Friday, 20 February 2009

Some things

1. My Margaret book has been catalogued under the wrong author surname in several UK and US libraries. I think maybe I should just embrace all possible variants of my name and learn to love them. The interview I did for Woman's Hour was repeated the other day, presumably because snow staffing problems led them to scrape the repeats barrel, and I got a nice letter to "Ms. Rochefort" from a lady in Sidcup who wants to learn Old English. My foolish uncle thinks we're descended from Huguenots. He is almost certainly wrong.

2. Young undergraduate Matthew Parker earned 40 shillings a year plus the right to eat with the manciple when he became Bible Clerk at Corpus Christi in 1520 -- the income was derived from a property recently given to the college, very probably the Eagle. Nowadays the profits of that pub do not go towards having someone read the Bible out loud to the fellows over lunch. I wonder what they are spent on.

3. I have just finished Lucy Worsley's Cavalier and George Mann's Affinity Bridge. Both of them were unexpectedly dull. I might have enjoyed the Cavalier book if I hadn't been expecting a racy biography. It's written in a series of (masque-like) scenes, one day each and several years apart, which means that anything dramatic happens in brackets like in To The Lighthouse, and instead of a narrative there are tons of details about how exactly the household structure worked. I thought it was interesting that oak branches were a royalist symbol long before 1651, but that's as far as it went, really. Affinity Bridge is a steampunk murder mystery set in a Victorian London filled with airships and automatons, with the occasional zombie lurching out of the pea-soupers, and it really shouldn't be more boring than the biography of Richard Bentley which I have also been reading on and off.

4. I have also just finished Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, a brilliant book, very readable, and also horrendous. It's about the Congo and is full of terrible facts, like Stanley's enthusiastic comment on the Maxim gun, which could fire 600 bullets a minute, that it would be "of valuable service in helping civilisation to overcome barbarism"; or that in 1906 the Bronx Zoo in New York exhibited a black man from the Congo called Ota Benga in their monkey house. King Leopold seems to have been a remarkably evil man; he had, for example, a subscription at a London brothel whereby for eight hundred pounds a month they kept him supplied with girls, warranted virgin, aged from ten to fifteen. These terrible but discrete things are easier to write about than the main issue, the mass murder and slave labour. Vast numbers of people died -- maybe about ten million, but it's hard to tell because the deaths counted so little to the killers that they weren't recorded. The aim of the colonists was to extract as much ivory and rubber as possible, and the deaths of the forced labourers (known as liber├ęs, 'freed people', and often referred to as volunteers) only seem to have been of interest insofar as they kept the remaining slaves in a state of fear on the one hand, or diminished the size of the workforce on the other. For the first time ever I felt some twinges of relief that our current bunch of constitutional monarchs are traditionally brainless -- you can't imagine Prince Harry setting up a huge colony and enslaving its population for vast profits while gathering donations from philanthropists on the grounds that it's all a selfless humanitarian exercise. Probably the undergraduates who toasted Empire at a dinner the other night should have to read this book.

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