December 20, 2008

Alexis Soyer- 19th Century Celebrity Chef


In 1841, the Globe observed that

The impressio grows that the man of this age is neither Sir Robert Peel, nor Sir John Russell, [nor] even Ibrahim Pasha, but Alexis Soyer.

The first two should be recognizable to us all- Peel was a great reforming Home Secretary and Prime Minister, Russell too served as Prime Minister, Ibrahim Pasha an Egyptian general- but who was Alexis Soyer? Soyer was an immigrant to Britain, he had worked an apprenticeship in the kitchens of Versailles in the 1820s and 1830s, became cook to the Reform Club in the 1840s and left that to open his own resturant, opposite the Crystal Palace in 1851. Soyer might not be a well known figure today- but he is an interesting figure. For like Jamie Oliver today, Soyer advised the British government on food and also attempted his own public initiatives to improve the health of the nation. What he did though and the contrast to Jamie Oliver's recent enterprises is an interesting one if we are to understand the different remit of the British state today and in the 19th Century.

Oliver today, for those who do not know, is a well known television chef in the UK and has embarked on an endeavour to improve the food of school kids and the population at large in the UK. Hold that thought in your mind. What Soyer did was very different. His two most famous interventions into politics were separated by almost a decade. In the 1840s, Soyer provided food to Irish men and women starving in the famine. His soups were offered in Dublin for free to releive the situation. The second thing that Soyer did came a decade later- he was instrumental alongside Florence Nightingale in providing better food to troops in the Crimea in hospital. Indeed he invented a portable stove that as the 'Soyer' stove was still being used by British troops in the first Gulf War. Soyer was prompted to intervene by the realisation that the troops in the Crimea were being served worse food than prisoners in the UK.

Soyer's endeavours were directed against two of the main problems of the 19th Century state. He attempted to do something that traditionally food did: stop famine and provide recourse to the starving in moments of disaster. From the 19th Century on, such famines have become less common in industrialised societies but we should not forget how important the fear of famine was as a political factor still. The Irish famine was a key part of an Irish story of neglect by the British: it would have been within living memory for some of those who were around in the Irish civil war (1916-22) and definitely within the living memory of their parents. The other aspect of what Soyer did was to attempt to improve the standards of health within the army. The 19th Century saw a growing movement within Britain towards a proffessional army- cemented in part by the consequences of the Crimea and also by the reforms of Gladstone's 1870 government. But we should be careful to understand what Soyer's endeavours were: they were charitable (in Ireland) or directed to a specific patriotic purpose.

Contrast that to Jamie Oliver who wants to improve the diet of every school kid in England- that is a much more extensive project than anything Soyer wished to do. We are extending ourselves to the whole population- and dealing with a problem that might be one of over abundance rather than scarcity. The difference between Soyer and Oliver's charitable impulses is their scope- and that reflects the increasing scope of the state. From the Boer war onwards, the British state became interested in the health of its citizens- we can detect one of the reasons for that in some of Soyer's work. From the 19th Century, the diet and health of your soldiers became of interest to you as a politician or strategic thinker: in the era of mass warfare that meant the diet and health of your young men as a whole cadet rather than just of the young men serving in the army. Soyer's career therefore indicates one of the reasons why his era would change into the era of Oliver- but its important that we see the aspirations of the British state in the 19th Century not as a step to the 20th but in its own right. Soyer's endeavours allow us to define the scope of what was viewed as possible to do in the 19th Century- and a useful way of understanding the evolution of the state in that period.

December 18, 2008

Camillus's Character

We discussed earlier Camillus the dictator as an archetype of why Livy beleived that Rome needed a dictator. What we also have to realise- again using Camillus as a model- is that Livy believed that offices did not guarentee stability, officers guarenteed stability. Camillus's dictatorship did not harm the Republic because of who Camillus was. Camillus, Livy says, was ready to delegate power- in the war against Antium (closely following the wars that I described in my earlier post) he delegated half his own authority to Publius Valerius, the disposition of a reserve force to Quintus Servilius and a force to protect Rome to Lucius Quinctius as Lucius Horatius was appointed to govern the munitions and Servius Cornelius put in charge of domestic policy (VI 6). The key point here is that Livy argues that Camillus wanted these people to serve as his equals with himself as primus inter pares, relying on his reputation to maintain his ascendency.

Camillus, Livy argues, understood the role of office. He argued that military leadership and service was a 'perpetual opportunity for you to show your mettle and win glory' (VI 7). He clarified his own role as leading commander to his soldiers in a Republican way: 'I have no wish for absolute authority over you' he told them (VI 7). But particularly interesting is what he said to his soldiers about how they should see him:

you should see in me nothing but myself: my resolution has gained nothing from my dictatorship, any more than it lost anything through exile. Nothing in any of us has changed and we bring the same qualities to this war as we brought to earlier ones. Let us then expect the same outcome. At the first clash everyone will act in accordance with his training and habit, you will win, they will run away. (VI 7)

There are two key political points that Camillus makes here. Firstly he denies any pride or ambition based on the offices he holds: he sees them as recognition of his merit rather than as an avenue to further power or to pride. He argues to his soldiers that they ought to obey him from recognition of his merit. What he secondly argues is that Romans in general should behave according to 'training and habit'- their constitution here fits with their military training and leads them to victory. The key point running through Camillus's arguments, whether about honour, himself or the training of his troops, was the argument that Romans should always behave in accordance with their ancestors: their history should be a check upon them.

For Livy, all these things define a virtuous Roman politician- someone granted power over his fellow citizens, occasionally arbitrary power, but aware of the ways that that power fits into a mosaic of historical custom. It also demonstrates a possible use for Livy's history- this is a guide to the princeps about how he should behave to preserve the 'training' of the Romans which has given them empire- then the Princeps, the Emperor, can become like Camillus, a temporary Republican sovereign, rather than a tyrant.

December 17, 2008

Migration to the US

I recently found this wonderful map of migration to the United States- its definitely worth a play with.


Immigration to the US, 1820-2007 v2 from Ian Stevenson on Vimeo.

December 16, 2008

The madness of Alice Hall

On 17th January, 1709, Alice Hall of the parish of St Giles without Cripplegate was brought to the Old Bailey, she was charged with murder. The account in the trial document makes clear what happened better than any account your humble blogger could supply,

Alice Hall , of St. Giles's without Cripplegate, was Indicted for the Murder of Diana Hartley and Martha Shetton, by Poysoning of them with Rats Bane in Broth, on the 2d Instant. She was a 2d time Indicted upon the Coroners Inquest, for the Murder of the Persons aforesaid. It appear'd that on Sunday the 2d Instant the Prisoner came to a Parish Nurses, and sat down by the Fire; That she was observ'd to take something out of her Pocket, and convey it into a Ladle half fill'd with Broth, stirring it about with her Finger, and put it into the Porridge-Pot then upon the Fire. The Family not knowing what was done, eat of the Broth to the Number of 15, which in an hour or two were taken with Vomiting; it wrought to that degree upon the 2 deceas'd Persons, that they died the Day following. It appear'd that the Prisoner had been with several Apothecaries on the first Instant to buy Rats Bane, and could not get any; that at last she succeeded, but would not discover where she had it. She confess'd that her intent of getting it was to Poyson her self, but was prevented by the Woman, who she thought see her put it into the Ladle; and it did not appear that she had any Design upon the Persons that took it. It appear'd thro' the whole Series of the Evidence, that the Prisoner had been for a considerable time Distracted, and fancied she was Damn'd, that she was a Spirit, and not a Woman; and sometimes was so very Outragious that she was chain'd in her Bed, &c. It likewise appearing that she was under great disorder of Mind when she committed the Fact, the Jury acquitted her and brought her in a lunatick

The case seems particularly sad as soon as you read it. Hall was attempting to commit suicide- to 'Poyson herself' and her failure to do so led to illness amongst 15 other people who ate the poison and death for Diana Hartley and Martha Shetton. The evidence in the indictment and description of the trial seems clear and the jury seem to have accepted Alice's madness as a plausible reason for her to have committed the murder: based on the account above I see no reason why we should disagree.

What I think is more interesting to reflect on though is the form her madness took: according to the trial transcript she beleived that 'she was damned, that she was a spirit and not a woman' and that that belief led to her being so 'outrageous' she was chained to her bed. Alice's madness caused physical action- we should note the response in the 18th Century to such convulsions was purely punitive- to chain the lunatic to their bed would not have struck contemporaries as at all strange or problematic. What in a way is more interesting even than that is the type of madness that Alice had- obviously she felt a delusion about spirits and devils being present not merely in the world, but directly to her. But in her time, indeed even today, that perception is not so strange- plenty of religious people share the feeling that they have seen something- and its not much of a step from Henry Lawrence's view that Christ was the hope of glory within a man to the conception that one is not merely a woman but a spirit. What made Alice mad was in part the content of her beliefs not their nature, and moreover her behaviour. What might have been religious heterodoxy became insanity because of Alice's behaviour- 'distracted', 'outrageous' and a murderer.

What made Alice mad was her inability to live in that society, yet Alice's insanity lies on a precarious borderline, between a belief and a delusion. That borderline is a fascinating place: there would be societies in which Alice's madness would have been perceived as a qualification to be a sage or a shaman, rather than a route to Bedlam. There is an interesting moving line between what human beings consider insane and what we consider sane: that perception has shifted throughout history. Alice's behaviour lay on the insane line of that boundary- and who are we to contradict the jury- but what is interesting is that like so much insane behaviour it is a recognisable varient of some forms of sane behaviour. Her behaviour is an outlier on the spectrum of religious mysticism that is so recognised in the century before her trial: it is not unusual nor that different from the norm, but it was for her fellow citizens insane enough to justify regarding her innocent (in some sense) of murder.

There is such a thing as insanity- its content varies over time- but wherever we find it, I suspect Alice's case helps us comprehend, what we will find will be recognisably human.

December 15, 2008

The Hudsucker Proxy


At one point in the Hudsucker Proxy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appears. Eisenhower, embodiment of the American fifties appears here because he has to: he is brought on to the stage to tell us something about the film in which he appears. Just as Richard Nixon stands for corruption, and Ronald Reagen for capitalism, Franklin Roosevelt for the New Deal and Harry Truman for the Cold War, so Dwight D. Eisenhower stands for the fifties- the age of American triumph. And American triumph was the triumph of the company man- the Happy Day's Man who went to his office every day, aspired to rise to the top and feared falling to the bottom. The Hudsucker Proxy is about such a man- but it is not about such a man- it is about the dreams of such a man, the dreams of rising high in corporate America or corporate anywhere and the truth that the film maker deems to lie behind those dreams.

Look at it in another way- the Hudsucker Proxy contains an important story. A fool is elevated by the board from the post room to the board room- they need the share price to fall, to maintain control of the company- he though turns out to be a genius, inventing something which noone thought would succeed but which drives profits higher and higher. He is not the only one- every employee of Hudsucker seems to have a dream- an idea that could take the business forward. This film is the ultimate testimony to the American worker- not merely are they all hard working, they are all genii. But there is something corrosive in this laudation- its that there is, to quote Lord Melbourne, 'no damn merit about it'. Merit is absent. The Hudsucker Proxy doesn't redeem the company because of his intelligence- Tim Robbins plays him as an idiot, the lift boy's idea doesn't demonstrate his brilliance- apart from that he is an irritating squirt, the board room bureacrats are fat and flabby, the workers they preside over work in scenes of dull drudgery- sitting in rows, typing out memos.

This is a film with an iconography- circles and squares dominate the amazing visual landscape that is the true star of the movie. Whether it is the boardroom table, the skyscrapers of Wall Street, the hula hoop, the cigars or the suits, circles and squares dominate. In a sense the point I have made above is more revolutionary when expressed through this visual style. The squares represent the corporate hierarchy- the circles the creativity and fatedness of our hero and heroine and yet what we finally see as the film comes to an end is that they are both the same thing. The thing that renders the board room game so hierarchical is ultimately that it depends not on merit but on fate- the circle of fate twists and pulls our hero back to the top but its verdict is always respected, no matter what the truth. The Coens are arguing through the film that the real verdict of capitalism has nothing to do with merit or conspiracy, its all blind luck.

And so their film's style takes its roots from the only period of real subversion in the history of Hollywood- the thirties, forties and fifties. They reference such iconoclastic artists as Katherine Hepburn, Orson Welles (there are obvious references both to Citizen Kane and to the Trial) and Jean Arthur. Their hero is a corporate version of Jimmy Stewart's Frank Capra characters- but whereas in Capra's films Stewart triumphs because of the merit of his case, here we are invited to see that the opposite is true. Setting the film in the fifties brings in Ike but it allows the Coens to revisit genres like the Screwball comedy and film noir, whose characters exposed the darker and more sexist nature of American capitalism. The indictment here is fuelled by the fifties but it also uses a vocabulary which in cinema was last used in the fifties. The style not merely indicates the substance but indicates the substance of the attack.

That is why I enjoyed this film so much- it has the appeal both of being intelligent- and its worth saying well acted and directed- but also of making a compelling case using a historical vocabulary. The Coens may be right or wrong about capitalism- but what they provide us with is a very American critique of the concept which relies ultimately on exposing the old lie that the corporation is a repository of virtue, where merit rises and incompetence falls, that business has a law which isn't luck and that the boss really does know best.

The thing about the Hudsucker proxy ultimately, is that he is as good a boss as anyother.

December 14, 2008

The Black Tulip


Alexandre Dumas's novel, the Black Tulip (full text online here) is a book about Holland in the seventeenth century- superficially at least it is about politics and romance. The politics is that of Holland in the late seventeenth century- involving the brothers de Witt (Cornelius and Jan) who were prominent Republicans and their imprisonment and lynching in 1672. The actual story of the book takes place a little later- and involves their nephew (invented by Dumas and named Cornelius van Baerle) and his imprisonment by the Stadtholder William of Orange on charges of treason. Cornelius though is apolitical- his crime is to hold some letters which incriminate the De Witts in negotiations with France, but he knows nothing of the contents of the letters. The reason that he is actually imprisoned lies in the fact that he and his neighbour, Isaac Boxtel, are both racing to find a tulip which is black (hence the title of the novel). Cornelius is imprisoned by the state- and threatened with execution- under the governance of Gryphus, the harsh jailor of the De Witts, and his beautiful daughter Rosa.

Dumas's point in the story is about this conjunction between the detailed politics of the Dutch republic and the life of Baerle. Baerle's life is swept off course by the politics of his relatives- but his real preoccupation is that of an artistic amateur, a developer of tulip bulbs. What Dumas does is give us a realistic portrait of how this obsession drives Baerle- there is a kind of comedy in the way that Baerle operates. When he is arrested, he cares less for himself than for the offsets of the black tulip, faced with a beautiful girl (Rosa) who offers him love, he gives her the idea that his tulips are worth more to him than her love. But despite the ridiculous nature of his obsession there is something healthy about it- there is something principled about a man who cares more for tulips than for worldly success. Though Dumas allows a current of satire to develop about his main character throughout the work, the satire is affectionate. Afterall as an autodidact in flowers, Van Baerle is Dumas's equivalent- the great novelist was equally an autodidact about history- and in this instance, makes a classic autodidact's mistake, thinking that William the Silent and William of Orange were the same person.

Van Baerle's obsessions look healthier when compared to those of others within the book. They are selfless for a start- Van Baerle is like the artist inspired by healthy competition, but not so focussed on that competition that like Boxtel or the mob he loses control of his estimation of the virtues of others. He is to some extent self aware. He is aware of Rosa's emotions for a start and her envy of the tulip as her rival. His real success within the novel lies in his innocence- it is in his innocence of the political motivations of others, that he is able to survive the political downfall of his relatives. The innocence also leads him to become the hero of Dumas's story. Innocence and obsession tie together- what Dumas presents us with is the portrait of the innocent artist, unaffected by the world through his obsession and also through his wealth (this mysterious independent wealth means that Baerle has no need for the world, apart from for the lore of tulips).

Dumas's novel is written with a formidable pace- at times, it feels slightly dated as Rosa faints when a man kisses her hand. Dumas's story is pacy and interesting though- worth reading both for its entertainment value and for its testament to the value of a life lived in the pursuit of a hobby.