I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.
Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.
I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:
Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.
But why save an old hotel?
Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…
This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.
Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?
By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)
We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.
I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?
As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)
The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.
And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)
[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]
The exhibition of The Prix Pictet shortlist and winner at the V&A was superb.
Prix Pictet is a global prize that aims to highlight sustainability and environmental issues through photography….The theme for this cycle is Space.
The winner Richard Mosse for his series entitled Heat Maps — enthralling pictures, only two of them on display here. Huge composited black and white film pictures and heat photographs showing refugee camps, showing metal cars glowing and human bodies incandescent, this use of military technology against military technologies to bring alive the scale of the camp, but in so much detail… Like a Bruegel Mark said and it was exactly what I had been thinking but the technology of it also means it comes in and out of focus a bit, like an enormous charcoal with sections in crystal clarity but but others blurred as though a careless fist rested there. Figures also burred white but caught in fragile intensely human moments and motions, there is a vividness here, a humanity unvarnished, a poverty not picturesque. These are landscapes of tents and metal and ripping wire, and a fragile battered environment of water, trees.
Carceral spaces at scale, but with humanity foregrounded. They were incredible. A visceral call to dismantle all of it, a recognition of the spirit of those within it.
The full list of photographers, all of their work is wonderful.
Mandy Barker (United Kingdom) Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals
Saskia Groneberg (Germany) – Büropflanze
Beate Guetschow (Germany) – S Series
Rinko Kawauchi (Japan) – Ametsuchi
Benny Lam (Hong Kong) – Subdivided Flats
Richard Mosse (Ireland) – Heat Maps
Wasif Munem (Bangladesh) – Land of Undefined Territory
Sohei Nishino (Japan) – Diorama Map
Sergey Ponomarev (Russia) – Europe Migration Crisis
Thomas Ruff (Germany) – ma.r.s
Pavel Wolberg (Russia) – Barricades
Michael Wolf (Germany) – Tokyo Compression
Another set of pictures of the migrant experience from Sergey Ponomarev, pictures of this massive movement of humanity that seems so remote to London even as I read of camps and deaths, even as I contribute food and money, even as I cry over boats tumbling over themselves and spilling children into the sea.
Most of the refugees reached Europe. They began to conjure up and build new living spaces for themselves, forever changing the face of Europe itself.
I loved the recentering of the world onto these journeys that these pictures achieved. This new world they are creating.
Pictures of faces against glass in Tokyo’s subway, condensation, patient suffering. It feels infinite here.
Shinjuku Station is used by an average of 3.64 million people per day, making it the most crowded train stations in the world in terms of number of passengers. I spent more than 60 weekday mornings photographing passengers during their commute into Tokyo. All portraits were taken at one train station along the Odakyu line, during rush hour between 7.30 and 9 am. At intervals of 80 seconds, a train already packed to the absolute limit pulled into the station. Even more people pushed their way into the compartments until the commuters were jammed like sardines in a can. Day in day out, millions of commuters must endure this torture, as the only affordable housing is hours away outside of the city center. Is this a humane way to live?
The collision of housing crisis, work, public transport. The everyday pain of it.
Saskia Groneberg’s pictures of plants filling offices, curving towards light, peering round blinds. They start banal and by the end of the series have given you a feeling more ominous than that, as though humans are not just absent but gone.But I think that is very much my own impression, too many movies, too many references to the Triffids.
Benny Lam’s pictures from Hong Kong, staring down at people in tiny rectangles — the length of our vertical axis — only enough room to sit and barely enough to lie down. The rooms’ heights stacked vertically, the sum of people’s possessions around them. I remember my tiny room in London on New Park Rd, spacious in comparison (you could have got three or four people lying down in there, a new spatial measure), similarly stacked high, this feeling of being trapped yet also of safety because it is still yours… Nothing to this. I am humbled. Again we must question just how this is the world we have created.
The tiny space in this house compels you to do everything on or around the bed: sleeping, washing vegetables, having meals, writing letters, and watching TV. For some people, it is also where the children do homework and play games. Living here is like being trapped in a cage. Dilemma is what it’s all about. If you need to catch your breath, stay in this trap and entertain yourself.
Sohei Nishino’s amazing montages of London and San Francisco, space expanding again. Myriads of images collaged together into a larger sense of the city, a vertiginous wandering through cityscapes that resemble the city you know but with some jarring differences.
Rapid cultural and economic development creates a continuous process of amplification and accumulation within cities. I walk through these cities, camera in hand, capturing multi-facetted [sic] views that I then combine,in accordance with my memories, arranging them into a map that portrays all the singular aspects of the place. The result is quite different from the denotative expression of a map; it uses photographs of concrete objects or shapes as units to recreate a geographical representation, expressing the city through human memories and images. This means that the finished work is anything but an accurate map, it is simply the town as seen through the eyes of a single individual, a trace of the way in which I walked through it, an embodiment of my awareness, a microcosm of the life and energy that comprise the city.
Fascinating exercises in psychogeography, though perhaps a little too stripped of situationist rebellion…
There is earth being scorched by fire, tied to agricultural ritual and both literal and cyclical space in Rinko Kawauchi’s pictures. I loved this hill, this sense of rebirth and the barrier between life and death, the theme of connection across space in this kind of time.
Beate Guetschow. Brutalist concrete crumbling against landscapes that I had to be told were composites to create new landscapes. That needing to be told…that fascinated me.
Her statement brought together a lot of the things I have been thinking about (I mean, she quotes Georges Perec, she is clearly playing with the idea of city here as well…):
Cities grow, and in doing so they occupy increasingly large amounts of space – the built environment is the greedy counterpart of the natural realm. A space is defined only by differentiation from another space, for which it needs walls that serve as barriers or borders. These are mainly conceived and put in place by man. The walls and virtual boundaries around spaces usually have some form of opening that define one’s own position and allow one to enter a different space. Georges Perec describes this perfectly in his book Species of Spaces: “To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself.”
In the S series I investigate urban space, whereby I am particularly interested in architecture as a representation of ideology and in the international equality of built structures. My photographs present cities that do not exist in reality. I use computer software to assemble new cityscapes from buildings I have photographed all over the world. The resulting images are visual utopias that reflect modernist thinking, its desire for structure and its idealism. A key characteristic of modernity was an unshakable belief in progress – the idea of a process of sustained growth that would ultimately lead to a perfect society. In terms of its clarity and functionality, modernist architecture symbolises this faith in rationality. In my images, these very structures are shown to be crumbling; their substance is rotten.
Mandy Barker’s study of plastic, a Victorian labeling within a tiny glass cabinet combined with these pictures of wonderful circles — views through a microscope, new views on the plastic that is filling the earth and all the living things within it beginning with plankton.
Micro to macro, Thomas Ruff’s pictures of Mars. Proper space:
The chosen area of land in this series is a mere observer of nearly a hundred years of land disputes, which saw colonization, 1947’s divide of the Indian subcontinent and mass-migration with Partition, and 1971’s liberation war of Bangladesh which created the current border tension with the neighboring country, India. Absence of any profound identity for its existence never diminishes its presence, and its body carries the wound of aggressive industrial acts, such as stone collection and crushing. … Wasif’s work is not a definitive act of understanding the totality of deeds, rather deliberately ignorant of them with the help of an unconscious camera, to merely show land’s lone existence over a period of time.
The barricades are architectural elements that instantly appear and change existence around them. They are made out of tiles, barrels, blocks, and sacks of sand against which human beings seem to blur And become insignificant.
The barricades are the instant, moment-to-moment, concretization of separation of lives, identities, and ways of being. It is here that political, social and above all, religious believes are conjured up into a violent confrontation frontline made out of piles and multitudes. These barricades become turbulent focal points in the landscape where space is constantly reshaped and re-conquered and always remains chaotic.
Brilliant exhibition, and we caught it on the last day and almost didn’t see it at all as there were lines to main entrance — the security guard we were talking to told us of the other entrance round the side — not a soul around. good thing too, as who wanted to see fucking Pink Floyd or the Balenciaga exhibition? Everyone else apparently, which was all the better.
We also took this opportunity to enjoy a view of Tipoo’s Tiger. Worth stopping by even if you don’t see anything else there at all.
My dad’s birthday today, St Patrick’s day. He was Patrick Colum Gibbons Jr., of course, but only named for St Patrick indirectly via my grandfather. I miss him more than I can say, grief never does go away, does it? Sometimes it hits me at unexpected moments like the proverbial sandbag, but today, today it is expected.
My dad was amazing, and he never did get to hear the story of the one-legged Gibbons(es) of County Galway, nor see what a beautiful place it is our family comes from, so I thought today I would tell him. It is exactly the kind of story he would have most loved. And then on to a real St Patrick story. Our very own.
So my great-grandfather Thomas Joseph Gibbons, and his siblings Delia and James immigrated to Pittsburgh from County Galway at the turn of the century. While my great grand-dad was a gambler and an abusive son-of-a-bitch fleeing gambling debts as the story goes (though he also made violins and is listed in the census as a carpenter, which is rather lovely), Delia worked as a maid and cook (and read tea leaves), and James got a job on the tram.
So family legend had it that James lost his leg in an accident on the Pittsburgh tram line. Andrew Melon (that Andrew Melon), Delia’s boss, helped them get a good lawyer, and on the proceeds from the resulting lawsuit, the two took the money and ran, all the way back to Ireland to buy a pub. So in the early fall of 2013 when my partner and I, more by luck than judgment, ended up in a cottage in Toormakeady, I thought I might try and find them. The decision to spend the holiday in the West of Ireland was sort of in honour to dad anyway, so I looked up what he’d been working on and from a postmark on a letter Delia had sent my great-grandmother Mary, we found Clonbur and Gort na Ropa, the ancestral lands also known as the Field of Thieves. In Galway, but right along the border with Mayo. I mean right along the border. Turns out our lovely little cottage was in Mayo, but on the very same road.
So we started in Clonbur, and feeling a little too much like a daft American searching for her past I had a pint of Guinness to steady my nerve, then approached the bartender. I knew it was a long shot I said, but my great-grandfather with his brother and sister had left the area for Pittsburgh, but my aunt Delia and uncle James had come back in the 1920s or 1930s. The thing is, my Uncle James had lost a leg in a tram accident, so they had come back to Ireland with lots of money and my family believed they had bought a pub.
Surely that might be memorable?
The bartender conferred with some gentlemen at the end of the bar. They didn’t know of a Delia, or a James Gibbons who had lost a leg. But maybe I was meaning Gregory Gibbons, who worked out of a garage just down the road? The one who had cut off his own leg with an axe?
But no, he would have been a few years too late, wouldn’t he. No, it couldn’t be him, though he’d only had the one leg.
(and you know, I should have written this down right away, because was it Gregory cut his own leg off with an axe? Was it not Geoffrey? Something else altogether? Was in he in a shed not a shop?)
Still, I was very focused on finding my own James and Delia Gibbons. I look back now and don’t know how I didn’t ask more questions about the Gibbons who had cut off his own leg with an axe. I was embarrassed about the questioning, and single minded. My James hadn’t cut off his own leg after all. No one gives you money for that. If they did we’d all have one leg.
There are two Gibbons’ pubs in the area it might be, they said, so after a long walk in the area (so beautiful, utterly beautiful) we drove to the first on the way home.
It was empty. Gaelic football was on, so it was just the owner’s daughter and her boyfriend. You’ll have to come back to ask my dad to be sure, she said, but she didn’t think it was the pub I was looking for. Still, her dad had bought it from a Bertha Gibbons, and funnily enough, Bertha had also lost her leg.
Diabetes and a problem with her toe and the leg had to be amputated.
Three one-legged Gibbons separated by time yet not space…
We did not find my Aunt Delia or Uncle James, but a story. And we found this place that a piece of me is from, it’s amazing. My family from this stretch between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, on the slopes of Binn Shléibhe:
In honor of dad today, and in light of ever more material online, I did a little search for James Gibbons, and look what I found — turns out he was a railroad brakeman (so sad I only found a tiny article, but a brakeman…so cool, Eugene V. Debs was a railroad brakeman, or did he just organise them? I can’t remember):
From Friday, August 22, 1924 – Page 7 of The Pittsburgh Press.
And then look here, from the Wednesday, September 28, 1927 – Page 13 of The Pittsburgh Press:
That was a shit ton of money in 1927. They came back home rich unless the lawyers took it all.
The plaintiff, claiming defendant had been negligent in the operation of its railroad, and that, as a result, he had suffered injury, brought this action in trespass to recover damages for the loss sustained. A jury rendered a verdict in his favor, and a motion for a new trial was refused.
This judgment allowed the railroad to bring another case because my great great Uncle’s lawyer said this:
It is admitted that counsel for plaintiff stated in argument as follows: “Just look at that man. Does he look like a crook? Does he look like a liar, and does he look like he was a man who was trying to rob some railroad?” This comment was manifestly improper. The question for the jury to determine was not whether Gibbons was a crook, a perjurer or a robber, but whether the facts as testified to showed negligence on part of the railroad, free from proof of contributory negligence of plaintiff. The natural tendency of such language was to put in the minds of the jurors the impression that, if they did not decide in favor of the claimant, their determination would in effect be a declaration that he was of the criminal class suggested.
Real bastards. I suppose it all worked out in our favour in the end?
Galway papers are all behind a firewall, though I did give it a go. Surely there must be something. I tried to find out from the genealogical office just a few miles away from Clonbur in a town littered with Gibbons, we walked past it and dropped in. I told them the story and the man was busy writing it down but stopped almost right away.
You’re from the Galway Gibbons, not the Mayo Gibbons, he said.
Nothing else to say really.
While there we also took a trip out to Inchagoill island, leaving from the pier into Lough Corrib where the old steamers used to leave for Galway City, first step on my family’s journey to the US.
We were taken across on a boat, and entertained by someone who had appeared as an extra in The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara — he showed us the pictures and all, sang us songs, it was utterly lovely.
Inchagoill — My dad would have loved it.
The connection with St Patrick takes us back another half century or more. Continuing west on the island the visitor will come to the ruins of the much older St Patrick’s Church. This is related to the legend that St Patrick came to Cong in the middle of the fifth century, as part of his evangelizing mission in Ireland. It is said that he met opposition from the Druids, who practised their own religion at the time. Because of this, Patrick had to flee to Inchagoill, and indeed this is how it got its name, ‘the island of the foreigner.’ The legend has it that Patrick was accompanied by Lugna, or Lugnaedon, his nephew, who acted as his navigator. Lugna is recorded in the ancient Book of Lecan as the son of Limanin, who in turn is named as a sister of St Patrick. On Inchagoill, Lugna and Patrick built the church which bears Patrick’s name.
There is a stone in the ancient graveyard of the church which is the most curious of all the relics there. It is about 70cm in height and is in the shape of a rudder, appropriate for Lugna the navigator. The stone bears a total of seven crosses and an inscription in the ancient Ogham alphabet which was used on monuments. It has been decoded by scholars as LIE LUGNAEDON MACC LMENUEH, which is translated as ‘The stone of Lugnaedon son of Limenueh’. The inscription is also found on the stone in Irish. This is thought to be one of the oldest Christian inscriptions in Europe.
There is a tiny graveyard and it is full of Sullivans, full of them — we have a Bridget Sullivan or two in our genealogy and I wonder if they are not from here…
Our own mountain from Lough Corrib:
There is too, Croagh Patrick. Mark and I climbed — almost climbed. We didn’t join the steady line of people to the very top.
Croagh Patrick, which overlooks Clew Bay in County Mayo, is considered the holiest mountain in Ireland.
The tradition of pilgrimage to this holy mountain stretches back over 5,000 years from the Stone Age to the present day without interruption. Its religious significance dates back to the time of the pagans, when people are thought to have gathered here to celebrate the beginning of harvest season.
Croagh Patrick is renowned for its Patrician Pilgrimage in honour of Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint. It was on the summit of the mountain that Saint Patrick fasted for forty days in 441 AD and the custom has been faithfully handed down from generation to generation. The Black Bell of Saint Patrick was a highly venerated relic on Croagh Patrick for many years.
Anyway, this whole place was so imbued with Patrick. Thought I would share all he had found about the family, and tell him I miss him. Dad had written after finding out about Clonbur:
Next vacation to Ireland, this is a spot to visit and soak in roots.
And now? More than you could ever possibly want to know about our branch of the Galway Gibbons from my dad himself. For posterity I suppose, to make it available if anyone else is searching…
Gibbons Genealogy—2009 Recent Work on Thomas Joseph Gibbons, His Siblings & Mary J. Barrett
1. An envelope with no letter was postmarked July 26, 1939 (see copy attached). This letter was sent to Mary Gibbons, our grandmother, from Delia Gibbons, our great aunt, and the postmark was Fairce with return address Buffuld (Buffield? The name designates either a house or farm, typical British naming without numbers), Clonbur, County Galway, Ireland. Fairce (now An Fhaiche) is Gaelic for Clunbur. Clonbur is in Corr na Móna, the parish of Cong, and is on the Galway/Mayo border, the parish being largely in County Mayo. County Mayo as we know is the source of the name Gibbons, being an Anglicized form of Gibouin, Gaelic for Gilbert—Gislebert, a Norman (Norse-French) name.
Delia, if you remember, was sister to Thomas Joseph Gibbons, our grandfather. She came to America as a servant and became a popular cook with some of the wealthier families in Pittsburgh, including for a time that of Andrew “Andy” Melon. She was described as stout and had the ability to read tea leaves. This she apparently did on request when after a meal the tea cups were sloshed around with their little remaining tea then turned upside down and placed on their saucers. Delia would pick up a cup, turn it over, look inside and study the patterns of the leaves. Through this study should would reveal some aspects of the future of that cup’s drinker. She did this so well, she was in high demand. We can know from this that she was able to captivate and audience, certainly those susceptible to such goings on (Andrew Meoln?). We also know she was a good cook of simple fare, as Dad mentioned Andy Melon liked her food above that of his own hired kitchen staff, and that on occasion she even traveled with him so he could get a good, simple meal.
This is about as much as I know of Delia, other than she appears in the 1920 census of Pittsburgh (see attached)—this with the fact that she returned to Ireland, unmarried, with her brother, James, who also was unmarried, sometime after 1920. She was noted as being 45 years old and single in 1920.
The postmark is important as Dad also mentioned that our grandfather, Thomas, came from a place I remember as being pronounced Gortnarumpna. That this place was on Lough Corrib. I have never been able to find such a place in Irish place names. But with the Clonbur address of Delia, I went to the web site of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, did an enlarged topographic view of the area around Clonbur, and there about 1 mile to the southwest of this village I found Gort na Ropa, a setting of fields and half a dozen or so houses on the eastern apron of mount Gable (Binn Shléibhe). This, then, is the place of origin of Thomas Gibbons – and, it must be assumed, of Delia and James. Oh, and Gort na Ropa means Field of Thieves in Irish.
Wikipedia has Clonbur noted and you can search the net for other info on the area. Next vacation to Ireland, this is a spot to visit and soak in roots. It is also possible the cemetery and parish records in Cong will have more information to follow up with the Gibbons line. There may even be some relatives left (note the Griffith’s Valuation charts show a John Gibbons as holding land in Gortnarup (same as Gort na Ropa). Also, note there are Coyne’s holding land in the same place (see Coyne).
A picture of Ross Hill cemetery at Clonbur with Gort na Ropa at the foot of the mountains in the the background. Great aunt Delia should be buried here.
Great Uncle James we know little about, less than that of Great Aunt Delia. Finding him has been difficult as he never married and never owned a house. The one story that comes down clear is that he was a street foreman for the City of Pittsburgh Street Railway, was run over by a city streetcar, and severely injured a leg (lost a leg or part of a leg?). He survived. For probably valid reasons he claimed the City of Pittsburgh was at fault. Great Aunt Delia somehow persuaded Andrew Melon to get involved and he instructed one or two of his lawyers to act on behalf of James to sue the City of Pittsburgh for damages. The suit was successful and James was awarded the highest damages given out in the country up until that time ($80,000?—a figure once or twice jogged out of my poor memory). The conclusion of this tale is, that however much the settlement was for, it was more than enough for James and Delia to take the money and to return comfortably to Ireland. We know Delia returned from the letter in this collection. The story rings true. That James used Melon’s attorneys and had his backing also rings true as the danger of losing the contest would have more than bankrupted James—he never had the kind of money, status, or union to end up on the wrong side of the City of Pittsburgh’s wealth and batch of attorneys. Losers pay court costs. I suspect an out-of- court settlement given the guns put up here.
I have no picture of James, no legal records of birth, immigration, naturalization, military registration. I do find a James Gibbons in the 1920 census (taken 8 January; see attached) which fits him—somewhat. This shows a James B. Gibbons as 50 years old (birth then about 1870 which fits, being from the second marriage), Irish (fits), single (fits) and occupation as Street Foreman (fits) for the City of Pittsburgh (fits). The puzzling aspect of this record is that he is living with a sister, a Catherine Barry who’s age is given at 67 (born about 1853 from the first marriage, which fits) and who is widowed (which is why she is living with him). If this James is brother to Thomas, then the sister is a half-sister.
What to make of this? There are a few other James Gibbons living in Pittsburgh (again a common Gibbons name), but none who fit so exactly our James. We do know that our great grandfather had two marriages. One was to a Bridget Sullivan (our direct line) and one an unknown Coyne. We also know that there was a half-brother of Thomas, our great half-uncle, living in Pittsburgh. As noted elsewhere in this report, I believe this half- brother is John Gibbons. The age given for Catherine puts her birth before any of the three siblings—Thomas, James and Delia—and makes her a likely candidate for there being a half-sister here in the states along with half-brother John. I know no more about this Catherine Barry.
An added problem occurs in the 1920 census, for the enumeration for Thomas and family (taken 25 April) shows James, brother, age 50, occupation carpenter, now living with them. The conclusion is that either the James who is Street Foreman is not the brother of Thomas (unlikely), or that James moved in with Thomas after the January census take and was re-enumerated in April, all residents being counted. This latter is the more likely by my thinking, knowing the mess the census data is. See the Thomas section below.
Thomas Joseph Gibbons, our grandfather, is as elusive as his siblings, but not in the census data—or not quite. The quality of factual data in the census from year to year is terrible. The years do find people, though. The first census that I find Thomas in is 1900 (taken 6 June). Here the last name is spelled “Givens,” not “Gibbons.” We must remember that both Thomas and Mary were native Gaelic speakers and English was a second language, making their English speech probably a bit difficult to understand to some. Misspellings occur with great frequency in the census, not just with our family. This 1900 census has Thomas as born in December of 1866 (showing him as age 33) in Ireland and having arrived here in 1884. He is married to a Mary who is age 27, born in January of 1873. They have been married for 5 years (the marriage taken place in 1895). They have two children: James (age 3) and Annie (age 5/12). Thomas is shown as a laborer. Mary is showing as having given birth to 3 children with two living. This all fits.
He again appears in the census of 1910 (taken 22-25 April) as Thomas Gibbons age 39 (a discrepancy having him born in 1871—typical of his fiddling with his age), married to Mary for 14 years with Mary’s age as 35 (making her born now in 1875), both married for 14 years (the marriage now in 1896 unless they were married between 25 April and 6 June, which put the marriage back to 1895). Children are James (age 12), Anna (10), Bridget (8), Margretta (6), Patrick C (3) and Thomas (1 month). Thomas shows his immigration year now as 1883, that he is naturalized and that he is a carpenter. Mary now shows her immigration year as 1888 (making her only 13 years old coming to the states —not likely). Mary is noted as having had 8 children with only six living. From Dad, I know that there was a Bridget who died young. The Bridget shown here has to be Isabelle who fits into this birth order slot and who is missing. What is with our family?
The 1920 census (25 April) has Thomas now age 54 (being born once more in 1866), having immigrated in 1884 (like the 1900 census) and naturalized in 1900. He again is shown as a carpenter now working in an oil refinery. Mary is now age 50 (again born in 1875) having immigrated in 1888 (like the 1910) and naturalized in 1900 (maybe). I repeat that the only Mary Barrett arriving in New York between 1888 and 1891 who fits her profile is the Mary of 1891. Other Mary Barrets arrived but none of the proper age and through New York. This puts Mary’s naturalization date in question. In fact, I question if she was ever naturalized, but simply said so. Mary is noted as having had 8 children with 6 living. The children are: James (age 22), Anna (19) Isabell (17), Margaret (15), Patrick (12), Thomas (9). This all fits. Here for the first time appears James, brother of Thomas, age 50, carpenter in construction, now living with them. Note that Bridget has disappeared and Isabell is in her place. From this we can assume that sometime before 1910 a Bridget was born between Ann and Patrick and died less than 8 years old, perhaps in the great Swine Flu epidemic of 1918.
The 1930 census (25 April) does not show Thomas with Mary, rather Mary is now head of household. Her age is 53 (making her born again in 1877, not 1875), that she is married (note not widowed), was married at age 22 (year about 1899 which is impossible as she already had James and Ann); her immigration year is 1890 (not 1888 or 1891) and she was naturalized in 1890 (not possible if she immigrated in 1890—again, I don’t think she was naturalized). Living at home are James J (age 32, born now in 1898) and Patrick C (21, born now in 1909—what a mess). Issy and Tom are not shown as resident, though they certainly were in the later 30’s.
What we get from this is that Thomas is not living with his wife. We know that Thomas was largely estranged from his children, that he had little contact with them and kept himself privately to himself. We know that Dad would not talk of his father other than to say he was an excellent carpenter and also was a good fiddle maker (which meant he probably could play as well). Dad also said we were related to Grinling Gibbons, the great English carver, though I don’t know if this is so (strong doubts, probably put into his head from his father). I know neither Issy nor James talked about Thomas in my presence. Indirectly, from Mother, I gather Thomas was an abusive alcoholic, though she said no more about it though she reaffirmed no one would talk about him. He is whispered to have left Ireland under cloudy aspects, gambling with money he did not have—a runaway welcher. We also know that he was Church of Ireland (allowing his line to own and pass on land) while Mary was RC—an added problem with Mary’s strong church ties and faith. His absence here indicates a thought out (welcomed?) separation.
So where is Thomas? He shows up in the 1930 censes (12 April) in Pittsburgh living with who I believe to be his half-brother, John. This census taker made error upon error throughout his taking, particularly with place of origin, seeming always to put Pennsylvania down then overwriting. The form shows Ireland as place of origin for Thomas then being overwritten by England (the time of Thomas immigration Ireland was in the hands of the UK, England being frequently used instead of Ireland in the census, even on some ship rolls). Here Thomas is shown as a lodger, age 62 (born 1868), married (at age 26, making the year about 1894), immigrated (1886), and occupation as laborer in a mill. While this data sort of fits, I have reason to conclude this is our Thomas if you look at the John Gibbons info.
Thomas does not appear anywhere after 1930. I know nothing of his death, year, or place of burial.
Mary Gibbons (nee Mary J. Barrett) I now know has the middle initial “J” (see census data for 1930). It could stand for “Jane” (popular at the time in Ireland) or for “Jo” as used in the family or? I have found no naturalization data on her, but have found her in the 1900 census as entering the country in 1891 (other census data gives differing dates, but this is the first census in which she shows up and, I believe, the most trustworthy). Dad said she came in at New York’s Castle Garden (old Fort Clinton). There is a record of a Mary Barrett debarking from the ship City of Paris, Steerage class, 21 May, 1891 (see attached). Her age at the time was estimated at 18 which would put her birth at 1873. Her birth as noted on the 1900 census is January of 1873 making the two dates fit. You should note that from census to census (see attached) ages change along with dates of entry—the census data is quite unreliable for dating. This family seems to have no sense of years or has some superstition against giving accurate dates. Also, it must be noted, that Mary Barrett is a somewhat common name (too Irish; it would help if her name was Gertrude or such). This is the best fit I can make here from all given data and as it is her first census I believe she would give a more accurate reading of her birth—nerves and fear of government (they did live under English rule back in Ireland). Mary does show up as head of household in the 1930 census, still married, not widowed, with Thomas missing. See the section here on Thomas—maybe not missing. Interesting.
The rest of Mary’s history is collated in a number of photos and letters to Patrick (Dad) archived here in Tucson. She was largely in poor health in her late fifties and into her sixties, took some sort of daily medication that soothed her chronic nervous condition, complained bitterly about her children living with her (Tom and Issy)—too much partying, not enough money given her for needed food and rent. Dad and Jack Jones (her daughter Ann’s husband, later Tom) would send money frequently to help with bills. I do know they somehow rigged the electric feed (with a coin) into the house (Fisk Street house, Pittsburgh) so that electrical usage did not register with the utility. It seems suggestive from her letters that she developed a heart condition, but she took no notice of it with regard to being active. She would get up each day at 5:00 AM and start a laundry (Sunday I am certain was excluded)—ignoring the suggestions of her children to take it easy, that laundry did not have to be done every day. She was deeply religious and Roman Catholic. She also was controlling in that she expected her children to be un- American and closely hang around her or return with frequency—a very rural way of thinking. She disliked the freedoms expressed by Issy and Tom and longingly pleaded with Dad to come home for every holiday, including the Fourth of July. In one instance she would not eat candy sent her by Dad until he came home (from Detroit) to share it with her.
As you already know she died in 1943 from burns suffered when in her morning routine she went to light the coal fire and her night-dress caught fire. I never knew her though Blanche may have some vague memory of her. Mother described her as saintly—that she had a visible glowing aura about her. Issy (her daughter Isabelle—Issy’s spelling) claimed that Mary was from a line of French Jews who fled Ireland at the time of the Huguenot massacre in France. That Mary’s line was not West-Country Barrett, but the name came from the beret which was worn by the French (it is true that the East Irish Barretts derive their name from this hat and that they were French refugees). Take this for what it is worth. DNA would show the mitochondrial line and resolve it.
Coyne. The name meant little to me until I found that a John Coyne held land in Gort na Ropa (Gortnarup)—this from Griffith’s Valuation (see attached). This triggered a memory. Dad once or twice mentioned that there was a female Coyne married to his grandfather. The fact that a John Gibbons and a John Coyne both held property in Gort na Ropa (a tiny place) strongly indicates these two families are related. This would fit the story of our grandfather having two marriages, one to a Coyne and the other to our great grandmother, Bridget Sullivan. I cannot remember our great-grandfather’s name. It could also be Thomas (seems to ring a tinkle of a bell).
Uncle John in Mary’s letters is a mysterious figure. Who is he? I believe I have found him: John Gibbons. Three clues were given by Dad to help the search. Dad mentioned that Thomas had a half brother living in Pittsburgh, that he was very tall and given the title “Spire” Gibbons—a decidedly Irish pun of political twist. He was a self-taught flute player who could play anything by ear and from memory. He had two sons. He had a wife who went blind. This is all I started to work with. Mary writes about an Uncle John and in a letter has James going to see him with a question about Francis. Francis appears in her letters and letters from Peg, Dad’s sister Margaret. So I started looking in the census data for a gibbons with two sons, one named Francis. As the half-brother would be from the earlier marriage of Thomas’ father, he would be older than any of the three siblings, Thomas, James and Delia.
I found him. John Gibbons. He first appeared in the Pennsylvania 1910 Miracode Index (see attached), birthplace Ireland, age 46 (birth about 1864, thus older than the sibs), married to a Hadler (native Pennsylvanian) age 45, and with two sons, Francis (age 18) and Joseph (15) both born in Pennsylvania, with another occupant, a Hannil (can’t they read the writing? What’s a Hannil?), age 47, sister-in-law. The ages work out, the two sons fit, and having a sister-in-law somewhat reaffirms the need for some help if John’s wife had recently gone blind. But more needed to be looked into.
Next the census of 1900, where the two sons would show up in the search. I found them again in Pittsburgh and with a better fit. John Gibbons, age 39 (born Jan 1861), origin Ireland, married, laborer, arrived in 1883. John is married to Mary E., born May,1863 in Pennsylvania (parents both born in Ireland), married for 12 years (about 1888), had 4 children, 2 living: Francis (age 8 born September 1891) and Joseph (age 5 born July 1894).
The census of 1920 finds John, age 56, renting and as a laborer. Mary, age 54. Joseph, age 22. Francis has left. There are no other residents shown. The sister-in-law is gone.
The 1930 census has John 66, now owning a house valued at $5,050 and working as a watcher with the Railroad; he is still married to Mary who is now 64 and there are no children still at home. Who does show up is a Thomas Gibbons, married, and living without wife as border. This is our anti-social and missing grandfather I suspect gone to live with his half-brother.
I find no record of John and Mary after this census. The 1940 census is not available to me.
Lastly, if John had a sister here, then the widowed Catherine Barry would be Catherine Gibbons of the first marriage of our great grandfather. I am not interested in pursuing this line as it has too may dead ends and “if’s.”
Great grandfather Gibbons. Our great grandfather is a mystery to me. He clearly lived just over the Mayo border in Galway, in the scattered farm area of Gort na Ropa (also spelled Gartnarup) just southwest of Clonbur (An Fhairche), Corr na Móna, Galway. His name may be Thomas (John?). He was married twice (from Dad), his first wife being a Coyne, first name unknown and who probably died in childbirth or complications from, as was common at the time. His second wife was Bridget Sullivan. Both marriages would have been in Clonbur or Cong. Our grandfather Thomas was Church of Ireland (from Mother), Protestant, and the current church in Clonbur is Roman Catholic. I suspect the marriage may have been civil or in the nearest Anglican parish church (St. Mary’s Church, Cong—as of today—though there is a ruined church, probably Anglican and recently abandoned, in Clonbur; there is a RC Church in Clonbur, St. Patrick’s, but of more recent build). Today Gort na Ropa is in the parish of Cong, largely in Mayo. More than likely he was a renter of land and house, or lived with a close relative who did so. The record of ownership for the Gortnarup area shows a John Gibbons as tenant in Gortnarup, block 4a and labelled “Gully” on the accompanying map, this in Griffith’s Valuation (see attached). About Griffith’s Valuation (www.failteromhat.com/griffiths.php or http://griffiths.askaboutireland.ie/gv4/gv_family_search_form.php): Irelands Valuation office conducted its first survey of property ownership and tenants in Ireland from 1848 to 1864. This survey became known as ‘Griffiths Valuation’ after Richard Griffith who was the director of the office at that time. The survey was used to determine the amount of tax each person should pay towards the support of the poor within their poor law union. This involved determining the value of all privately held lands and buildings in rural as well as urban areas to figure the rate at which each unit of property could be rented year after year. The resulting survey was arranged by barony and civil parish with an index to the townlands appearing in each volume. Griffith’s Valuation can be used as census substitute for the years after the Great Famine as censuses prior to 1901 were destroyed.” It is important to note that both a John Gibbons (as well as a John Coyne) held land in Gortnarup at the time of this valuation. This John Gibbons most certainly is in our family line.
It can also be noted that Gibbons as tenants in Galway at the time of this valuation are very few. The name is not common. There is a cluster around Gortnarup, on the coast to the west and a few scatterings both east and west of Lough Corrib. Of the Thousands of tenants in Galway, only 106 are Gibbons, and some of these are repeats as one Gibbons may be tenant on more than one property making the actual number of Gibbons even fewer.
I also do not know anything about Bridget Sullivan other than she is from the area (how big an area?) and would have been a Gaelic speaker.
There is one other relative mentioned by Dad. This relative was game keeper for a local estate. The one large estate nearby is the Guiness estate just east of Clonbur. There is also the Lynch family (hated locally). There were other holdings in the area of which I know nothing. I do know that this family member would occasionally bring game to the family, legally or not. I do not remember the name of this relative.
Though this place and time in our family line is but one movement or our line from a place to another place, Gort na Ropa is unique. This narrow strip of land between two large lakes was the passage of war—mountain people to the west, plains people to the east—many a cow and horse must have made its stolen way here.
Also note that our Field of Thieves is historically/mythically extremely important to Irish memory. Here at Mount Gable, according to legend, the Fir Bolg assembled on the summit before their confrontation with the Tuatha Dé Danann at the Battle of Moytura. This was a big one. Wikepedia notes: “In far antiquity the Fir Bolg were the rulers of Ireland (at the time called Ériu) immediately before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who many interpret as the Gaelic gods. The King of the Tuatha Dé, Nuada, sued for half the island for his people, but the Fir Bolg king refused. At the ensuing Battle of Mag Tuired the Fir Bolg were all but conquered and their king slain by the goddess Morrigu, though the fierce efforts of their champion Sreng saved them from utter loss, and the Tuatha Dé were so touched by their nobility and spirit they gave them one quarter of the island as their own. They chose Connacht. After this, the Fir Bolg all but disappear from mythology.” Neat!
Search the net to add your own color here. Fun. http://clonbur.galway-ireland.ie/
The Statue of Liberty has suddenly returned to the limelight as something that embodies what is best of America and what is most under threat. The most shocking image I’ve seen yet is the new cover of der Spiegel, released yesterday:
Also released yesterday is this incredible cover from the New Yorker (or the day before? This shitstorm just seems to be growing everyday, making one of my favourite new websites the ‘What the Fuck Just Happened Today‘ blog.)
I know we never lived up to the ideal of the Statue of Liberty — it was a struggle just to get it erected. There are the complications of inviting the huddled masses to land that was never yours in the first place. But let us remember the ideal:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
— Emma Lazarus
Let us also remember the complexities.
One of the essays I most loved from George Perec’s Species of Space was ‘Ellis Island: description of a Project’. He grounds it on Kafka’s story Amerika where the Statue of Liberty holds not a torch but a sword. Perec writes:
Perhaps this was very precisely what being an emigrant meant: to see a sword where the sculptor, in all good faith, had thought he was putting a torch. And not really to be wrong. (134)
I sit with that.
He writes of the continued, endless disjuncture between ‘bring me your huddled masses’, and anti-immigrant laws. He writes also of just what kind of place Ellis island is:
For me it is the very place of exile, that is, the place of the absence of place, the place of dispersal. In this sense, it concerns me, it fascinates me, it involves me, it questions me, as if the search for my own identity went via the appropriation of this depository where harassed functionaries baptized Americans by the boatload… (136)
He writes about being a Jew who survived Hitler’s genocide, and it seems to me this describes perfectly the experience of many whose countries now lie in rubble. The only difference being the active role America has played in today’s destruction.
It is an absence rather, a question, a throwing into question, a floating, an anxiety, an anxious certainty behind which there is the outline of another certainty, abstract, heavy, insupportable: that of having been designated as a Jew, and therefore a victim, and of owing my life simply to chance and to exile.
I might have been born, like my close or distant cousins, in Haifa or Baltimore or Vancouver, but one thing alone in this almost limitless range of possibilities was forbidden to me, that of being born in the land of my ancestors, in Poland, in Lubartów, Puławy, or Warsaw, and of growing up there in the continuity of a tradition, a language and an affiliation. (136)
For him, this is a kind of non-place, a fissure.
What I went to seek on Ellis Island was the actual image of this point of no return, the consciousness of this radical fracture. What I wanted to interrogate, to throw into question, to test, were my own roots in this non-place, this absence, this fissure, on which any such quest for the trace, the word, the Other is based. (137)
Yet a break, perhaps, that opens up towards a new future. That we should still attempt to live up to, especially as the bombs continue to fall. Especially as the threats of more death and destruction to come are being blustered about white house halls and awkward press conferences. Until our protest manages to transform it all entirely, because what is happening now is unbearably unjust — though it has to be recognised the harassment is not new and never was bearable. We’ve entered a whole new world now, of power grabs and defiance of federal judges.
A few more images from the past weeks that I liked…
But I will end with my favourite picture of Georges Perec and a cat. My own version of hope and self care in struggle.
25 April, 2017
Another one for my collection! Though I had seen it before…
Septima Poinsette Clark’s background is found in the second part of Ready From Within, you can read more about the first on her life and work here. Once again I found myself bumping against my own unconsciously contained ideas of identity. The editor Cynthia Brown noted her own surprise when she saw Rosa Parks let her hair down and it fell below her waist… Rosa Parks smiled at her, and said kindly she was part Native American. How had I never heard that before? Septima Clark’s background is just as wondrously complex — exactly the complexity that the U.S. brand of racism strips away by reducing everything to the absurdity of a drop of blood defining a status that whites have long tried to hold forcibly down at the bottom.
Clark writes that her mother was born free, and that she:
…had three distinct sets of brother and sisters. The first set was mulatto, two girls with soft curly brown hair. then came three ginger-colored boys with soft black hair. Then came three girls including my mother, Victoria. They were medium-brown with soft straight black hair. Their father was Indian, from the Muskhogean tribes who lived on the sea islands from Charleston to Savannah, Georgia.
My mother was born in Charleston but reared in Haiti…those three little girls were sent to Haiti to be raised by their older brothers, who were cigar makers there. (89)
Her mother was very proud of this claim, that she never was in slavery. Very unlike Clark’s father who was freed by the civil war as a teenager, and remembered this freedom as a worrying time. His surname Poinsette came from his former master, a botanist for whom the Poinsettia is named.
I think about the connections between language, culture and place embodied in the intertwinings of this single family’s history — and the simple identity assigned to Septima Poinsette Clark fairly boggles the mind. How soon can we leave these damn binaries behind us?
There are also fascinating insights here into the early traditions of education and how they play into these complexities. There was a local public school, but Clark would have been one of 100 students for the one teacher. Her mother worked to get her into a private school:
There were lots of black women who had little schools in their homes–in their kitchens, in their dining rooms, or in little shed rooms. (98)
These schools ran on their own hierarchies — and this whole story of education resulted in a class pride that Clark had to work hard to undo through the rest of her life in struggle. She remembers that her teacher:
didn’t take just anybody who had the money for tuition. She chose her pupils from the blacks who boasted of being free issues, people who had never been slaves. These people constituted a sort of upper caste. (99)
From there she went on to the Avery Institute, getting her teaching certificate in 1916. The Avery Institute is hell of fascinating — itself emblematic of the complexities of identity and the immense possibilities opened up by Reconstruction. Francis Louis Cardozo founded it, his father the Jewish editor of a newspaper, his mother half black and half Native American. They sent their son Francis to school in Europe; after his return he became the first black Secretary of State for South Carolina during reconstruction. (101)
The racist laws against marriage meant Cardozo’s parents never officially married — two such interracial families lived on Clark’s street while she was growing up, but her mother always looked down on them for living together outside of wedlock. Not everything was nice and friendly back in the day.
Clark’s first job was on Johns Island, part of a network of islands along the South Carolina coast. It took nine hours in a boat to get there from Charleston. She talks about the prevalence of African words, Gullah. She taught how that idiom as spoken related to ‘correct English’ (de to be written down as the…). She worked there several years, and then moved back to teach in Charleston.
How did she become fully radicalized? It took a little while:
I want to start my story with the end of World War II because that is when the civil rights movement really got going, both for me personally and for people all over the south. After World War II the men were coming home from fighting in Europe and Africa, and they weren’t going to take segregation any more. (23)
It was still some time before a fellow teacher introduced her to Highlander, the kind of space that encouraged her to step into her full potential and change the course of the growing civil rights movement. From there she never looked back, and never lost her faith in the ability of people to develop:
You know, the measure of a person is how much they develop in their life. Some people slow down in their growth after they become adults… But you never know when a person’s going to leap forward, or change around completely. (103)
One of my favourite quotes from her, and I’ve used this once already, is on growing old, and the opportunities that change and chaos bring:
But I really do feel that this is the best part of life. It’s not that you have just grown old, but it is how you have grown old. I feel that I have grown old with dreams that I want to come true, and that I have grown old believing there is always a beautiful lining to that cloud that overshadows things. I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age. (125)
Maybe if more righteous elders were like her and celebrated such things, we would be in a better place. To end, the one thing we all have to remember:
The only thing that’s really worthwhile is change. It’s coming. (126)
My last day at the farm, sheep-shearing day which I am so happy I got to see. It hardly seemed real to be leaving, hardly seems I was there now I am in Bristol. Everything fades so fast, though the soreness of my arms and tiredness implies it was in fact real.
Today as I sat at the train station — before being joined by an Afro-Carribean pensioner on a day-trip from Bristol doing her photography who boldly stated that Blair and Bush should be brought to the Hague for prosecution for their wars that were for nothing more than oil and was a bit taken aback I think when I wholeheartedly agreed so continued on with her arguments as if I had disagreed — before being joined by her, I was thinking how much I have enjoyed my time so far. I feel like I’ve been cracked open a little bit, horizons expanded a little bit so I have more room to grow. There is all this new experience that I can now own as mine, and the humility of knowing it could fill a thimble of what there is to know.
Today the sheep-shearer came. Martin. I watched him work and like yesterday herding sheep with T I was hit by just how very beautiful human beings are when they are in their element doing things they are expert in. I think sometimes this is the fascination of sport, because in office life, city life, you almost never see this. You forget just how amazing it is to watch someone with true expertise move and perform the very difficult tasks that they are best at. It seems effortless, every movement is sure, practiced, with the weight of years behind it. It looks easy, but you know it is the opposite.
It struck me that in this kind of physical labour you can find one aspect of true beauty visible nowhere else.
I will miss it the way I miss stars. Both of these things, I think, are things generally lacking in urban modern life, a reminder to be a little humbler in how we walk on the earth.
He had already done a few hundred sheep this morning before he came to do our 51 (the ewes with lambs will be shorn later in the summer) — most farms have several hundred at least. He spends three months a year in New Zealand shearing sheep like this every day — there are farms there with 80,000 of the things. Teams spend weeks shearing. Then there is part of his year traveling up and down England shearing sheep every day, and he has just added winter months in Finland and Latvia to the rotation — sheep there are kept inside for whole of the winter into the very late spring.
It never occurred to me that people could travel the world shearing sheep. A different kind of migration than what we usually hear about.
In England, where there is barn capacity (unlike the farm where I was working though plans are for that to soon change), ewes are often shorn in December before they lamb, and then kept inside until spring. They only need an inch and a half to two inches of wool coat to be perfectly happy outside in the winter weather, the rest of that immensely heavy fleece has all been bred for our own use.
The sheep file up this ramp — it was easier than I expected though often enough a ewe grew tired of waiting there and backed a waiting line right back into the pen. Often enough one of the stupid things sat stubbornly sideways across the entrance blocking it. They snorted and started around the pen when I got in to encourage them up. They act as if they are afraid of you every time you move, but when you are still you often feel their hot breath on your hands, and they will attempt to nibble away at wellies and sweater and jeans.
The shearer grabs them under their chin and by the foreleg and as he pulls them down he flips them over and there they lie strangely quiescent for the most part as he follows the same routine in removing their fleece, moving their dead-weight deftly to do so with practiced holds. Off the great thing comes. It is an amazing thing to watch.
I was expecting someone burley and older and grizzled. Not a rather puckish looking slender guy who is very possibly stronger than anyone else I have ever met.
The clippers are razor sharp and the skin very thin though the fleece is generally ready to come off at this point, seemed mostly to just peel away. From scattered conversation it also seems that certain kinds of sheep are much easier in this respect to shear than others, and some fleeces much more ready to come off. On one of the ewes who kicked there was a deeper cut, and he sewed it up himself there and then with something very thick and a huge needle.
That made me a little queasy I confess.
T rolled up the fleeces as they came off, into bundles that filled these massive great sacks that need massive muscles to haul into trucks and make this a bit more of a manly occupation than it needs to be. The sacks belong to the wool board, a cooperative that collects the wool from around the country and sells it all for the best price possible for large and small farmers alike. I love this, the only problem for T & I is that they don’t get a check for the wool until the following year. Not a huge problem for large farms, but often quite difficult for small holdings as you could imagine.
Sheep are so funny when shorn, but so clearly very happy and they even frisked a bit like lambs might — these were the year-old ewes who still hadn’t lambed, so still young I suppose.
He did the two ewes that didn’t lamb and the ewe whose lamb died and the four rams as well — those last cost quite a bit more trouble, and then one of them jumped the hurdles, a rather astonishing feat for something so heavy. An annoying one too as it meant a much more tiring day for us. Martin’s sheep-dog Jack helped round him up which was immensely helpful, but it meant he ended up penned separately with two of the shorn ewes so we had to separate them, get all the ewes into the orchard, get the rams together, load them up into the trailer, and return them to their fields.
We had the best bacon butties I have ever eaten when we finally had done. Showers and hot water seem extra special as well.
And then there I was waiting for the train. Feeling a little sad to be going I confess. Before I left I got a shot of the very helpful poster of sheep, cattle and pig breeds, though a bit of reflection from the sunny day
Wonderful thing to do, this farming malarkey, though I am quite happy to have a good long rest before me.
Vertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?
We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.
Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.
Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.
There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.
The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.
But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.
We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.
Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.
Always there is the sounding of oceans.
Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.
Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.
Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.
Dr Barnardo has been both lionized and accused of a great deal over the decades, subject to innuendo, accusation and lawsuits while he was still alive, and a continuing source of interest to academics and historians. Because, quite frankly, he is fascinating, possibly terrible, and had a lasting impact on philanthropy in general, but more importantly a life-changing impact upon tens of thousands of poor children.
I never knew quite how many: 28,000 children alone he sent off to Canada (how many more did he send to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the territories of white Commonwealth?), at one point in time he was legal guardian to 87 middle and upperclass children, and in charge of 8,000 more. Many thousands more passed through his homes and shelters and villages. It is mind boggling.
Mostly that such a small island country should have had so many children in desperate need — and this book seems to follow Dr Barnardo in never once asking why that should be.
Mostly that one man should have been allowed this kind of power over tens of thousands of children.
So much has been written about Barnardo around subjects of Victorian philanthropy and slumming, sex, his use of photography, the role of missionaries in the East End. I used to teach a really interesting chapter from Seth Koven’s Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, which I really need to reread in its entirety.
This is a very different kind of book, written by his secretary for the last seven years of his life — he knew him well, looked up to him, and shared his world view for the most part. It developed from several papers written by him in reply to requests as to what sort of man Barnardo was. I could imagine he did field a lot of those requests.
Above all reading it, it is hard to believe it was finished in 1942. It belongs entirely to an earlier age almost as far removed from WWI as it is from WWII — but in that gives more of a window to Dr Barnardo through the lens of the period he lived in.
The introduction from Christopher Fry is the same, he writes:
Almost as soon as he set foot in London he began to draw out from their dark holes-and-corners a race of wild, unloved, and outcast children, a race which had skulked and suffered there for generations while the life of the city went on around them. (7)
I almost threw the book against the wall. Another race? What, are they dead that they do not form part of London’s life? They must have been a ubiquitous presence, these children, shaping the city and people’s experience of it as hard as they might have tried not to see them.
Dr Barnardo – a secretary’s impressions
But back to Dr Barnardo — born in Dublin 1845, he came to London in 1866 to study medicine with a goal of becoming a medical missionary to China. For some reason (I don’t even think Williams is indulging in irony here) he didn’t get on so well with his fellow students. They all thought him a bit odd, a “queer fellow” and always preaching.
His first year in London saw a great cholera outbreak, which he celebrated for turning people’s eyes toward the Lord. Williams writes:
He had personally undertaken the circulation of Bibles in East London, and in three months he had sold in the open streets, in public-houses and in market-places thirty thousand copies of the Scriptures. (65)
Whatever else he was, he was a man to be reckoned with. One who put selling bibles over more useful interventions. On one occasion he had two ribs broken when he was beaten after trying to sell bibles in the wrong place to the wrong people. It didn’t stop him. Williams writes:
As soon as I entered the Doctor’s room, I realized that I was in the presence of a man of commanding personality. He was short of stature, only five feet five inches in height, sturdily built, with a very fine head and shoulders. One could not fail to notice the firm chin, and the keen grey eyes that seemed to have the power of reading one’s thoughts. His massive forehead also arrested attention, and gave some indication of the marvelous brain behind it. He was quick and alert in his movements, and bore an unmistakable air of authority. (15)
The working conditions under him will be familiar to anyone who knows similarly driven people in the charity field, but with much less regulation.
That was my first impression of Dr Barnardo–a man who wanted half-an-hour’s work done in twenty minutes. (16)
It is a portrait of a man who pushes himself harder than he pushes his staff, beginning early in the morning in Surbiton trying to deal with a level of correspondence that I cannot honestly imagine — ‘where an amanuensis attended him daily, so that he could get a certain amount of work done before leaving for Stepney.’ Once at work he sat at two large tables in L-configuration covered with baskets of letters, and worked late into the night, often midnight or beyond, dictating letters. But this is after his work back in Stepney, where:
A special staff of clerks used to come on duty each evening, and to enable the Doctor to continue his dictation without interruption, and to avoid delay in transcription, pages of shorthand notes would be rushed up to the typing room by a waiting messenger as fast as they were taken down from the Doctor’s lips… (26)
Williams writes of His ‘magnetic personality’ (32), that ‘he seemed to cast a spell over those who worked with him’ (33) and this (again, this sounds so familiar):
There were times when I got very tired of these long hours, but I was always conscious of the fact that however much the Doctor required of his staff, he was giving far more himself, and I was loath to complain. (33)
Beyond all question, Dr Barnardo was an autocrat. He knew it, and acknowledged it, but hoped he was “a benevolent autocrat.” (35)
He was also often quite deaf. Not that those things are necessarily connected, but he doesn’t strike me as a great listener.
There’s a nice awkward section about the women who worked for him as well, a little kindly misogyny thrown in:
Dr Barnardo employed a large number of women; some in administrative work; a number as clerks; others as superintendents, nurses, cottage mothers, etc. No one could have won the wholehearted devotion of these women helpers more than he did, or have made fuller use of their abilities. Some had a record of many years service, and he valued their help; yet he frequently declared in his humorous way that being “a poor ignorant male, a stupid common-sense kind of creature,” women completely mystified him, and he found them utterly inexplicable. (37-38)
Ah, women and the ways that they operate without common sense. He was inexplicably married — for convenience and to further the work really, his wife rarely appears in these pages. There are, of course, rumours of pedophilia, but at least at the last stage of his life, it honestly seems hard to see how he could have managed it surrounded by such a beehive of workers waiting upon his direction at all hours.
A missionary to East London instead of China
Reading this you get a sense of East London as foreign and in need of Christian redemption as the furthest reaches of what Europeans held (wrongly) as the civilised world. He became involved in the Ragged Schools in 1866, and Williams describes what he states is the well-known story of how Dr Barnardo came into his work through his encounter with his first ‘street arab’. (There is so much to be unpacked in that term alone). The little boy asked him if he could stay over night as he had nowhere else to go. Barnardo, so the story goes, didn’t believe there were homeless children — so he bribed Jim Jarvis with coffee and place to sleep to show him where other children hid away to sleep. Bob’s your uncle, the Dr Barnardo we know today began to emerge.
He just happened to be at a dinner with Lord Shaftesbury soon afterwards — he convinced him to come along and see for himself the state of these children, and they agreed something must be done.
Dr Barnardo’s rescue operation started in a donkey stable, moved to Bale Street and expanded to Hope Place in Stepney. In 1870 he expanded to Stepney Causeway — and although the building was demolished, Williams states that the door now sits in entrance hall of Barnardo Headquarters. I wonder if it’s still there?
Describing the early days, Barnardo wrote:
“Many a happy hour was spent in whitewashing walls and ceilings, scrubbing floors, and otherwise putting the place into a suitable condition for the reception of my first family. Then I spent two whole nights upon the streets of London, cast my net upon the ‘right side of the ship,’ and brought to shore twenty-five homeless lads all willing and eager to accept such help as I could give them.” (74)
His language is, of course highly biblical. Williams describes his forays, and again you think to yourself, he might as well have been on a mission in China given how they describe these neighbourhoods in their own city — resulting from desperate poverty and inequality and exploitation.
It was customary for him to sally forth at midnight, clad in great coat and top hat, and carrying a dark lantern, to take his way through filthy, loathsome slums; down alleys where a policeman stood at the entrance and warned wayfarers not to proceed; into the communal kitchens of the common lodging-houses with which London abounded at that time, and where thieves, rogues and vagabonds of every kind gathered. (76)
It seems a waste of a policeman honestly. Still, the one nice thing about this book is that it allows some sense of resistance, and the irrepressible humour and bravery of the children themselves to occasionally peek through:
As a rule the help the Doctor offered was thankfully accepted, but it was not always so. Sometimes he found it difficult to persuade a homeless youngster, in spite of the sufferings and hardships of a street life, to yield up the freedom to which he had become accustomed, and which he had come to prize. (78)
East London – Dr Barnardo’s hunting grounds
His descriptions of East London and its people are quite infuriating:
We learn that people were ignorant and untaught. The streets were only dimly lit at night-time by feeble, flickering gas lamps, and were indescribably filthy. The gutters were filled with fetid water, and decaying cabbage leaves, potato parings and other refuse damned the gratings. The gin shops kept open until all hours of the night. (80)
And here is how he saw its inhabitants — wild animals seeking their own. As if people had multiple options, as though poverty were their choice.
A more unsavoury, ignorant and generally repellent rookery it would be hard to find. Street traders had made the street, with its many courts and alleys, their chosen home. The successful thief, resting in ill-gotten plenty, was neighbour to the luckless adventurer whom disease and famine had driven into his last earthly retreat, to die unheeded and unpitied by the great world without. Birds of a feather flocked together in this degraded colony. When a choked water pipe leading from the roof of a building was examined, it was found to be blocked up with empty purses which had been tossed on to the roof…People herded there whose chance of getting their daily bread each morning was more precarious than that of wild animals who picked up their sustenance in the open country. The lowest depths of all we seen in the precocious depravity of the juvenile population. (80)
It’s almost amusing then, when Dr Barnardo — recognising that lodging houses held many children — did not last one night when he himself attempted to stay in one as ‘research’. He dressed as a tramp, and one of ‘his boys’ took him to one, where he was apparently bitten so badly by insects it was three weeks before he was fit to be seen. It is reminiscent of Mary Higgs’ research, but she was hardier and much more thorough.
A little more on the subject though — Williams tells of the time (this is highly anecdotal as you might imagine) Barnardo was trying to rescue messenger boys (their souls really I believe) from a lodging house in Drury lane (and no, that’s not the East End, he really got around). He found out that they were relapsing because girls from the neighbouring lodging house were paying a bribe to the deputy to allow them in three nights a week for carousing. Dr Barnardo put a stop to that by convincing the boys it was immoral, and even to move into other lodgings. He of course blamed the dissoluteness of women — I can come up with a few rather more likely explanations, most of which involve pimps.
Anyway, on his return to original house to check after the souls of the boys, the girls found him there alone in the kitchen and beat him up. You almost rejoice that he was house-bound for a month. He writes:
“To anyone who may smile at this recital of my timidity I would say, ‘Have you ever been thrashed by a woman?’ For, if not, let me remark that few things can be more humbling and fear-begetting than a vigorous chastisement administered by female hands before an approving female audience. (85)
I agree with that statement, but he definitely needed some chastising.
From Stepney he expanded on an ever growing scale. Again the funny Victorian notions of sex and propriety emerge
When the Doctor began his work of rescue on behalf of destitute children, being a young unmarried man he confined his operations to boys (93)
But he soon opened a Village Home for Girls at Barkingside, a number of youth’s labour homes beginning in 1881 (training ‘camps’, probably most problematic). He started a boarding out system, first instituted 1886, where children were sent into the country to live with families until they were 12 or 13, then brought back to London to begin apprenticeships/training. Again, looking at the scale of these operations, the heart quails. For every child given to a good home, I feel fear even at this late date for those children put into the complete power of strangers.
The Uses and Abuses of Empire
Even before this he had begun to send children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — it was 1882 when the first party of 51 boys sailed to Canada.
Everything is here: the power of the wealthy to control the bodies and the futures of the poor, the role of the colonies to soak up those the ruling classes did not want to help or even look at, the land stolen from indigenous peoples in order to provide these children a new start and a new hope based on their citizenship and the colour of their skin. Those children sent into uncertain futures, entirely at the mercy of their new families.
Just to recap: 28,000 boys in total sent by Dr Barnardo to Canada. The book mentions in passing the many other societies then started up to do the same thing, but not as rigorously or as well.
A different kind of migrant crisis. It hurts my heart.
They had to do some work to set the ground to justify all of this, and it is hardly surprising that they did not look too closely at the causes of poverty. The book mentions that children were bought and sold and traded, beaten, made to work, to beg after being made as pitiful and hopeless looking as possible, to thieve… They needed saving. Having read multiple other accounts of poverty, I don’t doubt many did, but it is curious to me why it was able to take this form.
Also curious, though I suppose Victorian morality makes it less curious, is that nowhere is there any mention of sex work even when talking about the buying and borrowing of children, where others like Flora Tristan note that sexual exploitation was often the primary motive.
Speaking of Flora Tristan, who described gin palaces in great fury, it is also curious that Dr Barnardo managed to buy what he describes as one of the most notorious Gin Palaces and Music Halls in Limehouse — the Edinburgh Castle. Dr Barnardo wrote of it:
Here was a powerful force for evil, with seductive charms that some of us can scarcely estimate the force of. I remember well coming to the old place when around the wall, in the intervals between each window, were niches, and in every niche was an indecent statue. On the platform or stage in front a number of girls engaged in dances. In the middle of the room was a bar for the sale of drink. There was a door that led out to the tea-gardens, where all kinds of evil practices went on. Almost every one of the houses overlooking this place were houses of evil character. There were one or two exceptions, bit nearly all were full of persons of infamous life. (90)
They turned it into a hall, churchly entertainment centre, and held ‘waif suppers’ there, you can read a lot more on The Children’s Homes website.
Stepney Causeway, and his provision for children
I liked the descriptions of what his complex on Stepney Causeway was once like, it is all long gone now of course and I think probably better so.
A large building had been erected in Bower Street, which runs parallel to Stepney Causeway, and this building was linked up by a bridge with the Causeway premises. The Doctor’s Board Room was situated on the first floor of the Bower Street building, and had a fine bay-window overlooking a large paved yard. This yard, with a small extension under a couple of railway arches, was the only playground for four hundred boys…They played cricket and football within its narrow confines, with special rules to fit the circumstances.
It was in the yard at Stepney that they went through their daily physical exercises and drill under the supervision of a retired army instructor. It was there that the Medical Officer would sometimes conduct an open-air inspection of eyes, ears and teeth; and if a boy in the Hospital passed away, the little funeral cortege would cross the yard on its way to the chapel where the funeral service would be held. (28)
At the top of the building was a photographic studio where every child was photographed on admission and again on leaving. Some striking contrasts were obtained in this way. (30)
Those photographs — definitely one of the things that most got him into trouble. That and his habit of taking children from their parents and families with impunity. There was one lawsuit as he sent many of these children to Canada. It is tan ugly side to this work, and his world view that seemed to hold axiomatic that poverty was the fault of the parents, and he had to save children from both. This book recounts only stories of criminal, abusive and gin-sodden relations who would pawn the good clothes given to their children (though boots or bread, a hard choice) for whom there might have been a case the child needed to be removed for their own wellbeing. Yet clearly many more must have simply been poor and desperate. There is little to no thought to conditions or opportunities for these families as a whole. Much of me revolts in an enormous ‘how dare he’.
The enormous and ugly class prejudice is most obvious when Williams discusses Barnardo’s guardianship over boys who were not poor. He writes:
There was one special feature of the Doctor’s work which impressed me very much. He was frequently approached by parents or guardians of young people of the middle and upper classes for advice and assistance in difficult cases; boys and girls addicted to dishonest habits or tainted by the bad example of servants, or who, through lack of proper management, had become uncontrollable and defiant.
Never the bad example of upper class parents, or abuse or alienation, oh no. He blames servants. It’s quite extraordinary.
There is, finally, a quaint sentimentality that pervades all, this will give you a sense of it:
Children turned to him instinctively as though they understood his love…”Boys and girls have always been fond of me,” he wrote on one occasion, “and I need not say I have always been very fond of them. I don’t quite know what it is that makes children so attractive to me; but although I have had many who have been crippled and sadly deformed, and some who have been afflicted with dreadful disorders, I think I may say of a truth I have never seen a really ugly child!” (47)
There are several stories of helping crippled children that have a polished and well practiced air to them, which is quite distasteful. There are many stories of his relationships, but then you read this:
In his later years Dr Barnardo had nearly eight thousand children in his charge, and one could not help being deeply impressed by the personal interest he took in each member of his great family. (50)
and you have to question them. I confess after reading this I am less interested in the character of Dr Barnardo himself, or the charges often raised against him. Instead I question the position he was allowed to fill, the sentimentality and prejudice that made it possible, the sources of the conditions that justified a means that would never be acceptable today. This is vastly different than the work of say Father Potter, who also took in boys and helped raise them. As always for us now suspicions are raised, but in his case it is also clear why it was that he could not see a boy asleep in the street and not give him a home. That makes sense to me without being in a position to much judge any ulterior motives (and I like to hope there were not) — unlike the wholesale removal of tens of thousands of children from either the streets or their own homes and families. Their repatriation across the world to further build empire.
There is so much to think about here, and the impact this one man alone and the organisations he set into motion were able to inflict on so many kids. Never even imagined here are the gaps left in the community, the holes in the hearts and the homes left by those children as they were shipped off abroad. The trauma of those events. The ways they facilitated the maintenance of an illusion of a prosperous society and eradicated the elements that might call this illusion to account, while also consolidating the empire.
How dare they, I think again.
[Williams, A. E. (1953) Barnardo of Stepney: The Father of Nobody’s Children. Liverpool: Guild Books.]
Evans published Adam Bede in 1859, describing events set in 1799 — it was 1721 that the first machinery was introduced into a silk mill in Derby and 1771 that Arkwright opened his cotton mill in Cromford. This is a turning point in industrial history and one she references, though fairly tangentially more’s the pity.
One of the things I got out of reading this, was that it continued the process of doing away once and for all with one of my stubborn blind spots — and I appreciate things that do that. Especially a blind spot that has continued in the face of constant small revelations — my simplistic working binary of clean pastoral countryside with its lovely clean towns and villages vs great dirty smoggy cities as centres of industry and innovation.
It’s just wrong.
It was especially wrong several hundred years ago, because multiple small villages served as dirty centres of industry and innovation. Many more held quarries, tanneries, and mines and etc — coal dust transformed whole landscapes that are today green and peaceful. I am ashamed that I have still been carrying that binary shit in my head and the only reason I know it was still there is because books and museums and unexpected clusters of mills and mines encountered in my ‘peak district back-to-nature holiday’ surprised me.
What is curious now, I suppose, is how much closer to reality it has actually become in ‘developed’ countries. How the dirt and grime and exploitation and innovation have been centralised and separated from daily life, its laborers moved to the cities, pollution’s existence in naturally beautiful peripheries cleaned up, and industry’s stories retold or simply erased in much of the countryside. This means of course, that the dirt and toxicity moved along to other places, other countries. So in a way my blind spot is the result of a great deal of effort, but whose? And why?
This isn’t even an attempt at an answer because I know it’s a whole complex combination of things that I could probably start listing right now involving capitalism and labour and etc. One place to start might be Lumsdale Valley, which held all kinds of toxic industry starting in the 1600s and is now a lushly and eerily beautiful series of preserved ruins.
Instead here are just some interesting passages from Adam Bede. In this one the man himself, country carpenter and half-peasant half-artisan (as described by George Eliot) praising the industrial revolution. Why? Because it’s happening within a few miles of him.
And there’s such a thing as being oversperitial; we must have something beside Gospel i’ this world. Look at the canals, an’ th’ aqueduc’s, an’ th’ coal-pit engines, and Arkwright’s mills there at Cromford; a man must learn summat beside Gospel to make them things, I reckon. But t’ hear some o’ them preachers, you’d think as a man must be doing nothing all’s life but shutting’s eyes and looking what’s agoing on inside him.
A view of Masson Mill set in its landscape:
And the setting of Cromford Mill and its canal:
It is so hard, now, to understand that this was once ‘industrial’.
Sadly, this novel in almost its entirety takes place in ‘Hayslope’ which is really Ellastone, on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. So eagerly awaiting references to Wirksworth, I was despairing (as already noted) several hundred pages into Hetty’s beauty as adorable as downy ducklings and the constant passive-aggressive wailing of Adam Bede’s mother and Dinah’s sermons on goodness and Methodism. But finally, we get to some descriptions of this beautiful stone town, quite rural and lovely to my own eyes. Here is Rev. Irvine to Dinah:
“Ah, I remember Snowfield very well; I once had occasion to go there. It’s a dreary bleak place. They were building a cotton-mill there; but that’s many years ago now. I suppose the place is a good deal changed by the employment that mill must have brought.”
She replies (and oh, if only this had centred on her life in ‘Snowfield’):
“It is changed so far as the mill has brought people there, who get a livelihood for themselves by working in it, and make it better for the tradesfolks. I work in it myself, and have reason to be grateful, for thereby I have enough and to spare. But it’s still a bleak place, as you say, sir–very different from this country.”
I suppose this is as much a shift in common perceptions of what is beautiful and what is country as it is my own blindspot. It’s also an interesting note on labour, those who moved first to smaller towns like these, seeking better lives. This happened alongside the importation of primarily children (not noted by Elliot of course) to work the mills. Both groups must have transformed these places.
This is the view over ‘bleak’ Wirksworth from Black Rocks — whose other side was once the site of a lead mine to be sure:
Curiously Dinah goes on to describe her own views on what the town-country distinction means for her preaching and gathering of souls, and Irvine responds.
“But I’ve noticed that in these villages where the people lead a quiet life among the green pastures and the still waters, tilling the ground and tending the cattle, there’s a strange deadness to the Word, as different as can be from the great towns, like Leeds, where I once went to visit a holy woman who preaches there. It’s wonderful how rich is the harvest of souls up those high-walled streets, where you seemed to walk as in a prison-yard, and the ear is deafened with the sounds of worldly toil. I think maybe it is because the promise is sweeter when this life is so dark and weary, and the soul gets more hungry when the body is ill at ease.”
“Why, yes, our farm-labourers are not easily roused. They take life almost as slowly as the sheep and cows. But we have some intelligent workmen about here.”
These are common enough prejudices against cities and people of the country even now of course…and perhaps Eliot had more of a hand in forming them than I know.
Here is Adam’s perception of Wirksworth — and it makes me think perhaps I am not quite so far off:
And when at last he came in sight of Snowfield, he thought it looked like a town that was “fellow to the country,” though the stream through the valley where the great mill stood gave a pleasant greenness to the lower fields. The town lay, grim, stony, and unsheltered, up the side of a steep hill, and Adam did not go forward to it at present, for Seth had told him where to find Dinah. It was at a thatched cottage outside the town, a little way from the mill–an old cottage, standing sideways towards the road, with a little bit of potato-ground before it. Here Dinah lodged with an elderly couple; and if she and Hetty happened to be out, Adam could learn where they were gone, or when they would be at home again.
I could have gone to see that same cottage, but I didn’t. We just didn’t get round to it. But here is where Mary Ann Evans visited her aunt:
It has more than its share of quarries to be sure
But look at this village:
Eliot did occasionally write something I really liked, and this is one of them. I’ll end with another quote from Adam and something I definitely miss in the city:
I like to go to work by a road that’ll take me up a bit of a hill, and see the fields for miles round me, and a bridge, or a town, or a bit of a steeple here and there. It makes you feel the world’s a big place, and there’s other men working in it with their heads and hands besides yourself.
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.