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

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 John Knox statue he 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).2

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.3

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.4

But while we should be cautious of the way Miller shaped his account to suit his agenda, it is unlikely 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) suggests he was sure of the facts, even if they were open to an interpretation more favourable to Douglass, such as the heroic (though still masculinist) narrative offered by Campbell in London.

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.5

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.

Notes

  1. Free Church Alliance with Manstealers (Glasgow: George Gallie, 1846), 34-5.
  2. 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.
  3. Witness, 20 May 1846. The report was reprinted elsewhere, including the Fife Herald (21 May 1846), which corrected the spelling of Douglass’s name.
  4. Witness, 25 December 1844.
  5. Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 30 Jan 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.

First Things

 

Có a dh’ éireas anns a’ mhadainn
‘s a chì ròs geal am bial an latha?

(Who rises in the morning
and sees a white rose in the mouth of the day?)

Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean)

Of all our lost times, early mornings are perhaps the most elusive, half-lived in the stupor of reflex. I wonder if we can win them back by trapping something of their singular configurations.

For a long time I went to bed late. That had to stop. I am much more alert in the mornings and – in theory at least – can make better use of my time then. Last night I was up past midnight, so I set my alarm for 6.30 instead of 5.30. Or so I thought, but the referee of habit must have over-ruled the linesman of decision, and I didn’t even realize the mistake until I had already got yanked my legs over the side and made it to the bathroom.

So I shuffled into a dressing gown, made my usual pot of coffee and climbed into the sleeping bag on the sofa, for, like yesterday, there was a tickling chill in the air. It was too dark to read in bed, but here, in the living room, I had a good lamp, and a handy table. Waiting for me, as yet unopened, was Ghost Works by Daphne Marlatt, and I settled down to enjoy the first few chapters.

I bought it last year, after being intrigued by the discussion of it by Justin Edwards and Rune Graulund in their Mobility at Large as an example of an experimental travel narrative. It tells its story almost in slow motion, dwelling on the small details of sensations and thoughts. In the first chapter, the sentences tend be short, but the links between paragraphs – laid out on the page so that each one begins directly below where the last one ends – give it a train-like flow, while in the second, the impressions follow as successions of long clauses, joined with ampersand after ampersand.

My thoughts began to drift. I kept having to go back a few lines and re-read, sometimes aloud, to keep my concentration aloft. Occasionally I looked up to see the outline of the building opposite – chimneys, dormer windows, TV aerials – take shape against the sky, at first a pale grey, and then – suddenly, it seemed, though half an hour had passed – arrogantly blue, embossed with neat strokes of cloud.

Also on the table was a world atlas. It was useful when I was reading the book I just finished – Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana – because many of the Indian placenames were unfamiliar to me. Now I found myself tracing Marlatt’s journey from Mérida to Progreso.

At around 7 o’clock and on cue the man with Tourette’s – a familiar figure round these parts, unmistakable with his briefcase and signature fedora – became audible, shouting insults and obscenities as he rounded the corner and made his way down the street below my window. ‘Arseholes!’ I heard, just before he merged into the now mezzo-forte rumble of traffic on the main road.

The next time I paused, I realized it had taken me two hours to read 22 pages. Car doors slammed, shutters released, footsteps hocketed on the pavement and on the floorboards above. Water started to gush and squeal in the pipes. He’d be getting up now, I thought. His mum would be making his breakfast and packing his lunch-bag, despairing, perhaps, at the length of time it takes him to get his socks on.

The phone rang. It was not a number I recognised and I didn’t answer it. The caller hung up halfway through the recorded voicemail message. Heaving myself back on the sofa, I knocked over the coffee, and cursed. I wiped up the mess with a discoloured scrunched ball of paper towels still lying nearby from an almost identical accident two days ago.

This time I took it through to the kitchen and disposed of it properly. And while the bath ran I returned to my nest and picked up a philosophy book I borrowed from the university library. It was The Persistence of Subjectivity, a collection of essays by Robert Pippin on post-Kantian philosophy. I began the chapter on ‘Gadamer’s Hegel’, picking up the argument here and there, but much of it sailed past me like a convoy of buses heading back to the depot.

He’d be heading out to the school bus – walking down the hill today, because his scooter was here, ready to assist his more strenuous voyage in tomorrow. Meanwhile the chatter and laughter of schoolgirls began to fill the street as they ambled past reminding me the water must be ready for my dip.

I closed my Pippin, rolled up the sleeping bag, and prepared to make my appearance on the balcony of the day ahead, already planning what I was going to write at the laptop on the table when I emerged from the steam.

Language Games

My son started school the other week and he’s bring home some unusual words and phrases, seasoning his familiar speech with brògandeargbuidheuainesuidh sìosmadainn mhaththa mi duilichgabh mo leisgeullceart ma-thà. What is going on?

He has, of course, begun his immersion in Gaelic Medium Education, in his case at the Glasgow Gaelic School. We were told that our children would pick up the language very quickly, even if they hadn’t been exposed to it before. The challenge was always going to be for the parents who hadn’t. And they were right, although I hadn’t reckoned on it becoming manifest so soon.

My parents are English, although they did holiday frequently in the Highlands and Islands. I’m told I was named for Sgùrr Alasdair, the highest peak on the Isle of Skye, and the first trip I made that I faintly remember was in a van that famously broke down in Beauly in the early hours of a Sunday morning on what was then a day and half’s drive from Lancashire to Assynt.

My father’s bookshelves amply testify to an interest in Scottish history and topography. He also tried to learn Gaelic, subscribing to the newspaper Sruth for a while, and even took his primitive portable tape recorder (one that looked like this) along when he was invited to spend the evening with Mr McLeod, who lived a few miles down the road from the cottage we used to rent near Achmelvich, delighted to capture a three-way conversation between him, his wife and – unexpectedly dropping in – the postman.

I was introduced to several languages at school – Latin (all but forgotten now), German (surviving at elementary phrase-book level) and French, which I was much more determined to master when I fell in love with Rimbaud and Lautréamont. I’ve continued to read French to the point at which I can get through a novel in less than twice the time it takes to read one in English, though my conversational skills are fairly limited. I can understand instructions and ask for what I want, but I’d be struggling to engage in interesting chat.

For a long time Gaelic didn’t interest me beyond a mild fascination with the way English versions of Gaelic placenames often appeared to be attempts to find English morphemes that vaguely approximated to the Gaelic pronunciation rather than translations. Thus Àisir Mòr became Oldshoremore. But when I started working at the Scottish Music Information Centre in the early 1990s, I found myself having to read out Gaelic titles or names over the phone, and, to avoid embarrasment, began to teach myself the language following a course devised by An Comunn Gàidhealach.

The course was one of my dad’s, consisting of a boxed set of ten LPs with a booklet. According to the date on the records, it was already ancient, but – if the even older language materials passed on to me were any guide – it seemed to differ significantly from the reprints of text books from the turn of the last century: dry, systematic, technical, lacking illustrations, and introducing a vocabulary suggestive of a rural frontier life (man, woman, fire, smoke, wood, saw, cave, hill, cairn, calf, eagle, rat, berry) that has remained locked in time.

In the 1960s, though, change was in the air, and from the first lesson, we are invited into a defiantly suburban home, with a three-piece suite, a standard lamp, a cake stand, a foot-stool, and – most dramatically of all – a telebhisean.

My enthusiasm did not last. Four lessons in as many months and I gave in. Then nearly twenty years later, with a child at an age where decisions had to be made, his mother suggested we put in a placement request for the Gaelic School. I wasn’t keen at first – remembering my eternal disappointment when my own parents shovelled me off to a posh grammar in a neighbouring town rather than the local one where most of my friends went. But I slowly came round to the idea. I attended some evening classes, and though I missed too many of them, I eventually began teaching myself the language again in earnest.

During the summer I found myself advancing on two fronts. On the one hand, there was Gaelic in Twelve Weeks and its accompanying CDs, which I transferred to my smartphone, and I have studiously applied myself to the exercises, refusing to move on to the next lesson until I felt I had truly mastered the previous. On the other, there was a DVD set of the first series of Speaking Our Language, the TV programme that first aired in the late 1990s and the books that went with it, which I watch with Jack several evenings a week.

With the book, I listen to the CDs and follow in the text. Then I try to write down what is being said, without referring to the book. And then I try and translate from Gaelic from the English in the text. In between times, when I’m out and about, I listen to the recordings as many times as it takes for the individual words and phrases to take shape and be recognizable, while repeating them to myself to improve my pronunciation. Only when I feel I can do all this without thinking too much and not making many mistakes do I allow myself to move on to the next lesson. After about four months, I’m about ready to tackle lesson four. So much for twelve weeks.

The television programmes are a gentler way in. We’re three-quarters through the first series on our second run. Programmes are organised around topics (greetings, goodbyes, telling the time, travelling, instructions and orders, and so on) and you learn a series of useful phrases (often in dialogue form) without being required to systematically learn all the forms of a pronoun or preposition or tackle the rules governing lenition. Jack loves watching these programmes, especially the soap opera Aig an Taigh embedded within them. With the help of the books, I jot down some of the key points to help me remember them, and some of them stick, though by the second half of the series, a lot of them just vanish as soon as the credits roll. I think we’ll have to watch some of them yet again, before we get Series Two.

When I think of how long it took me to absorb enough French for me to make a decent stab at writing something like this post in that language – and even now, I’d have to consult a dictionary at least once a sentence – the task ahead is daunting. But each time I feel ready for something new – conjugating verbs, the names of the seasons, another round of prepositional pronouns – a shiver of achievement makes it all worthwhile. One day I might even talk to a stranger.

The Hall is Full of Noises

Over at Disquiet, since the beginning of the year, Marc Weidenbaum has been issuing a challenge each week. Every Thursday night he invites anyone who feels so inclined to record a short composition in accordance with a set of simple instructions, which they must upload to SoundCloud by the following Monday.

The Disquiet Junto is a remarkable project which has so far prompted over 1200 contributions from over 200 individuals, involving the manipulation of live performance, field recordings, computer-generated sounds and pre-existing sound-clips. The results are often astonishing, beautiful, strange or amusing, and always unpredictable, no doubt surprising the creators themselves as much as their listeners. It has given rise to an amazing community of sonic enthusiasts, enterprising, friendly and curious.

I’ve been inspired to throw together a few submissions of my own. And recently, the challenge entitled Sounds from Silence (issued on 26 July) got me thinking of another. Here was the brief:

This week’s project deals with the concept of silence — specifically recorded silence. We will take a segment of audio that is intended to signify silence, and then from it make an original piece of music.

Step 1: Select a segment of recorded sound that would generally be perceived as silent. Examples include: the gap between tracks on a tape cassette or vinyl record, the noise your laptop’s headphone jack emits when nothing is playing, the quietest moment in an MP3, a radio signal when nothing is supposed to be heard.

Step 2: Amplify or otherwise magnify that supposed absence of sound until it makes a perceivable noise.

Step 3: Compose, perform, and record a new original piece of music that takes this sound as its sole source material. You can manipulate the original audio as you see fit, but you can’t add other pre-existing audio elements to it.

As it happened, on the Saturday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was also celebrating John Cage’s 100th birthday with a concert at City Halls, Glasgow Had I been more prepared I might have entertained the idea of recording the performance with the intention of reworking some of the ‘silences’ together along the lines suggested.

But I arrived straight from a party in honour of another birthday – that of my younger niece and nephew – and didn’t have time to go home and pick up any equipment. In any case, the custodians of the hall might not have appreciated the finer points of my plan had they caught me in flagrant delicto and I didn’t want to be escorted shamefully from the premises.

Still, it affected the way I listened to the concert, which presented a wide range of works including the Concerto for Prepared Piano (1951) (soloist: John Tilbury), ear for EAR (Antiphonies) (1983), Atlas Eclipticalis (1962), and the (somewhat notorious) Child of Tree (1975) in which conductor Ilan Volkov, alone on stage, plucked and prodded a selection of amplifed cacti with what looked like a cocktail stick.

Although they were composed at very different stages of his career, all the pieces struck me as written sparingly. They were dense in places, but never very loud or busy. The music – like a diaphonous fabric – allowed the ear, as it were, to breathe. It reminded me of the frustrations I felt as a teenage listener of Radio Three’s Music in Our Time in the mid 1970s that seemed to settle into an orthodoxy of delicate, precious, shimmering clusters of notes, harmonics and gilssandi that never really got going, never quite managed to set the body a-tingle. It was all so damned cerebral.

You can imagine, perhaps, my glorious sense of relief when I first heard the jerky cacophony of free improvisers Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Paul Lytton when they played to an audience of less than a dozen in a small room above the Art Shop in Blackburn, Lancashire. A door opened on other worlds and I thought I would never look back.

This time, there was no frustration. I became fascinated by the way the relatively low volume afforded no cover for the audience’s compelling need to make noises. In the absence of loud passages in which to bury coughs and sneezes or substantial changes of posture, these semi-voluntary spasms and twitches were forced into the open, requiring inventive – but still quite audible – modes of suppression, modulation and camouflage.

A woman behind me couldn’t resist the temptation to zip and unzip her boots – producing an intermittent rasp of metal and squeak of leather. I detected the occasional scratch of nail on fabric and flesh, an intriguing showcase of murmurs, sighs and snorts, air vibrating in nostrils, the inadvertent contact of feet with bags or clothes on the floor. I began to make out the ticking of a watch or two. Now and again, a door behind me winced apologetically. From somewhere high up came the distant squawks of Glasgow’s seagulls.

But the musicians themselves also became part of this army of incidentalists. There is an attractive arbitrariness in the performance of works that rely so much on non-standard sources of sound (the pouring of water, the tearing of paper, the interference of piano strings with metal and rubber) when musicians try hard – as they are trained to do – to make their un-scored movements (replacing drum-sticks on a table, turning pages of music, repositioning chairs) as quietly as possible.

Improvisation III (1980) required the performers to occupy seats in the auditorium and operate portable cassette players. One of them (I recognized him as Nick Fells) was just ahead of me, depressing the play, stop and eject buttons and removing and inserting tapes as unobtrusively as he could, but – my attention focused the way it was – these machine sounds preoccupied me more than the recordings projected by the speakers.

In another context, this kind of listening would have been wilfully perverse. But at a Cage concert it is almost obligatory. I came away rejuvenated but with no clear idea how I might tackle the Junto, and the deadline passed before I could think any more about it.

Then, a week later I found myself with half an hour to spare one evening and decided to try and recreate the ‘silences’ at home, using what materials I had to hand. I set up my digital recorder and stereo microphone and gently placed plastic salad servers on the sideboard, opened doors, moved chairs, tried different kinds of muffled coughs, played with zips, crossed my legs, walked carefully up and down the bare floorboards (but not in knee-length boots), tinkered with my old cassette deck and – last but not at all least – breathed in and out.

Editing the file, I created a dozen samples, and mixed them together crudely, looping some of them, bringing them all one by one into the melting pot and then out again. And here it is. The sonic residue from the concert – its smoke and ash, if you will – not preserved, exactly, but reinterpreted. A cover version of what will almost certainly be carefully excised from the recording of the performance when it is broadcast by the BBC later this year. Headphones essential.

 

Unwaving the Flag

I have never been greatly interested in the Olympics. It is partly because most of the sports I enjoy watching are either not represented (cricket, at least not since 1900) or peak elsewhere (football, cycling); and partly because of the ways in which the games have been increasingly suffocated by political corruption, commercial sponsorship and militarised security. So I made no special effort to watch the opening ceremony of London 2012 the other week.

But I didn’t miss it completely. On Twitter it was hard to avoid, as several dozen of those accounts I follow commented on the unfolding spectacle on their TV screens. Many of them I expected to be cynical of what was surely going to be a state-sponsored festival of Britishness: monocultural, jingoistic, Conservative. But this was not the case, and no one was more surprised than the tweeters themselves who (rather grudgingly) admitted that the performance delighted them.

That the ceremony found fans as different as Richard Williams in the Guardianand Tim Stanley in the Telegraph suggests that Danny Boyle managed to achieve what many progressive cultural critics have been dreaming of for years: that the Left reclaim Britishness from the Right. Even the notorious tweet by Aidan Burley MP (‘Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!’) might have been scripted by Boyle, given the crucial role it played in reinforcing this new consensus. Of course the Daily Mail disagreed – but even they were forced to tone down some of their fanatical remarks.

I’m still not sure, though. I’ve never felt particularly at home with the idea of Britishness. The soundtrack of my childhood was not television but the Third Programme, now Radio Three, BBC’s flagship classical music station. As I absorbed the standard repertoire (all those B’s – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Bartok, Britten…), it soon became obvious that the British contribution to that canon was modest, to say the least. And maybe that nurtured a cosmopolitan spirit that deepened as I got older.

Of course, there was always the Home Service – later renamed Radio Four – which remains tied to a certain notion (a very English notion much of the time) of Britishness, even while its borders are becoming more elastic. And when I began to buy books and records of my own, there was a pattern that suggests that I was caught in its gravitational pull. I was an avid reader of World War II classics such as Reach for the Sky and enjoyed fiction like Lord of the Rings and Watership Down. The first album I bought was Tubular Bells and Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeiishaped my adolescence even more than ‘Carry On’ films. (These titles are – like God Save the Queen – all choriambs. I wonder if there is something in that).

But by the time I was doing my ‘O’ Levels in 1975, I was clearly venturing further afield. I had begun working my way through Dante, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in my dad’s collection of black-spined Penguin Classics (by definition, not originally written in English). I pestered my local bookshop for Ginsberg and Kerouac, and was amazed to find some introductions to Buddhism, and hardback volume of Whitman on the shelves at home. From a lyrical passage in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn I followed a trail to the early twentieth-century modernisms, especially Dada, which – soon to be revived in the ethos and aesthetics of punk – framed what passed for my intellectual horizons in my last year at school.

This isn’t in itself an argument against the Opening Ceremony. It’s not even saying that embracing Britishness prevents you from appreciating ‘other cultures’. I found my own discomfort liberating: it opened doors, made me more curious to seek out things that teachers and television presenters ignored. But if I’d been more patriotic, would I never have discovered the pleasures of U-Roy or Francis Picabia as a teenager?

I felt Jenny Diski struck a chord when she confessed her lack of enthusiasm for ‘collective joy’. And I shared something of her scepticism towards the Ceremony’s alleged achievement. But despite the criticism of the nostalgic, backward-looking character of the pageant, I got the feeling that she still believed in the possibility of a radical Britishness that really would make a difference. If only it had been a bit more confrontational, visionary, utopian…

And for this she was rebuked by Norman Geras who thought she burdened the event with unrealistic expectations:

It is hard to imagine how an opening ceremony for the London Olympics could, just in itself, have transformed the politics of this country, so that the morning after, all the objectives that Jenny Diski favours would have been hugely assisted or brought forward. This wasn’t, mainly, a political event – a campaign, a set of reforms, a new party programme or movement.

And he detected

a subtext here according to which for people simply to enjoy themselves is somehow not enough if there’s no political payoff. Shall we watch ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ tonight? Ooh, I’m not sure – what would it do for the struggle? Hey, why are you singing a love song? There’s surely still stuff we need to protest about, and songs can do that too, you know. And so on.

But for me the problem is not that the ceremony did too little, but that it did too much. It seems a little disingenuous to compare it to a Hollywood musical. After all, when almost all the commentators felt obliged to read the event as the latest contribution to the century-and-a-half series on ‘the condition of England’, its political implications can hardly be trivial.

The thing about Britishness, though, is that however multicultural, it is still a notion tied to a nation state that goes to great lengths to keep people out. The United Kingdom is not alone in being defended by stringent and discriminatory immigration controls, and excessive powers to detain or expel those defined as outsiders or monitor and restrict the movement and activity of those who even look like outsiders. But ‘Britishness’ must take some responsibility for the way in which the right to belong here and make full use of the opportunities on offer is predicated on a sense of national identity, an allegiance to a required – if heterogenous – set of affective or ideological ties shared with everyone else in the country.

Would radicalising Britishness undermine the racial discriminations on which the kingdom seems to thrive? Would it do anything to stop the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society from bearing the brunt of what – in a triumph of spin that masks its fundamental difference from, say, wartime rationing – is blandly called ‘austerity’? Would it even have helped the 182 cyclists who were arrested on the monthly ‘Critical Mass’ ride as they passed close by the Stadium during this apparently ground-breaking ceremony? I doubt it. Whatever its content, ‘Britishness’ is a fungal infection that we ought to stop feeding.

Local and regional identities don’t have anything like the same power to exclude others. They certainly don’t have the same purchase on social policy or the criminal justice system. Being Scouse or Geordie is not about common values or ancestry but something that emerges from the shared experience of inhabiting the same space and perhaps a way of speaking. And even nation-states don’t need their citizens to identify with it in order to function. Look at Scotland. The SNP’s case for independence (such as it is) is being made not on cultural grounds (appealing to those who feel Scottish, think of themselves as Scottish more than anything else) but because an independent scotland would be fairer, more democractic, more accountable, dare I say more modern place to live.

The opening ceremony did not have to be a celebration of ‘Britishness’. It could have simply celebrated sport (perhaps allowing itself a little dig at the Olympic grandees by dwelling on some activities – like rugby or karate or women’s canoeing – it does not yet recognize). (Maybe even a bit of Indian Dancing). Or it could have created a series of tableaux that represented all the previous games – with its controversies (the black power salute in Mexico 1968) and tragedies (the massacre at Munich in 1972) as well as triumphs (Jesse Owens in Berlin 1936). Criticizing that would have been puritanical.

The Playparks Project: A Proposal

Again: the toddler’s favourite word. For, as Walter Benjamin reminded us, children are much more inclined to repetition than imitation. And so, with little more than a chiastic reversal of the vowel sounds, what would happen if we turned the Arcades Project into the Playparks Project?

Walter Benjamin never visited Scotland. But he was aware of its existence. In his Small History of Photography he applauded the work of David Octavius Hill, who famously depicted the 1843 Disruption of the Church of Scotland. And for one of his radio talks he chose the subject of the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879. Of Glasgow, however, I have found nothing.

Yet my gamble is that if it is possible to shed important light on the 19th Century through a thick description of the shopping arcades of Paris, then why not try to capture the secret of the 21st by dwelling in Glasgow’s playparks?

Part of the attraction of the arcade for Benjamin was its academic marginality: it suited well his belief in the redemptive power of the overlooked and unfashionable. Now that Benjamin is well-known, and has posthumously acquired more than just the academic post that so eluded him during his lifetime, the lowly objects of his study are lowly no more. I’m an arcade, get me out of here, I can almost hear it scream.

So it’s time to upgrade, and set our sights on a phenomenon still neglected by the trendy cultural theorists. Indeed the whole realm of childhood and childcare seems largely to pass them by, happily consigned to psychology and social policy. If it is now permitted for Benjamin’s flâneur to be a woman, we are still waiting for studies of the wandering parent – the prâmeur if you will – who probably botanises the asphalt more than anyone.

While Benjamin may not have been much of a ‘hands on’ dad – and he probably saw even less of his son after his divorce in 1930 when Stefan was twelve – he actually took a keen interest in children. He collected (and wrote essays on) toys and children’s books. He wrote two memoirs of his own early years in Berlin, collected his son’s opinions et pensées in a journal, and his work in general is sprinkled with remarks on the distinctive sensibility of the very young. Gershom Scholem wrote:

It is one of Benjamin’s most important characteristics that throughout his life he was attracted with almost magical force by the child’s world and ways. This world was one of the persistent and recurring themes of his reflections, and, indeed, his writings on this subject are among his most perfect pieces.1

His radio talks for children have been the subject of a book by Jeffrey Mehlman.2Howard Caygill has suggested that it was Benjamin’s reflections on the child’s experience of colour that prompted him to question Kant’s philosophy and elaborate his own, alternative, speculative critique of experience.3 And, according to Susan Buck-Morss, ‘what Benjamin found in the child’s consciousness, badgered out of existence by bourgeois education and so crucial to redeem (albeit in new form), was precisely the unsevered connection between perception and action that distinguished revolutionary consciousness in adults.’4

That’s my excuse anyway for stepping out and daring to offer some dispatches from the ludic archipelago in Scotland’s largest city.

Notes

  1. Gershom Scholem, ‘Walter Benjamin’ in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, ed. Werner J Dannhauser (New York: Schocken, 1976), p175.
  2. Jeffrey Mehlman, Walter Benjamin for Children: An Essay on His Radio Years(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
  3. Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), pp83-85.
  4. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), p263.