Thursday, 24 February 2011

Finns preparing for the Winter War, and the Finnish Concept of "Sisu" (Courage)

Pictures from the book Suomen Sotaväki (The Finnish Army), published in 1937, two years prior to the start of the Winter War with the Soviet Union (30 November 1939 – 13 March 1940). The Winter War is a landmark event in Finnish history and national identity. The numerous war graves in every small village, representing a large portion of Finnish men of that generation, are still very prominent, and are memorialized each year on Finnish Independence Day. Against an overwhelming foe, and lacking the aid promised by the Western Powers but never delivered, the Finns held out for 105 days before signing a peace treaty with Moscow and ceding considerable territory in Eastern Finland.

[Learning tactics.]

[One of many modes of transport.]


An extremely important concept to the Finns was, and remains, that of "Sisu." It is usually translated as "courage," "determination" or, more literally, "guts," and is a cornerstone of Finnish identity. It may in some ways be related to the British "stiff upper lip" but, as the translation implies, it is much more visceral and wrenching. Sisu is not undertaken recklessly, but as a long course of action, even if a rather difficult one. It explains the extraordinary fortitude of the Finns during the Winter War, and their attitude towards even lost causes.

Courage is generally a universally praised characteristic, especially since (as is the case with the Winter War) it traditionally alluded to military valor, a virtue highly prized by society. There is also sheer physical courage of sorts -- risking entering a burning building to save another human being, for example. In the modern day few of us ever require this variety of courage -- ours tends to be of a more mundane and personal sort, though climbing mountains and the like would qualify (though in this context there is a fine line between courage and recklessness). Courage is still highly prized, perhaps more highly than other necessary virtues. Its practice can be incredibly empowering and ennobling, and is recommended on a frequent basis, but there can also be risks involved. Exercising courage might well change us, its very strength revealing who we really are and surprising even ourselves. It might not even prove as difficult as popularly imagined, and we could well find that in the process we have unknowingly tapped into our more cold-blooded self. The whole notion may not really be as straightforward as it would seem.

No doubt definitions of courage will alter as society changes, but the old heroism of armies and warfare will probably never lose their mythology and appeal. Nor, probably, will the idea of Sisu. For Finns, it remains a point of pride, a symbol of perseverance through long, cold winters and national oppression. A reminder that one needs inner reserves of courage most of all.

[A classic image of the Finnish army from the Winter War...
trudging onward through the snow.]

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

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Air Raid Precautions and a Cartoon from Interwar Britain

[ARP for Londoners. A Pamphlet produced by the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1938, advocating a deep tunnel and shelter scheme]

The study of government ARP (Air Raid Precautions) in pre-war Britain has been a major subject of study for the Idle Historian. Public policy and framing of the issue reflected the government's emphasis on individualism and "self-help." To critics, this simply indicated a refusal to construct mass shelters or to make adequate provision for the protection of civilians, especially in the densely crowded and poorer areas of London. A broad coalition of left-wing critics attempted to build mass shelters, a measure resisted by the Home Office due to the fear that such provisions would create a "shelter mentality" and break morale in a future war.

[A leftist cartoon, lampooning the government's advice to homeowners, and highlighting the class-based critique of private shelters for the wealthy and well-connected. A rather stereotypical tycoon, complete with top hat.]

The Home Office issued circulars for homeowners on the subject of ARP from 1935 onwards, the first of which concentrated on protection against poison gas (ridiculed by some as "paste and paper" advice). Closer to the Second World War, it became clear that high explosive and incendiary bombs would prove the greatest danger, and householders were advised to have items such as shovels and buckets of sand at the ready in order to extinguish fires (as referred to in the cartoon above).

British leftists continued their deep shelter campaign into the Second World War, to little avail, although the government was forced to concede to the use of Underground stations as deep shelters. We are all familiar with the many images of Londoners bedding down on platforms or even escalators to escape nighttime air raids. Prior to the war, the government insisted that citizens would not be allowed to shelter in the stations as they would be utilized for wartime transport. When the Blitz began, however, there was little stopping desperate citizens from sheltering there.*

*Although only a small percentage of Londoners took refuge in Underground stations. Many used backyard shelters, no shelters at all, or dangerous cellars and shallow underground structures -- known for good reason as "death-traps." On the whole, however, the Home Office was not entirely wrong in assuming that British people preferred to shelter in their own homes if possible. Wartime surveys demonstrated that backyard shelters such as the Anderson and Morrison Shelters were popular with homeowners.

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

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Planes of Our Lives

[Not an airplane the Idle Historian has flown on]

All the calculations show it can't work. There's only one thing to do: make it work.
~ Pierre Georges Latécoère, French aviation entrepreneur

We who fly do so for the love of flying. We are alive in the air with this miracle that lies in our hands and beneath our feet.
Flying alone! Nothing gives such a sense of mastery over time over mechanism, mastery indeed over space, time, and life itself, as this.
~ Cecil Day Lewis

I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things...
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This final quotation from French aviation legend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is no doubt rather ironic today, when flying anywhere is little more than a long litany of "petty things," often culminating in a frustrating experience. We think little about the fact that the airplane represents a truly extraordinary structure that has, alas, become little more than a glorified bus. It is difficult to remember that there was a time when flying was inherently glamourous, dangerous, and filled with awe and adventure. The Idle Historian has recently been writing about flight in its most negative and destructive sense, reflected in the fear of aerial bombing present in the 1930s. Yet even the fears of aerial destruction reflect an awe of the technology and power of the airplane. Though my research is not much concerned with the actual aircraft, it is a subject of personal interest -- perhaps inherited from my father, who worked for over 30 years in the aviation industry.

I now wish I had kept a log of every flight and type of aircraft I have been on -- at least since I was old enough to do so. Though a rather nerdy sort of activity, it would now have proven an interesting experience to note the change in popular aircraft type, or perhaps, a lack thereof. In my lifetime, there are several aircraft models that have thoroughly dominated commercial aviation.

I am partial to the Boeing fleet -- again, a hereditary trait -- though I have certainly flown on many Airbus aircraft and others such as McDonnell Douglas models. For example the DC-10, was at one time a popular model for mid-range North American flights (and, at the time a separate company -- it later merged with Boeing). I never did fly on the Concorde, though I believe its retirement in 2003 was a huge loss to our collective human dream of aviation progress. Boeing is a product of the Pacific Northwest, and its aircraft are iconic symbols of twentieth-century aviation. It produced the first popular jet aircraft in the 1950s, the revolutionary 707 (apparently so named because it was thought to be catchier than "700," though perhaps the actual reasons were more mundane). This started the tradition of the"7-7" naming of Boeing aircraft models, including the famed, 747 (the "Jumbo Jet" -- still in production), the 757, and the ubiquitous 767 -- the long-range twin-engine aircraft that has delivered yours truly on many a trip to the Old World. More recently, Boeing has produced the wide-body 777, the first entirely computer-designed aircraft, which I have flown on several times.

[An early Boeing 707]

I look forward to more flight adventures to come, including one on the new "Dreamliner," the Boeing 787, which is presently in development. If the general experience of air travel has turned abysmal; the mere fact of it is still magical and inspirational. The experience of arriving halfway across the world within hours, and being suddenly immersed into a new environment with no habituating transition at all, never fails to amaze. When something threatens our ability to fly -- adverse weather, terrorist attack, the Icelandic volcano that erupted in April 2010 grounding transatlantic flights for nearly a week -- we feel bereft. Airplanes symbolize the apex of industrialized civilization. For the moment, we can still look out the window and marvel, as the early aviators did, looking down at earth from the sky.

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

Thursday, 3 February 2011

A Stop on the Way to Elsewhere: The Picturesque and the Sublime

[Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, picture taken by the Idle Historian, May 2010]

The artistic and literary Romantic Movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was deeply involved in extolling nature and in reconsidering the state of human existence within it. They have bequeathed to us dramatic paintings, impassioned verse, and the wonderfully named school of "Sturm und Drang." The Romantics have also intensely influenced our aesthetic notions of ideal landscapes, of beauty, and of grandeur. They were the notorious inventors of the "picturesque," the "sublime," and also to large extent our conception of tourist sight-seeing. As a reaction to the perceived deficiencies in human society, the Romantics looked to nature for inspiration in a way hitherto unknown in Western society. In modern terms, you might say that they craved "experience," "thrill," and the bragging rights of detailing the mountaintops, glaciers, precipices, and thundering waterfalls they had seen. They sought out ruins, follies, and wonders both natural and man-made. In one sense, you can probably thank them for each viewing of other people's holiday photographs, pleasurable or otherwise, that you have sat through.

This rushing to and fro in search of wild and romantic scenery was satirized by one of the earliest English cartoonists and caricaturists, Thomas Rowlandson, for the humourous volume The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1812). But even if contemporaries were well aware of the ridiculous elements involved in the search for the sublime, it became ingrained in Western culture and we have never looked back.

[Thomas Rowlandson, "Dr Syntax Sketching at the Lake"]

At which point I shall return to my own holiday photograph, the one at the top of this post (and one of my favourite taken throughout that particular journey). It epitomizes how my own aesthetic taste in landscape, scenery, and the picturesque has been informed by the Romantic Movement. There are two ways in which the experience did not echo the Romantics -- I did not go in search of this landscape, nor was it quite wild and fearsome enough to qualify as the truly "sublime." Nevertheless, it was a stunning scene stumbled upon on the way to somewhere else. The stop was an afterthought along the way from York to the Victorian spa town of Harrogate -- famed for its tea production and the curative powers of its waters for the gouty and sickly middle and upper-middle classes of previous times.

The town is Knaresborough; old enough to be named in the Doomsday Book and possess a castle dating back to the Norman conquest. Such towns are everywhere in England, so much so that even this piece of extraordinary history seems commonplace. From the train station one hikes up a rather ordinary street, past a car park, and into the ruins of the old castle gardens. And then, all of a sudden, one is upon this breathtaking river gorge with the town in the foreground, and the Victorian railway bridge and North Yorkshire stretching into the distance. It was unexpected, and supremely delightful. It was a bit of the grand Romantic vision intruding almost unnoticed on the more jaded modern soul.

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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