Monday, 19 December 2011

1816; the year without a summer

In April 1815 the volcano Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, began to erupt, and continued to do so for several weeks. This was the greatest eruption in recorded history, ten times the magnitude of Krakatoa. Its immediate effects were witnessed by Sir Stamford Raffles, the colonial official who founded the port of Singapore, who was at that time lieutenant-governor of Java. He described three immense columns of flame rising into the sky, detonations loud enough to be heard in Sumatra, 1600 kilometres away, three days of total darkness in Java, rocks as big as his head falling 10 kilometres from the volcano, and nearer the scene, total devastation.

Apart from several thousand immediate casualties, at least 80,000 local people were to die of starvation and disease as ash buried their crops and contaminated their drinking-water. But the impact of Tambora was to be far greater than that. Modern research suggests that at least ten cubic kilometres of material was flung into the atmosphere as the top third of the mountain blew itself off, leaving a gigantic crater.

200 million tons of sulphurous gases from the volcano quickly circled the globe, combining with water in the atmosphere to form droplets of sulphuric acid, blocking out the sunlight and causing a sharp fall in global temperatures over the next couple of years (as much as ten degrees in some places), with disastrous changes in weather conditions. It is possible that the eruption helped cause the unseasonal torrential rain in Belgium in the summer of 1815; reducing the fields to quagmires for the Waterloo campaign and forcing Napoleon to postpone his attack on Wellington’s position till the afternoon, with fatal consequences for himself. But the full effect of Tambora was felt the next year.

1816 was “the year without a summer” in Western Europe and North America. In Canada the ice never melted. There was frost in Connecticut in June, and snow in Quebec, New York state and Maine. Crops failed and livestock died. Things were even worse in Europe. Switzerland experienced its coldest summer for 500 years; in many areas peasants tried to subsist on boiled grass and thousands fled to the towns in search of food. Perhaps 200,000 died of famine all told.

In Britain the end of the Napoleonic wars caused the profound economic dislocation inevitable at the conclusion of long conflicts, with thousands of soldiers demobilised, munitions industries closing, and thus a sudden rise in unemployment. Grain prices had risen to unprecedented heights during the war (a load of wheat cost far more in the Napoleonic wars than in the First World War, even before we allow for inflation over the intervening century!), and after the war prices were kept artificially high by the “Corn Laws” which protected British farmers against cheap imports. Not that there would have been any cheap continental grain available in 1816! The result was several years of hunger and social disturbance, which was met with governmental repression culminating in the notorious “Peterloo massacre” in Manchester in 1819.

In Ireland the potato crop failed two years running, and there was a famine that was a preview of the disasters of the 1840s. A typhus epidemic swept Europe, and a new strain of cholera appeared in India and quickly spread worldwide. In the old school textbooks these years were always labelled the time of “distress and discontent”, but I don’t recall the Tambora eruption ever being mentioned as a contributory factor.

There were even artistic consequences. The lurid skies resulting from the volcano are said to have influenced in Turner’s paintings. Byron, Shelley and his wife were on holiday in Italy, and being confined indoors by the bad weather, occupied their time writing ghost stories. Mary Shelley (the daughter of the radical writer William Godwin and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft) was inspired to write “Frankenstein”; a not unfitting tribute to this terrible year.

Thursday, 15 December 2011


It always amuses me to think how archaeologists in the distant future would be surprised to discover evidence that the inhabitants of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa celebrated a midsummer festival that featured an elderly gentleman dressed in furs suitable for wintry weather, riding a sleigh pulled by an alien species of deer; when people exchanged cards depicting unseasonal snowy scenes populated by alien fauna and flora. It would not be hard for the archaeologists to deduce that this was clearly a cult imported from the nortern hemisphere, but they might wonder why no attempt had been made to adapt it to local conditions. (My suggestion would be Santa Claus dressed in beach gear, arriving on a surfboard, perhaps with attendant dolphins)

Every year we hear of primary school teachers getting into trouble for telling their little charges that Santa Claus doesn't exist. It think this is quite right: after all, these days Santa Claus is probably the only supernatural being some children are brought up to believe in. He is an ideal icon for the present age; his entire raison d'etre is consumerism (where would shops be without him, and the obligation to buy presents?), and he contains no trace whatsoever of Christianity, being therefore equally suitable in our multi-cultural times for Moslems, Hindus and even atheists. His cult embodies the famous schoolboy definition of faith: believing what we know to be untrue; so adults pretend to believe in Santa Claus for the sake of their children, and the children, once they have reched a certain age, pretend to go along with it.

It is significant that in the old Soviet Union the Communists managed to scap most public aspects of Christmas, but they never managed to abolish Santa Claus, who was reincarnated in the transparently thin disguise of "Grandfather Frost".

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The real Santa Claus

Most people know that Santa Claus is derived from Saint Nicholas, but who exactly was Saint Nicholas, and how did he become the old gentleman with a white beard, dressed in red and white, who appears at Christmas?

Not a great deal is known about Saint Nicholas, apart from the fact that he was a bishop at Myra, in what is now south-western Turkey, in the 4th century A.D. He is supposed to have attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, when several crucial doctrines of the Christian church were established, and it is said that he was so horrified by the beliefs of the arch-heretic Arius (who maintained that God the Son must logically have come later than, and be lesser than, God the Father) that he clouted Arius in the face, but there appears to be no foundation for this story. At any event, by the 6th century Nicholas had become a very popular saint, with several churches dedicated to him, and he became the patron saint of sailors, merchants, pawnbrokers, children and others. Many legends were attached to him, the most famous being as follows:
There was a certain poor man in Myra who had three daughters. This was an affliction to him, because he was too poor to provide them with dowries, which meant no-one would want to marry them, and the only solution he could think of was to sell them as prostitutes. Nicholas got to hear of it, and to save them from this fate he secretly dropped three bags of gold through their window at night, to provide them with the necessary dowries. He thus became associated with the giving of gifts, and his sign was three money-bags, or balls of gold.

But Nicholas is now known as Saint Nicholas of Bari, which is in Apulia in south-eastern Italy, a long way from Myra. How could this be? What happened was that in 1087 the city fathers of Bari decided their city needed a tourist attraction to bring in the punters and raise necessary revenue; and in the Middle Ages this meant the relics of a famous saint. So a party of grave-robbers was sent to Myra, and succeeded in taking Nicholas’s remains from their tomb. The sweet smell that arose from the opened coffin told them that the saint was happy about this! The robbers conveyed his body back to Bari, where it was entombed with great splendour. The whole project was a tremendous success; pious pilgrims flocked to Bari to worship, and the city became immensely prosperous as a result. But the city fathers double-crossed the grave-robbers, and refused to pay them the reward agreed for their work!

But how did Saint Nicholas of Bari become Santa Claus? Nicholas’s feast-day was December 6th, and it became a day for giving presents, so it is easy to see how this was postponed for a few days until Christmas. As for the name: this is Dutch in origin, derived from the early Dutch settlers in New York (originally New Amsterdam), where Saint Nicholas in the local dialect became “Sinte Klaas”. There is no doubt that Santa Claus is an American importation, and did no reach Britain until the late 19th century at the very earliest: there is no trace of him in Charles Dickens, for instance. His reindeer all have German names, and his costume of red robes trimmed with white fur only become standardised in the 20th century. Why red and white? The widely accepted answer is; because they are the Coca-cola colours!

The above picture is an early painting by Raphael, known as the Ansidei altarpiece, which can be seen at the National Gallery in London. The figure on the left is John the Baptist, but the bishop on the right is Saint Nicholas of Bari! This is not Santa Claus as we are used to seeing him!
As they might say on Star Trek: "It's Santa Claus, Jim; but not as we know him!"

Silly Russsian names

In 1895 the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov visited Sakhalin, an island with a very harsh climate north of Japan, which was being used as a settlement of convicts and political exiles. As well as being famous as a dramatist and writer of short stories, Chekhov was a qualified doctor, and he produced a detailed report on the numbers of people living on Sakhalin, their standard of living, working conditions, diets and diseases, as well as observations on the native tribes of Gilyaks and Ainu. He was struck by the peculiar surnames of many of the convicts, and listed the following:-
"Fingerless, Limper, Stomach, Godless, Yawner, Not-remembered, Nameless (several versions of this), Family-forgotten, Buried, River, Grey-mare, Fetter, Behind-walls, Yellow-foot".
One suspects that many of these were nicknames given to a man's serf ancestor by his owner, and others were simply something written down by a court official for a peasant who genuinely didn't know his surname.

An unusual metaphor

A while ago I was in a bar whilst someone was holding forth on the alleged bisexuality of Michael Portillo, a topic much hinted at in the press. One splendid old chap, a retired major I think, overheard this and was moved to ask, "Do you mean to say he's one of these 'round-the-wicket' fellows?". I thought this was such a splendid remark that it merited being preserved.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Jonathon Swift's Writings

In the previous post I attempted to place Swift within the context of his times, especially as regards political events. I would now like to make some comment about some of his writings, and what they reveal about his personality.

Swift was disappointed that his political services to the Tory party were not rewarded with a Bishopric, supposedly because Queen Anne was shocked by the scatological nature of much of his work. It has to be said that Swift, although a most intelligent and learned man, as well as a brilliant writer, would not under any circumstances be allowed to serve as a clergyman nowadays, because he was, by any definition, seriously weird. George Orwell in his essay on Swift calls him a “Tory anarchist”, presumably impotent as far as normal sex is concerned, with an exaggerated horror of human dung. This last characteristic keeps emerging in “Gulliver’s Travels”, as will be mentioned later. It must be left to psychiatrists to speculate how far Swift’s peculiarities can be attributed to the fact that he was an orphan who never knew either of his parents. I want here to outline a few of Swift’s pamphlets as well as his solitary book. (It might be noted that all but one of them were published anonymously or under a pseudonym. The only one which earned any money directly was “Gulliver’s Travels”, which brought Swift £200: approximately ten years’ pay for the average English household at the time)

“A Tale of a Tub”, which is said to have particularly shocked Queen Anne, was written around 1696 but published in 1704. It is a religious allegory, taking the form of a story about a man who has bequeathed his three sons a coat each, on the condition that the garments are left forever unaltered. The coat, of course, represents the Gospel, and the three sons, whose names are Peter (the Roman Catholic church), Jack (the Calvinists) and Martin (the Church of England), inevitably ignore their father’s wishes and subject their coats to unsuitable fashionable changes. As we might have anticipated, Martin comes in for the least degree of criticism, whereas Peter and Jack are roundly mocked and abused.

“An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity” (1708) sees Swift at his most sarcastic and ironic. The result is not only very funny, but curiously contemporary in application. He begins by saying it is clear that nobody believes in Christianity any more, which has been “for some time laid aside by general consent, as utterly inconsistent with all our present schemes of wealth and power”. Political parties nowadays, he says, are motivated purely by personal ambitions rather than by principles. We once suffered from “foolish notions of justice, piety, love of country”, but modern education has ensured “not the least tincture left of those infusions, or strings of those weeds”, so it might be thought that there is now no need to abolish Christianity. But then again, if Christianity is abolished, what will there be for satirists and wits to make fun of? And even worse, he has been reliably informed that if Christianity was ever to be abolished, there might be a fall in share prices on the Stock Exchange! All this goes along with gratuitous asides attacking Jesuits, Quakers, freethinkers and others of his favourite targets

“A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country” was written in 1729, very late in Swift’s career. He was over sixty and was no doubt feeling depressed and bitter: his beloved Stella had just died, and his enemies the Whigs seemed permanently entrenched in power in London. He had been exiled in Ireland (“the rat-hole”, he called it) for the past 15 years, but this exile had made him aware of the poverty, misery and exploitation of the country and its peasant population. He had already denounced British policy towards Ireland in his “Drapier’s Letters”; when he had attacked a proposal from a businessman named Wood to issue copper coins for Ireland and thereby make a huge profit. (The scheme was nicknamed “Wood’s ha’pence”, and the patent for it had allegedly been obtained by bribing the mistress of King George I. Swift’s polemic was so vehement that the scheme was abandoned). The “Modest Proposal” is an angry piece, that goes beyond mere irony. In it Swift draws attention to the large number of children in Ireland whose poverty-stricken parents cannot afford to raise them. The solution, he suggests, is cannibalism! A year-old child, he has been informed, will provide very tasty food if sold to the gentry, their skin can make gloves, and his scheme will have the dual advantage of reducing the surplus population (especially of Catholics, who tend to have the most children) and earning their parents the money to pay the rent. This is Swift at his most savage.

Finally, what is there new that can be said about “Gulliver’s Travels”? It is another product of Swift’s later years (published 1726), and reveals many of his obsessions as well as the limitations of his mind. Everyone knows about Gulliver’s first voyage, to the midget kingdoms of Lilliput and Blefuscu (representing England and France). His second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag, the land of giants, his third to Laputa and four other islands, and his fourth to the land of the Houyhnhnms, intelligent horses, who are plagued by filthy, squalid, hairy humanoids called Yahoos. As a climax to this last voyage, Gulliver (i.e. Swift?) realises that he himself is a Yahoo, and is filled with such disgust for the human race that on his return home he cannot bear the company even of his wife and family.
A few general features can be noted. Swift’s horror of human dung is manifested several times. In Lilliput, Gulliver puts out a conflagration in the palace by urinating on it, thereby earning the undying hatred of the Empress. In Laputa he discusses how examination of a man’s excrement might reveal whether he is plotting insurrection, and on his last voyage the Yahoos smother him with their dung. His lack of political imagination is shown by the fact that he cannot imagine any governmental system other than absolute monarchy, entirely dependent on the character of the king and his advisors. In Lilliput and Laputa they are corrupt and stupid, in Brobdingnag and Blefuscu much better. The Houyhnhnms have no government: they live in a Platonic republic taken to its logical extreme, where conformity has become so general that everyone thinks exactly alike and no coercion is ever needed.
Swift cannot envisage any social movement. In Lilliput there is no education provided for the children of cottagers and labourers; “Their business being only to till and cultivate the earth, and therefore their education is of little consequence to the public”. The Houyhnhnms are thoroughbred horses; the lesser breeds of horse (“nags”) act as their servants, and accept their station in life without question. Swift’s upbringing as an orphan make his ideas on education strange. Both the Lilliputians and the Houyhnhnms raise their children on communal lines as outlined in Plato’s “Republic”: the Houyhnhnms show no affection for their colts, and the Lilliputians are forbidden by law to give presents to their children.
Swift is very pessimistic about humanity in general, and believes the human race is degenerating, both morally and physically. The magicians in Glubbdubdrib on Gulliver’s third voyage conjure up the Senate of ancient Rome so that he can compare it with a modern Parliament. “The first seemed to be an assembly of heroes and demigods, the other a knot of pedlars, pickpockets, highwaymen and bullies”. Particularly he hates England under its detested Whig government. After Gulliver has described the English governmental system to the King of Brobdingnag, the King replies, “I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”. On the island of Balnibarbi on the third voyage there is a strange discourse on how the most innocent of letters can be construed to indicate treasonable intentions, so that we almost seem to be in the midst of Stalin’s purge trials. This was probably provoked by the so-called “Atterbury Plot” of 1722, where a Tory bishop, whom Swift must have known personally, was forced to flee abroad under accusations of treason. In case anyone didn’t get the message, Swift refers to “the kingdom of Tribnia, by the native called Langden ….. where the bulk of the people consisted wholly of discoverers, witnesses, informers, accusers, prosecutors, evidences, swearers”, and the authorities first select their victims and then seize them and manufacture evidence against them. Swift’s readers would hardly need to be great brains to decipher in “Tribnia” and “Langden” anagrams of Britain and England!

Swift was certainly a genius, but he was a twisted and embittered man. What hope did he hold out for the future? None whatsoever, it would appear.