Tag Archives: History

An Englishman’s Home is his Castle – but Why?

The English are obsessed with housing. The newspapers are full of articles about it, politicians argue about it, and young people struggle and worry about ever being able to afford it. John Lanchester points out that while 70% of Brits live in their own homes, only 40% of Germans do.

Why is this? There are many reasons why buying is a terrible idea: expensive repairs, a fall in prices will leave you in negative equity, you are less flexible …

Going into the credit crunch, the typical household in the UK owed 160% of his or her average income. In France a bank will only lend you a third of what you’re owning, and if you get into trouble paying it back, the bank can be sued for reckless lending. One of the reasons we can’t join the Euro is because there’s so many property owners, interest rates are too politically important to hand over to Brussels.

So why the Anglo-Saxon obsession with housing?

John Lanchester has a theory:

“Our longing [for property] is connected to the sense of dislocation which spread throughout British society during the industrial revolution. …

Countries with the go-go attitude to the free market, countries which pride themselves on their openness to competition, willingness to take a chance, lack of feather-bedding and protection from the laws of the jungle, might be expected to have a property market in which people were easy-going about rening and reluctant to tie up all their money in a single illiquid asset. On the other hand countries with more traditional, less capitalistic attitudes, less open to the cold winds of the markets and more willing to protect their citizens from market realities, might well have a conservative appetite for bricks-and-mortar. Instead it’s the other way around. Why? Well perhaps that’s exactly why. It’s precisely the most free-market, go-go countries which show this overpowering appetite for people to own their own homes. The less security there is in the workplace, the more exposed the rest of life is to the pressures of competition and uncertainty, the more people want to feel secure within their own four walls, at the beginning and end of the harsh working day.

The huge expansion in British home-ownership began during the 1840s, when the effects of the industrial revolution had spread sufficiently to create a new middle class with the economic means to buy their own homes. Because we were alienated and insecure at work, we felt an increased need to own the walls we live in, to feel safe and in possession of our own property. It was the psychic trade-off for the other losses of industrialization.”


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Losing our way

To anyone who’s been enjoying BBC’s Human Planet, a couple of recommendations:

First, check out this incredible series of photographs, published by Wired magazine, of uncontacted people (or indigenous people who live in voluntary isolation, to use the correct term), some taken at the very moment they first make contact with the outside world. The variety of responses is fascinating – from curiosity and bewilderment, to utter delight, to terror. There are apparently around 100 groups, most living in the Amazon.

Second, track down a copy of Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, a fantastic book about what we can learn from indigenous cultures that, when compared to 21st century living, seem disconcertingly primitive.

It’s generally agreed that we, Homo Sapiens, sprung up around 200,000 years ago, and that we co-existed with other hominids (including Neanderthals, who – like us – were descended from Homo Erectus). The earliest ‘human’ (in a fairly loose sense of the word) dates much earlier, to 3.3m years ago, and was discovered only recently, in 2006: the skeletal remains of a three-year-old Ethiopian girl. Anyway, until about 60,000 years ago all of humanity lived in Africa. But for one reason or another – most likely changing climate and ecological conditions that led to desertification – a small group of men, women and children, possibly as few as 150 (!), left. They walked out of the cradle of humanity, and set about colonizing the world. First, travellling via the shoreline of Asia, they reached Australasia in about 50,000 BC; then north through the Middle East and then further east to India, Southeast Asia and China by around 40,000BC; finally to Europe (30,000 BC), Siberia (20,000 BC) and, some 12,000 years ago, the Americas.

I read this and couldn’t help but wonder how those first 150 pioneers lived. Imagine if you could go back and see them, the Founding Fathers of humanity! Fortunately, you don’t need a time machine, as using genetic tracing anthropologists have been able to find a people living in Africa who are genetically identical to the ones who lived there 60,000 years ago: the ones who never left. They live in the searing sands of the Kalahari desert, straddling Botswana, Namibia and Angola, as nomadic hunter-gatherers, having rejected the ways of successive agriculturists and pastoral herders. There is no standing water for ten months of the year, meaning it has to be found in the hollows of trees, sucked from beneath the mud with reeds, or squeezed from the guts of animals. The sun is not a source of life, but a symbol of death  – in the worst months of the dry season, they scrape hollows in the ground, moisten the earth with urine, ‘then lie beneath a sprinkling of sand, tormented by flies, as the wait out the heat of the day’. Their language is dazzling – in everyday English we use 31 sounds; the language of the San uses 141, ‘a cacophony’, Davis writes, ‘of cadence and clicks that many linguists believe echoes the very birth of language’. He goes on to evoke the breathtaking precision of their hunting techniques: ‘Nothing escapes their notice: a bend in a blade of grass, the direction of the tug that snapped a twig, the depth, shape and condition of a track. Everything is written in the sand’. And it works – plus these people can literally run down an antelope.

I realise I’m reeling here, and I should end by making Davis’s wider argument clear: half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear within our lifetimes, but these are ‘merely the canaries, in the coal mine’: think of the songs, the stories, the knowledge, the cultures that will also be lost.

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Opulence and Arrogance

Imagine a society where the ruling class are so wealthy that they gain political power and influence not by accumulating money or land, but by proving themselves in philosophical and religious debate.  Sounds a bit like Voltaire’s utopian vision of El Dorado doesn’t it?  Welcome to Ancient Greece.

The Antikythera MechanismI previously reviewed ‘Decoding the Heavens’, a book which tells the story of how the puzzle of the Antikythera Mechanism (an ancient clockwork computer discovered in a shipwreck) was solved.  Without giving too much away about the mechanism itself, here’s some more details:

  • Its complexity means it probably took several generations of work from master crafstmen to perfect.
  • It contained state of the art astronomical data and would have therefore required input from a top astronomer.
  • It was contained in an ornate box and had inscription on its inputs and outputs which were ‘idiot’s guide’ instructions on how to use it.

From the last bullet point, we can deduce that this is no astronomer’s tool; it is a luxury item.  It seems inconceivable that the Ancient Greeks could make such a machine and yet it never occurred to them that the technology could be useful if applied elsewhere.  Amongst the aristocrats of this society, it was more important to use technology as a religious or philosophical demonstration than to apply the technology for more practical outcomes.  In Europe, it was the invention and development of clockwork that sparked the industrial revolution.

An Ancient Greek also invented the steam engine (to disprove one of Aristotle’s theories) and again they failed to apply the technology to industry.  It’s difficult to get one’s head around a society with such radically different values.

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The Hare with Amber Eyes

The Hare With Amber Eyes – acclaimed potter Edmund De Waal’s story of tracing his family history through 264 tiny Japanese ornaments – has been a phenomenal success despite what might be thought of as a rather niche subject matter. I was eager to know what all the fuss was about, particularly in the wake of the news that it was the cited in the annual ‘Book of the Year’ roundups more than any other title of 2010.

De Waal’s story takes us from fin de siècle Paris, through war-ravaged Vienna and Tokyo, to London. Yet it blends enormous sweep with microscopic, tactile precision. A large part of the book’s richness comes from the fact that it’s about touch, about how objects feel in your hands, the meaning they gather over time, and the way each one can tell its own story:

‘All this matters because my job is to make things. How objects get used, handled and handed on is not just a mildly interesting question to me. It is my question. I have made many, many thousands of pots. I am very bad at names, I mumble and fudge, but I am good on pots. I can remember the weight and balance of a pot, and how its surface works with its volume. I can read how an edge creates tension or loses it. I can feel whether it has been made with speed or with diligence. If it has warmth. I can see how it works with the objects that sit nearby. How it displaces a small part the world around it.’

Reading this is a bit like having a conversation with a brilliant violinist after watching them play – they just seem attuned to something separate, something bigger, that you’ve not really registered before. You just want to touch something as you read it.

But while this intimate, personal family history moves us, it also does something that history as a genre has an innate capacity to do, time and time again: shock. Here’s a passage from Austrian-Israelite Union’s summer newspaper, for example, published in the days after the First World War kicks off, which gives voice to the sanguinity of Vienna’s Jewish community:

‘In this hour of danger we consider ourselves to be fully entitled citizens of the state…we want to thank the Kaiser with the blood of our children and with our possessions for making us free; we want to prove to the state that we are its true citizens, as good as anyone…’

Then, the shocker:

‘After this war, with all its horrors, there cannot be any more anti-semitic agitation… we will be able to claim full equality.’

Germany, they believed, would free the Jews. It’s chilling stuff, made all the more unsettling by De Waal’s unerring precision.


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Stranger Than Fishing

Decoding the Heavens - Solving the mystery of the world's first computer by Jo MarchantOne of the joys of non-fiction is that some real life stories can be as exciting and unlikely as the most imaginative of stories spun. ‘Decoding the Heavens’ by Jo Marchant, despite the terrible new age self-helpesque title, tells the story of the Antikythera Mechanism. This ancient mechanical artefact was fished up from an Ancient Greek ship wreck at the turn of the 20th century, and stunned the world because such a complex machine should never have existed from this period. There are three threads to this story: the human interest side of those that worked to discover its purpose, the science of what the machine does, and the history of how and why such a thing could possibly exist.

‘Decoding the Heavens’ is a compelling account of those that sought to work out just what this 2,000 year old clockwork computer was for. From its discovery in 1901 to 2006, there is politics, betrayal and intense rivalry as various scientists and mathematicians dedicated their lives racing to be named as the genius that could finally reveal its purpose. The book is accessible to those without scientific knowledge, though some (like me) may end up skipping some of the explanations of mathematical ratios.

Whilst Marchant succeeds with telling the scientific and human interest sides of the story, I found myself wanting more than the relatively paltry chapter that she includes speculating as to the original purpose of this fascinating machine and its context in Ancient Greek society. What makes the Antikythera Mechanism so extraordinary – what drives the entire story – is the absurdity of its existence in the first place. If the Ancient Greeks were capable of creating such complex devices, why was the technology never applied to other machines? Why did it die with their society? Clockwork technology was not reinvented until after the dark ages – just think, mankind could be almost 2,000 years more advanced had the knowledge survived.


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