The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Monday, 29 September 2008

32. Gorgeousness in matter and meanness in manner

The Barleycorn family have been making use of their National Trust membership and taking advantage of the weekend's 2p per litre dip in the price of petrol, visiting two of the nation's cherished tourism honeypots : Stonehenge and Windsor Castle. Barleycorn Sr is disgruntled to note that Places of Interest seem to have universally dispensed with wordy plaques and notice boards and are now all proud to inflict an mp3 player and headphones on the touring classes. In opening the audio guide to Windsor Castle spent a fair bit of time explaining what arrow slits and battlements are and the scenarios in which they might have been employed, after which it explained nothing, having been switched off.

At Stonehenge it seemed reasonable to dispense with whatever facts and fancies may have comprised the tour contents, as I am fairly sure, having read the odd newspaper article here and there concerning whichever latest archaeological speculation about the site, that precious little indeed is known about the stones or exactly who put them there and how. EB9's brief article reasonably reports suggestions that the stones weren't erected by the Romans, but most probably by druids, perhaps between the 1st BC and the 6th century AD. Although I am entirely confident that later archaeologists have rightly put vastly earlier dates to the structures, it is interesting to note the remark in EB9 that "Stonehenge was first mentioned by Nennius, in the 9th century, who asserts that it was erected in commemoration of the 400 nobles who were treacherously slain near the spot by Hengist, in 472."

Looking to see what else Britannica may have on the subject of Stonehenge, the Index directed me to volume II and the article ARCHITECTURE, by T. Hayter Lewis, Professor of Architecture, University College, London and George Edmund Streep, late Royal Academician. I found myself entirely distracted from my purpose by a caustic and unsparing attack, quite startling in its vehemence, on the architectural merits of St Peter's Cathedral in Rome. It would make an entertaining audio tour of the site.

"[...]The front of St Peter's is not more distinguished by its magnitude than by its littleness and deformity. [...]It is divided into three unequal stories, within the height of the columns, whose entablature is surmounted by a windowless attic. In length it is frittered into a multitude of compartments, between which not the slightest harmony is maintained, while tawdriness and poverty are the distinguishing characteristics of its detail. A total absence of everything which produces grandeur and beauty in architecture, marks, indeed, the whole of the exterior of the edifice, except the cupola, than which, if its bad connection with the building out of which it grows is overlooked, architecture seldom produced a more magnificent object. Internally, the structure is open to similar praise and similar dispraise. Gorgeousness in matter and meanness in manner characterise the interior of St Peter's, except the sublime concave which is formed by its redeeming feature without.

[...]The tawdry and inappropriate sculptured decorations of the Renaissance school can nowhere be criticised with more advantage than in St Peter's. It is not too much to say that, throughout the interior, there is scarcely an ornament which is not offensive ; whilst not one of them has the slightest natural connection with, or use in, a sacred building. Perhaps sculpture never reached so profound a bathos as the hideous cherubs which are stuck, like petrified acrobats, against all the piers of St Peter's ; and when we hear of such a building being treated as a model for our guidance in the completion of St Paul's, we are driven devoutly to hope that St Paul's may never in that sense be completed at all. Few people ever seem to trouble themselves to look at any part of St Peter's except the entrance front and the dome. If they would examine the rest of the exterior, they would find it to be a building without one other redeeming feature, or a single grace of outline or detail, and so absolutely unscientific in its constructional arrangements as to be beneath contempt as a complete work of architecture."

St Paul's Cathedral : beneath contempt, ha! Put that in yer pipe and smoke it, ye cherub-obsessed Italianate fops. (More of this article can be read at the ever-indispensable

My brief and inadequate examination of the article does not reveal which of the two authors is responsible for this particular passage, but it does not seem to be beyond the bounds of possibility that George Streep, late Royal Academician, may indeed have been carried from this mortal coil by a fit of apoplexy after penning this spirited and sustained diatribe.

(Apoplexy, as this same volume usefully informs us, being "commonly understood to apply to a fit of sudden insensibility occurring in connection with some diseased condition of the brain.")

Sunday, 21 September 2008

31. We are all to blame

In these dark days of credit crunches and global financial meltdown, you may well have considered the price of eggs in your local supermarket and thought to yourself, Why, it seems that only a year ago this product was considerably cheaper. You may have found yourself wistfully recalling the turn of the century abandon with which you once consumed omelettes.

Occasionally the accounts one reads in the newspapers of this phenomena of the price of food tending to increase somewhat have verged on the sensational : The Guardian compared the cost of a loaf of bread in 1998 (10p!) with 2008 (120p!), neglecting to observe that the first price was for a Tesco Value loaf made with bleached sawdust, the second being for one of those loaves fortified with Omega 3, pro-biotics and steroids marketed at √úbermensch-rearing parents.

Property prices, having increased by approximately 14,000% over the last ten years or so, partly on the back of the Halifax's very popular buy-one-get-one-free mortgages, have now actually begun to sink a little, to widespread woe, garment-rending, and the gnashing of teeth.

I heard from two different commentators on Radio 4 yesterday that we are all to blame for this lamentable state of affairs, so for my part I here offer my humble apologies and heartfelt contrition.

Our shared responsibility allows a certain degree of sympathy with poor Mr Bush, who began his entertaining run in the role of Joe President announcing $1.6 trillion of tax cuts and refunds, and now finds himself, in the twilight days of office, having coincidentally spent about that much on a war against Terror (there have been those unkind enough to suggest that Mr Bush would have been better advised to target Mild Discomfort, or perhaps Acid Reflux), and buying the bad debts of the various crashing financial giants of Wall Street. Fiscally speaking, Bush Minor's actions were nothing more than the geo-political equivalent of taking four years with nothing to pay at Sofas Direct in the January sales - and then turning your home over to chainsaw-wielding crocodiles with pet hyenas, just as the first installment is due. To quote the Odyssey's famed author : D'oh.

Although financial institutions such as the Lehman Brothers themselves predate the publication of the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, it cannot be ignored that there have been changes since that time. The FINANCE article, by J. E. Thorbold, M.P., Professor of Political Economics, University of Oxford, outlines the history of the manner in which British governments have raised revenue. How were government's coffers filled at the height of Empire?

It will be seen [...] that the continuity of the present system of British finance depends upon a continuity in the habits of the people. The revenue derived from alcoholic liquors and tobacco amounts annually to about 42 millions. That which is supplied from articles of voluntary consumption, the use of which is wholly innocent, is about 4 1/2 millions, the principal contribution to this head coming from tea. Purely direct taxation - the land, house, and income tax on the one hand (the last named at 3d. in the pound), and stamps, probate, and legal duties on the other - yield nearly equal sums, a little short of 8 millions each. The security, then , of the English revenue depends on the extent to which the habits of consuming alcoholic liquors and tobacco are permanent. The consumption of the former is threatened by a powerful and apparently growing organization and agitation, and it can hardly be doubted that, should those who demand that the control of the traffic in alcoholic liquors ought to be transferred from the present licensing bodies to a direct popular vote be successful, the dimensions of the trade would be curtailed and the revenue diminished. One cannot otherwise account for the alarm which is felt by those interested in the success of the trade at the activity of their critics, and the process by which the advocates of restraint believe that they can compass their ends. It is possible, also, that in the future the poorer classes, whose consumption is the cause of so large a revenue, may imitate the temperance or moderation of those who are better off, and whose habits are to all appearance in marked contrast to those of their progenitors two or three generations ago. Should such a change ensue, it is not easy to determine what would be the direction taken by the financiers of the future [...]

The direction of the financiers of the future was to tax everything to the hilt. As fortune would happily have it, the conspicuous consumption of alcohol and tobacco have not notably declined over the years, but their place in the raising of revenue have been overshadowed by income tax, National Insurance and VAT. Just to underline the rate of income tax in the 1880s quoted above - 3 pennies in the pre-decimal pound being 1.25%. Punitive taxation regimes like that were what had sparked rebellion in the North American colonies. Still, it is a curious point that when Britain was the workshop of the world, it was the habits and luxuries of the feckless poor which paid the expense of government, whereas today, no small amount of the national expense goes towards subsidizing indigence and the excesses of the moneyed and unmoneyed alike. We are all to blame, as they say. Shame on us.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

30. Relevancy update

What with the manner in which news and events have a habit of occurring somewhat continuously, I am occasionally confounded by an absence of serendipity, which would otherwise lend me an authoritative air of prescience and relevancy.

Days after posting about Britain's 19th century dominance of the opium trade, the newspapers were full of reports about Helmand province's soaring levels of production, quoting levels of production that would perhaps have inspired approval from EB9's statisticians, although they may have needed to reconsider their views of racial characteristics considering which peoples provide today's moral imbeciles.

With possibly the headline of the year (Pope urges crackdown on reported visions of Mary) The Times last week reported Benedict XVI's admirably robust stance on the verification of visitations by the BVM.
The pontiff believes bishops should resist being swayed by the emotional reaction of believers and be guided instead by strictly applied "scientific, psychological and theological criteria".

A rational approach which would have warmed the heart of Andrew Lang, M.A., and which promises to bring the church of Rome to the leading edge of critical 19th century thinking.

Now we have boffins at Harvard telling us that evolution has hard-wired superstition into our brains. Well, you lofty egg-heads, we're one step ahead of you at According to the Ninth : your news is no news to us. Have you never heard of Mysterizingness? Away with your effete heresies!

At this rate I should hardly be surprized if, in a week or two, I open the papers to read that someone has drilled their way into the Gold Melting House of the Royal Mint. Please remember, Accordingianists, you read it here first.

Monday, 15 September 2008

29. The Royal Mint and Mr Darlington's rock drill

Today I find myself wondering : Did the proximity of the articles MINING and MINT, in the 16th volume of the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ever inspire in some hubristic, would-be Moriarty, dreams of what would surely be remembered as the most audacious criminal enterprise in history?

Saturday, 6 September 2008

28. (ii)Ingenious mechanical contrivances

La Machine's spider was by no means a disappointment, but neither was it an AUTOMATON
"a self moving machine, or one in which the principle of motion is contained within the mechanism itself. According to this description, clocks, watches, and all machines of a similar kind, are automata, but the word is generally applied to contrivances which simulate for a time the motions of animal life.

[...]400 years B.C., Archytas of Tarentum is said to have made a wooden pigeon that could fly ; and during the Middle Ages numerous instances of the construction of automata are recorded. Regiomontanus is said to have made an iron fly, which would flutter round the room and return to his hand, and also an eagle, which flew before the Emperor Maximilian when he was entering Nuremberg. Roger Bacon is said to have forged a brazen head which spoke, and Albertus Magnus to have had an androides, which acted as doorkeeper, and was broken to pieces by Aquinas.

[...]No notice of automata can be complete without at least a reference to Kempelen's famous chess player, which for many years astonished and puzzled Europe. This figure, however, was no true automaton, although the mechanical contrivances for concealing the real performer and giving effect to his desired movements were exceedingly ingenious."

Friday, 5 September 2008

28. (i)The merry conceits of Squire Punch

The city of Liverpool, over this grey and rainy September weekend, will experience one of the highlights of its year as European Capital of Culture, in a spectacular performance by the French puppeteers La Machine. The Barleycorn family will be off in an hour to witness the awakening of a giant spider from the depths of space, which promises to spend the next three days marching around the city centre, possibly killing and devouring any hapless scousers that get in its way. The spectacle has apparently cost in the region of £2 million. Better value, perhaps, than the Lord Mayor, footballers' wives, and a handful of soap opera stars emerging from a cargo container, and twenty minutes of Ringo banging drums on top of St George's Hall that launched the year's festivities.

La Machine's arachnid has the precedent of the company's giant pachyderm which transfixed London in 2006. The MARIONETTES article from the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica offers some historical precedents which may not meet the scale of today's cunning Gallic performers, but which may well have left a similar awed impression on the audiences of their day.

[The Spectator of 1711] refers also to Pinkethman, a "motion maker," in whose scenes the divinities of Olympus ascended and descended to the strains of music. An idea of the class of representation may be gathered from an advertisement of Crawley, a rival of Pinkethman, which sets forth - "The Old Creation of the World, with the addition of Noah's Flood,"also several fountains playing water during the time of the play. The best scene represented "Noah and his family coming out of the ark, with all the animals two by two, and all the fowls of the air seen in a prospect sitting upon trees ; likewise over the ark is the sun rising in a gorgeous manner; moreover a multitude of angels in a double rank," the angels ringing bells. "Likewise machines descending from above, double, with Dives rising out of hell and Lazarus seen in Abraham's bosom ; besides several figures dancing jigs, sarabands, and country dances, with the merry conceits of Squire Punch and Sir John Spendall." Yates showed a moving picture of a city, with an artificial cascade, and a temple, - with mechanical birds in which attention was called to the exact imitation of living birds, the quick motion of the bills, just swelling of the throat, and fluttering of the wings. The puppets were wax figures 5 feet in stature. Toward the end of the 18th century, Flocton's show presented five hundred figures at work at various trades. Brown's Theatre of Arts showed at country fairs, from 1830 to 1840, the battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon's army crossing the Alps, and the marble palace of St. Petersburg ; and at a still later date Clapton's similar exhibition presented Grace Darling rescuing the crew of the "Forfarshire" steamer wrecked on the Fern Islands, with many ingenious moving figures of quadrupeds, and, in particular, a swan which dipped its head into imitation water, opened its wings, and with flexible neck preened and trimmed its plumage.