Tuesday, 30 November 2010

More Rudyard Kipling Fun!

Kipling had quite a wicked sense of humour. A smattering of quotations from the book Kipling Abroad:

  • On Calcutta, one city on the subcontinent of his birth which he despised:
[p. 62] "When I had disgusted all who knew me, I fled to Calcutta, which, I was pained to see, still persisted in being a city and transacting commerce after I had formally cursed it one year ago. That curse I now repeat, in the hope that the unsavoury capital will collapse."

  • On the city of Oakland, East of San Francisco:
[p. 108] "We pulled out at the wholly insignificant speed of twenty-five miles an hour through the streets of a suburb of fifty thousand, and in our progress among the carts and the children and the shop fronts slew nobody; at which I was not a little disappointed."

  • On Yellowstone National Park, which provoked all Kipling's favourite bugbears, primarily "tourists," whom he scorned with an intensity completely unmatched by even the most vociferous travel-snob of today:
[pp. 112-3] "To-day I am in the Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead... The tourists -- may their master die an evil death at the hand of a mad locomotive!"

  • On Chicago, which reminds him of the first city he truly despised. [While there he witnessed the slaughterhouse industry, which in a few years would be the subject of Upton Sinclair's famous exposé The Jungle (1906) ]:
[p. 116] "It holds rather more than a million people with bodies, and stands on the same sort of soil as Calcutta. Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages. Its water is the water of the Hughli, and its air is dirt."

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Monday, 29 November 2010

Rudyard Kipling Invests in Vancouver Real Estate in 1889 -- A Wise Man Indeed!

[Stanley Park, Vancouver. Winter, above, and summer.]

Leafing through a book entitled Kipling Abroad: Traffics and Discoveries from Burma to Brazil, I stumbled over a short but rather interesting piece on Vancouver, written on a 1889 visit to the city (three years after fire devastated the original city), and later published in his book From Sea to Sea (1900).

Kipling described the pleasant "sleepiness" of the town of 14,000, the perfect harbour, the friendliness of the hotel-keepers, and the easy availability of bathing facilities in aforementioned hotels. He also observed that "the old flag waves over some of the buildings, and this is cheering to the soul. The place is full of Englishmen who speak the English tongue correctly and with clearness, avoiding more blasphemy than is necessary, and taking a respectable length of time to getting outside their drinks."

The warm and fuzzy feelings that Vancouver clearly engendered in Kipling provoked him to consider the prospects for the town's future to be very positive. The passage in which he describes his purchase of a tract of land bears quoting at length:

These advantages [of Vancouver] and others that I have heard about... moved me to invest in real estate. He that sold it to me was a delightful English Boy who, having tried for the Army and failed, had somehow meandered into a real-estate office, where he was doing well. I couldn't have bought it from an American. He would have overstated the case and proved me the possessor of the original Eden. All the Boy said was: 'I give you my word it isn't on a cliff or under water, and before long the town ought to move out that way. I'd advise you to take it.' And I took it as easily as a man buys a piece of tobacco. Me voici, owner of some four hundred well-developed pines, a few thousand tons of granite scattered in blocks at the roots of the pines, and a sprinkling of earth. That's a townlot in Vancouver. You or your agent hold to it till property rises, then sell out and buy more land further out of town and repeat the process. I do not quite see how this sort of thing helps the growth of a town, but the English Boy says that it is the 'essence of speculation,' so it must be all right. [Kipling Abroad, pp. 109-110]
And so, in 1889, with only a few days' observation and a conversation with a failed army recruit who nevertheless gave his word as an expat Englishman, Kipling alighted on the essence of the Vancouver real estate game. He knew a good investment when he saw it. Today, of course, real estate in Vancouver outpaces that of any other Canadian city by a wide margin. (The chart on this page is probably a low estimate). Since 1889, collective millions have also fallen for the charms of Vancouver and wished to stay. And although there is rather more glass and steel than there once was, the city still retains the vital essence described by Kipling: the trees, the granite and earth, the water, and the laid-back lifestyle.

This evidence of Kipling's real estate holdings in Vancouver demands some further research. Where exactly was his plot located? (It sounds somewhat substantial by his description). How long did Kipling own it for, and what sort of profit did he make if or when he sold it? The Idle Historian shall make inquiries.

Update: Undertaking some rather preliminary research, it appears that Kipling's real estate plots were in the area that is currently near Fraser and 11th. It would appear, however, that Kipling did not do very well out of his investment. He bought the land in 1889 for around $500, and sold it in 1928 for $2000 -- adjusted for inflation and $60 per year that he had been paying in taxes, no profit at all! More about Kipling and Vancouver from the Vancouver City Archives website.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Friday, 26 November 2010

Rhyming Kings and Queens

A funny little rhyme for schoolchildren to remember the Kings and Queens of England and Great Britain, from the book This Little Britain: How One Small Country Changed the Modern World (p. 96):

Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry three.
One, two, three Neds, Richard two,
Henries four, five, six -- then who?
Edwards four, five, Dick the bad,
Harries twain and Ned the lad,
Mary, Bessie, James the vain,
Charlie, Charlie, James again,
William & Mary, Anna Gloria,
Four Georges, William and Victoria,
Ted, George, Ned, then George were seen,
And now it's Liz -- God Save Our Queen.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Saturday, 20 November 2010

On Archival Discoveries: Or, Why Didn't I Find That?

A drawing of the skull of Richard II, National Portrait Gallery

Historians and researchers dream of making that extraordinary, earth-shattering discovery in the archives. It happens but rarely, and most of the time our "major discoveries" come in the form of some minor letter or memo, showing that, for example, a government decision may have been taken a whole month before popularly thought. Oh oh oh! -- The nerdy historical heart leaps at such minutiae! We clutch the piece of evidence, excitedly insert the non-acidic bookmark for photocopying, make our painstaking notes, and think of how worthwhile a day it has been. After hours of sifting through material irrelevant to our project, we have found the gold beneath the dross, no matter how small a nugget it might prove to be.

Yet occasionally, a researcher is fortunate enough to make a truly portentous discovery. Recently, at the National Portrait Gallery, as staff were sorting through long-unopened boxes, they, as reported in The Guardian,
"discovered relics from the coffin of Richard II, along with detailed drawings of his skull which could be used to create a true likeness of the deposed medieval king. To say the researchers were taken aback by the discovery in the archive of the gallery's founding director, Sir George Scharf, is perhaps an understatement... 'it's one of the biggest pleasures of this job to literally feel that you are touching history.' " The full story here.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Thursday, 18 November 2010

What's Up with British Columbia? Or, the Strange but True Story of our Second Premier "Amor de Cosmos"

Amor de Cosmos, born William Alexander Smith (1825 - 1897), Second Premier of British Columbia (1872 - 1874)

The Province of British Columbia is presently embroiled in a heated, nay, sizzling political conflict -- details of which are quite possibly too nasty and vicious for the Idle Historian to detail here. The present troubles, however, are but the latest installment in the long-running bizarre, and sometimes downright absurd, cavalcade that is BC politics. We possess a reputation for having the craziest politics in the nation, and indeed we do work extremely hard to maintain it. Almost all our Premiers since the early 1990s have resigned in scandal -- if, that is, they were not sacrificial lambs leading their respective parties for a few months to ignominious decimation at the polls. Recently, however, there had been a multi-year stretch of relative quiet (by BC standards), leading one reporter on the CBC to liken the Province to a "dormant volcano" that was simply waiting to blow. Another posed the question: "What's up with British Columbia?"

We got an early start with eccentric political figures in the person of our Second Premier, a man perhaps charitably as "iconoclastic" -- this was a man who changed his legal name to Amor de Cosmos on the mistaken impression that it meant "lover of the universe." It was the name with which he would enter politics and lead the Province after an eclectic series of jobs and ventures stretching from California to his final city of residence, Victoria -- the Provincial capital. He entered politics as an opponent of Sir James Douglas and his allies. His short tenure as Premier ended, as so many have tended to, in scandal, alienation from his friends and colleagues, and de Cosmos being declared insane (well, not all ex-Premiers are declared insane, though at times suspicions do arise regarding their sanity). And it is wondered why all the best and brightest candidates to run for the Premiership at present seemingly do not wish to touch it with the proverbial 10-foot pole.

There are certainly many positive things that can be said about Amor de Cosmos. He was an intrepid journalist who founded the newspaper that still exists as the Victoria Times-Colonist. He also shook up the political establishment, pushing for reforms and responsible government, and was reputed to be a man of great eloquence and intellect. In his theatrical eccentricity he epitomized a type of politician that will not likely come again -- a type that flourished in 19th and early 20th century British and Canadian governments. Grand figures such as Winston Churchill who, with his mood swings, impetuousness, and fondness for brandy, would be deemed "unelectable" today. But in their eccentricity they often held dogged ideals, grand national visions, and proposed invaluable new ideas even if they were daring and risky. Our modern politicians may be unhinged in their own ways, but they must seemingly always be scripted, telegenic, and play by the rules of soundbyte and focus group. Maybe there is something to be said for Amor de Cosmos and his like. At the very least, he certainly set the ball rolling for offbeat politics in our Province, and we have been on the ride ever since.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A Most Unusual Royal Wedding, 1893

The wedding portrait of the future George V and Mary of Teck, 1893

So the news breaks today, of great surprise to no one at all, that Prince William and the lovely Kate Middleton are finally engaged. They held a calm, sedate, and dignified press conference and ITV interview. Both gave safe and predictable answers. She seemed sufficiently awed by the grandeur of Monarchy while also appearing confident and mature. He was loving, and sentimental about both his late mother and his life partner to be. And he refrained from cracking any ill-advised jokes such as "whatever in love means."

Television reporters have been looking back at previous marriages of heirs to the throne, most particularly Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer's ill-fated nuptials of 1981. But there is also the postwar wedding in 1947 of young Princess Elizabeth to the dashing naval officer Philip Mountbatten. Prince William's great-grandfather was not yet first-in-line to the throne when he married in 1922. Albert Frederick Arthur George ("Bertie") wed the vivacious young Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, later best known as the "Queen Mum," and through the misadventures of his elder brother Edward VIII ascended the throne.

But perhaps the most unusual of all these marriages was that of the great-great-grandfather of the current second-in-line to the throne. George V was not born as heir to the throne either. That privilege belonged to his eldest brother, Albert Victor "Eddy," who became engaged to a young Anglo-German aristocrat, Mary of Teck in 1891. But he died unexpectedly only a few weeks later, of influenza and pneumonia, all too common even among the young prior to the invention of antibiotics. Incredibly enough, the new heir to the throne became close to the bereaved fiancee, and the couple were married in 1893. They remained a devoted pair until George V's death in 1935. George also re-established a rather boring, sedate, and dutiful image of modern monarchy -- far removed from the flamboyant, indulgent, and slightly debauched court held by his father, Edward VII. More corgis, less champagne.

George V's Coronation Portrait of 1911

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

George Orwell Nails the Reverse Snob

Presently reading George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a terribly sad little novel, of which Orwell himself was not particularly fond. He claimed that he wrote it for the money, and then wished that he hadn't. Yet the bleak depiction of Gordon Comstock's life, and his fruitless attempts to escape the "money god," captures so thoroughly the dull listlessness of the Thirties that is reflected in the writer's other famous works -- Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) prime among them.

And, being Orwell, he captures the bland hypocrisy of much of the "socialist" political elements of his day. The penniless Gordon Comstock at one point goes out for an evening with his posh friend P.W.H. Ravelston, a man who self-consciously attempts to disguise himself as a rabble-rousing member of the proletariat. Editor of the inflammatory leftist publication "Antichrist," he feigns a poverty he cannot truly claim. Orwell's description of this inverse pretension is priceless:
It would have astonished Ravelston to learn that his four-roomed flat, which he thought of as a poky little place, [made Gordon feel shabby]. To Ravelston, living in the wilds of Regent's Park was practically the same thing as living in the slums; he had chosen to live there, en bon socialiste, precisely as your social snob will live in a mews in Mayfair for the sake of the 'W.1' on his notepaper. It was part of a life-long attempt to escape from his own class and become, as it were, an honorary member of the proletariat. Like all such attempts, it was foredoomed to failure. No rich man ever succeeds in disguising himself as a poor man; for money, like murder, will [be found] out.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Monday, 15 November 2010

Demonstrations and Hard Times

The recent fracas regarding student demonstrations in central London over rising tuition fees and cuts to higher education -- and a very small number of violent protesters who ended up at the Tory Party headquarters -- reminds us that hard times and demonstrations naturally coincide. During heady salad days, there is little to feel wronged over. When fortunes are reserved, however, anger tends to boil to the surface. "The Thirties" were the hungry decade, the Red Decade, the "low dishonest decade" -- you may take your pick of adjectives. It certainly was a decade of marches, protest, and anger. From the National Museum of Photography in the UK, this photo shows spectators watching a demonstration by the Labour Party-controlled Daily Herald in Trafalgar Square, 4 March 1934, possibly the culmination of a hunger march. They seem rather docile, and besides there hardly appears to be enough protesters to summon any critical mass of anger. They watch and wait -- part of a continuum of democracy, citizenship, and "the demo."

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

On Remembrance Day, 2010

" Mr. Straker."
" Sir."
" You can fall the men out for breakfast. The war is over."
" Very good, sir."
-- Lt Col. F. Lushington; quoted in Guy Chapman, OBE, MC (Ed.), Vain Glory: A Miscellany of the Great War 1914-1918

In a country such as Canada, Remembrance Day is inculcated in us from an early age -- following a specific narrative, a certain tone, a gravity and sense of occasion apparent even to the very young in school assemblies. We wore poppies, were instructed in the meaning of them, and were shown grainy black and white pictures of soldiers -- long ago and far away -- who, we were told, fought for us so that we could be free. We recited the John McCrae poem "In Flanders Fields," which I remember verbatim to this day. Even at such a precocious age, when such sweeping narratives are a bit hard to grasp, we held at least a modicum of understanding of what it meant to be free and knew that previous generations had bequeathed a great deal to us.

As we grow older we realize that war(s), past and present, and occasions such as Remembrance Day combine complex emotions. It is not a celebratory occasion, but rather one that mingles sorrow and gratitude for all that we enjoy. Remembrance Day comes to evoke emotions beyond war and soldiering. As we see the now thinning ranks of the great generation of the Second World War veterans, we are reminded that we, too, wither as the grass -- though most of us will never set foot on the battlefield. We think of our own elders who have left us, and the civilization they left us with. I am, and I hope most people are, proud of our heritage and desirous that we too will see it preserved for subsequent generations. And hopeful that we may also find the courage to make changes as necessary, and to understand that freedom -- the freedom for which so many paid the ultimate sacrifice -- evolves. To paraphrase John Bunyan, we hope that we may give our swords (figurative or literal) to those who will succeed us in our pilgrimage.*

*"My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it." --John Bunyan. This inscription is inlaid in stone at the entrance of the gardens at Christ Church College, Oxford.

The Memorial to Canadian Soldiers, Green Park, London: "In Two World Wars One Million Canadians Came to Britain and Joined the Fight for Freedom":

Note: See The Idle Historian's post for Remembrance Day 2011

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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