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Got a ‘mail this morning from my friend (and Samizdatista) Midwesterner. Someone had brought up the issue of neglected literary classics and pre WWI Germany and this is what I had to say. Mid said I ought to public it. Well… Samizdata saw fit to take him on and their technorati ranking makes me and Cats look like a bloke in a shed in Cheshire and a bloke in a flat in Queensland. Which of course is what we are. so here goes…

Neglected classics. On the subject of Germany shortly before WWI I suggest you read Jerome K Jerome’s “Three Men on the Bummel”. It is not as good as “Three Men in a Boat” but, especially towards the end, it makes some points about pre WWI German society which are disturbingly prescient. It’s also quite a fun read about three blokes having a lark cycling through the Black Forest. It and “Three Men in a Boat” are bizarrely contemporary. There is a section in which J bemoans folks who tinker with other folk’s cycles by the road-side which parallels exactly how I feel about folks who tinker with computers. The analogy still works.

JKJ is highly recommended. He is a brilliant comic writer. But there is more to him than that. He exposes something which gives me enormous hope. Those Edwardians were very similar to us. The idea that they were a bunch of misogynist stuffed shirts is surely a construct of the 60s. J, George and Harris were in so many ways freerer than we are and so were their wives that they lived in mortal terror of.

I have read a lot of late Victorian/Edwardian literature (it’s out of copyright and therefore cheap) and I feel I could fit right in there. I mean the EU likes to pretend that before them we couldn’t live and work in France or Germany – not true. Philip Larkin wrote (mockingly) “Sexual intercourse started in 1963/After the Lady Chatterly Trial/And before the Beatle’s first LP. Look at C19th British population figures… They were clearly at it like knives.

We are fed a diet of complete bunk about the Victorians. No social mobility. Not true. I grew up three miles away from George Stephenson’s cottage and his dad was an illiterate collier but George ended-up on the five pound note. Quite a few generals by the end of WWI had started out as privates. The working class enslaved in slums? True up to a point but that fails to see the wider picture which is one of enormous material gains over the entire C19th. Look at how life expectancy, literacy rates and stuff like that ramped whilst Victoria was on the throne. Look at the literature and the science and engineering. Or the libraries or medicine or sanitation or anything… The Victorian era was epically brilliant. It started with folks complaining that trains travelling at 20mph would be fatal to passengers and ended (not exactly but near enough) on Kill Devil Hills South Carolina* because it was not just in Britain. It was also the age (roughly) of Edison and Tesla and Benz and Orv and Wilbur. In those five names we have almost everything we think of as modern. I had a ‘tricity cut recently and for over an hour it was almost like being dead. You ever flown on
a plane? You have a couple of bicyle tinkerers from Ohio to thank for that. Been in a car – thank you Mr Benz, used electricity – thank you Nikola Tesla. It just goes on and on…

And moreover it was an age when these things were seen as good things and progress and a carbon-footprint was something a miner was beaten with a clothes-prop by the missus for leaving on the clippy-mat and not a cash-cow for the former senator from Tennessee.

We have so lost the plot yet we are almost so close to it I think we can get it back.

Do they not get that we only got here from there (and there was bloody awful) by building those dark Satanic mills…

I’m gonna be outrageous here. I think by studying physics and astrophysics I got a sounder grasp of history than if I’d studied history. Seriously. As Perry** would put it that’s because the meta-context is right. It’s partly about a belief in progress but it’s also about an understanding of how that actually happens.

And trust me. It ain’t broad-brush “movements” – it’s individuals. Our practical deification of Sir Isaac keeps our feet on the ground. I have met a great many physicists (it kinda helps to be one) and most of them claim Feynman as a hero. Nobody claims Newton. They wouldn’t dare. He is beyond that and that is what makes us humble. Because we appreciate that great individuals can turn the universe upside-down.

Amongst his many achievements (i.e. the entire modern world) he also invented the cat flap.

Very slightly edited that’s almost verbatim. Like the Victorians we live in an age of epic change. I am 35 and I have had computer (of sorts) for 25 years. I now have several. But when I was at primary school a computer was something governments and Bond baddies had. They weren’t in the back bedroom running Manic Miner. They were in extinct volcanoes and tended by leggy brunettes with ponytails who were toting clipboards and looking very severe. They wore specs that you just knew if they shed (and let their tresses down) they would go in two seconds from librarian to ultra foxy. And yes they usually did just that for Commander Bond.

Unlike my co-blogger Cats I doubt the coming singularity. I would love it but I doubt it will happen. Not convinced on that mind you. I don’t think there is any technical reason for it not to happen (though the lamentable level of science education in the UK doesn’t fill me with confidence). Instead I think “moral” and “social” reasons will nix it. The largest economy on the planet*** – the EU – has permanently banned GM foods and has done so despite scientific advice (the EU’s pet farmers can can keep on projing on via subsidies of course – for a while anyway).

What we lack and what the Victorians and Edwardians had in spades is hope. Way too many people now see “progress” in negative terms, or what’s worse “progressive” terms – to the extent that the word “progressive” has been utterly scrobbled. In the early eighties my dad (a teacher – now retired) worked with a chap, with a beard, with leather patches on his tweed jacket who claimed that Africans had healthier diets than us. He claimed this because we consumed more calories and ate more red meat so we were more likely to die of a heart attack or colon cancer. I don’t plan on doing either but I’d much rather die of either in my 80s than do it next week due to malnutrition or because the water was lousy. What he clearly didn’t get was that those Africans were carking it because they were poor. A good diet (and this is highly debatable) matters nowt if you are dead from malaria or some (quite literally shitty) waterborn disease by twelve. D’oh!

Greater wealth has arguably lead to greater social inequality but equality is not the issue is it? A hundred years ago a rich man might have had myriad servents but they never had wifi or the capacity to get to the USA in 7 hours. I have both. I am objectively richer than Edward the VII. Yeah, he had his palaces and all but I have a television and Youtube and a laptop. I would not trade apart frrom one thing. I just wish my generation saw technology as the solution and not as the problem.

*Do SC numberplates still have the state motto “First in Flight” on them.
**Editor of Samizdata.
***It might be The Obamanation.


  1. ScotsToryB says:

    ‘Projing’? Wtf?


  2. El Draque says:

    Just wondering – is it still true that genuine scientists are better educated than social scientists? It was when I was at university; the physicists I knew seemed to have a wider grasp of topics.
    As a social scientist myself – economics & political theory – it was quite illuminating.

    And of course it is eternally true that Stephenson, Brunel, Bazalgette, and all the other Victorians, did more for the poor in the long run than Karl Marx did.

    Under-rated age, Victorian. Odd that it became an insult. Even odder that “Victorian” is shorthand for sexual repression and prudery.
    At uni I did a course that covered Victorian pornography; there was a colossal amount published about the queen’s wedding night. (Mind you, that could be evidence on both sides).
    You know the traditional telescope with a coin in the slot on seaside resorts? Installed so men could peek at the women’s bathing beaches from a distance (and vice-versa, by all accounts). Swimsuits not compulsory until very late in the 1890′s.

    A creative, fast-changing age, as you say.

  3. Nick M says:

    I think the key is that physical scientists have a wider range of interests and a wider way of looking at them. The reflected sound as of underground spirits is the closest thing the SS has to a genuine discipline (and somethink I am getting very interested in for my sins) but then I’m Physics and that’s hard core. We regard chemistry as an art. Actually we regard it primarily as a complete and utter waste of time.

    I mean does anyone give a flying one if x reaction produces a “milky white precipatate”?

    Fascinating stuff ED. I knew that the picosecond the Victorians figured out moving pictures they started making Frankie Vaughn. And it wasn’t Domai either…

    Nah, it was threesomes, moresomes, up the Gary Glitter… Why does this surprise anyone? I mean the fundamental desires reaching across the millennia are pretty much eternal. The erotic poetry of Donne and Catullus still works because it feeds into something universal – everyone just wants a good hard shag.

  4. Infidel753 says:

    You know the traditional telescope with a coin in the slot on seaside resorts? Installed so men could peek at the women’s bathing beaches from a distance

    Did this result in the production of a “milky white precipitate” that had to be cleaned off the telescopes?

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  5. Rob Farrington says:

    Id like to leave a more intelligent contribution, but that bit about specs and librarians had me obsessing about Sarah Palin. AGAIN. Is there a support group I can join, or is there no hope for me?

  6. Midwesterner says:

    Thank you for that, Nick. When you mentioned copyright, I looked online and found it here: and Three Men in a Boat here:

    How “Industrial Age” has been turned into a pejorative amazes me. Like you, I suspect that we are a lot closer to regaining sanity than we realize. Comfortable houses, easy travel and supermarkets full of the best of fresh and prepared food are impossible within “Green” limits. If it was, Algore, Duke of Greens wouldn’t be needing so many papal dispensations carbon credits. When their second class status dawns on the intended peasants, they may have second thoughts.

    Also, there is in popular Victorian fiction, even from writers as dark as Poe or as ‘socially conscious’ as Dickens, a joie de vivre that today’s secular priests can not even detect much less share. I suspect schadenfreude is the closest they ever come to happiness. Can you imagine the Browns or the Obamas or any other of their ilk finding pleasure that wasn’t from gaining place over others? Their relativism goes clear through.

    Preaching to the choir, I know, but creating a new aristocracy by depriving, restraining and confining the commoners is the agenda. It is no accident that today’s wealthy so heavily favor leftist elitism. These would-be aristocrats are tearing down the norms of a society that values achievement, yet the carefully cultivated anomie festering in their multiculturalism culture bomb will ultimately turn and devour them. Nihilism by nature disarms its adherents. Victorians honored (and rewarded) accomplishment; today’s relativism punishes accomplishment and rewards failure. Success will ultimately prevail of course, but the near term does look to be rather wobbly.

  7. Nick M says:

    “Proj on” is what Chevette says all the time in Gibson’s “Virtual Light”. What STB means is beyond me.

    You are a very naughty boy.

    See Infidel’s comment and I dunno about support groups but I suggest a simpler solution might just to engage in a mass debate. If you can’t get it in (and I suspect Mr Palin is a gun owner) then better out than in.

  8. NickM says:

    I think Brown learned to smile from looking at diagrams. And not well drawn ones because it looks like rigour-mortis.

    The Obamas… Well Michelle said it all when she announced that Barack winning the Dem nomination was “The first time she ever been proud to be American”. I think that is about the most shocking thing I have heard a pol say for decades. I mean America had been beastly to the woman before that. Forcing her to go to a fine University and get a good job and be married to a senator and giving birth to their children in a nice clean modern hospital.

    What an utter moo.

  9. NickM says:

    You are right about Poe. Despite being a drug-addled boozehound who’s life was chaotic to wsay the least some of his writings are remarkably playful. One of his shorts is a sort of description of the technological wonders of the C19th written from the perspective of a “savage”. The glee in the achievement is palpable. Slightly later Chesterton sets one of his Father Brown mysteries in the sticks in Italy. An Italian anarchist character announces at the end he’s off to Hudderfield or some-such, to the workshop of the world, to the North of England to where basically *it* is happening. Though by that stage perhaps Detroit would have been a better option.

    Personally I blame Oppenheimer or at least the Oppie myth. “I am become Death the Destroyer of Worlds” is probably something he made up later. At least one eyewitness at Trinity said Oppie just said “It worked”. The later seems more plausible because if it hadn’t worked and the US government had blown 2 billion dollars on it Oppie would have been lucky to get a job as a night watchman in a lab after that. The point is that that was the moment when it was hammered into us that scientific progress was a double-edged sword. Of course some scientific progress is double-edged* but some is an unalloyed good. But that is a meme that has legs. I will bet dollars to donuts for example that it’s possible to link the rise of new-age quackery to the thalidomide babies.

    *For two reasons. I think JFK said, “We have guided missiles and unguided men”. The problem is not the missiles. The problem is the men. If South Korea was testing nukes would the UN be having fits? (I bet they have ‘em – I bet they got together with the Japs and did it on the sly – possibly with a bit of help from Israel and RSA). The second of course is sometimes we cock-it up. For some reason our cock-ups make better news than our successes. Oh and most of the population is pignorant about science. Apparently the utter bollockfest that is Tom Hank’s new movie “Angels and Demons” involves some loon with a thermos flask full of antimatter filched from CERN. Apparently CERN is quite happy about this because some folks who saw the movie hadn’t even heard of CERN. What!

  10. RAB says:

    Yes the Left have really done a thorough job on the bad rapping of the Victorians.

    Both my grandparents were Victorians, self made men and very proud of it.

    My great grandfather was the owner and headmaster of a private school. It wasn’t Eton or anything, just the 3 R basics. Those who could pay, did, but those he deemed to be too poor didn’t. He never denied anyone an education who wanted one.

    I read somewhere that the literacy level in 1870, when they Nationalised Great Gramps was around 90%. What do you think it is now, after over a century of state education? 50 maybe 60% ?
    When you pay for something, you appreciated it more, rather than having it thrust upon you, ostensibly for free.

    We are not amused???

    Victoria was having a ball until Albert died!
    She loved sex, look at all the kids she had.
    She even smoked Pot.

    That’s another thing. The freedoms the Victorians had were enormous compared to what the moralistic Lefties allow us to do today.

    You could go down the chemist and buy whatever jolly juice took your fancy.
    You could own and carry a gun or a swordstick.

    I think you should bring your revolver this evening Watson, the Game’s afoot!

    Right ho Holmes!

    These were can do people, and they did.
    If they encountered a problem they overcame it.

    They dug tunnels, built railways, created new industries.

    The population of Cardiff in 1860 was about 1500 people.
    Ten years later, after coal was discovered in huge quantities in the Valleys the population was up to 30,000.

    South Wales was like the Klondike in the gold rush. People poured in from all over Britain and Europe. Social mobility? Nobody put a gun to their head, they all came of their own free will, for a better life.

    My Welsh speaking gramp was one of them. He came from a dirt poor Welsh speaking village in rural West Wales where the village just about managed to scrape up the money to buy him his first overcoat(he wore a Welsh flannel cloak before) when he got an apprenticeship to an Ironmongers in Mountain Ash. The money he was able to send back home after only a few years was enough to buy a thousand overcoats!

    Now look at us!

    A cant do, wont do, ooo misses! let’s err on the side of caution elfen safety society.

    And thanks to the Global Warming fanatics, we may just be back to living in caves, a lot faster than if what they fear is actually true.

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