Monthly Archives: December 2012

Pressing forward, looking back

Simpsons, The Economist, New Challenges for Indonesia

It’s at a crossroads.

The Economist runs an end-of-year double issue each December, so that its journalists can spend Christmas with their families instead of explaining to the rest of the world how the bracing effect of market forces can make us all richer and happier. The double issue contains a number of special articles, longer than usual, on all sorts of different subjects—usually in historical perspective. Among the modern and contemporary subjects that feature this year:

There’s a weekly limit of six articles for non-subscribers like me, and that’s already seven. But there are some others that are worth looking at, like the one on the ‘Mardi Gras Indians‘ in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, a quote from the Simpsons:

Homer: “Look at me, I’m reading The Economist! Did you know Indonesia is at a crossroads?”
Marge: “No!”
Homer: “It is!”

(Thanks to Wikipedia for that one.)

莫言 (don’t speak)

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 was awarded to the Chinese writer Mo Yan, who—in the words of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize—”with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.

Mo Yan, Nobel Prize in Literature 2012

Mo Yan

It’s both the history and the contemporary that have made this a controversial award. Mo Yan—a pen name meaning ‘don’t speak’—writes ‘inside the system’ of authoritarian Communist Party rule in China, avoiding the sort of criticism of the government that has led other Chinese writers into exile. This is why the award is contentious in contemporary cultural politics: Salman Rushdie, on his Facebook page, called Mo Yan a “patsy of the régime” for refusing to sign a petition of other Nobel laureates calling on the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo, who won the Peace prize in 2010. But other writers have also observed that Mo Yan’s vision of twentieth-century Chinese history is problematic. His early novel Red Sorghum, set in the 1930s and 40s “portrayed a version of Chinese life under Japanese occupation that was radically at odds with official Communist accounts” (and he got into trouble for it); but when his century-spanning historical panoramas reach the period after the Communists themselves took power, they’re much more careful not to offend: no words for the dead of the ‘Great Leap’ famine of 1959–62, or the Cultural Revolution.

Perry Link, in an article in the New York Review of Books at the start of December, outlined both the contemporary politics of the award and the problems with Mo Yan’s version of history, asking “Does this writer deserve the prize?” In response, Charles Laughlin and Pankaj Mishra, from different angles, have defended Mo Yan—or at least, offered some thoughts to give his detractors pause; more recently, Link has answered them. The debate is worth a read for anyone who’s interested in the intersection of politics, literature, and history.

(The real venue for this controversy, of course, is not the pages of western literary journals and political websites but the Chinese blogosphere and Weibo: that link, for Sinophone readers, should bring up search results for Mo Yan—莫言.)

Fluctuat nec mergitur

Sign showing height of floodwaters at rue de Charonne, 1910 Paris flood

I was walking down the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine toward Bastille last night, in the rain, on my last night in Paris, when I spotted this little sign, down near knee height on the corner of the rue de Charonne:


‘Flood, January 1910’

A flood that reaches knee height doesn’t sound that impressive, but this corner is about a kilometre away from the Seine. The flood of 1910 was a terrific disaster, the worst in 250 years. On the map of the area below, the pale blue indicates the area where roadways were flooded; the yellow, areas where basements were flooded. A quarter of the city’s buildings were affected.

Map of 1910 Paris floodwaters around Bastille

The 1910 flood, and modern-day flood risk, around Bastille

The pink area is where the French utility EDF/GDF reckons there’d be fragilisation of the electricity supply if a flood on the same scale hit the city today. The map* is part of the city’s disaster planning, which is extensive. The river height in the city is measured on a scale at the Pont d’Austerlitz: a water level 3.5 metres above the average level would be a yellow alert, 6 metres a red alert–the likely cost of repairing the damage from a flood this bad is estimated at over five billion euros. The 1910 flood peaked at 8.6 metres.


(Click image for source)

I first read about the flood in this article from the London Review of Books—a review of Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paris under water, which came out in 2010 to coincide with the centenary. Meanwhile, I got back to Britain after ten days away to find flood warnings across the country for the second time in a month.

The title of this post, by the way, is the motto of the city of Paris: “It floats, nor does it sink”.

*This is a lo-res extract; you can download a large PDF of the full thing from the Paris city council website here. Facts about disaster preparation today were drawn from this 2009 article in Le Figaro.

She may look clean

She may look clean—but

‘Filthy little girls’

Here’s a wonderful image that one of our seminar speakers for next term, Leanne McCormick, has sent us to use in the poster for her seminar—which has the title Filthy little girls: women and public space in Northern Ireland during the Second World War.

You can find more details about next term’s seminar series here.

Timothy Snyder in the NYRB


The offices of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer in the Free City of Danzig, circa 1935. The anti-Semitic poster in the window reads ‘Die Juden sind unser Unglück!’ (The Jews are our misfortune!). Click image for source.

It’s always worth reading Timothy Snyder’s review articles in the New York Review of Books. The latest one is entitled ‘Hitler’s Logical Holocaust‘, and books under review include Donald Bloxham’s The Holocaust: a genocide as well as other works in German, Polish, and French. Links to more of Snyder’s articles in the NYRB can be found here.

Archival soft furnishings

Document rests

Ideal for snoozing on, too.

This three-part kit of bolster, rolled-up blanket, and a miniature draught excluder actually adds up to a very neat document rest, ideal for holding open a  bound volume of papers from the 1930s, or the kind of creaking, smelly leather-bound ledgers of regimental ordres du jour that once gave me a wicked allergic reaction in the French military archives at Vincennes. (I wasn’t even looking at them myself—it was the person next to me.)

Document rests


The ones I was using this week were marked with a brownish-yellow dust down their centre, where the spine of a bound volume lies—possibly crumbling paper*, more likely dried-out and decaying glue.

They also—and this is why I’m actually posting about them—looked just like bits of soft furnishings from a 1970s caravan, especially under the fluorescent desk lamp. They triggered a kind of reverse Proustian reaction where I could almost smell the damp grass, aluminium, and primus stove of childhood holidays. For a while, I was lost in memories of swingball and travel sickness and all the other things that made caravan holidays so er memorable.

*For more information about paper decay than you will ever need (unless you’re a professional archivist), check out this page from the Library of Congress and this one from a company that makes archival materials—and has, appropriately, retained a ‘1998’ look worthy of the Internet Archive for its own website. There’s also Wikipedia, of course.

A scandal in Tripoli

The best bit about being in the archives is that you stumble on all kinds of stuff that you weren’t looking for: the ‘pleasure of learning singular things‘.

Today, for example, at the end of the afternoon, I was looking through an entire microfilmed volume of bound archival documents for what proved to be a single uninformative letter about refugees in French mandate Syria. To find it I spooled through document after document, pausing just long enough on the first page of each to check the bit on the left-hand side saying ‘A/S.’, for au sujet de, or ‘Re:’, and telling you what’s there. When I found myself looking at a letter about un scandale tripolitain—a scandal in Tripoli, Lebanon—I had to read through the whole thing, and the attached cutting from a Tripoli newspaper. I was richly rewarded.

Re: Scandal in Tripoli

The author of the letter is the French High Commissioner in Syria and Lebanon, Damien de Martel—a shrewd operator with a dry sense of humour who’d served everywhere from Washington to Siberia. The background to the scandal is that the Greek Orthodox community in Tripoli, and indeed Syria and Lebanon as a whole, had recently undergone a bitter near-schism over a disputed patriarchal succession. (The Syrian jurist and politician Yusuf al-Hakim mentions in his memoirs that the dispute wrecked his mother’s funeral: when he and the other mourners arrived at the cemetery with the cortège, they found a couple of boozed-up partisans of the other side had locked them out of the graveyard and were singing rowdy songs inside.)

There’s the context—here’s the scandal:

There has just occurred at Tripoli a scandal which part of the Greek Orthodox community has, unfortunately, seized on as a reason to rebel against their bishop, who is reproached with having compromised the dignity of the church in an adventure of a very particular character.

Monsignor Geha had been linked in a very warm friendship, whose purity some doubted, with a young man of the town whose reputation—rather like that of the prelate himself—is already well established. The public would surely not have concerned itself with these practices, which are common currency […], if the young Levite in question, probably anxious to draw a profit from these relations, on the nature of which I won’t venture to comment, had not suddenly feigned a virtuous indignation, proclaiming that his pastor had attempted to interfere with his innocence and showing off a jar filled with alcohol which contained a piece of ‘that part which is bound to chastity’, as a local journalist put it—a piece seemingly detached by way of an exhibit for the prosecution.

Emotion in the city was extreme: the bishop was a protégé of the current patriarch, and they and their followers had a hard time responding to adversaries who were waving evidence like that. In the end the bishop ‘was obliged to submit to a medical exam, appearing before three doctors of different denominations who were invited to inspect the object of the dispute from a great distance. Their certification, however ill-founded it may be, will I hope lead to a calming of the spirits.’

De Martel’s own unillusioned opinion was that the whole business smelled of ‘blackmail and machination’, but that the bishop’s ‘dangerous frolics’ were a gift to his enemies—who weren’t philosophical enough simply to observe, with the High Commissionner, that ‘sinners cover the earth’.

The internet tells me that he’s quoting Racine, in Athalie:

Mon Dieu, qu’une vertu naissante
Parmi tant de périls marche à pas incertains !
Qu’une âme qui te cherche et veut être innocente
Trouve d’obstacle à ses desseins !
Que d’ennemis lui font la guerre !
Où se, peuvent cacher tes saints ?
Les pécheurs couvrent la terre.

The document, and the newspaper cutting that went with it—apparently written
by the brother of the Orthodox Metropolitan of Beirut!—
are in the French foreign ministry archives, La Courneuve:
Correspondance politique et commerciale, Série E—Levant, 1918–1940, volume 512, documents 149–152:
letter from de Martel to Foreign Ministry (9 Nov 1934) and enclosure. 

Affaires étrangères

Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, Archives diplomatiques, La Courneuve

Ceci n’est pas une archive

The French foreign ministry archives used to be in the ministry building itself, at the fabled Quai d’Orsay. This meant that the security procedures were more intensive than for getting into most reading rooms: the first appointment had to be booked three weeks in advance (they were grudgingly flexible towards researchers from outside France), and readers were only allowed in once an hour on the hour. French PhD students would shudder, too, and tell dark stories of the reading room staff. I only went once, and that was for a meeting with the (very nice) archivist who looked after the image collections—he happened to have written his thesis on French mandate Syria, which is what I was doing at the time, so he just let me work away for a few hours in a high-ceilinged room full of photos, artworks, and, well, diplomatic junk. It was on the fourth floor, I think, but felt like a cellar because the windows were blacked out.

Those days are gone, though. In 2009 the archives moved into new, purpose-built premises tucked just inside the RER B line north of Paris, at La Courneuve. This is ‘north of Paris’ in the French sense, which considers anywhere beyond the inner ring road, the périph’, to be a grimy, distant no-man’s-land. (The relationship between Manhattan and the outer boroughs of New York City is comparable, but at least Manhattan is actually an island.) La Courneuve is no further from central Paris than Hackney is from central London, which I suppose means a very long way indeed, psychologically. It’s two stops north of Gare du Nord, if the train stops, which it often doesn’t. They’re rebuilding the station at the moment, and have been for months—there doesn’t seem to be much change from when I was here at the end of the summer. There are bright, cheerful posters up all over the hoardings showing what the rebuilt station will look like, and they’re populated almost entirely by bright, cheerful white people: a vision for the station’s future that doesn’t involve most of the people who currently use it.

At the archives, you no longer have to wait for a turnstile to open once an hour on the hour, but security is still pretty tight. The new building, which is also used as a training centre for diplomats, is part of a wider redevelopment programme for that bit of La Courneuve that also includes a new school, a sports centre—and flats that are obviously aimed at young professionals, a few storeys high with balconies and wooden bits: no risk that they could be mistaken for the social housing just across the railway line in the blocks of the Cité des 4000 that haven’t been demolished yet. For the time being, though, the archives still give the impression of being a fortified encampment in enemy territory. This is how French state institutions and their staff seem to feel when they’re in parts of France like La Courneuve.

The Page 99 test

Ford Madox Ford proposed the page 99 test: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” This is the inspiration for an excellent books blog run by Marshal Zeringue, who asks authors to tell him about their books, starting with page 99. The blog often covers history books—as I write, the current post is about Jennifer Jensen Wallach’s How America Eats: A Social History of US Food and Culture. Wallach talks about “the paradoxical fact that European American eaters have been willing to embrace the foods of members of various racial and ethnic groups but generally reluctant to bestow first class citizenship on the creators of these cuisines”. Not on page 99 of her book, though: that’s about refrigeration in the meat-packing industry, and she sounds a bit embarrassed about it.

Page 99

Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s ‘Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History’ passes the page 99 test.

First Post

This is the research notebook of the Birmingham Centre for Modern & Contemporary History.

Mosque, Marjeh Square, Damascus

Mosque on Marjeh Square, Damascus

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