t he open up?’

‘It’s what I’ve been telling you.’

‘He can’t do it.’

‘His company, his money.’

I arrive at the end of a mobile phone conversation.

The man in an olive-green shirt with a matching dark tie, and carefully groomed jet black hair, speaks directly at the man sitting across the table to him and down his mobile simultaneously. The second man in a dark off-the-rail Burton’s discount suit is quiet.

The ‘mouthy’ one reminds me of a younger Dave Bassett when he was manager at Wimbledon. You know, always up for it, talks bollocks, and is oblivious to those around him.

Lots of arm waving and ‘fuckings’ as they leave.

Sometimes I feel as if I am on the set of The Truman Show with Jim Carey [sic]. Is this an artificial world I am in?3

No names have been changed here, although one of the anonymous characters has been lent the name of a former football manager in an attempt to convey his manner. The phone transcript, the arrangement of the two men and their clothes, lightly suggest a possible backstory (or rather several possible backstories), but the scene more forcefully invites the reader to imagine what it feels like for the narrator-protagonist to observe and listen to them, well before the enigmatic closing paragraph. The scare-quotes around ‘mouthy’ suggest he is aware that a more sophisticated term might be more appropriate but cannot call it to mind. But then he throws caution to the winds in the strikingly vernacular gloss on his Bassett comparison that follows.

The passage well captures, I think, the slightly smug tone of the book’s narrator. But I think the documentary impulse gives us enough detail, gives the characters enough space, to make us wonder if Green isn’t being unduly dismissive here, drawing our sympathy to two men, particularly the silent companion.

Sophie Calle

Sophie Calle also adopts the diary format, but her entries are much more measured and meticulous than Green’s. First and foremost they describe rooms, almost as if they are unoccupied, like the opening directions for a scene in a playscript. But in this example the narrator’s presence is evident from the start.

Monday 2 March, 10.30am. I go in to 24, the pink room. The twin beds are unmade. A strange feeling of deja-vu. Images are jumbled. Days and guests blend into one another. Had I not already seen to these people? The first things I notice are the books on the table: The Colour Orange by Alain Gerber and a French-Italian dictionary. In the wardrobe: the ordinary clothes of a banal couple, camera equipment in a shoulder bag, an empty suitcase. The drawer is stuffed full of handkerchieves, insulin medication, Gauloises Caporal.

‘I enter’ and then – without using the first person – her subjectivity inflects most of the suceeding sentences (a sense of deja-vu, the way the days merge into each other) and we follow her gaze around the room (the books on the table, the clothes in the wardrobe, the contents of the drawer). A precision (make of cigarettes, the title of the book, the type of medicine) indicates a particular level of attention, and only the words ordinaires and banal betray any sense of judgement; they stand out from what seems to be a dispassionate inventory.

And then:

I empty the handbag on the floor: sachets of sugar, tampax, pink lipstick, postal orders in the name of Paulette B., old tickets for a Xenakis concert and a diary.

Calle, we might have guessed by now, is no ordinary housekeeper, and indeed appears to spend very little time actually cleaning the rooms, preferring, in fact, to search them. And of course the diary is too much to resist. So in her own diary Calle transcribes extracts from another:

On the first page I read: ‘In the event of my decease, everything I own is at the sole disposition of M. Francois G.’ and the signature of Paulette B., childish, touching. Under the heading ‘Notes’, this figure: 23, 485.68, the address of a retirement home in Versailles, a sentence: ‘A chamois of between a year and 18 months is called an éterlon,’ and a quotation from Malraux, which I decipher with difficulty. I think it says: ‘It was the first white civilization but it was also the glittering lagoon of a Maori world […] For us there is difficulty in associating the Iliad, or even the Odyssey, with these courts in which naked princes wearing ostrich-feather headdresses bowed their lances before Phedra-like grandes dames exhibiting their breasts above chastely billowing flounces of fine linen.’ A. Malraux, NRF, 1954, page 93.4

And the text continues a good while beyond this. Fragments from which one might begin to construct a character, but there is too much that is inscrutable. Calle makes no attempt to extrapolate Paulette B from these fragments; nor do they seem to be chosen in order to prompt readers to draw their own conclusions. In a sense, the actual contents of the diary – or indeed of the handbag – are irrelevant. The main point is Calle’s shocking willingness to pry: to exceed the bounds of what might be thought to be acceptable conduct on the part of both a housekeeper and a travel writer.

The Limits of Fabrication

The thing is, though. By the time she enters room 24 we’re more than half way through the book and have grown accustomed to her modus operandi. The way she opens drawers and luggage, and arranges belongings on the bed or floor in order to photograph them. The way she registers subtle differences from one day to the next, prompting the kinds of speculations one might expect from a private detective.

That she reports her investigations in such detail seems to be governed by the need to convince her readers that she actually did act so improperly, for her project is to expose and unsettle our preconceptions about the public and private. But the detail nevertheless exceeds this purpose.

The hotel guests, like Paulette B, remain elusive figures, but they occupy a disproportionate space in Calle’s discours than any histoire we might try to reconstruct from their fragments. Indeed, as you read on, Paulette B begins to nag like an unsolved crossword clue – as if, once her mystery has been cracked, she could be called on to appear in an alternative narrative in which she is the protagonist. (And Calle runs like hell once Paulette discovers she’s been reading her diary).

I think this is true – to a greater or lesser degree – of minor characters more generally. In other words, minor characters often seem to serve a merely instrumental role (providing local colour, acting as a mouthpiece for some contextual history, assisting or obstructing the traveller’s progress), ‘flat’ in order that the protagonist can be ‘round’. But at the same time, there is always a possibility that they are given too much space, that we get carried away by David and Louise or intrigued by the man in the green shirt – partly because we might feel that the text has been a little unfair to them. At which point the authority of the protagonist begins to falter.

In an interview Colin Thubron was asked about the role of fabrication in travel writing. In his reply he makes what is – I think – a fairly commonplace distinction.

On the one hand, he insists that a certain kind of fabrication is inevitable, even necessary in travel writing. He talks of himself of having ‘jumbled people’. Part of this is due to the imperfections of memory, but of course even if accurately remembered, a writer must choose what to leave in and leave out, to describe and interpret events in a particular way that betrays one’s ‘sensibility’ or ‘personality’. He also suggests that a deliberate falsification can be ‘useful in some ways. In the China book,’ he says, ‘I wasn’t sure if some people or myself were not being watched, so you displace them in the narrative to somewhere else.’

On the other hand, pressed by the interviewer, who asks about rather less acceptable forms of fabrication – specifically (and rather economically) ‘the temptation to make things up, or fudge quotes’ – the point at which, we might say, the novelistic techniques of characterisation have gone too far. Thubron admits the temptation but has never succumbed because he doesn’t think he could carry it off. ‘If someone were to say I’ve got to make up somebody I met, I wouldn’t know where to be begin – it would stand out like the most obvious fake.’

He continues:

I’ve got one or two friends who write about cultures that they really know – the States, for instance. And one friend – quite a well-known travel writer, I won’t mention his name – says it’s just a change of gear. He writes the facts, and then he goes up a gear and starts imagining from there on, and claims it’s fact. But for me, fiction is like getting into a different car. My imagination is working in a completely different way.5

We might note Thubron’s reluctance to make a moral judgement here. Making things up and fudging quotes are not wrong, just not the way he personally likes to work. But they are not quite equivalent alternatives, matters of taste. He feels compelled to introduce this minor character – whom he declines to name (which of course only makes us more curious) – who precisely does make things up and fudge quotes and claims it’s fact. In order to give his own way of doing things more integrity, he conjures up this reckless, speeding driver who breaks the limit with impunity, while casting himself as a more law-abiding motorist who – when he allows himself the thrill of speed – does so in a more appropriate vehicle, presumably in a safer place (like a race track).

A contrast which is highly moralistic. And yet, like any story that requires a villain, it is hard to stop that villain becoming lovable. After all, fast cars are frighteningly popular.

Notes

Based on a paper first presented at the Travel and Truth conference in Oxford, 16-18 September 2011.

  1. Alex Woloch, The One Vs The Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
  2. Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary (London: Profile, 2009), pp. 37-38.
  3. Roger Green, Destination Nowhere: A South Mimms Motorway Service Station Diary (London: Athena, 2004), pp. 117-18.
  4. Sophie Calle, L’Hôtel (Paris: Actes Sud, 1998), pp. 92-4. My translation, except for the quotation from Malraux, for which I used Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Metamorphosis of the Gods, London, Secker, 1960, p. 41.
  5. Colin Thubron interviewed by Alec Ash, The Browser 22 July 2011.

The Other Empire Exhibition, 1938

Image from Workers’ Exhibition programme, printed in the New Leader, 2 Aug 1938

Glasgow has a distinguished tradition of creating alternative forums of dissent whenever the civic authorities announce their latest orgy of self-congratulation. Especially perhaps when it concerns the city’s relationship to the wider world.

When Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2014, Louise Welsh and Jude Barber convened The Empire Cafe in the Briggait as a space for readings, discussions, performances, exhibitions and refreshments that interrogated Scotland’s relationship to Atlantic slavery. This being one of the vectors of Empire the term ‘Commonwealth’ often obscures.

And amid the frenzy of cultural gentrification planned by the District Council when Glasgow was named European City of Culture 1990, a group of activists under the banner Workers City drew attention to cultures and histories the programme chose to overlook. Regarding the ‘Merchant City’ brand, one article in the Glasgow Keelie pronounced it

nothing short of disgraceful. Surely the Labour Councillors are aware that these ‘merchants’ made their colossal fortunes on the backs of thousands of slaves forced to work on tobacco, cotton and sugar plantations? The names of Glassford, Finlay and Colquhoun appear in most archives held in American Museums and Universities devoted to the history of slavery in the western hemisphere. How can the labour movement even associate itself with such people, let alone glorify them, in the way the District Labour Council does?1

Bellahouston for the Day

And before all that was 1938. That year Glasgow hosted the Empire Exhibition in Bellahouston Park, opened by the King in May, a few weeks after Hitler marched into Austria. It attracted over 12 million visitors over the next six months, despite the wet summer. The site included a number of temporary pavilions (showcasing Industry, Engineering and the produce of ‘the various Dominions and Colonies’), a ‘Highland village’, and two structures intended to be permanent: the Palace of Art (which still stands) and the 300-feet-high Tait Tower (which was dismantled the following year).

There were cafes and restaurants, and a young Canadian Billy Butlin was awarded the contract to run an amusement park. There was a football tournament, film screenings and a wide range of musical performances from leading orchestras, choirs and dance bands, with featured artists including Fritz Kreisler, Gracie Fields and Paul Robeson, as well as celebrity appearances by the Aga Khan and the visiting Australian cricket team.2

Black & white photo of 1938 Empire Exhibition with Tait Tower in centre.
1938 Empire Exhibition: View over the South Bandstand in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, centre left the Garden Club, ICI Pavilion and others and Tait Tower overhead

Reporting on the Royal Visit the Glasgow Herald remarked

Time was when the Socialist town councillor was apt to be cynical over demonstrations of loyalty at royal visits, but that attitude has completely gone with the change in political fortune that has invested the party with more public responsibility.

And it looked forward to ‘the Socialist section of the Corporation’ gladly joining in the ‘demonstrative welcome of the King and Queen.’ However, it did admit that there was likely to be resistance from ‘the small I.L.P. Group.’3

Dissenting Voices

The Independent Labour Party had withdrawn its affiliation from the Labour Party in 1932, and its influence had much declined. But it remained a potent force in Glasgow, where the party still had more MPs than Labour (including James Maxton) and could still boast over a dozen councillors, with representation strong in certain areas, notably Shettleston and Bridgeton.4 If its power to influence Council policy was weak, the party’s ability to organise meetings and demonstrations remained undiminished.

During the 1930s Black radical intellectuals based in Britain such as C L R James, George Padmore and Jomo Kenyatta pushed the ILP to challenge working-class racism and engage extensively with imperial issues; it was also the only party on the left to openly criticise Stalin.5

Dominant themes in its newspaper the New Leader during 1938 were the Spanish Civil War; the collapse of the Popular Front in France; the inactivity of the League of Nations in the face of the invasions of Abyssinia, China and Spain; and workers’ demonstrations and strikes in the West Indies, especially Jamaica. The holding of the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow provided a good excuse to intensify its anti-imperialist polemic, which flavoured the May Day demonstrations that year, supported by an eight-page Empire Special supplement.6 The paper also planned a series of articles entitled ‘Behind the Empire Exhibition’, of which, however, only one appeared, ‘Police Fire on Jamaica Strikers’.7

The Empire Exhibition Racket

Even before the exhibition opened, Councillor W R Gault, who contributed regular reports on the activity of the ILP in Glasgow, was decrying the ‘Empire Exhibition racket’, in particular the ‘vandalism of the Exhibition authorities which threatens to destroy for all time the amenities of Bellahouston Park’.8

A month later his outrage had gathered steam: ‘The state of mind some of our Labour Councillors have reached in their desire to exalt Imperialism, Nationalism, Militarism, and Royalty is almost unbelievable. Not for many years has everything that Toryism symbolises had such feverish propaganda’.9

In August the New Leader pointed out that attendants in the Amusement Park were compelled to work a 68-hour week and charged the same price for meals as the visitors. Letters to the press on the subject were not published and the Council claimed they had no jurisdiction.10

But the ILP’s main objection to the Exhibition was that it peddled ‘illusions about justice and democracy in the British Empire’ in order ‘to encourage national unity and patriotism in Britain’.11

These are the words of Arthur Ballard, one of the Exhibition’s most vocal critics. A carpenter from Croydon, he was remembered by his close friend C L R James as ‘a very tall, handsome, striking looking man who was working as a proletarian in industry, but who was destined to be an intellectual.’12

Ballard went on to elaborate at greater length:

If you want to see the Empire as it really is you won’t visit the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow. The organisers have spared nothing to put on a good show and the Exhibition itself is a monument to their work. Walking amidst the wonderful buildings, which are a rainbow of colour, surrounded by gardens and cascades of water, one thinks that the Empire is just a paradise on earth.

We are told that one of the objects of the Exhibition is ’to emphasise to the world the peaceful aspirations of the British Commonwealth.’ The average visitor, amidst this setting, may be carried away by this propaganda unless we are able to do something to present the real situation within the Empire.

Even in the ‘Peace Pavillion’ we get nothing but glorification of the League of Nations. Amongst the ‘pioneers of peace’ we find Tsars and Popes, we learn that slavery has been ‘abolished’ in China and that Italy has abolished ‘slavery’ in Abyssinia in 1936. Possibly the organisers anticipated some visitors with a Socialist tinge, so we get the slogan ‘Peoples of the World Unite’ with a quotation of Burns thrown in!

The ‘brightest jewel in the British Crown’ – India – is conspicuous by its absence, while the TUC pavilion is devoted entirely to Trade Union organisation in Britain! While it does not attempt to put over Imperialist propaganda, it is regrettable that the TUC does not say anything about the deplorable conditions within the Empire itself.

In the West African Pavillion we find furniture which is suited to grace the apartment of any Park Lane parasite; but naturally there is no mention of the horrible conditions in Africa itself. This is general of the whole of the Exhibition. All the resources of Capitalism have been used to glorify an Empire under whose flag conditions are equal to those within the Fascist countries.

The Revolutionary Socialists in Glasgow will have a difficult job in their attempt to present the opposite picture. How can this be done?13

An Anti-Empire Exhibition

Ballard had a plan. They would run an ‘Anti-Empire Exhibition’. His article continued:

The ILP in collaboration with various colonial workers’ organisations and individuals are preparing to conduct an intensive anti-Imperialist campaign in Glasgow during the month of August, when most people will be visiting the Exhibition

We propose, with the limited means at our disposal, to organise an anti-Imperialist annexe which will present the other side.

While we cannot put on an elaborate show, we believe that we can, by means of our Exhibition, at least show to the workers the intolerable conditions within the Empire and the necessity of their support for the anti-Imperialist struggle.

We appeal to all readers of our paper to assist us in this effort. We want any material and particularly photographs that usefully illustrate the conditions of the colonial workers.14

The exhibition was held in Kingston Hall on Paisley Road on the bus route many would have taken on their way to Bellahouston Park. Opened by the novelist Ethel Mannin, it ran from 13-27 August on weekday evenings (and from 2.30pm on Saturdays). Devised by Arthur Ballard himself, the event also bore the stamp of George Padmore, who spoke at the May Day rally at City Halls in Glasgow on 1 May.15

Photo of five people standing in front of exhibition display boards.
Opening of Workers’ Empire Exhibition. From left to right: J. Carmichael, unidentified person, Ethel Mannin, Arthur Ballard and Tom Murray. New Leader, 19 August 1938

The New Leader described the exhibition as follows:

The exhibits will be grouped around a central column, which will show that the real owners of the Empire are not the people of Britain or of the colonies, but the big financial and commercial interests centred in London.

Round the hall will be sections devoted to various parts of the Empire. Particularly striking are the sections dealing with the British West Indies, showing the intolerable conditions existing. The section devoted to the recent terror against the unemployed in Vancouver brings the Exhibition right up to date.

The Exhibition is in a blue and grey colour scheme – similar to Bellahouston. It has involved weeks of preparation, long research work, and the gathering of material from three continents. The Committee has had the help of a group of London artists, all working voluntarily.16

As far as I know there are no photographs of the exhibition itself, but we can get an idea of it from the brochure that was produced in conjunction with it.

The All-Red Route

(a) Cover of brochure featuring red silhouette of ocean liner (and showing price, 2d) (b) Sample page from brochure, headed 'Visit the Empire'
from Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route (Workers’ Empire Exhibition Committee, 1938)

The title of Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route 17 appears to be an ironic nod to the ‘All-Red Route’, a miniature railway built for the 1911 Crystal Palace exhibition, linking the pavilions and outdoor panoramas.18 But here the ‘red’ (the colour long used on maps designating the extent of the British Empire) acquires a revolutionary connotation in a publication that announces its desire to ‘help end the tyranny of British Imperialism’.19

It adopts the style of a holiday brochure, offering various (priced) tours that will allow ‘every British citizen to see OUR GLORIOUS EMPIRE’ – including ‘patriotic workers’ who are recommended to ‘make use of their holidays’ or the free time they have when unemployed. ‘We must take a proper pride in OUR POSSESSIONS, which cover nearly one-third of the earth’s surface.’20

But the sarcasm soon gives way to a more earnest catalogue of injustices. After introducing readers to the ‘luxury liner’ they will be travelling on – ‘quite a comfortable little tub for the 250 guineas round trip’ – they are reminded that it ‘is not so comfortable for the British seamen and stewards and the 45,000 lascars (Indian sailors) employed by the various famous shipping companies … which cover our route.’21

And so at each port of call on the way – West Africa, South Africa, Kenya, India, Ceylon, Australia, Hong Kong, China, the Caribbean and Ireland. The celebratory rhetoric of the Empire Exhibition is replaced by a more damning assessment. Here is the official guide on the West African Pavilion:

The Gold Coast is the world’s largest producer of cocoa … In the second section [of the hall] the agricultural riches of the colony are displayed. Cocoa, one prized by the Aztec kings and now, in its many forms, a good and drink for all the world, is given pride of place and is shown in every stage of its preparation, from the ripened pod to luxury chocolate.22

And here is the ILP brochure:

Cocoa is one of the main products of this part of the world. The great cocoa and chocolate firms form a ring which has a stranglehold on the small farmers who grow the cocoa. Cocoa prices have been forced down to a point where they a ruinous to the growers. (But you haven’t noticed that the price of your tin of cocoa has dropped, have you?)

The same ring also owns the trading and transport industries – so the farmer has had to buy from, and sell to, the same people. Any attempt to break the ring is countered with all the great resources of these capitalists.

Still, the growers are fighting hard, even to the length of going on strike and refusing to grow cocoa….23

The ILP counter-exhibition and brochure was not the only dissident voice in 1938. I understand that the anarchist Guy Aldred published a pamphlet entitled Boycott Bellahouston! What Empire Means to India and British West Indies, although I have not yet seen a copy. The title in this case echoing that of a flyer signed by André Breton and other French surrealists, ‘Ne visitez pas l’Exposition Coloniale’, protesting the Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931, an earlier imperial extravaganza that also prompted the creation of a counter-exhibition.24

A New Museum?

The counter-exhibition seems to have been funded largely through donations and the sale of programmes and pamphlets. In September, Gault’s column in the New Leader referred to the ILP’s struggle to secure a grant towards running the exhibition. In the end the council let them off half the rent of the hall.25

How much impact the ‘other Exhibition’ of 1938 had is hard to gauge. Half-way through its run, the New Leader pronounced it ‘a great success. The hall was packed and representative people from all sections of the Working-Class Movement were present’. It also claimed that ‘over five hundred programmes and two hundred pamphlets were sold at the door during the afternoon and evening, as well as a record sale of general anti-Imperialist literature’, which may be an exaggeration; certainly the claim that it ‘has received large scale notice in all the Scottish papers’ was.26

It is even harder to get a sense of what those involved learnt from it and how much the event smouldered in the collective memory of Glasgow’s radical traditions. But the provocative display in Kingston Hall did leave us the brochure, which can be taken up again today and be given a new life.

In the last few years, there have been increasing calls, led by the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER), for the creation of a museum of slavery or empire in Scotland. Last year Glasgow Life announced that it ‘will appoint a curator who will develop a strategy for the interpretation of slavery and empire in Glasgow Museums’ as a first step. And the calls were echoed by MSPs of all parties in the Scottish Parliament in June this year.

Already a Scottish Empire Museum has appeared online, describing itself as a ‘digital space’ that aims to promote ‘a better understanding … of the history of empire, colonialism, slavery and migration so we learn can learn from the past to understand the present and agitate for change in the world we want to live in in the future.’  If a physical museum does come to pass in Glasgow – the strongest contender for its location at the time of writing seems to be the Egyptian Halls on Union Street – perhaps the local authority will contribute more than a miserly rent rebate. And, as well as ‘telling the truth’ about colonial slavery and imperial rule, let’s hope it will pay homage to the long history of dissent at home that has been struggling to tell this story for decades.

Perhaps imaginative interventions like the ‘All Red Route’ can be reignited and allowed to throw a spark across the years and be r recruited to effectively teach us about Empire today. What would an early 21st-century version of the brochure – and by extension the exhibition – look like?

Notes

This is a work in progress, part of a larger research project on critical responses to the 1938 Empire Exhibition, currently stalled by the closure of libraries and archives due to the COVID-19 crisis.

  1.  ‘A Bygone Radical History of the TUC’ Glasgow Keelie (September 1991).
  2. For an overview see Bob Crampsey, The Empire Exhibition of 1938: The Last Durbar (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1988).
  3. Glasgow Herald, 3 May 1938.
  4. Gidon Cohen, ‘The Independent Labour Party 1932-1939’, PhD thesis, University of York (2000), pp. 58-67.
  5. Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (London: Verso, 2019), pp. 371-72.
  6. New Leader, 29 April 1938.
  7. New Leader, 6 May 1938.
  8. William Gault, ‘Glasgow Labour Party Play the Tory Game’, New Leader, 22 April 1938.
  9. W R Gault, ‘Red Glasgow’s Empire Exhibition’, New Leader, 6 May 1938.
  10. W L Taylor, ‘Shocking Conditions at Empire Exhibition’, New Leader, 9 August 1938. While nothing was done to improve their conditions, the drivers and conductors of the autotrucks which ferried people around the Exhibition grounds went on strike and succeeded in getting a pay rise. See Crampsey, Empire Exhibition, p. 108.
  11. Arthur Ballard, ‘White Justice and Black’, New Leader, 20 May 1938.
  12. Interview with C L R James by Al Richardson, Clarence Chrysostom and Anna Grimshaw, November 1986.
  13. Arthur Ballard, ‘We Are Going to Run An Anti-Empire Exhibition’, New Leader, 3 June 1938.
  14. Ibid.
  15. The best account of this anti-empire exhibition is in Sarah Britton, ‘”Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route!”: Anti-Imperialism and Exhibitions in Interwar Britain’, History Workshop Journal 69 (Spring 2010), pp. 68-89.
  16. The “Other” Exhibition’, New Leader, 12 August 1938.
  17. Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route (Np: Workers’ Empire Exhibition Committee, 1938).
  18. John M MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), pp. 106-7.
  19. Come and See the Empire, p 16.
  20. Ibid., p2.
  21. Ibid., p3
  22. Empire Exhibition: Official Guide (Glasgow: 1938), pp. 154-55.
  23. Come and See the Empire, p. 4.
  24. André Breton et al, ‘Ne visitez pas l’Exposition Coloniale’. For further background (especially on the ‘counter-exhibition, ‘La Vérité sur les Colonies’) see Jody Blake, ‘The Truth about the Colonies, 1931: Art Indigene in Service of the Revolution’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol 25 No 1 (2002), pp. 37-58.
  25. New Leader, 23 September 1938.
  26. ‘Success of Anti-Imperialist Exhibition’, New Leader, 19 August 1938.

 

Janette Ayachi: Hand Over Mouth Music

Ayachi: Hand Over Mouth Music (cover)Janette Ayachi
Hand Over Mouth Music
Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Hand Over Mouth Music is an intriguing name for a collection. The title poem suggests that it signifies silence – the music that is inhibited because a hand is over one’s mouth; a silence, or at least a song without words. But it also nods to puirt à beul for this too is music without words, sung sounds, and associated with women’s work, and therefore perhaps a metaphor for domestic labour performed without fuss, if not entirely willingly, and thus signifying dissent too. ‘This is their blues, a work song without words,’ she writes, dwelling on the activities of the women at her father’s second wedding.

Music runs through other poems too, but in other keys or registers. In ‘Dean Street Gardens’, ‘a man practices chanter-song as he walks his dog / tapping the sheet music with his wedding ring’. And ‘Aria’, which forms part of a sequence about pregnancy and childbirth, begins: ‘Since my surrender to the cadenza / of the spearmint midwives’. The motif continues in the next (‘Lyra’) with its opening lines, ‘The first night you curled in our bed / like a loose semiquaver’.

The collection shuttles between Algeria and Scotland. The former in a cluster of poems that seem to have been inspired by visits to the author’s father’s family – visits where the ‘flight back home’ is never far away (‘Youma and the Three Kings’). On either side are poems set explicitly in Glasgow and Edinburgh. I especially liked ‘Falling Asleep On Your Last Memory’ which provocatively takes the side of the usually demonised gulls and pigeons in Princes Street Gardens, finally addressing them directly: ‘Let your wings graze the cheeks of tourists with an undertaker’s caress’. If the prose fragment on ‘Merchant City’ is an indication of what we can expect from Ayachi’s forthcoming nonfiction memoir about travelling alone, then we are in for a treat.

There are some intriguing premises for poems here – ‘On Keeping a Wolf’, for one, and ‘Closed Doors’, about a furtive snog in a lift – ‘until / doors open like a dropped book / spilling its forbidden pages.’ More daring is ‘Lawrencium’, addressed to the chemical element; another explores the idea that days are like different birds, some of them with broken wings; and there are interesting renditions of geography (‘Adriatic Sea’, as if viewed in an atlas rather than in the flesh) and ‘Father’s Biography’ (the – overlapping – phases of his life counted mechanically in numbers of years).

The reader feels compelled to pause frequently over striking phrases, their meaning almost giving way to pure sound: ‘double cello echo’ (‘St Kilda’), ‘hovering with offerings’ (‘Youma and the Three Kings’). Who could fail to be captivated by the Mallarméan magic that produced ‘a scriptorium of futuristic mannequins’, followed a few lines later by ‘a planetarium of medusae’? But sometimes these are not enough to lift those poems whose organising principle is obscure – poems that neither tell a story, nor capture a moment, nor pursue a line of thought and instead seem only to offer a stream of consciousness of merely private significance. The opening poem, ‘I Laughed So Much I Lost My Voice’, is a case in point, which is unfortunate, as one expects the first in a collection to be the strongest.

But stay with it. There is plenty to delight you here, even if the finest poem in my opinion is the last one, ‘Sea-Rattle’. Here the sea approaches the tenement where the poet is and engulfs it, nature taking its revenge perhaps, recalling the Edinburgh gulls. Every word chosen and weighted carefully – and it is printed double-spaced as if to force you to read it more slowly. Although broken into sentences, the lines rise in intensity as if in a single wave until ‘lungs inflate and learn to speak. I hold my breath, / listen to their oscillations and swim towards the sky.’

Jemma Neville: Constitution Street

Neville: Constitution Street (cover)Jemma Neville
Constitution Street: Finding Hope in an Age of Anxiety
[Edinburgh]: 404 Ink, 2019

 

 

 

 

There are some other good ‘street’ books that engage with the residents by someone who knows the area well.  Flatbush Odyssey and Isolarion come to mind, emerging from peregrinations in Brooklyn and Oxford respectively.1 But this is different. It is not structured as a single journey but organised thematically.  Taking her cue from the name of the street in Leith, the author, who has a legal background, devotes each chapter to a human right (the right to life, to housing, to freedom of religious belief, and so on) illuminated through conversations with her neighbours, some of whom are close friends.

Among those she talks to are a casino manager, a puppet maker, a window cleaner, a pub landlady, a police officer, a doula, a founder member of Idlewild, a Buddhist nun who was once a girlfriend of George Best, a male blogger called Silver Fox in a Frock, and a postman who reveals how much he and his colleagues read the messages on postcards. Neville talks to them about their everyday experiences living on Constitution Street rather than probing them for back stories, perhaps keen not to invade their privacy. And the cumulative effect is a glorious hymn to what Paul Gilroy has called conviviality.2 But it’s also a celebration of the joys of handwritten communications.

Constitution Street is not all about the present. History peeps through in the shape of the Darien adventure, the compensation paid to Leith slave-holders after Emancipation in the West Indies, the 1560 Siege of Leith, the Leithers killed in the rail crash of 1915, and the lightning plebiscite of 1920 that led to the town’s merger with Edinburgh despite the large vote against it. But the best stories are of the more recent past: a public clock unwittingly unplugged by a cleaner, how an alligator came to be sold from the boot of a car, the discovery of an ancient burial ground during tramline excavations.

Neville is as at ease describing the breathtaking evening view from a 16th floor flat as she is capturing the cast of characters at the Port O’ Leith bar. I liked the Perecquian inventory that precedes the main body of the text, listing things seen on a walk. The writing is often lifted with poetic touches. She recalls an umbrella abandoned in a puddle in Barcelona, ‘its spokes bent upward like jabbing fingers demanding of the sky Votarem!’ (p237). She transcribes an interview, ‘carefully picking the exact letters from my keyboard like the harvesting of these delicate, precise leaves from a twig of thyme scenting the air’ (p100). Leith docks are compared to ‘an abandoned fairground’ (p163). She has a fine ear for the contrast between daytime and nocturnal sounds and Constitution Street ends with a lovely pitch-perfect early-morning epilogue.

Her cultural frames of reference include (somewhat predictably) Trainspotting and The Proclaimers, but W H Auden, Edward Hopper, Leonard Bernstein, Nan Shepherd, Robert Burns, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce also make an appearance. But if she occasionally nods to other places round the world – Catalonia, Iceland, Rojava – we never lose sight of Leith for long. A hand-drawn, illustrated map (by Morven Jones) helps to orient the reader. And the chapters are broken up by black and white photographs (by Rob Smith, who deserves a more prominent credit), picking out intriguing details of the built environment, often small decorative features that go unnoticed by passers-by – tiling, brickwork sculpted marble – complementing the text perfectly.

The thematic structure (emphasised by the chapter titles, ‘The Right to Life’, ‘The Right to Education’, and so on) runs the risk of feeling imposed on the material. But apart from the overlong introductory sections and the sometimes flat endings to the chapters, it works well and reads naturally. Neither sentimental nor cynical, Constitution Street salutes its readers with honesty and warmth.

  1. Allen Abel, Flatbush Odyssey: A Journey Through the Heart of Brooklyn (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995); James Atlee, Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  2. Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (London: Routledge 2004).

 

Ten Scottish Worthies and Frederick Douglass

Recent research has suggested that Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was the most photographed American of the nineteenth century.  The former slave who became a leading intellectual and civil rights campaigner of his age, was captured on camera more times than George Custer, Walt Whitman, even Abraham Lincoln.

There are certainly photographs of Douglass that predate his tours of Scotland as a fiery young orator in 1846, promoting his stunning new autobiography and denouncing the hateful system of slavery in the United States.  But the only surviving images of him from this overseas trip are engravings. This might surprise us.

The Scottish press regularly carried advertisements for studios offering to take dageurreotype portraits of those who could afford them. And, since 1843, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson had produced hundreds of calotypes depicting people, buildings and landscapes in Edinburgh and Fife.

If there is currently no evidence that they photographed Douglass, they did take portraits of many eminent Scots of the day. They included several whom Douglass met – or at least sparred with on the page or lecture platform – as he engaged with the country’s literature, science, history and politics.

Here are ten of them.

Isabella Burns Begg. Douglass had long been an admirer of Robert Burns. When he made the obligatory pilgrimage to his birthplace near Ayr, he met the poet’s youngest sister. ‘Though approaching 80,’ he wrote, ‘she does not look to be more than sixty. She enjoys good health, is a spirited looking woman, and bids fair to live yet many days.’ She and her daughters ‘did everything to make our call agreeable.’
Robert Candlish. When this Free Church minister expressed misgivings over the American churches’ relaxed attitude to slavery, one of its principal donors in South Carolina was furious. Candlish soon toed the line and worked hard with Cunningham to win over the sceptics with the fudging declarations at the General Assembly in 1846 that so disappointed Douglass and the abolitionists.
Thomas Chalmers. Revered as the man who led the exodus from the established church to form the Free Church of Scotland in the ‘Disruption’ of 1843, Chalmers cultivated the support of evangelical Presbyterians in the United States. The tortuous distinctions between ‘sin’ and ‘sinner’ he used to justify the relationship were roundly mocked by Douglass (‘Oh! The artful Dodger’), who quoted him sarcastically, showing how his words lent succour to the pro-slavery cause.
Robert Chambers.  The (anonymous) author of the best-selling Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and, with his brother William, one of the most influential publishers and editors of the period. The Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal reviewed Douglass’ Narrative in January 1846 and Douglass probably met them that summer. He may have wanted to explore the possibility of a Scottish edition of his book, although in the event this did not come to pass.
George Combe.The leading British exponent of phrenology invited Douglass to breakfast in June 1846, reporting that ‘he has an excellent brain. His benevolence and veneration are both large and his conscientiousness is full, while his intellect is vigorous and practical.’  For his part, Douglass later recalled with ‘much satisfaction the morning spent with this singularly clear-headed man,’ whose most celebrated work, The Constitution of Man, ‘had relieved my path of many shadows.’
William Cunningham.Leader of the Free Church fund-raising delegation to the United States.  With Chalmers in failing health it was left to him and Candlish to manage dissenting voices in the church who were uncomfortable with the donations from slaveholders. Of Cunningham’s manoeuvres, Douglass remarked, ‘I tell you why he does it. He’s got the bawbees.’ But even Douglass recognised his ability. ‘He was the only man in the Assembly who put forward anything like an argument.’
George Gilfillan. In January 1846 the Secession minister welcomed Douglass to Dundee and had him speak at his church in School Wynd, despite the objections of some of those on the managing committee, who subsequently resigned. The author of three volumes of Literary Portraits, who counted Carlyle and de Quincey among his friends, Gilfillan later proclaimed Douglass ‘the Burns of the African race’.
George Lewis. A member of the Free Church delegation that solicited funds in the United States, he wrote memorably about the trip in Impressions of America (1845), but was the target of Douglass’ withering wit, especially in Dundee where he was minister of St David’s Church. ‘Mr Douglass’s mimicry of the Rev. Mr Lewis was in very bad taste,’ remarked the Perthshire Advertiser. His audience, though, were thrilled by the impersonation.
John MacNaughtan. The Free Church minister in Paisley described Douglass as an ‘ignorant runaway slave who had picked up a few sentences.’ Douglass promptly replied: ‘The man whose pockets are lined with the gold with which I ought to have been educated, stands up charging me with ignorance and poverty. I should like to see the inside of his breast; there cannot be a heart of flesh there. Shame on him.’
Hugh Miller. Editor of the Witness, a widely-read twice-weekly newspaper sympathetic to the Free Church. Miller devoted many column inches to satirising Douglass and his fellow campaigners who ‘set, by their extremeness, a fool’s cap on a good cause.’ Their irreligious brand of abolitionism, he claimed, was ‘not indigenous to Britain’ but ‘exported wholesale across the Atlantic.’
Photo Credits

Scottish-American Graffiti

Woman in 19th-century dress brandishing a spade, with Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags in the background.
from a re-enactment by DRBs Scottish Women’s History Group.

One of the more colourful stories to emerge from Frederick Douglass’s time in Edinburgh in 1846 is the one about him carving a provocative slogan on the hillside above the city with two women abolitionists.  The full details of the episode are probably lost to history and may require imaginative reconstruction. What do the archives tell us?

At City Hall in Glasgow on Tuesday 21 April, the English abolitionist George Thompson whipped up the audience with the slogan that had come to dominate the campaign to persuade the Free Church of Scotland to break its ties with pro-slavery Presbyterians in the United States, ties symbolised by the donations it had accepted after a fund-raising mission had visited there two years before.

Yes, send back the money! Let that be the cry – and teach it to your children, and that when they see one of Scotland’s ministers in the street, they  may in infantile accents cry – ‘Send back the money! Women of Scotland! let the words become so familiar to you, that you shall in mistake say to those who sit at your table – ‘Will you please to send back the money?’. (Laughter and loud cheers.) Let every corner cover its walls with capitals, a foot square in size, ‘Send back the money.’ (Cheers.) Inscribe upon the pedestal of John Knox’s statue – ‘Send back the money.’ (Cheers.) Write upon the tombs of those who died (Cheers.) From the summit of Arthur’s Seat, let a banner perpetually float, with the watchword, – ‘Send  back the money.’ (Cheers.) Carve deep into the Salisbury Crags the words ‘ Send back the money.’ Inscribe on the Calton Hill, in characters that may be seen from St. George’s Hall, ‘Send back the money.’ (Immense cheering.).1

The slogan had already made its appearance in towns where Douglass had addressed meetings. ‘We understand that, in Glasgow and Paisley, the old plan of advertising blacking had been resorted to, and on every wall and public place is chalked up the significant phrase, “Send back the money”,’ noted the Aberdeen Herald.2  Douglass himself enjoyed telling audiences of the consternation such graffiti had provoked in Arbroath where

there was painted in blood red capitals, SEND BACK THE MONEY. A woman was sent to wash it, but the letters still remained visible, SEND BACK THE MONEY. (Great applause.) A mason was afterwards got to chisel it out, but there still was left in indelible characters, SEND BACK THE MONEY. (Cheers.)3

The John Knox statue that George Thompson mentions was undoubtedly the one towering over Glasgow Necropolis (hence the reference to the tombs). But the other sites Thompson recommends to the would-be graffiti artist – Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags, Calton Hill – are all in Edinburgh.  Why? Because he and his fellow activists, including Douglass, were about to move to the capital the following week, and hold a series of public meetings through May in advance of the General Assembly of the Free Church which would open at the end of the month. As he expected, his speech was reported in both the Edinburgh Evening Post (on 2 May) and the Caledonian Mercury (on 5 May).

The idea may have tickled Douglass, who shared the platform with Thompson in Glasgow. Perhaps they joked about the possibility as they warmed themselves by the fire at the York Temperance Hotel on Nicolson Street once they arrived in Edinburgh.  Surely there would be no shortage of willing co-conspirators, inspired after coming across Thompson’s suggestion in the Edinburgh papers.  At any rate, a Rev Dr Campbell told a meeting in London later that month:

In one of the Scotch papers this man (Douglass), this mighty man, is represented as going to the foot of Arthur’s Seat, with a spade, and two fair Quakeresses as his companions, where he began to carve out with the spade, on the green grass, very beautifully ‘Send back the money.’ (Laughter, and loud cheers.) The paper goes on to say, that he was apprised in the midst of the philanthropic work that it was a felony, and that he would be at the tender mercies of a Mr. Baillie Gray. I do not think that a man who has braved the fury of the slave-holder, would be likely to tremble at the name of Bailie Gray. (Cheers).4

Historians have usually identified the ‘two fair Quakeresses’ as Jane Smeal and her step-daughter Eliza Wigham, two women who feature in Women on the Platform (pdf), showcasing research by the DRB Scottish Women’s History Group.  Office holders in the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society, they lived at 5 South Gray Street, ten minutes’ walk from the Crags, and, in those days, in sight of them.  As active abolitionists they were already known to Douglass, who probably visited their home. After all, in Glasgow he had enjoyed the hospitality of Jane’s brother William, of the Glasgow Emancipation Society.

But to my knowledge, no one so far has discovered which of the ‘Scotch papers’ Campbell relied on for his story.  In fact it appears to have been the Witness, the twice-weekly newspaper sympathetic to the Free Church, edited in Edinburgh by Hugh Miller.

SEND BACK THE MONEY. – It was magniloquently urged by Mr Geoge Thompson upon his admiring auditors a few weeks ago, that they ought to carve upon the front of Salisbury Crags, in conspicuous characters, ‘Send back the money,’ and we have no doubt there were amongst his audience individuals foolish enough to attempt the arduous task, but as little can we doubt that the callous and obdurate rock would mock their impotency. Mr Frederick Douglas, however, forgetting that the hills and dales of Scotland are not quite such commons as the praries of his own native wilds, hit last week upon a simpler expedient for engraving upon the face of our picturesque scenery these notable words, and immediately hied, spade in hand, accompanied by two ladies belonging to the Society of Friends, to a spot in the vicinity of the Queen’s Drive, which is at present being laid out around the base of Arthur Seat, and began to carve this vulgar cry in graceful characters upon the green sward.  Information having reached the persons entrusted with the charge of the grounds, we understand that Mr Douglas was immediately taken to task, and given to understand that he was liable to be made answerable for the offence to Bailie Gray, ‘one of the Magistrates of Edinburgh,’ upon which the philanthropic man of colour expressed deep contrition for the crime, and here the matter at present rests.5

The Witness regularly attacked Douglass and his associates, and Miller no doubt seized on this event as an unmissable opportunity to poke fun yet again. Miller is best known today for his contributions to the science of geology, suggesting that he particularly enjoyed portraying the trio  as stupid enough to want to etch the ‘vulgar cry’ in the ‘obdurate rock’ itself before realising that turf might prove more malleable.

That their efforts were apparently halted by the authorities gives him the excuse to end his report with the ‘philanthropic man of colour’ humiliated and having to apologise for his ‘crime’.  That Douglass was assisted by ‘two ladies belonging to the Society of Friends’ would have further diminished him in Miller’s estimation given the editor’s previous mockery of the radical abolitionists for their support for women’s rights, confident his readers would have been amused when he invited them to imagine

armed regiments of equalized women charging in petticoat breeches some male anti-equal-right enemy, who had come to invade their country from without; and squadrons of female dragoons emancipated from matrimonial thrall and the side-saddle, trampling all horrid into dust, broken cohorts of imperative husbands and despotic lovers, who had assailed them in unnatural rebellion from within.6

But while we should be cautious of the way Miller shaped his account to suit his agenda, did he made it up? The detail of the location (‘in the vicinity of the Queen’s Drive’) and the naming of ‘Bailie Gray’ (who was certainly on the City Council at this time) lends an air of verisimilitude, even if the incident was open to an interpretation more favourable to Douglass, such as the heroic (though still masculinist) narrative offered by Campbell in London.

Following his third visit to Europe in his late sixties, Douglass recalled his role in the ‘Send Back the Money’ campaign forty years earlier. According to a report of a speech published in October 1887 he said:

The debate was sharp and long – the excitement was great. Nearly everybody in Scotland outside the Free Church, were on the side of freedom, and were for sending back the money. This sentiment was written on the pavements and walls and sung in the streets by minstrels. The very air was full of send back the money.  Forgetting that I was in a monarchy and not in this republic I got my self into trouble by cutting, send back the money in the back of a seat. I was soon thereafter arrested for trespassing on the Queen’s forests, and only got off by a written apology.7

This appears to be the only occasion Douglass publicly referred to the incident, though it is still possible that, with the passage of years, he may have been reciting an abolitionist legend rather than remembering an actual event.

The reference to the encounter with the grounds-keepers is curious, however. It echoes another confrontation recounted a few months before by James Buffum, the Massachusetts abolitionist who had accompanied Douglass across the Atlantic the previous year. Buffum, speaking in Dundee, told his audience:

He had sailed down the Clyde. On landing, a beautiful hill was before him; he wished to climb this hill to obtain a prospect around him, but was stopped in his attempt by Lord Blantyre’s gamekeeper. If the Black population in America were not free, the hills of america were so.8

Douglass more than once expressed the pleasure he took in dwelling amid ‘the free hills of old Scotland’, partly to accentuate the prejudice and intimidation he had endured  in the United States – and would again when he returned. But sometimes those hills proved to be less free than the rhetoric demanded.


Last updated 10 June 2020

Notes

  1. Free Church Alliance with Manstealers (Glasgow: George Gallie, 1846), 34-5.
  2. Aberdeen Herald, 16 May 1846.
  3. Frederick Douglass, Paisley, 25 April 1846 as reported in the Renfrewshire Advertiser, 2 May 1846, reprinted in The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Volume 1: 1841–46, edited by John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 242-3.
  4. American Slavery: Report of a Public Meeting Held at Finsbury Chapel, Moorfields, to Receive Frederick Douglass, the American Slave, on Friday May 22, 1846, with a Full Report of His Speech (London: C. B. Christian, 1846), 27.
  5. Witness, 20 May 1846. The report was reprinted elsewhere, including the Fife Herald (21 May 1846), which corrected the spelling of Douglass’s name.
  6. Witness, 25 December 1844.
  7. Christian Recorder, 13 October 1887. The reporter, presumably unaware of Edinburgh’s topography, rendered Douglass’ ‘Arthur’s Seat’ as ‘a seat’, as the closest approximation that made sense.
  8. Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 30 January 1846.

Rasping the Silence

For a long time I would hardly have dared agree that my father and I had anything in common.

And yet one of the unlikely features of the eclectic bookshelves at home was a large collection of Aldous Huxley. Several rows of Chatto and Windus hardbacks, filled out with one or two older editions and a few paperbacks of some later works including Doors of Perception and Island. I must have started with Brave New World but when I ventured further afield I must have been a little surprised as I was introduced to anarchism, Buddhism and the possibilities of psychoactive drugs, none of which have I ever associated with my dad.

He must have first read them in his early twenties. Over the years, I’ve asked him several times what attracted him to Huxley. After all, no other author is so generously represented in his library. And he does seem an odd choice for someone with a strong patriarchal disciplinarian streak. But he could never answer. He’d just fob me off with a shrug and change the subject.

Recently he has re-read them. Now in his late eighties, he is still within Huxley’s spell. He still can’t say why, although he did say that while he enjoyed the books while he read them, he soon forgot almost everything about them, as if they are a special place, safely adrift from the rest of his life, where alternative passions can thrive a while without guilt.

But then he stops. There is something. And before long he is talking about the title essay in Music at Night. Huxley is listening to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on record. ‘It would have been a ’78’ then, of course. And when the piece finishes, he has this lovely way of describing it.’ And my dad quotes from memory, word perfect:

With a stupid insect-like insistence, a steel point rasps and rasps the silence.

‘All those ‘s’s,’ he says. ‘It’s almost onomatopoeic, isn’t it?’ And he repeats the line, cherishing every syllable, momentarily lost in deep appreciation.

It then struck me that at the core of my dad’s love of classical music – he’s an obsessive collector and cataloguer of recordings, many of them taken from the radio – is not, perhaps, the music itself: the composition or the performance. What absorbs him most are the – largely domestic – rituals of listening. Maybe this is why he finds so precious those moments of transition, that take him away or (in this case) back to the world he has absented himself from.

Whatever the reason, we now share a favourite sentence.

The Bloody Gold

When Frederick Douglass toured Britain and Ireland in 1845-47, one issue that dominated his speeches was the decision of the Free Church of Scotland to accept donations from pro-slavery churches in the United States. The ‘Send Back the Money’ campaign was already under way when he arrived in Liverpool and embarked on a four-month tour of Ireland, but his rousing public appearances in Belfast, Glasgow, Paisley, Dundee, Edinburgh and many smaller towns clearly captured the popular imagination.1

Dr Thomas Chalmers and other leading figures in the Free Church cleverly defused the concerns expressed by some of its members, but the very fact that the matter was debated by them at all angered at least one of the key fund-raisers, Dr Thomas Smyth, an Ulster-born Presbyterian minister in Charleston, South Carolina, who pressed Chalmers to publish a robust defence of the church’s position.

Chalmers may have disappointed Smyth by refusing to justify slavery, but he infuriated others more by refusing to break fellowship with slaveholding Christians in North America. Douglass mocked the distinction he made between ‘between the character of a system, and the character of the persons whom circumstances have implicated therewith.’2 In his turn, Smyth – who crossed the Atlantic to join in the debates – incautiously repeated a malicious rumour about Douglass’ sexual conduct, which he was forced to retract.3 Amid such polarisation it is perhaps not surprising that the money was not returned.

Some historians have concluded from this that the campaign was misjudged, even a failure. But Douglass was interested in more than the folly of a few clergymen. He sailed from Boston as an emissary of the American Anti-Slavery Society at a time when most abolitionists in Britain were more sympathetic to its rival, the breakaway American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass’ decision to target the Free Church was a shrewd one. The complacent attitude of the US churches towards slavery was one which inflamed both wings of the abolitionist movement, and while some of his colleagues lost their way in sectarian squabbling, Douglass was happy to share a platform with anyone dedicated to the greater cause.4

We know that on many occasions, Douglass drew large crowds: for example, on the 1st May 1846 he addressed an audience of 2000 people paying sixpence a head at Edinburgh’s Music Hall.5 Newspaper reports tell us how his words elicited cheers, applause and laughter (and sometimes hissing). But it is harder to tell how his campaign speeches in Scotland transformed his listeners – emotionally, intellectually. The speeches denouncing the Free Church are distinctive in their repeated use of the same slogan – the rhythmic ‘send back the money’ that was often chanted by his audience, providing – as such formulae often do – a sense of shared emotion that temporarily binds disparate people together. Douglass and his fellow speakers rarely analyse what these feelings might be – beyond congratulating themselves on the ferment of anti-slavery sentiment they have induced.6

We may glimpse perhaps something of a personal response to Douglass’ speeches in the letters of two women, who had attended his lectures condemning the Free Church, addressed to two men at the heart of the controversy.

One was written to Thomas Chalmers by a woman who had recently seen Douglass in Dundee; she was not known to Chalmers and chose not to identify herself.7 The other was sent to Thomas Smyth in Charleston by Mary Cunningham in Belfast: she and Smyth had been close friends as teenagers (before he emigrated with his family as a young man fifteen years earlier) and whom he had met more recently in 1844 on his first return to his home town.8

Both writers are keenly aware of the argument that the American churches have been soft on slavery, accepting slaveholders into their congregations without question, and that because of their actions their addressees have a case to answer. The women regard them as men of great influence and call on them to take notice of those critics who invoked scriptural authority to denounce the property in human beings.

The woman from Dundee imagines that the ‘strangers’ (Douglass and his white abolitionist colleague James Buffum) were sent by God not only to show the error of the ways of Chalmers and the Free Church but to persuade her to examine her own conduct.

To me also were there [sic] words reproofs. I was shewing a little of the slaveholder my own conscience tell me so. I was also beginning to murmur for more liberty I thought that I could not well get alone. But it was the Grand Intruder that was ever following me with his suggestions. God in Mercy sent these men to shew me my transgressions, by telling me what my sisters are suffering pent up in chains, bloodhounds their guardians Iron Collars their necklaces, Whips instead of the strong arm of Man to lean on or ward off ill. And are we content to leave it so…

Her own circumstances – represented here by ‘necklaces’ and the supportive ‘strong arm of man’ – hardly resemble those of slaves whose freedom is constrained by iron collars and bloodhounds. And yet in her confined domesticity she too has begun ‘to murmur for more liberty I thought that I could not well get alone.’ If Douglass’ speeches made her feel a little ashamed of the limited horizons of her feminism (in which she now glimpses ‘a little of the slaveholder’ in herself), they also provide an opportunity to overcome them, if only in the act of writing and posting a letter to Chalmers.

But this soul-searching co-exists with humour. She tells Chalmers how the abolitionists quoted his words before dramatically inviting the audience to imagine a rather improper scene:

When the Collar and whip were produced it was remarked would the application of these to you or your daughters make you change your views on slavery. This caused laughter… Oh it is too serious a matter to make sport of – Fre. Douglass did make me laugh when he preached the boys in Dundee send back the money –

We know that, on occasion, Douglass (like other anti-slavery orators) displayed instruments of slave restraint and torture, to vividly bring home to his audiences the horrors of slavery, sometimes claiming that they were the very ones used in the events he is recalling.9 Here, we are told, he invited his audience (in a perhaps more unusual performative flourish) to imagine them being applied to Chalmers and his daughters – a rather risqué move (especially if it was Douglass who was holding them) that partly accounts for the (presumably) somewhat embarrassed laughter at the meeting. But if the letter-writer dutifully steps back a moment to condemn the frivolity, she can’t help mischievously admitting to Chalmers that she herself was amused, undermining somewhat the avowedly pious intent of her epistle.10

Mary Cunningham tells Smyth of ‘the eloquent, and affecting lectures’ she has attended, lectures which she says opened her eyes to ‘the heart sickening horrors of this dreadful system’. She is most vexed by the revelation that so-called Christians participate in this system, in flagrant disregard of the Great Commandment and Golden Rule. She riffs on the ironies of ‘the land of liberty’ holding millions in bondage, which was one of Douglass’ favourite rhetorical tactics.

You reside in the land, called falsely, (it is now represented,) ‘The Land of Liberty,’ the place of freedom, the picture now before us, is dark indeed, all the false coloring, has been wiped away, and nothing left for the eye, to gaze upon, but the gloomy, ghastly, features of this hideous monster…

‘Hideous monster’ is a term Douglass used to describe slavery in his famous ‘What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?’ speech in 1852 and he may have used it earlier, though I have found no evidence for it. But she certainly did not take from Douglass the image which she chooses to close the letter:

Oh! the thought of ‘liberty,’ the birds, that wing their joyous flight, above the clouds of Heaven, afford, ample proof, of the wise, beneficent, and glorious intention of our Heavenly Father, contrasted with the drooping, and imprisoned tenant, of a gilded cage, though that cage, be living in the palace of an Emperor.

The caged bird is an ancient symbol of imprisonment. The ‘gilded cage’ more specifically (as a space of confinement so comfortable or luxurious that it may appear otherwise) is at least as old as Chaucer (it appears in the ‘The Manciple’s Tale’) and was a pervasive Victorian metaphor for the subjugation of women.11 There is nothing ‘gilded’ about the slave plantation whose brutal violence is repeatedly described by Douglass, who identified not with a caged bird but other, more roughly-handled creatures such as the ‘bridled horse and muzzled ox,’ as he did in one of his Belfast speeches.12 The cage Mary Cunningham had in mind was more likely to have been her own.

Both letters draw on the arguments and capture the gestures that Douglass evidently made in his speeches in Belfast and Dundee (we have newspaper reports of them) repeating them to the people he accused but were not there to hear them. But they also reinterpret them, transposing their largely secular message into a more Christian key (that was more agreeable to themselves as well as their addressees), and hint that the ‘Send Back the Money’ campaign aroused more private feelings of shame and guilt as well as emboldening them to assert themselves, taking up their pens to call influential men to account.

It is not, perhaps, surprising that the repeated injunction to ‘return the bloody gold’13 in the context of a fight against slavery should prompt these women to think of necklaces and other blandishments as the trappings of a gilded cage. If we multiply these letters by the thousands of individuals who were moved by Douglass’ speeches, who knows how many lives they touched, realigned and transformed?

Notes

  1. For a detailed account of the campaign see Iain Whyte, ‘Send Back the Money!’: The Free Church of Scotland and American Slavery (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2012).
  2. Frederick Douglass, Arbroath, 12 February 1846, reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 1: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Vol 1: 1841-46 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979) (hereafter FDP 1:1), 162-4. See also speeches in Paisley, 20 March 1846: FDP 1:1, 192-93; and Glasgow, 21 April 1846: FDP 1:1, 236-37.
  3. See Thomas Smyth, Autobiographical Notes, Letters and Reflections, edited by his granddaughter Louisa Cheves Stoney (Charleston: Walker, Evans and Cogswell, 1914), 362-78.
  4. This was the one of the main topics of discussion at the Annual Meeting of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, at which Thomas Clarkson made his last public appearance. His address, later published as A Letter to the Clergy of Various Denominations, and to the Slave-Holding Planters, in the Southern Parts of the United States of America (London: 1841), and James Gillespie Birney’s pamphlet, American Churches the Bulwarks of American Slavery (London: 1840), were to be influential texts in the movement during the following decade.
  5. Editorial note: FDP 1:1, 244.
  6. In letters from Dundee, Douglass wrote: ‘The agitation goes nobly on – all this region is in a ferment’ (to R D Webb, 16 February 1846) and ‘Old Scotland boils like a pot’ (to Francis Jackson, 29 January 1846), Clare Taylor, British and American Abolitionists: An Episode in Transatlantic Understanding(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1974), 251, 248.
  7. . Anon to Chalmers, 2 April 1846 in the Thomas Chalmers papers CHA.4.321, New College Library, Edinburgh.
  8. Mary Cunningham to Thomas Smyth, Glenwood, 14 January 1846, transcribed in Smyth, Autobiographical Notes, 365.
  9. A report of an abolitionist meeting in Dundee addressed by Douglass on 30 January 1846 refers to the exhibition of ‘instruments of torture’ including collar, handcuffs, anklets and lash, Dundee Courier, 3 February 1846. See also Douglass’ speech in Limerick, 10 November 1845, FDP 1:1, 85-6.
  10. I can find no reference to such an episode in Blassingame’s compendium of newspaper reports of Douglass’ speeches, in Dundee or anywhere else. In one speech in Dundee Douglass was reported as saying, ‘Do you think Dr Chalmers would ever have said this, if, like me, he had four sisters and one brother in bondage?’ (Dundee 30 January 1846: FDP 1:1, 155). Perhaps these hypothetical sisters were misremembered as a daughter, with the theatrical application of the whip a fanciful addition. In a letter to the Scottish Guardian (cited by the Dundee Courier, 21 April 1846), a correspondent advises ‘the semi-savage, Douglass to be somewhat more tender-hearted in the application of his three-toed thong to the back of Dr Chalmers and others’ which might suggest that the image of Douglass applying a whip to his Scottish opponents was a regular motif in the counter-attacks by supporters of the Free Church.
  11. The image appears frequently in the work of many Victorian poets and novelists, including Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, and Thomas Hardy. ‘I find that the caged bird makes a metaphor that truly deserves the adjective female’ -Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1977), 250. My first thought was that Cunningham was drawing on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Nightingale’, which also features an emperor, but this did not appear in English (in The Nightingale and other Tales, translated by Charles Boner, London: Joseph Cundall, 1846) until a few months after Cunningham’s letter – and the cage in the story is not ‘gilded’ (though often mis-remembered as such in plot summaries).
  12. Frederick Douglass, Belfast, 5 December 1845, FDP 1:1, 93.
  13. Frederick Douglass, Paisley, 20 March, 1846, FDP 1:1, 189.

The Problem with ‘Screen Time’

‘Ban under-threes from watching television, says study.’ This is how the Guardian reported the findings of a recent article – ‘Time for a View on Screen Time’ by Aric Sigman – that reviews evidence on the effects on physical and mental health of watching television and using computers.

Watching TV by Jay Parker.

Articles like this – that grab attention by tickling the guilt to which so many parents are susceptible – always annoy me. It often turns out that the scientific research arrives at much more qualified conclusions than the journalist allows. And in any case the possibility that there might be considerable disagreement on the issue in question – among scientists – is not always made clear.

Here, though, the summary appears to be broadly accurate, helped by the fact that the original paper ends with specific recommendations. Furthermore it quotes Dorothy Bishop, a professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford University, who argues that Sigman’s paper is not ‘an impartial expert review of evidence for effects on health and child development’ and points out that Sigman ‘does not appear to have any academic or clinical position, or to have done any original research on this topic.’ Most importantly of all: ‘His comments about impact of screen time on brain development and empathy seem speculative in my opinion, and the arguments that he makes could equally well be used to conclude that children should not read books.’

Some of these remarks are beside the point. The article doesn’t claim to be anything more than a summary of existing research, and the author’s ability to do this is surely not dependent on holding an academic or clinical position. But, as reported, the article does seem insufficiently aware of an obvious objection: we know that long periods of physical inactivity are probably not good for you, especially if it was not accompanied by social interaction. Surely it is this, rather than specifically ‘screen time’, that would help to account for increasing obesity and heart problems in children or their compromised intellectual and emotional development.

But what is also problematic (and this is my main concern here) is the assumption that ‘screen time’ is incompatible with physical activity and social interaction. It seems to me that ‘screen time’ covers a highly diverse range of activities – watching televisio; playing games; solving puzzles; following instructions; listening to music; conducting conversations via text, email, messaging or social media; reading and writing anything from status updates to full-length books; making video calls; editing and mixing sounds and images; and so on.

Furthermore, even the traditionally most passive of these – watching television on your own without the ability to change channels or adjust the volume – is often far from mindless consumption. When I walk in on my five-year-old watching a programme, the chances are that he’s commenting out loud on the action, anticipating dialogue, answering questions, expressing surprise or delight, laughing, belting out a song that is playing or – in the case of Tree Fu Tom – standing up, striking poses and trying out moves in imitation of someone on screen. And once I’ve joined him, he’ll ask me things, or draw my attention to something that is happening or about to happen. Sometimes we’ll laugh together in appreciation or pour scorn on something badly executed.

I was intrigued enough to read Sigman’s original paper. Could it really be so uninterested in the nuances and variety of so-called ‘screen time’? It would appear so. I even checked out two or three primary research papers that he cites, curious about the methods they used. Typically, data about ‘screen time’ seems to be collected by asking individuals (or their parents) to complete diaries or questionnaires indicating the number of hours they spend watching television or using computers each day. Thus:

The average time spent each day (weekdays and weekend days combined) in screen time (TV, video, computer, and video game usage) was assessed from parent-reported values. Time spent watching TV was defined as minutes spent watching TV, videotapes, or DVDs. Computer use was defined as minutes spent using a home computer or video game. Screen time was computed by summing minutes spent in TV viewing and computer use. (‘Associations between sedentary behavior and blood pressure in young children’, p726)

In at least one case this data was derived from devices attached to participants’ televisions and computers which would record when they were in use, together with a programme of incentives to ensure different levels of usage in the groups being compared. This is worth quoting at length, as it requires a degree of domestic surveillance that takes us into the realm of dystopian science fiction:

After completing a telephone screen, families attended an orientation, and, if interested, parents read and signed the informed consent and then completed a questionnaire that assessed the numbers of televisions, television video game units, VCR and DVD players, and computers in the home. Approximately 1 week later, a TV Allowance was attached to each television and computer monitor in the home by a research assistant […] who recorded the numbers of televisions and computers and their locations in the home. The TV Allowance is an automated device that controls and monitors the use of televisions or computer monitors, including television, video game systems, DVD players, VCRs, and computers. The appliance was plugged into the TV Allowance, the plug was locked in, and the device was plugged into the wall. To turn on the television or computer monitor, each family member used an individually selected 4-digit code. To protect against the participating child watching television or playing a computer game on other family members’ time, the participating child was not informed of the codes of other family members. If the child learned the codes of another family member, these codes were changed. The TV Allowance sums the minutes of use for each code to objectively determine use of that device.

Baseline television and computer use was measured during a 3-week period. Seventy families met eligibility criteria and were randomized into intervention and control groups [….] Families were recruited in cohorts, were stratified by child sex, and were randomized by the study statistician […] in blocks of 2 without replacement using a random number generator limited to 2 numbers. Group assignments were provided to the project coordinator [….]

Study staff [… ] set the weekly time budgets for television viewing, computer use, and associated behaviors. Budgets were reduced by 10% of their baseline amount per month for children in the intervention group until the budget was reduced by 50%. When the budget was reached, the television or computer monitor could not be turned on for the remainder of the week. Study staff could set different amounts of time for each child in a household, if desired, to reduce conflict if another child was not on the program. Parents and non-participating family members could use their code to watch television or to use computers without being on a budget.

Children in the intervention group earned $0.25 for each half hour under budget, up to $2.00 per week. Parents were instructed to praise the participating child for reducing television viewing and for engaging in alternative behaviors. Decreases were also reinforced by a star chart. At each home visit, a study staff member reviewed the star chart and praised the child for the number of stickers earned. When the child reached the 50% decrease at 6 months, the star charts were discontinued, and changes were supported through monthly newsletters and by parental praise for behavior change. The intervention group received ideas for alternatives to sedentary behavior, a tailored monthly newsletter with parenting tips to reduce sedentary behavior, and information about how to rearrange the home environment to reduce access to sedentary behavior. Children in the control group were provided free access to television and computers and received $2.00 per week for participating, independent of their behavior change. Control families received a newsletter to provide parenting tips, sample praise statements, and child-appropriate activities and recipes. (‘A randomized trial of the effects of reducing television viewing and computer use on body mass index in young children’, p240).

But as far as I could tell, no tests made any distinctions finer than that between one electronic device and another.

Why collect such bland information? It is as if one set up controlled clinical trials to establish whether eating sandwiches was bad for you, or swallowing pills, or going out at night. It is of course perfectly possible that, after quantifying this data, you find that doing more of one thing was probably doing you more harm than less, and to recommend that we cut down on one or other of them. But – even if we accepted the results of these tests – we might think, before making recommendations, to investigate whether it was certain types of sandwiches (with high levels of salt, sugar or saturated fat, for example) that was the main case of harm and if so it might be more effective to recommend reducing our consumption of these sandwiches rather than others. And of course the dangers of going out at night must depend a great deal on what you do: attend an evening class, cycle on busy roads, play bingo, babysit for a friend, deal drugs, or drink alcohol and smoke solidly for twelve hours.

So why don’t these finer distinctions come into play here? One reason must be that it is much harder to quantify ways of watching television or using computers, as opposed to simply calculating the time spent engaged in these activites. Having resolved to model one’s research on clinical trials, the appropriateness of this mathematical model is taken for granted, even though it just may not be possible to make the distinctions thought necessary.

But another reason must be the fairly widespread – but hardly ‘scientific’ – antipathy towards television and its successors, an antipathy that is directed at an easily identifiable target – a product or an industry – that feeds on a simplistic moral division that sets technology against apparently more wholesome forms of activity such as reading and social interaction, a rhetoric that dominates Sigman’s article. Researchers more wary of this ‘common sense’ might have devised methods that tested these assumptions more thoroughly, and Sigman might have challenged them to do so.

The problem here is that both reading, painting, writing, social interaction are not distinct from ‘screen time’ but overlap with it. Many people now prefer to read ebooks than bound books; a good deal of creative design is now accomplished on a laptop rather than with paper, pens and brushes. Social media are so-called because of the, er, social interaction they permit (and demand certain standards of etiquette), although what they herald is the possibllity of increasingly polyphonic conversations already implicit in email, sms and instant messaging services which were originally largely one-to-one.

Until we can find ways of identifying different ways of engaging with computers and televisions and mapping these against certain standards of physical and mental health, we are not likely to learn very much.