Monday, December 31, 2018

Any Good News in 2018?

Bad news is usually much easier to find than good, if only because good news usually unfolds at a slow pace. Plane crashes, volcanic eruptions, violent protests, and divisive legislative votes have both the brevity and drama best suited to a commercial news publication or broadcast. Yet good news is always there if we know how to look for it. FutureCrunch (h/t my sister Corinna) compiled a list of the 99 best pieces of good news reported during the past year, from which I offer the following sampling:  

Eritrean-Ethiopian Peace Run, Oct. 2018 (
In 2018, the West African nation of Niger reported it has planted 200 million trees since the late 1980s. India constructed 30-40,000 kilometers of roadway made with waste plastic. World wind and solar power production reached 1.0 terawatts, enough to power 300 million homes at U.S. consumption levels. A new cholera vaccine went into use. South Africa reported a 44 percent decline in new HIV cases in the last six years, and Paraguay officially eradicated malaria within its borders. Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace treaty. Canada legalized marijuana, Ireland legalized abortion, and Pakistan legally guaranteed transgender rights. Russia revealed a decline in drinking, though I’ll bet Russians can still drink any other nationality under the table. And NASA announced it will send a helicopter to Mars in 2020, because why not?

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Lady Marines and Lumpish Parsons

James Woodforde’s Diary of a Country Parson retains a curious appeal, the more curious given its focus on the mundane details of an obscure English minister’s life. In his long diary, discovered in the 1920s and published in multiple volumes a decade latter, Parson Woodforde rarely experiences and never himself does anything exciting. He preaches and prays, quarrels with his niece and her friends, collects his tithes, has seven poor men to Christmas dinner every year, and otherwise cycles through his routines like a lumpy Anglican prayer wheel.

I suspect many people read the Diary for its food imagery. A popular one-volume edition appeared in 1949, when Britain remained frozen in postwar austerity. Woodforde’s table-busting meals of trout, and perch, and fried gudgeon, and salmon, and neck of mutton, and ham, and roast turkey, and fricasseed rabbit, and duck, and partridges, and veal knuckles, and peas, and capers, and coffee, and port wine, and apple puffs, and strawberries, and syllabub, and gooseberry tarts, and blancmange, and lambs, and sloths, and carp, and anchovies, and orangutans, and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats, and (skip a bit, Brother) must have appealed to Britons tired of their drab and meager rations.

From the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth
Extraordinary events and persons intruded but rarely into this sedate life. Hannah Snell, whom Woodforde met in May 1778, numbered among the latter. Snell belonged to the mostly-unknown group of women who, in male disguise, served in the early modern British Army. More precisely, she became a Royal Marine, under the name “John Gray.” Snell maintained her masquerade for 22 years and fought in the War of the Austrian Succession, receiving a minor wound in the 1748 siege of Pondicherry (India). After her eventual discharge, Private Gray/Snell persuaded the Crown to pay her a veteran’s pension, of eighteen and a quarter pounds per annum. She supplemented this by traveling the country, recounting her adventures to various audiences, and selling “buttons, garters, laces &c.” Parson W. gave Hannah Snell a gratuity in the form of an overpayment: two and a half shillings for 16 pence worth of buttons. Doubtless he thought himself giving the lady veteran the same kind of charity he afforded the poor, the lame, and the freakish. Probably Snell felt she was performing her own kind of charity, bringing the quality of her conversation (Woodforde wrote she “talks very sensible and well,” the drama of her war stories, and the singularity of her person into the duller backwaters of Britain. (James Woodforde, Diary of a Country Parson, ed. John Beresford (London: Oxford UP, 1949), p. 143)   

Private Snell’s story appealed to her contemporaries, and it interests us just as much today, meshing as it does with concerns about gender equity and debates about the role of women in modern armed forces. It did not suit the Victorians, nor their war-weary and hungry mid-twentieth-century descendants. The latter seem to have preferred Parson Woodforde’s adventures in rustication and genteel gluttony to the derring-do of a gender-swapping marine. I guess there weren’t any heroic banquets in Snell’s memoirs.  

Friday, November 30, 2018

Drinking with Suetonius

I was delighted recently to learn of the twelve silver chalices, commemorating the first twelve Roman emperors, that art historians now call the Aldobrandini Tazze. Their sixteenth-century designer surmounted each tazza with a figurine of the appropriate ruler, and decorated each saucer with four intricate scenes from that monarch's life, as recounted in Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars. Suetonius, as fans of I, Claudius know, wrote formulaic biographies of the Roman imperators from Julius Caesar to Domitian, describing each man's virtues and vices. His early readers and imitators tended more to appreciate the praises Suetonius sang than the salacious details he dished. The ninth-century German monk Einhard used the more high-minded parts of the "Life of Augustus" as the model for his Life of Charlemagne, and Renaissance readers like Petrarch preferred to read S's biographies as models of noble behavior rather than gossipy celebrity bios. 

The silversmith who designed the tazze also preferred the exalted to the depraved. The four scenes on the Tiberius tazza, for example, included T's mother Livia rescuing him from a forest fire and the older Tiberius paying homage to Augustus after a military triumph. None of Tiberius's notorious dalliances with underage boys make an appearance. Nor do the more famous episodes from its subject's life show up on the Caligula tazza, which focuses on that emperor's generosity rather than his alleged sexual affairs with his sisters, his appointment of his horse to the Senate, or his cross-dressing dance homage to the goddess Dawn. The art historian Julia Siemon argues that the tazze's designer wanted them to exalt the Roman emperors in order to pay homage to their presumptive descendants, the Habsburgs. On a continent wracked with religious warfare, the unity and orderliness of the Roman Empire, and the promise of another universal empire claiming descent from Caesar and Charlemagne, must have had great appeal. In our more democratic and prosperous age, we prefer instead to see the emperors' feet of clay, and compare their personal excesses and foibles with our own bourgeois restraint.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Austerity Quickly Became Doubleplusungood

Fans of Nineteen Eighty Four will recall George Orwell’s presentation of his dystopia, Oceania, not as a razor-edged steel-and-concrete police world but as a squalid dump. Critics have observed that Orwell’s future London, with its decaying buildings, unrepaired bomb craters, and blocked drainpipes, was simply a more worn-out version of the London he lived in during the 1940s. Shortages and deterioration proved both ubiquitous and bearable during the Second World War, but Britons expected prosperity to return with peace. When postwar Britain had to tighten its collective belt*, it probably seemed to Orwell and his contemporaries that austerity would last forever. The privation suffered by Winston Smith and his fellow Oceanians bore more than a passing similarity to those witnessed by their real-world predecessors, forty years earlier.

"One Person's Rations, 1951," via
I was reminded of this while reading Victor Sebastyen’s recent chronicle 1946: The Making of the Modern World (Pantheon, 2014). Sebastyen writes that British citizens considered their wartime food rations “adequate and fair,” and above all temporary. A year after VE Day, however, rationing remained in effect. Indeed, the Food Ministry announced a large cut in rations in February 1946. Henceforth each adult would only be allowed to buy (for each member of the household) fifteen ounces of meat and cheese, a quart of milk, and a single egg each week. Two imported wartime foods, powdered eggs and rice, disappeared entirely. Worst of all, the Ministry underhandedly tried to cut bread consumption by reducing the “one-pound” and “two-pound” loaves by 2-4 ounces, while maintaining the old prices (pp. 68-69). One can see how persistent and deepening shortages of essential foods influenced 1984. Oceania’s fictional Party members subsisted on dirty gray bread and watery stew, ersatz coffee and acidic fake gin, a meager diet but one which British readers, sick of root vegetables and mock hamburger, would have found familiar. Orwell even threw in what may have been a backhanded reference to the ‘46 bread scandal. His Ministry of Plenty cut chocolate rations to twenty grams and later claimed it had actually raised the ration to twenty grams. Oceanians had to swallow the lie along with their reduced rations. Postwar Britain, at least, remained democratic: consumers saw through the bread ruse fairly easily, and Food Minister Ben Smith lost his job that May.    

* Thanks to a severe shortage of foreign currency and the curtailment of American loans.