Saturday, 27 May 2017

A History of the World in 50 Novels: 50 - "A Week in December," by Sebastian Faulks

Even as the bells rang out the transition from the Twentieth to the Twenty-First Century, it was clear to many of us that the assumptions on which we had planned our lives were beginning to unravel. Prominent among these assumptions was the idea, at times explicitly stated, and at others casually taken for granted, that each succeeding generation could expect to be "better off" (this was rarely defined with any precision) than those that came before. In the early hours of 1st January 2000, as I sipped my champagne at the University of Greenwich, where I then taught, and as, on the island of Jersey, my father lay dying, I reflected that this promise had, in so many ways, been realised.

I had been born with a greater life expectancy than my parents; I have enjoyed educational opportunities that were not available to them; I have traveled more widely than they ever did; consumer credit has made it easier for me to have what I wanted; and I have never had to live through a world war. As the first decade of the new century unfolded, however, the costs attached to this promise became more and more apparent. The technologies that had assisted my career as an academic and writer created just as many new opportunities for criminals and terrorists; increasing life expectancies created challenges around the affordability of health and social care; and our greater mobility around the world, coupled with advances in broadcast and social media, laid bare the inequalities that, for decades, had been all to easy to ignore.

The terrorist outrages of September 2001, in the United States, were followed, in July 2005, by a series of attacks on London, the perpetrators, in this instance, our fellow citizens. A series of banking failures in 2007-2008 precipitated a recession on a scale that few of us had ever expected to live through, and which, for many of us, evoked memories of the Great Depression that had blighted the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents. The hopes that we had toasted at midnight in Greenwich, only a few years earlier, seemed distant indeed; and these events and circumstances have shaped the age in which we now live. We have assuredly not reached "the end of history," not that I have ever entertained that particular dream.

The New York headquarters of Lehman Brothers, the bank whose collapse in September 2008 sparked the global financial crisis. Photo: David Shankbone (licensed under GNU). 

GDP map for 2009 - countries shaded red or brown were in recession. Photo: CIA (image is in the Public Domain).

Queues outside Northern Rock in Brighton ("runs" on banks had not been experienced in Europe since before the Second World War). Photo: Dominic Alves (licensed under CCA).

Sebastian Faulks's novel, A Week in December, is a work of contemporary fiction researched and written by an author better known for his historical novels. It is set in London at the time of the financial crisis, with a cast that includes financial speculators; people variously addicted to drugs, virtual internet worlds, and "reality" television shows; train drivers; lawyers; professional footballers; Muslim immigrants who have fulfilled their dreams of business success; and radicalised youths whose own dreams have little connection to reality, but every potential to destroy the dreams and hopes of their neighbours. It is a work of Dickensian scope, a portrait of a city, and of a country, in flux. Its protagonists, among whom most of us can, I suspect, identify ourselves, do not know how things will work out, but the novel will, I am sure, be discussed by those who will look back on our age with the benefits of historical hindsight.

"Five o'clock and freezing. Piledrivers and jackhammers were blasting into the wasteland by the side of West Cross Road in Shepherd's Bush. With a bare ten months to the scheduled opening of Europe's largest urban shopping centre, the sand-covered site was showing only skeletal girders and joists under red cranes, though a peppermint facade had already been tacked on to the eastward side. This was not a retail park with trees and benches, but a compression of trade in a city centre, in which migrant labour was paid by foreign capital to squeeze out layers of profit from any Londoner with credit."

Shepherd's Bush Green. Photo: HTUK (image is in the Public Domain).

"In his small rooms in Chelsea, Gabriel Northwood, a barrister in his middle thirties, was reading the Koran, and shivering. He practised civil law, when he practised anything at all ... For a long time, and for reasons he didn't understand, Gabriel had received no instructions from solicitors ... Then a case had landed in his lap. It was to do with a man who had thrown himself under a Tube train, and the extent to which the transport provider might be deemed responsible for failing to provide adequate safety precautions."

"Some yards below where Gabriel sat reading was an Underground train; and in the driver's cab a young woman called Jenni Fortune switched off the interior light because she was distracted by her own reflection in the windscreen. She slowed the train with her left hand on the traction brake control and, just before she drew level with the signal, brought it to a halt. She pressed two red buttons to open the doors and fixed her eyes on the wing mirror to watch the passengers behind her getting in and out."  

The London Underground. Photo: SPSmiles (image is in the Public Domain).

"In the rear compartment of Jenni Fortune's Circle Line train Hassan al-Rashid sat staring straight ahead. Normally without a book to read, he would move his head up and down so that the reflection of his face in the convex window opposite would develop panda eyes, elongate like an image in a fairground mirror and then pop. But this was not the day for such frivolity: he was on his way to buy the constituents of a bomb."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Monday, 15 May 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: West Bankside - Electricity and the City

A visitor to London, following the south bank of the River Thames from London Bridge towards Westminster Bridge, having passed the reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, continues along Bankside, passing beneath the Millennium Foot-Bridge. To the left is the Tate Modern, housing one of the great modern art collections of the world, but until 1981 the building was a power station, supplying electricity to the homes and businesses of London.

Bankside power station in 1985. Photo: Cjc13 (licensed under CCA).

The first Bankside power station was built at Meredith's Wharf in 1891. It was owned and operated by the City of London Electric Lighting Company, and supplied electricity to Southwark and (via cables across Southwark Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge), the City: the electric street-lights first went on in Victoria Street, just across the river, on the 25th June 1891. Someone witnessing this might have recalled the evening, just nine years previously, when he or she had seen the lights of Holborn Viaduct lit up by electric lighting from Thomas Edison's very first London power-station.

Thomas Edison's Holborn Viaduct power station (image is in the Public Domain).

The grandparents of that witness might have been present at the Royal Institution in 1831, when Michael Faraday first demonstrated the electric dynamo, establishing the principle by which all electricity is generated to this day; and in 1809, when Faraday's mentor, Sir Humphrey Davy, first demonstrated an electric light-bulb, powered by an enormous arsenal of batteries.

Michael Faraday. Photo: Wellcome Institution V0026348 (image is in the Public Domain).

Faraday's dynamo (1831). Photo: Royal Institution (image is in the Public Domain).

Sir Humphrey Davy demonstrating an electric light in 1809 (beneath him, in the cellar, are the batteries powering it). Image is in the Public Domain.

The Bankside power station was fueled by coal, which could be delivered directly from the river, but its capacity to produce electricity was very soon outgrown by demand. A larger coal-driven power station ("Bankside A") was built in 1893, and was expanded in 1895. Electricity was cheaper, safer, and more convenient than the gas lighting that had illuminated most of London's streets since the 1840s, but it came at the cost of increased pollution, attracting complaints from city residents as early as 1900.

Bankside A was damaged by German bombs during the Second World War, and, in 1947, the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert-Scott was commissioned to build a new power station ("Bankside B" - the building that we now know as Tate Modern). Although this was originally planned to be coal-driven, a national coal shortage prompted a rethink, and it became one of the first oil-powered power stations, burning sixty-seven tons an hour at full-load, and drawing ten million tons of cooling water from the Thames.

"Bankside A," standing amid bomb damage in 1947. Photo: Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society (image is in the Public Domain).

The turbine-hall of "Bankside B" in 1991. Photo: Cwrcun (licensed under CCA).

Attitudes to power generation in cities were changing, however, in the environment of post-war Britain. Improved transmission technologies made it possible to locate power stations at a far greater distance from urban centres; and the burning of fossil fuels had contributed to a series of devastating London smogs, culminating in December 1952, when five days of smog brought the city to a stand-still, and claimed the lives of somewhere between four thousand and twelve thousand Londoners, damaging the health of many more. The Clean Air Act followed in 1956.

Nelson's Column during the Great Smog of 1952 (image is in the Public Domain).

Piccadilly Circus during the Great Smog of 1952 (image is in the Public Domain). 

Oil, however, was a cleaner fuel than coal, and Bankside B continued to produce electricity until 1981. The project to turn the building into an art gallery began as a student project by Sarah North and Antony Gormley, some of whose photographs, taken in 1991, can be seen here. The actual conversion project began in 1994. The gallery opened in 2000, and a new extension was opened last year.

Behind the gallery is Southwark Street, from where our visitor might catch a No.344 bus, heading south to Elephant and Castle (still within the Borough of Southwark). Here, in the middle of a traffic roundabout, is a monument to Michael Faraday, who grew up nearby, the son of a blacksmith, and who served as an apprentice to a book-binder before being taken on as an assistant to Sir Humphrey Davy. One has to wonder how many passers-by actually know what this monument (designed by the architect, Rodney Gordon) represents, but its symbolism would certainly not have been lost on Faraday himself, the man to whom, more than any other, we owe the electricity supply that we take for granted today.

The Faraday Memorial at Elephant and Castle. Photo: Danny Robinson (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

A History of the World in 50 Novels: 49 - "Everland," by Rebecca Hunt

A history of the world in fifty novels could hardly be expected to include each and every country (there are currently, depending upon one's stance in relation to contested cases, somewhere between 193 and 196 of them), but should surely alight on all the continents. There is, however, one such continent that has not yet featured on our journey: the last of all the world's continents to be explored and settled; Antarctica.

The geographers of the ancient world speculated on the likely existence of such a continent, if only because they imagined that the Earth should have some balance and symmetry to it (contrary to popular myth, the greatest minds of the ancient and medieval worlds understood perfectly well that the Earth was spherical, even if they believed that the Sun, and the visible planets, revolved around it), but it was not actually sighted by humans until 1820 (Captain Cook's ships had sailed within 120 kilometres in 1773), and only in the Twentieth Century did serious exploration begin.

Expeditions led by Robert Falcon Scott (1901-4) and Ernest Shackleton (1907-9) succeeded in mapping substantial portions of the continent, but it was an expedition led by the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, that first reached the geographical South Pole in December 1911, beating a rival effort, led by Scott by a few weeks. Scott and his four companions all perished during the course of their return journey.

Roald Amundsen and his party at the South Pole, 1911. Photo: Olav Bjaaland, Project Gutenberg (image is in the Public Domain).
Members of Scott's 1912 party. Photo: Henry Bowers (image is in the Public Domain).
Iceberg grotto, Scott Expedition, 1911-13. Photo: National Library of New Zealand (licensed under CCA).

Antarctica today is divided between the United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, Norway, Australia, Chile, and Argentina (other countries, including Russia, have outstanding claims), and has up to five thousand people living there at any one time (biologists, oceanographers, geologists and their support teams), on a number of research stations. Mineral exploitation and military activity are forbidden by international treaty, but those who have visited the continent (and I am not among them) are only too aware of the fragility of its unique ecosystem.

Research stations on Antarctica. Image: Teetaweepo (licensed under CCA).

Rebecca Hunt's novel, Everland, chronicles two fictional expeditions to the fictional Antarctic island of Everland (which, having an active volcano, sounds a lot like Ross Island), one in 1913, the other in 2012. Both expeditions involve three people, but, in the first case, all are male; whereas, in the second, the party consists of a man and two women. In a land in which nothing decays, the modern expedition is haunted by reminders of the earlier one; and, in a place where human lives are stretched to the limits of their endurance, ideas of morality, duty, courage, and even truth, are similarly exercised, no less for the modern characters than for their predecessors a century before.

Mount Erebus, on Ross Island. Photo: jeaneeem (licensed under CCA).

"April 1913

Running on the beach.Chaotic noises, busy. A call; a male voice shouting in the wind. The sound of something happening in the surf. It was a dream, perhaps, or perhaps a memory leaching out. Such a sweet dream, though. 'Ship-O! ... Napps ... Are you there? Are you all well?'

A glimmer of consciousness brought him back into the over-turned dinghy. He remembered Everland as a colour, an immense blackness, where the cycle of time had dilated to a single endless night. But to permit even a fraction of wakefulness was to suffer. The pain was monstrous. Think of God, if at all. He heard digging. Snow was being shovelled away from the dinghy's buried sides. 'We have him! We have one of them!' 

A burst of activity surrounded him as men crawled into the dinghy. His arms were clenched around his head, covering his face, and they talked in low whispers, afraid to touch him. Someone said tentatively, 'Is he alive?'

'I don't know, I can't tell. Where's the doctor? Hurry, get Addison.'

Boots pelted off across the shingle.

'Napps? ... Millet-Bass? ...' Men were searching the beach and yells echoed from every direction. 'Any sign?' they called to each other."

Members of Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition, 1909 (image is in the Public Domain).
Scott's hut at Cape Evans. Photo: Kuno Lechner (licensed under GNU).

 "November 2012

The Antarctic base Aegeus was currently home to an international community of one hundred and fifty people. It was a stark industrial hamlet of featureless buildings with rough roads bulldozed into the snow. Metal and scrap were piled up next to sealed storage drums, lengths of pipe, and stacked wooden pallets bound with plastic cable ... With its lights out and curtains taped shut against the brilliant evening sunshine, the common room was now dark apart from the whirling glow of a projector screen ... As a tribute to Brix, Jess and Decker, the film chosen obviously had to be the old sixties classic Everland, which was based on Captain Lawrence's famous book about the Kismet expedition ... Tomorrow, Decker, Jess and Brix would begin a comprehensive study of the island, becoming the first party in a hundred years to relocate there for two continuous months. Pretty much everyone at Aegeus, regardless of qualification, had competed to be one of those selected."

Adelie Penguins in Antarctica. Photo: Jason Auch (licensed under CCA).
Dumont-d'Urville Station, a modern Antarctic base. Photo: Samuel Blanc (licensed under CCA).

The stories of the two expeditions are intertwined throughout the novel, and the reader is frequently called upon to question what actually happened in either case. The contrasts, in terms of technology and society, are evident, but so are the similarities, as the challenges of an extreme environment force the characters, both modern and historical, to choose between altruism and self-preservation; and between truthful and invented narratives as to how they behaved when the chips were really down.  

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.