Tag Archives: history

Happy Windrush Day, grandma and grandad

It’s Windrush Day.

UK makes Windrush Day official with £500k grant to support events
Windrush Day will take place on 22 June, the day when around 500 migrants from the Caribbean arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex in 1948 aboard the MV Empire Windrush. […] The communities minister, Lord Bourne, said the annual celebration will help to “recognise and honour the enormous contribution” of those who arrived between 1948 and 1971.

I mentioned before about my grandad being on the Windrush. Here he is.

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He and my grandma had first met during the war. They got married in September 1948.

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The only black guy at the wedding. In the village, probably.

Look at all these happy faces.

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They went on to have seven kids, my mum being one of them. Never got to meet him, sadly, as he died in a traffic accident in 1958. So it goes. And it would have been my grandma’s birthday tomorrow, too, if she was still around.

Anyway, happy Windrush Day, the pair of you.

Communication tied up in knots

I think I might have remembered that the Inkas never invented the wheel, but I didn’t know they hadn’t invented writing. It seems so fundamental to civilisation development. Apparently ‘knot’.

The khipu code: the knotty mystery of the Inkas’ 3D records
But, after more than a century of study, we remain unable to fully crack the code of the khipus. The challenge rests not in a lack of artifacts – over 1,000 khipus are known to us today – but in their variety and complexity. We confront tens of thousands of knots tied by different people, for different purposes and in different regions of the empire. Cracking the code amounts to finding a pattern in history’s knotted haystack.

Ok, I can just about understand the like-an-abacus-but-made-of-string category of these strange artefacts, but those types only accounts for two thirds of the ones remaining today.

The remaining third of these devices – the so-called narrative khipus – appear to contain encoded non-numerical, narrative information, including names, stories and even ancient philosophies. For those who love puzzles, the narrative khipus are a godsend.

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Monsters within

Studying the Middle Ages through its monsters
Artefacts such as illuminated manuscripts and tapestries are adorned with unicorns, dragons, antelopes with forked tails, blemmyes—humanoids with no heads, their faces instead on their chests—and more. These images inspire awe and a keen respect for medieval artists’ use of colour, but it is the undertones of racial and gendered prejudice that make the exhibition more than a spooky show and tell.

Dante’s Divine Comedy: the book was too long, the video too short

This article from BBC Culture reviews the enormous contribution Dante made with his Divine Comedy, not just in terms of literature and religion but the development and adoption of the Italian language too. It does include this irreverent passage though:

Dante and The Divine Comedy: He took us on a tour of Hell
… Right there that suggests this view of the afterlife is coloured by authorial wish-fulfillment: Dante gets a personal tour from his father-figure of a literary hero and the woman on whom he had a crush. In the parlance of contemporary genre writing, Dante’s version of himself in The Divine Comedy is a Mary Sue, a character written to be who the author wishes he could be, having experiences he wishes he could have. Sandra Newman, author of How Not to Write a Novel, has said that “The Divine Comedy is really a typical science fiction trilogy. Book one, a classic. Book two, less exciting version of book one. Book three, totally bonkers, unwanted insights into author’s sexuality, Mary Sue’s mask slipping in every scene.”

I guess I must agree. I want to say I read The Divine Comedy as a sixth former, but it’s more accurate to say I read Inferno and just briefly skimmed the rest, like everyone else.

And I loved Peter Greenaway’s video version, A TV Dante, though it was frustratingly too short, only covering the first eight cantos of the first book.

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The illustrations that tend to go along with the books are wonderful, and I’m sure they have contributed to the ongoing appeal of this massive Medieval poem.

A digital archive of the earliest illustrated editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy
These images, from Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, represent a 1497 woodcut edition, at the top, with a number of hand-colored pages; an edition from 1544, above, with almost 90 circular and traditionally-composed scenes, all of them probably hand-colored in the 19th century; and a 1568 edition with three engraved maps, one for each book.

As evocative and helpful as they are, that typical cone shape never really worked for me, though, as it doesn’t feel underground-y enough. In this version below, it looks like a vast plain or the map of a pleasant stroll through the North York Moors.

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It needs more ceilings, like in As Above, So Below, a film dealing with similar geography, but with added claustrophobia.

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(I must admit I haven’t seen this film, however. Rather than having to sit through all these kinds of films, I get all I need from the FoundFlix YouTube channel these days. Much quicker.)

Great books gone but not forgotten

I’ve posted before about unread books and those that were never finished, but what of those that were written but subsequently lost or destroyed.

Here’s a fascinating but wistful review of In Search of Lost Books, by Giorgio van Straten. There are some great stories here: as well as the vast numbers of lost plays and books from the ancient Library of Alexandria, there are books from Byron, diaries from Plath and short stories from Hemingway, amongst others, to lament.

The fleeting tale of great lost books, now gone forever
… And fire too (perhaps) destroyed the papers Walter Benjamin is said to have carried with him in a black suitcase on his failed flight from France to Spain, escaping Nazi persecution. The novelist Bruno Arpaia, thinking wishfully in The Angel of History, imagines that Benjamin gave the suitcase to a Spanish partisan to carry across the border. Van Straten suggests, rather, that Benjamin might have used his papers to light a bonfire to keep him and his fellow exiles warm in the cold night of the Pyrenees. Or, he asks, almost as an afterthought, “is it too much to hope that sooner or later – by chance, scholarship or passion – someone will discover those pages and enable us to read them at last?”

The sweet smell of failure

To be filed under ‘just because we can doesn’t mean we should’.

The failed quest to bring smells to the internet
In November of 2001, the smell of success began to fade for Joel Bellenson.

His invention, the iSmell, promised to bring scent to the internet. He’d developed cutting-edge sensory technology, assembled a dream-team of Fortune 500 execs, and raised $20m. Video game companies, Hollywood studios, and internet giants were lining up for partnerships.

But he’d forgotten to ask a crucial question: Did anyone actually want this?

It turned out nobody wanted iSmell, in the same way that no one wanted AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision in the 60s, but that’s not stopping people from still trying with this.

The oPhone is currently trying to convince the world it needs scent-based text messages, and the Cyrano (a “digital scent speaker”) aims to create “smell tracks” with names like “Thai Beach Vacation,” which can be played to the aromas of coconut and suntan lotion.

“Right now, nobody’s waking up at 3 a.m. saying, ‘I really want to send a scent message,’ ” oPhone founder, David Edwards, told The New Yorker. “But one day they will.”

Nah they won’t. It’s a sad, silly story, but the guy behind iSmell still stands by his invention.

Today, Bellenson’s a bit sour looking back on Digiscents’ failure. He insists the idea isn’t dead, but has merely “just been injured.”

“People just wanted to dance on our grave because we were so ridiculous,” he defends. “They were just afraid of our greatness.”

Nearly 20 years after the downfall of the iSmell, that greatness isn’t so apparent. The device is omnipresent on nearly every “worst inventions of all time” list and is universally heralded as a technological feat with no practical application — a paradigm of the dot-com bubble’s ugly bravado.

Too many organ donors

Atlas Obscura takes us to Windham County, Vermont, to a local history museum with an unusual stock problem.

The Vermont town that has way too many organs
In its heyday, the Estey Organ Company factory was the beating, bleating heart of Brattleboro, Vermont. It produced more than half a million organs in total and, at its peak, employed more than 500 people. On a fateful day in 1960, however, the assembly lines shut down and workers departed. After nearly a century in operation, the organ factory had gone silent.

And then, like the most improbable boomerangs, the organs started coming back.

Keen to preserve some of the town’s heritage, people started donating their unwanted organs back to Brattleboro, to the town’s historical society. Soon they had enough to open a dedicated organ museum, based in the old factory, but still the organs kept coming.

“In a way, it’s my fault that we have all these organs,” says George. She was generous with the old factory space, which at first provided ample room. But after years of accepting any and all organ donations, many of the buildings began to fill up. It was a unique predicament for any local society. What do you do with hundreds of antique, mostly unplayable organs?

Organs are such strange instruments. You wouldn’t describe a violin as a machine, as such, but that term seems to fit some of these examples.

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They came in an astonishing range of shapes, sizes, and uses, from children’s toys, to living-room centerpieces, to the crown jewels of community churches and theaters. Some of the organs were designed to fold up into little suitcases and could be taken anywhere. The historical society has photos of chaplains playing portable Estey reed organs in World War II, and the society boasts that their organs have pumped out tunes on six of the world’s continents (poor Antarctica).