A glowing review

It’s funny what will make you laugh. For example, I found this review in my photos from my recent research trip. It’s from the Science and Art journal, shortly after H.G. Wells published his textbook:

Why did it make me LOL? Because I know that A.T.S. is A.T. Simmons, a friend of Wells from his Normal School days. Simmons’ obituary in Nature describes them as “almost inseparable” in college.

So, if any of my dearest friends want to review my work in a professional journal, go for it.


A most dangerous game

A recent Economist article queries the simultaneous increase in general happiness and increase in votes for populist parties. How can people who say they are happier, and who have better jobs and better lives, vote for parties that vow to destroy current systems and cause massive disruption? It seems counter-intuitive. Doesn’t history tell us that it’s the misery of people, it’s Germany in the 1920s, that leads to the rise of dictatorship and the undermining of rights? Why would anyone benefiting from a system vote to overthrow it?

I would like to suggest that the issue is virtuality, and the gaming mentality engendered by virtual activities.

In a world where you contact your friends in a virtual space more than in reality, where your car beeps because you are too close to another car, where Alexa reminds you of your appointment at 10, and where you can use an app to get your groceries delivered, the virtual nature of life has become immersive. It is not simply a matter of too much screen time. It’s the transition to perceiving the real world like it’s on a screen, with you holding the controls. The virtual has overcome the reality.

I live in California, land of automobiles. As cars became more electronic, I noticed drivers behaving more erratically and aggressively. I saw people driving as if they were in a video game, where the other cars were merely obstacles to their goal. When cell phones became a distraction, the self-centered driving behavior became even more marked. It wasn’t just more erratic and dangerous due to the distraction — with or without phone in hand, drivers took even less notice of what happened beyond their own vehicle. I’ve seen driving behaviors that demonstrate a disregard of the fragility of pedestrians in crosswalks, intolerance toward disabled drivers, frustration at people who don’t get out of the way quickly enough. In this state, where turning right on a red light is legal if conditions are safe, you’d better do at or you’ll get honked at whether conditions are safe or not.

These kinds of behaviors are what we see in games. When you know you are secure, you take more chances, and behave more aggressively. You stockpile your money and weapons in Assassin’s Creed, then you go on your hunt. As far back as The Oregon Trail, the idea was to get set up properly, then begin your dangerous journey, and take your chances. You are encouraged to think you’re living your own Odyssey. The other characters in the game are only there as foils to your individual character. They were created only to make your goal more difficult to obtain. Of course you honk at them.

As one sits at the computer interacting in virtual space, the people with whom one interacts also seem virtual and unreal. They aren’t really in our space. We can turn them off by turning off our computer or our phone, and go do something else. Politics comes to us in a 24-hour news cycle that tends not to distinguish between the significant and the irrelevant, and it often comes to us online, on a 2-dimensional screen. The party debates, for example, can seem like a TV show, sometimes interesting and other times worthy of the Off button. But they don’t seem like anything very important.

So now people are interviewed, and say they are happier and more employed. Yet they are voting for populist parties that channel anger and aggression against others. These aren’t opposites: they are normal gaming behavior.

It’s more fun and more dangerous to join angry groups on Facebook, especially those that provide a sense of belonging at the same time. And one can happily support populist parties because it feels like taking a chance, doing something risky — that means you earn more points. It’s similar to the increased disconnect between your car and the environment surrounding it. The perceived distance between the individual and government combines with the actual distance between oneself, sitting at a computer, and the reality of how that government affects your life. Politics is just a game you play in groups, the ultimate MMPG. It’s why it makes no difference whether the current government is fulfilling its promises or not — you support it if that’s the team you’re on.

We feel empowered sitting in our captain’s chair, the computer under our control. We can help our team. Click! I can post an outraged comment. Click! I can answer a poll. Click! I can make a small donation to a party that says they’ll give people like me an easier life. I don’t click because I’m unhappy, because I’m destitute. If I were really destitiute I wouldn’t have the time or ability to spend all this time in the virtual world. I click because it all feels like a game. What’s the harm — it’s just clicking things, posting words in cyberspace. That little frisson of excitement is because I know it is real, but as user7864 I don’t have to be individually responsible if I don’t want to be.

While there are articles on gamifying education, and on the effect of games on the human psyche, I’ve seen little on the gamification of social and political interaction engendered by our electronically connected world. And I realize my point of view could be seen as an argument against online voting, which would only seem to increase the disconnectedness and virtuality of political participation. Since we are already immersed, however, I don’t see the difference in voting virtually. Perhaps my click will make something better happen. At least I’ll get more points.

Class annotation of images

This is another post where I share how I did something, solely so I don’t forget how to do it.

Perusall is a wonderful program for annotating documents with a whole class, and I’m currently using it for all my online classes, which are located in the horror of an LMS they call Canvas. I upload a PDF, and students and I can highlight the document, with a panel popping up for discussion. When anyone clicks on the question mark, it indicates a request for responses. When anyone uses @Someone, it notifies them someone has responded. I have used it to solve the “what if they don’t do the reading?” problem, since we all kind of do the reading together.

All this is great. The system “auto-grades” (though I have to set it then check it very carefully), and pushes the grades to Canvas gradebook on my command, so I can focus on the discussion itself instead of evaluating it.

But you can’t do this with images — just upload and everyone talk about it.

Except…you can. Perusall won’t upload images natively, nor link to images directly on the web. So I downloaded an image, and saved it as a pdf in Preview, then uploaded it. Then I clicked on a section of the picture. Instead of highlighting text, Perusall put a pin. I can then ask a question or make a comment about just that portion of the image. Click the pin, and the conversation panel opens.

But the interface itself takes up a lot of the screen, which we don’t want for images. So I’m going to show students what to do about that:

If they do it, then it will look like this:

More room for the image, less clutter. I’m thinking it would be possible to put several images on a page to be discussed for that week.

What it’s doing is similar to ThingLink, which I learned about from our wonderful art historians over a decade ago. But ThingLink and similar programs, although they can be embedded into Canvas with iframes, cannot track a student’s comments, nor auto-grade them. Perusall can, which shortens my workflow so I can focus on the discussion, just as I do with annotated text.

So, annotations for images when I teach a European history course that focuses on the Humanities, and a History of Technology class that can get bogged down in text? I’m in!


The annoying web

Those of us who recall education, conversation, and research before the habitual use of the web often wax eloquently about all the affordances the web has given us. We can look up facts in seconds, engage in research from our sofa, video-conference with people in real time. It’s amazing!

We also know that things get lost with any new technology. It’s one of the major themes (well, the major theme) of my History of Technology class. We’ve seen that everything from real-life conversation, to civility, to shelf-browsing has suffered in ways connected to the advent of the web. I am considering examining these in some posts.

So here’s one. I have a colleague who researches American patent medicine in the late 19th century. Today I’m on Twitter, and see that A. J. Wright has posted a patent medicine advert. I’d like to share this with my colleague. In the old days of email, I might have sent it to him in an email. But now I won’t share it with him at all.

Why? Because the likelihood of it having been shared a zillion times, and him having seen it already, is very high. If I put the name of the product (H.R. Stevens’ Family Balsam Familine) into Google, I get some right away:

And there are more links below to sites like Rochester University, the Smithsonian, even eBay. My mind conjures up a Pinterest page of bunches of similar ads, and a quick search proves that yes, everybody and their mother saves images of patent medicines.

I am intimidated by the ease of finding more examples, so I’m less likely to share one. My “discovery” has been diffused by the commonality of the find, by the ease of access. Despite the fact that there are still areas of mystery (what is Familine made of?), I’m too deflated to care. It’s like that scene in Summertime where Katherine Hepburn discovers that the supposedly unique Venetian glass she’s been sold is just a cheap souvenir. In her case, she later discovers that hers is an original and the others are copies, but in my case they are all cheap souvenirs of a few minutes web searching. Hardly something one would share with a respected colleague.

It’s odd that in the web world, which seems so to value “sharing”, something can so instantly become not worth sharing.

Prepping adventures: the big questions

To the dismay of some of my colleagues, and the delight of others (and the total incomprehension of most), I am continually preparing the next class. So, even though it’s June and I’m teaching three classes that started last week, I am thinking seriously about Fall.

Fall for us begins in August, so it’s not that quirky. And next term, for the first time, I will have an intern. The SDICCA program in San Diego County, in association with San Diego State University, matches Masters students with community college professors*. The intern will work closely with me the entire year, attending my classes and campus meetings, and learning from me as his mentor.

This requires a certain meta approach from me as I design and teach my classes, particularly the on-site classes. This opportunity was one of the reasons I wanted to be a mentor. While my ego does not require a minion to learn things “my way” (on the contrary), I do require that things change up a bit to keep me on my toes. The necessity to explain why I do what I do, and to change things in response to someone else’s thinking, is a boon. Although I do change things in response to students all the time, the power relationship there is quite different than that between mentor/intern, particularly as I intend to make clear I hope to learn as much from him as he does from me.

But one thing I must “teach” is class discussion, my bugaboo. I have only one class where I really do it, my early American history online. At the beginning of the week, I post a 5-minute video from a series that considers “both sides” of an issue, and ends with a question (for example, “Was the Constitution a democratic document?”). The first few days of the week, I allow students to respond with their ill-informed opinions, vent, argue, etc. Then mid-week I summarize their contributions and reframe them, asking new questions based on their input that nevertheless point them toward deeper, thematic issues that connect to the assigned documents. It works well for them, but requires a lot of work from me: it is very much instructor-guided.

Although I have done this also in a classroom setting (using video clips from controversial issues in the news), I feel that these days some larger, philosophical issues should be considered. I do not want to simply increase polarized views by encouraging evidence-based arguments. My goal for teaching has always been to train a person see the news of the day and connect it to similar “news” from the past, to put today’s events into perspective. That’s what history is — context. THE context. It’s the way we know what the present might mean.

When I didn’t know that my modern European History class would be cancelled last spring, I prepared a list of such questions, one per week. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do with them, and I never got to find out. (Don’t get me started on how students are being told by equity-minded individuals to avoid European history, and how they are avoiding classes that require deep thought so they can more easily achieve “academic success”.)

I tied each question to that week’s area of coverage:

  • 1 Story So Far
  • 2 17th c Politics and Culture
    Should only people who own homes vote? -or-
    At what point should society’s leaders no longer be allowed to lead?
  • 3 Science and Enlightenment
    How important is reason as opposed to emotion?
  • 4 Enlightenment Economy and Society
    How should a country’s economy be regulated, if at all?
  • 5 Political Revolution
    Is there a point where the people can get too much power?
  • 6 Industrial Revolution
    Should we help workers who don’t make enough to live on? how?
  • 7 Socialist and Romantic Response
    How do ethics come into politics?
  • 8 19th century society
    How important is it that people have definite roles in society?
  • 9 Nationalism and Imperialism
    Does nationalism necessarily lead to treating others poorly?
  • 10 Great War and Russian Revolution
    Does war settle disputes?
  • 11 The Interwar Years
    How can fiction help us understand the present?
  • 12 World War II
    Why do people become followers?
  • 13 The Cold War
    How does one find ones place in society?
  • 14 Social Revolution
    How can literature guide people’s views?
  • 15 The Contemporary West
    What issues or values should transcend politics?

So now, keeping in mind the need to connect their own opinions to the topic, I’m starting here for modern American history:

  • 1 US to 1865
    Why study American history?
  • 2 Reconstruction
    What might have been a better plan for Reconstruction, and what would have made it difficult?
  • 3 The West
    What happens when we see people from the past as victims as opposed to people with agency?
  • 4 Incorporation and Immigration
    How do immigrants become part of the American story?
  • 5 Empire
    Does America still have an empire?
  • 6 Progressivism
    What should be the government’s role when capitalism causes problems?
  • 7 The Great War
    How should Americans who oppose war be treated?
  • 8 The 1920s
    In what sense is progressive thinking countered by traditional thinking?
  • 9 The Depression
    What is the government’s role in alleviating suffering?
  • 10 WWII
    How should the U.S. respond to authoritarianism around the world?
  • 11 Post-war and Cold War Politics
    In what sense do fear and restrictions of civil liberties go together?
  • 12 The Fifties (culture)
    Why is celebrity culture so influential?
  • 13 War and Activism
    When a college tries to make its curriculum “relevant”, what does that mean?
  • 14 Inclusion and Exclusion
    Which is more important to social justice, the laws or the courts?
  • 15 New Millenium
    What have been the impacts of the internet?
  • 16 Contemporary US
    What is the role of the idea of “privilege” in contemporary discourse?

I am not sure that these are the exact questions, or how I want to use them in class, but it’s a start to think bigger.


*It’s interesting. We are called “professors” in the press and in the commencement program, but when I asked for this designation on my college business card, I was told no. We don’t even get “instructor” anymore, only “faculty”.

The University of London debates

[I have returned to America, and now add to my research work by preparing a paper I’m presenting in November, on the educational debates in the Victorian periodical press.]

While today we think of universities as places where there is teaching and classes, this was not true for the University of London, founded in 1836.

Later called by Dickens “The People’s University”, the University of London provided the opportunity to obtain a degree for those who couldn’t afford Oxbridge residential education, or who weren’t Anglican and thus couldn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge (or, later, Durham). There were no teaching professors – it was strictly an examining body. Yes, it’s how H. G. Wells got his degree, studying on his own until he passed the exams: Matriculation, Intermediate, Bachelors.

Although the U of L website is pretty sketchy on its history, in 2008 they published The People’s University 1858-2008, which has lots of information. It helps provide context for the arguments about the university, in which Wells participated, and is the source for much of the factual information that follows here.

By 1858, the University of London had over 50 colleges affiliated with it, sending students to take examinations, some conferring their own degrees. By 1860, a Bachelor of Science was offered. By 1878, women were routinely admitted for the degree (not just to take preliminary exams).

Beginning in 1887, there were calls for the University of London to establish itself as a teaching university as well as an examining board.  The two original colleges, King’s College London (Anglican) and University College London, considered leaving the U of L to form their own university (called Albert University), which would combine teaching with exams. Their petition to the government for a new charter along these lines was unsuccessful, but unleashed two decades of debate, in which Wells was a vociferous participant.

At stake was everything: the secular focus of the university, the ability of those throughout Britain and the Empire to work for a degree, and the resulting democratization of higher education. The debate also took place at a time when science was establishing itself in the college curricula, often without proper funding or support (another of Wells’ criticisms). There were parties, however, who felt that perhaps there should be two universities in London, one residential and similar to Oxbridge, and the other examining only and based on external students.

Several commissions provided the focus for these questions, including the Selbourne Commission of 1889, and the Gresham Commission which ended in 1894. It was the report of the latter that divided the consideration into Internal students, who would be residential at one of the colleges, and External (non-collegiate) students, who would study elsewhere and just take the exams.

Naturally, any measures that privileged Internal residential students could adversely impact External non-collegiate students, so this was a concern during the major debates about reforming the university. Should, for the sake of academic integrity, a distinction then be made between the degrees of Internal and External students? Because the university had been founded on External students (before they were called that), there was already extensive support in place, including examination centers throughout the empire and in Britain outside London. Would these degrees be considered lesser than those conferred upon residential students, who might have the time and money to spend three years or so in London or at an affiliated college, doing nothing but studying?

By this time, Wells had already earned his B.Sc. through external study that had occupied his evening hours over a number of years. He was acutely sensitive to the opportunity that had been afforded him as a member of the lower-middle class. The degree had enabled him to increase his salary at the University Correspondence College, enough so he could afford to marry and start his own household.

In general, the University presented arguments to the government in favor of no distinction.

In 1898, the University of London Act combined King’s and University colleges, the London School of Economics, and several medical and other colleges, together as a teaching university. Although recommendations were made to close examination centers in colonies that had access to a university, it was made clear in the Act that there was to be no distinction between degrees earned by Internal and External students. Administration was divided between an Academic Council run by professors, and an External Council run by graduates. But the degree was not divided, and the opportunity remains to this day, through distance education, to earn a degree from U of L wherever the student may reside.

It is funny to think that, back in the 1990s and early noughts, I unknowingly participated in a repeat of the Gresham Scheme arguments. In the early days of online learning, there were similar efforts to make a distinction (on transcripts and in degrees) between in-person classes and online (distance learning) classes. I opposed these, as Wells would have. The price of this was accepting that if there was no distinction, those of us teaching online should have the same enrollment limits as in a classroom (for History, that’s 40 students per class). While not the best arrangement (we have known throughout the impossibility of individual attention in classes this large), it solidified the “no distinction” agreement. Just as in Victorian times, this has allowed students, particularly those from less advantaged circumstances, to work toward a college credential with no indication that they achieved it any differently than at a residential college.

When you’re tired of London…

Samuel Johnson famously said that when you are tired of London, you are tired of life.

But I do tire of London. Its busy, polyglot, loud and smoggy atmosphere do get to me. But it’s always exciting, with so much to do.

Again I stayed close to the British Library, because the problems with getting everything at Boston Spa meant I had re-ordered a number of items for London. And it all showed up! Looking through the journals, I discovered two more Wellsian pieces that aren’t in the bibiliographies. It’s almost annoying now. Almost, but not quite.

Because I was also able to mention it while attending the H. G. Wells Society’s Annual General Meeting. I am a fairly new member, and have published in their journal, but I had not actually met any of the other members. I was meant to, on an outing to G.B. Shaw’s house planned for September (Wells’ birthday is in September). But it had cancelled.

I was tentative about attending the meeting, because I knew that several people whose work I admire would be there (I’m actually not nearly as confident as I appear in print — well, almost). And indeed, it was a small meeting with all the folks I wanted to meet. Everyone was very kind, and I was introduced as someone engaged in digging up articles by Wells no one knows about. Many of the members study Wells’ literature, rather than history. I very much enjoyed the paper Eric Fitch presented, which reaffirmed how very deep and wide is the interest in Wells. There was a discussion about how to get younger people more interested in his work, but of course there are perennial movies and exhibits based on his science fiction going on all the time.

But man cannot live on Wells alone. One also goes to London for the art museums, and there was a major Van Gogh exhibit on at the Tate Britain. Although the tickets were timed, each group allowed in was huge. It was very difficult to see the pictures:

Can you see any Van Goghs? It wasn’t easy. Everyone wanted in particular to see Sunflowers, which is funny because it’s usually at the National Gallery anyway. There’s quite a rivalry between the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. A couple of years ago I attended a talk at the Turner gallery at the Tate, which has a huge selection of Turners, but not my two favorites, The Fighting Temeraire (soon to be on the £20 note) and the Great Western Railway. They were rather defensive about the fact that those are at the National Gallery.

Not a lot easier to see paintings there, is it? But I am really glad that everyone is so enthusiastic about art!

One also goes to London for theatre. It’s been trickier in recent times to find good, local plays. Over the years, the selection has become increasingly dominated by Americans and big musicals, most of which I’ve already seen. There was Thorton Wilder’s Old Town at the Regents Open Air, and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons with Bill Pullman and Sally Field. Kelsey Grammar is starring in Man of La Mancha, for goshsakes. If I wanted to see American works and performers, I would have stayed in America. My visit was before Present Laughter with Andrew Scott opened, and it was impossible to get in to the only truly British show, Only Fools and Horses (based on a TV show of which I am not particularly fond). But there was one delightful production, at the mysteriously hidden Charing Cross Theatre (it’s under the station bridge): Amour. Music by Michele Legrand (so stunningly beautiful) with a very British libretto by Jeremy Sams, who wrote a charming introduction in the program of what it was like to work with Legrand.

Apparently Amour was on Broadway for only two weeks in 2002, but got five Tony Award nominations. Here it was supposed to run until mid-July, but was closing early. The theatre (audience on two sides, like in-the-round but square) was small, but full. The cast was excellent, the music delightful, the staging original. It was the story of an ordinary clerk, the one who everyone hates because he does his work precisely, who suddenly can walk through walls. Trying to impress the woman he loves even though he’s only ever seen her from afar, he begins committing Robin Hoodesque robberies to get her attention. The ending is sad, but also charming.

So why hasn’t this delightful show done well? I think it’s timing. People want their theatre these days to deal with the social and political trends of the day if they’re going to see something other than Phantom of the Opera. They want Come from Away, or something about family relationships that don’t work. Or they want deep, meaningful stuff like the Pinter series that’s been going for a year (also sold out). I heard one man, who’d seen Amour three times and was sad it was closing early, say he thought it was the title. Or perhaps its continental focus doesn’t work in a time of Brexit.

Here’s something very English from the window of the Transport for London Lost Property office. They’ve not only promised to take care of Paddington; they’ve given him some marmalade.

The new buses are retro, I noticed. When I first returned to England, in 1981, you could board a double-decker bus at either the front or the back. At the front the driver took your money (they used money then), or at the back the conductor would. The back was the quickest way to the top deck. Then for years, as they cut the bus staff in half, they didn’t have a conductor, so the back staircase wasn’t built anymore. But now, thanks to “cashless” technology (use your Oyster card or your contactless credit card), the back is reopened. You can wave your card and go up top.
And last, a photo showing life finding a way, even on the Hungerford Bridge.
I shall miss London. I shall miss England. I always do.

The purpose of museums

One of the reasons for staying in Saltaire was to be near the Bradford Industrial Museum. It’s in a mill, a vestige of the industrial age.

Not as easy as I’d hoped, the bus route takes one to within a few blocks, then you have to walk through a bit of suburb. Industrial museums built in old mills are not, of course, in the center of town.

But what a museum! So many rooms and recreations. At first it seemed deserted — we wandered around the outbuildings before a man came out of the mill (he was on his way to lunch) and invited us inside, telling us where all the exhibits were. He apologized for the steam engine not running, as they’re doing renovations. Then we explored on our own.

The Studio to Selfie exhibit was small, but I loved the idea: exploring photography within the context of modern cultural habits. Translating something historical into modern terms is often a good thing to do. But I was sad because one element was clearly missing among the Victorian photographs, perhaps because it was too gruesome. Death photography was a morbid and fascinating trend in Victorian times, but was not even mentioned. It’s a subject particularly suited to visual analysis, since it was not at all typical (many of the examples that make their way round the web are of living people, just photographed badly). It thus plays into current themes about “fake news”.

The Bradford Industrial Museum obviously has extraordinary knowledge behind it. There are excellent exhibits, many created with a lot of love. But there are too few people presenting it, so it isn’t easy to ask questions. And not everything is labeled, including the many machines attached to the pulleys that were working in the engine room.

The print works were particularly fascinating.

As soon as I saw the sheer quantity of printing machinery, I went in search of a jellygraph, since H.G. Wells wrote about one. I couldn’t find one, nor anyone to ask. There was a wonderful timeline down a wall, showing changes in media over the years, but not relating it to the web or media culture today. In the weaving room, instead of someone actually running a loom, there was a video of someone in that same room running a loom. Efficient, but somewhat bloodless.

The museum is free, which means that the staff is all volunteer, so I don’t blame them for the video or anything else. It was a weekday, and we saw only a few other people visiting.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in museums over the years, and their efforts to bring in new visitors. The addition of multimedia was seen as a cure-all for awhile, but people have, I think, tired of just interacting with more screens when they come into a space that’s supposed to offer something different. Similarly, audio “soundscapes” and video “enactments” (for example, having video of an actor pretending to be a prisoner projected onto a cell wall) have become dull in an age of interactive media. This stuff was too little, too late.

The idea that museums can teach, the pedagogy of the museum visit, may be in difficulty also. This problem is hardly new. I uncovered an H.G. Wells article last week called “Variorum:  Of The Fallacy of Museums” (1895), where Wells explored whether museums work for teaching groups of children. He concluded no, primarily because of the poor organization of museums for this type of learning. You cannot learn about “birds” if you’re a 10-year-old interested in birds, because the information is divided among various areas of the museum. To see the bones of a bird, you go to the skeletons. To see feathers, you go to the taxidermy area. And to see the insides, you go to the jars in the basement. It’s hard to learn that way.

The Science Museum at South Kensington, of course, was really intended as a research institution rather than a place for free public education. But today many museums are assumed to take on this larger task.

Industrial heritage might be a hard sell these days. It’s no longer appropriate just to celebrate machinery, because everyone’s very sensitive to (and guilty about) industrialization. I noticed that all around the Bradford area, the old smokestacks from the mills, though preserved, feature cellular relay antennas. England has found a good use for those tall remnants of smoky industrial might. People are tentative now about celebrating an age that featured not only pollution, but child labor and the death of other romantic notions: the beautiful countryside, hand-crafted items, planned communities.

The interest now is in extremes. That’s why the costumed actors are projected on the walls at places like York Castle Museum. Being imprisoned is an intense experience, so the effort is to get people interested via their emotions. So why be squeamish about death photography? It was an extreme thing, propping up the dead baby in a photo with the other children. That would get people interested — the past has many horrors tinged with sympathy.

I went to London after this, and they’re still lining up at Madame Tussaud’s.

Waxwork of murderer H.H. Crippen

When it first opened in the 1830s, visitors were interested in the “from life” waxworks of people executed during the French Revolution, or wanted to see what their politicians and royalty looked like in the years before television or color photography. Nowadays, the website doesn’t even refer to its history, just the celebrities one can pose with for a selfie. Anna Marie Gresholtz (Madame Tussaud) would love it, with her talent for promotion — see Tussaud’s original catalog here. Although a few of her waxworks may have been from life (or death masks), most of her work was purely imaginative or based on previous portraits. Then, as now, the most popular part of the exhibit was the Chamber of Horrors. This isn’t the first generation to want extreme in their entertainment.

Museums like Bradford will do better once we get over our difficulties celebrating industrialization. But in the meantime, a few death photos, and some solid relationships to current trends, wouldn’t hurt.




Busing round the Dales

I have been planning to ride buses through the Dales for some time, ever since I saw that it was possible, and read Bus-Pass Britain.

Obviously, I don’t have a bus pass, but the book told me about the buses that go through the Dales. There aren’t many, some are locally funded, and many only run in the summer. Well, it’s summer (despite the chilly wet weather), so I was willing to work out how to do it. And my son has come over to England to join me for a week, and he wanted to see the Dales. Since I have no intention of driving, it’s the bus or don’t go.

I chose Saltaire for our stay, since every time someone heard I was a historian focused on the Victorian era, they’d say, “You’ve been to Saltaire, yes?” Um, no. But there happened to be an AirBnb holiday let that’s actually in one of the cottages Titus Salt built for his mill workers, so that was too cool to resist.

First, then, Saltaire. It’s a little bigger than the French Quarter in New Orleans, but similar in that it is a quite perfect place surrounded by imperfect places (in this case, Shipley and Bradford).

It’s a little difficult to manage, because no one seems to eat dinner out here (unless you like fish and chips — then go to Webster’s). The first night we walked to Shipley, and there wasn’t anything there either. But there are wonderful shops, including a butcher and a baker and a co-op grocery with everything. And you can see the Dales in the shots above, but it’s not close enough for me.

So what we did was (takes notes):

Train from Saltaire to Shipley, then change for the train to Ilkley. (This was kind of strange — the Shipley rail station is a bit bizarre, and you get off on one platform, but then have to cross the car park to get to the other.) Walk to the bus stop (quickly, because there is no bathroom at Ilkley station), and catch Bus 74A to Hebden.

Now this is a country bus, which is more like a van than a bus. And it filled right away with local pensioners, leaving only the two seats we took (one of which had to be given up for an older gentleman before our stop). The bus is the only one with a stop at Bolton Abbey, which is far more stunning than it looks in any of the photos. And the driver was fantastically helpful. Knowing (because he drives it) that there is only one bus coming later that day, he told us he’d watch for us.

Have I mentioned that people in the north of England are invariably helpful? As soon as they know you’re a visitor, you get advice on what to do and how to do it. If you’re lost, they help. And they do it all with an extraordinary sense of humor. Yorkshire folks in particular have a deadpan and ironic humor that is very similar to my own — they’re always having you on. So much more fun than in the south. They say northerners are dour, but that’s never been my experience (with the exception of the Left Luggage man at York station).

For example, a woman on the crowded bus had a little dog. When a man got on the bus, they negotiated, since he had a cane and wanted to sit on the aisle for his leg, but she was worried her dog would get crushed, and her argument carried. As he squeezed in to the window seat, he asked, “Is your dog fierce?” and she immediately said “Well, he ate several people for breakfast”, then the woman behind him said, “You’re all right then, since he’s eaten already.”

I thought that Bolton Abbey was just a ruin (thanks, Henry VIII), but it’s a whole estate. The ruined part is there, but so is an active church that still stands in part of the old building. An attendant was there to tell us about the church and its history. And the whole setting is along the glorious River Wharfe, which I had seen in Wetherby but looks completely different here, active and fast-moving.

After a few hours walking around Bolton Abbey (lunch at the Cavendish Pavilion was quite good), our driver returned on the 74A (empty bus this time, so we could chat) to continue on the line to Grassington, through glorious scenery.

He said it was lucky there were enough seats this morning. I said I felt badly if we took away seats from the locals, since we’re only on holiday and they have places they need to go. But he said many of them just ride the bus for something to do, and just ride around all day. I told him if I lived here, I’d do that too!

He then advised us not to stay in Grassington, but to take the next bus to Skipton (Bus 72, which is a little more frequent than the eastern line), since it was market day there and more would be going on. I have learned always to take the advice of bus drivers, so that’s what we did. And the scenery along the way from Grassington to Skipton was, as I hoped, equally glorious to the ride between Ilkley and Grassington.

We happened to get to Skipton Castle just in time for the last entry, so we were the only ones there. We had a whole castle to ourselves for almost an hour.

Skipton Castle is fantastically preserved, and restored thanks to:

From Skipton, which you have to walk across to get to the rail station, it’s an easy train ride back to Saltaire.

So even though it’s tricky, I’d do it again. With the Dalesbus schedule on your mobile phone and the help of Yorkshire bus drivers, you can’t go wrong.

Durham Cathedral in photographs

Durham Cathedral has never allowed photographs. The one time I snuck one I felt so guilty I erased it.

But now, suddenly, there are signs saying you are welcome to photograph. Just please don’t take pictures during a service or of other people’s children. This is only as of March 8. I was told the change in policy is because of the new canon.

So along with a revealed tower, and services where you join a procession, you may now take pictures. Quick, before they change the rules!

This, of course, is my favorite cathedral ever. I have seen York Minster, Salisbury, Ripon (recently), and many others, but to me this is the best. It has to do with the Norman style. It’s not huge and distant like Gothic. It doesn’t pull you upwards, but rather wraps around you like a hug.

It’s grand, and big, but not too grand and big. And those wonderful varied columns. People like them so much they’ve been put on a postcard, just the column designs. A Durham Castle guide today told us they would originally have been painted in bright colors.

He also told us that the now white gallery ceiling in the castle would have been painted bright red and blue, but that Victorian restorationists thought that didn’t look Tudor enough (it was in fact Tudor) and they painted it white. Now if all this is true (and he had the same qualifications as a historian as I do), then it really adds to the story of art history.

You see, like most people, when I look at Greek and Roman statues and buildings, I assume they were always plain and white. But I learned long ago that they were all brightly painted. So now it seems that medieval and Tudor surfaces were also brightly painted, which means that the modernist aesthetic has come to influence our view of the past. That’s rather intriguing.

But painted or not, I certainly appreciate being allowed to take my own photos of this wonderful space.