On my way back from the RAF Museum, I paused to take some pictures of the beautiful neoclassical St Pancras Parish Church, completed in 1822. They don't really do it justice, but I do like this one, of one of the caryatids guarding the entrance to the crypt. The caryatids were modelled on those on the Erechtheion, and the crypt was used as an air-raid shelter in both world wars. You're never very far away from history in this town.
On my first Saturday here, I spent the morning printing out pages from the Daily Mail at British Library Newspapers in Colindale, and then headed over to the nearby RAF Museum London for an afternoon wandering around the historic aircraft. The problem with this is that it meant I had to carry with me (a) my laptop and (b) a thick sheaf of printouts. This was not too hard at first, but as the day wore on my feet got sore, and my arms got weary, and both my patience and my ability to hold a camera still decreased as a result. When combined with the often dimly-lit exhibition halls (including the Battle of Britain hall) this meant that many of my photos didn't turn out so well. Luckily for you, I've weeded out most of the bad ones!
The degree to which science fiction accurately predicts the future is not really the point; its value is more as an exploration of what people might do and what society might look like if you change things in a few fundamental ways. (And for my purposes, it's the assumptions underlying a given exploration which are most interesting.) Nevertheless it's always fun when somebody does get it right. Take this description of Britain in 1920 -- written in 1893:
Things had been looking very black in the closing years of the last century, but the pessimists of that epoch were the optimists of ours. London even in the old days was a bloated, unwieldy city, an abode of smoke and dreariness startled from time to time by the angry murmurs of labour. In 1920 this Colossus of cities held nigh six million souls, and the social problems of the past were intensified. The circle of competence was wider, but beyond it stretched a restless and dreaded democracy. Commerce had received a sharp check after the late Continental wars, and the depression was severely felt. That bad times were coming was the settled conviction of the middle classes, and to this belief was due the Coalition government which held sway during the year in which my story opens. In many quarters a severe reaction had set in against Liberalism, and a stronger executive and repressive laws were urgently clamoured for. At the opposite extreme flew the red flag, and a social revolution was eagerly mooted.1
It's not too far off, is it: the expansion of democracy, recent war (OK, wars) in Europe, a post-war slump (if you ignore the post-war boom just before that), a Coalition government, the decline of Liberalism, the rise of Labour (the narrator is a parliamentary candidate for a non-revolutionary socialist party), fears (or hopes) of revolution. The above quote is from the 1893 novel Hartmann the Anarchist; or, The Doom of the Great City;2 the author, Edward Douglas Fawcett, mainly extrapolated two trends of his own day, the beginnings of organised labour and the anarchist terror. In the novel he allies these to a revolution in flight, an aëronef (the Attila) powered by coal-fired electricity and which derives its lift from hydrogen gas-meters and 'an inclined plane driven rapidly through the air by a screw, a device first prominently brought into notice by the nineteenth-century experiments of Maxim'.3 The inventor, Hartmann, and his band of merry anarchists proceed to shell, bomb and burn much of London, as the beginnings of their plans to destroy civilisation and replace it with anarchy:
It's Lord Baden-Powell, Chief Scout, who at one stage in the 1930s seems to have had a regular spot in the Daily Mail's "Boys & Girls" section, teaching the future imperial overlords all about their wonderful Empire. In the 18 March 1938 issue, he contributed a piece called "Policeman aeroplanes", along with the following rather cute drawing:
(I apologise for the blurriness, I don't have access to a scanner at the moment and so a photo of a printout is the best I can do.) B-P explains how aeroplanes can keep restless natives in line:
The other day, in passing through Aden, we heard that two of the tribes of Arabs in the district had broken out into war against each other. Before they could get very far with it, the Royal Air Force had an aeroplane hovering over them like a policeman. The aeroplane dropped notices to tell them that they were to stop fighting at once, and make peace and go home.
So although aeroplanes have done so much in speeding up transport, so that people can travel and mails can go in a few days where it used to take several weeks, aeroplanes also have their uses in many other directions, and will go on becoming more and more useful when you fellows grow up to pilot them.1
So RAF air control policies -- the use of airpower in internal security roles -- are, according to Baden-Powell, much like a firm but kindly neighbourhood bobby breaking up scuffling schoolboys. Nobody even gets hurt, isn't that nice!
Last week, in an effort to get over the jetlag I went to Leicester Square to see a movie. Since I had some time to kill before the movie started, and because Leicester Square itself is pretty ordinary, I went for a wander. I still have only a basic grasp of London geography, so I was most surprised (and somewhat awestruck) to end up at Trafalgar Square! So here's Nelson's Column (which novelists of the next air war were always careful to knock over for the symbolism):
And Nelson himself, catching the last glimmers of sunlight:
Actually, that should be "The lodgings of the compiler of the damned", but it's more dramatic this way.
39 Marchmont St, Bloomsbury, WC1, just a few blocks from my own lodgings. The word "unprepossessing" could have been coined in honour of this building,1 and there are certainly many far more pleasing buildings too look at around here, so why does it warrant a post of its own? The not-actually-blue plaque attached to it explains further:
Here are a few of the best pictures from my first trip to the British Museum, almost a week ago already. How time flies when you're stuck in the archives!
Marble statue of youth, possibly Caligula, early 1st century AD. If it is Caligula, then the horse is presumably Sir Thomas Inskip.
Via the WWII mailing list comes the welcome news that Flight International is putting its entire run of back issues online, as one searchable PDF per magazine page. So far, the following years have been scanned: 1909-1932, 1935-1940, 1948, 1955-1961, 1964, 1966-1968, 1997-2004. The archive can either be browsed (note that you have to click the "Next page" link to move to the next group of four page listings, which wasn't immediately obvious to me) or searched by keyword.
The significance of this is that Flight was one of the two major British aviation magazines throughout most of my period, and the longest-running (though not, I think actually the first: Pemberton Billing's short-lived Aerocraft has that honour). I've actually already looked at Flight, which is available at the SLV, so if I would rather have had the harder-to-find Aeroplane put online instead; but Australian holdings of the early issues of Flight are fragmentary so this is good too.
There are no charges for access, at least for now, which is surprising (and welcome). No indications that this will change in future, but it would probably be wise to make the most of this while it's free!
Military History Carnival Edition Four has clearly been timed to catch me in transition from the southern to the northern hemisphere, so I'm a couple of days late in posting about it. For me, the most interesting post was Philobiblon's on the suggestion that the so-called Glorious Revolution was successful because the Dutch ships were more technologically advanced than the English ones -- in particular, they were faster and so were able to sweep in and unload their troops before the Royal Navy had time to react. This reminds me of Palmerston's remark in 1845 to the effect that steam power made the same scenario possible at that time. I wonder if 1688 influenced his thinking on this matter?
Hello everybody, I seem to have got here at last, it's been a long long time but here I am and jolly glad I am to be here at last (to quote Amy Johnson). I've been in Blighty for almost 24 hours at this point; here are some random thoughts and observations. Of course these are based only on what I've seen today, and should not be taken as representative of London or Britain as a whole!
- the flight(s) went very smoothly (almost literally, only a few minor patches of turbulence), no major delays. I missed out on the window seat from Sydney but as it was dark for most of the flight that's no great loss.
- going through Customs/Immigration is not as bad as I expected (particularly given the recent bomb plot).
- public transport prices are ridiculously high.
- Tube trains seem a bit, well, poky -- very narrow. Presumably that's a consequence of it being cheaper to make the tunnels narrower.
- my first thought on the trip in from Heathrow was that the suburbs reminded me a bit of parts of inner Sydney. Except here it went on forever, in Australian cities good old suburban sprawl soon sets in.
- Bloomsbury is rather nice. Lots of nice old buildings and leafy parks. Quiet. And so clean!
- after I got settled in at Goodenough College, I went for a random wander. Found Oxford Street and made my way back to the British Museum, which is like 5 minutes' walk from the college. How cool is that?
- I evidently put the mozza1 on Leo Amery a couple of years ago by remarking how often he turns up in my research. I've hardly ever come across him since then! But here he is again at last, not exactly in my research but as one of the founders of Goodenough in 1930.
- four-way traffic lights seem weird to me.
- I was surprised at how fast the traffic moves along Oxford Street -- without parked cars to act as a buffer, seems like it would be easy for a pedestrian on the footpath trip over and get your head split open by a double-decker bus. Of course, it was a Sunday, so maybe the traffic is jammed the rest of the week.
- I keep thinking I see familiar faces among the crowd when walking down the street. Since just about everybody I know is on the other side of the planet, this seems unnecessarily perverse.
- I can see I'm going to end up with pockets of loose change -- I'm bad enough at home! But now that I look at it, the coins are mostly similar enough in shape and colour to Australian numerical equivalents that I'll get by. 5p/5c, 10p/10c, 50p/50c are very close. £1 coins look like $2 coins. 20p coins just look weird. We don't have 1c and 2c coins anymore in Australia, I'll have to get used to counting in units of less than 5 again. And paper banknotes! That's a blast from the past.
- so many internet kiosks out in the street, like phone booths. Is that a sign of progress or the lack thereof? In Melbourne, the few there are don't seem to get used much.
- it IS possible to go the British Museum and not see either the Rosetta Stone or the Elgin Marbles. Like I said, it's only 5 minutes away ... I'll be back!
- I wasn't tempted by the overpriced food inside the museum, the hotdogs being sold out the front were very tasty and much cheaper.
- speaking of which, what's with all the hotdog vendors? It's not something I'd associated with English cuisine. Catering to American tourists, perhaps?
- speaking of which, it's true what they say about American tourists.
- I would just like to thank the many generations of British plunderers of the cultural heritage of conquered and otherwise downtrodden peoples for helping to make such a brilliant museum. You guys rock!
- so did the Aztecs.
- when both your mum and Douglas Adams tell you not to forget your towel, you should listen. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to find somewhere to buy a towel in this town.
- on the other hand, every second shop around here seems to sell luggage, among other things. OK, there's lots of tourists about, but don't most of them already have luggage?
- the concept of "service" doesn't seem to have made it into the philosophy of customer relations here yet.
- but the nanny state ethos seems ingrained: trains telling me to mind the gap between the train and the platform, markings on the road telling me which way to look when I cross, no taps in the shower to let me do something as radical as adjusting the temperature of the water to my liking (though to be honest that probably has more to do with the nature of student accommodation than anything else).
- biggest culture shock of the day: not being able to find anywhere that sells 500ml bottles/cartons of chocolate-flavoured milk (my currently-preferred way to get a chocolate fix). Neither Waitrose nor Tesco Express had any such thing, maybe this is more popular down under. On the other hand: mmmm, Milka. Hard to get back home.
- I got massively ripped off on a 5m ethernet cable on Oxford Street. On the other hand, I did successfully haggle for perhaps the first time in my life, so I consider it a moral victory.
- Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, LOL. Is there a Royal London Placebo Hospital as well, or would that be redundant?
- you call that a night?! It's 5am and already bright as, well, day.
- despite all my efforts and disruptions to my normal schedule, my body clock is evidently still on GMT+10.
Despite some of the grumbles above, it's fantastic to be here. As I said to a friend the other day, there'd be no point in coming if it was exactly like home!
Airminded will likely become something of a travel blog for the next couple of months, which will no doubt bore my UK readers (for which I apologise). But there'll also be more of the usual aeroplaney stuff too, particularly once I get stuck into the British Library ...
Edit: the photo was added two months later!