I got off the plane at Heathrow last Tuesday morning and discovered that my iPhone utterly refused to receive any cell data signal in Britain.
I’m expecting this to be pretty beneficial to my cell phone bill—the last time I was home, for five days in 2011, my Android and I racked up a hundred forty bucks in data roaming charges—but it did mean that during my trip, I was completely cut off from the Internet or iMessage except when I could connect to wifi.
This was mostly fine. Mostly.
Our hotel was in Borehamwood, just up the street from the Elstree & Borehamwood train station, so on Wednesday my mother and I decided to go to the National Portrait Gallery. As we left the hotel room, my mum said, “And you know where we need to get off the train?” and I casually said, “Yeah.”
Reader, that was a lie. What I had was a superficial knowledge of London geography (I can group a list of Central London landmarks into general categories like “this is in Westminster”, “this is in the West End”, “this is in the City”), and a reflexive assumption that, if I get lost, I can check for info on my smartphone.
Except that day I couldn’t.
We got on the train, and I checked the on-board map to figure out where we should get off. What we should have done was get off at St. Pancras, so as to take the Tube from King’s Cross to Charing Cross, or else get off at Blackfriars to take the Tube to Embankment. But I knew that the closest two stops we’d get to Trafalgar Square would be City and Blackfriars, so I had us get off at City because the picture of London I had in my head was one in which the City is close enough to Trafalgar Square for us to walk it.
(It’s close enough that I could have walked it, on my own, if I had the familiarity with the geography to know where I was going. Figuring it out along the way and with my mum in tow, nope.)
So the upshot was that we emerged from the train station into Holborn Viaduct with no blessed idea how to get to the National Portrait Gallery, beyond perhaps, “figure out which direction is west”.
It wasn’t even that harrowing, in the end. I managed to figure out which of the many bus routes that passed us would head to Trafalgar Square. (The trickiest part of that was making sure we got on a bus headed in the right direction.) After visiting the NPG, we decided to head to Bond Street to visit the shop that sells my sister’s jewelry, for which we got directions from the nice lady at the Trafalgar Square Waterstone’s. (The trickiest part of that was that she told us to follow Cockspur Street and Pall Mall to Regent Street, but it turns out that Regent Street isn’t actually “Regent Street” at its intersection with Pall Mall; it is in fact “Waterloo Place”.) Then after we got to the end of Bond Street, we turned into Oxford Street for some shopping, before taking the Tube back to King’s Cross and the train home.
But I felt a real disconnect, especially for that first quarter hour after we left City train station and had to figure out which end of the station we’d left from and which bus to take. When Lisa and I spent a couple of days in Paris in 2009, for the first three or four hours or so, I was really disconcerted by the fact that I was somewhere where the conversations and signage that surrounded me was completely unintelligible to me. I had a somewhat terrifying sense of isolation and helplessness. Briefly in London last week, I got something of the same experience, just from not being able to pull up the internet on my phone.
I got it right. Click the button to read me talking about how I got there, but don’t do it till you’ve tried the puzzle yourself. Please.
My first semester at university, when my Writing Through Media instructor (the very drunkest teacher I ever had) introduced the idea of the third meaning, I never thought to ask if it counts if you’re seeing third meanings in the credits.
At the beginning of every episode of Vikings, the first card that pops up reads, “HISTORY and METRO GOLDWYN MAYER present”. And always I read “HISTORY” as referring not to the TV channel/production company that used to go by the name the History Channel, but rather to history, the last six thousand years of human society and culture.
“HISTORY and METRO GOLDWYN MAYER present VIKINGS” reads to me like, “Metro Goldwyn Mayer is about to put Vikings on your screen, made possible by their actual existence a thousand years ago.” It’s basically the same as if the title card said, “PARAMOUNT PICTURES and GEOLOGY present A VOLCANIC ERUPTION”.
As usual, it all comes down to perspective.
We know intellectually that people who lived through history didn’t know what the future held for them, and we probably have no problem grasping that when we talk about moments of great crisis. We can understand, for instance, that when George Washington led the defeated remnants of the Continental Army into hiding in the woods after the Battle of White Plains, then had them flee across the Hudson River under cover of rain and fog, that a lot of people on both sides probably thought they’d just seen the end of the American rebellion and that British rule would be restored in the colonies shortly. And we can understand why Joseph Kennedy, ambassador in a London that was being pulverised nightly by an overwhelming German air force while the German army stood in control of all Europe from the Spanish border to the Russian, sent dispatch after dispatch back to Washington telling FDR that Britain was completely finished and Germany already had the war won—even as we smugly snigger at him for how wrong he was.
But as humans, we’re psychologically incapable of stopping ourselves from forgetting that people’s view of the future has always been like this all the time, not just in those instants when all the pieces are thrown up in the air. It was inevitable, we insist, that once the threat of French colonies in Canada and Louisiana had been removed, once Parliament had determined on extracting revenue from the American colonies, that those colonies would revolt from British rule; but the colonists certainly didn’t think that was a likely or even a realistic outcome until fairly late on in the day. It was inevitable, we’ve been saying ever since the East Berliners climbed over that wall in December 1989, that we would win the Cold War, that the Eastern Bloc would collapse under their own economic inefficiency. But we never said that during the Cold War, because we didn’t think it was true. We thought the Cold War and Communism were going to go on indefinitely; the 1984 Doctor Who story “Fury From the Deep” depicts them as still alive and kicking in 2084. If anything we thought the Communists probably had the edge on us; you don’t come up with something like the domino theory if you think the natural advantage lies with democracy and the free market.
Of course normally when I talk about this sort of thing, I’m talking about it in relation to alternate history. But I want to make the point that this is important to consider when looking at real history instead. I wrote a novel set in Berlin in 1946, under Allied occupation, right after the end of the Second World War. Read any account of that time and the one thing that comes across very strongly is just how actively uncertain everyone was about what the world would look like in the coming days or months or years. People were uniquely conscious of how impossible it was to see into the future, both on the personal level (where had their loved ones gone, were they still alive somewhere, would they ever return?) and the geopolitical (was Hitler still alive? Would the Russians stay in Europe? Would the Americans? Would the Allies demolish all the German cities and leave its people to live as peasant farmers for ever? Would there even be such a thing as Germany ever again?) It’s really difficult to convey that uncertainty on the page because the reader, of course, already knows the answers to all those questions, and so doesn’t feel the tension over them naturally.
Next time I want to talk about what James Wilkinson can tell us about how Americans saw their republic and its future during its first generation of life. But before I did that, I thought it was important to establish why and how he can tell us it. And the answer to that is all about that magical P-word: perspective.
A friend on Facebook linked to Next Time Someone Says Women Aren’t Victims of Harassment, Show Them This, and I’m a big fan.
My first big takeaway is that my very presence as a man means that the women I know are less likely to get harassed while I’m around. Therefore, by definition, I only see them during their most harassment-free times, so it’s inevitable that the picture I have of a woman’s life involves her being subject to far less harassment than she in reality is.
It is therefore important that when a woman tells me she’s being harassed, I believe her. This falls under the basic principle that when a woman tells me something is sexist, I believe her; there are few things more prima-facie sexist than a man explaining to a woman how something isn’t actually an instance of sexism.
(See also: few things more prima-facie racist than a white person explaining to blacks or Hispanics or any other racial minority how something isn’t actually an instance of racism.)
My second big takeaway is that “Not all men” is a perfectly valid way to start off a sentence, as long as you’re not saying it to women, but instead to the men who are the problem. One of the special privileges I get as a male in Western society is that my voice is naturally treated with more authority than a woman’s. There are plenty of men who, when told that what they’re saying is sexist or creepy by a woman, would have no problem dismissing anything she says and concluding that their own behaviour is perfectly fine; but they’d have a much harder time doing that if it were a man who told them. Sure, they’d most likely get defensive and angry, but being called out for their sexism by a man would stick with them far more than being called out by a woman.
It’s wrong that my voice gets that privilege, but unfortunately it’s true. I can’t change that, but what I can do is use my voice to try and build a world for my kids to live in where my daughter will be heard with just the same weight as my son.
What my last post boiled down to, essentially, was that I’m old enough now, with around three and a half decades behind me, to have become aware of some of the ways that values and norms of acceptability have shifted just during my lifetime, such that people (of whom I am one) see the world differently now, when I’m thirty-four, than many of the same of us did back when I was, say, fifteen. That time, I was talking about sport, but I recently came upon the same phenomenon again in a different context during my family’s multi-year Doctor Who rewatch.
We’ve reached season nineteen in the rewatch, Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor, and recently we watched “Black Orchid”. It was first transmitted on 1–2 March 1982, and there’s simply no way the same story in the same way could be told now, in 2014.
(Ten-year-old David Tennant was probably still excitedly watching his future father-in-law’s time as the Doctor when “Black Orchid” premiered, though twenty-three-year-old Peter Capaldi is more likely to have outgrown the programme by then. And, literally, no one had even conceived of Matt Smith yet.)
There are spoilers ahead for “Black Orchid”.
In the story, the TARDIS materialises in the 1920s at the home of Lord Cranleigh, who lives in a huge country manor somewhere in the Home Counties with his fiancée, Miss Ann Talbot, and his mother, the dowager Lady Cranleigh. (I apologise for referring to a mother-and-son pair as Lady and Lord Cranleigh, because I know that’s confusing, but it’s how they’re continuously referred to throughout the story, except for when the local police commissioner once addresses Lady Cranleigh as “Madge”.) Lord Cranleigh is the younger brother of George Cranleigh, a famed botanist who was killed by natives during an exploratory expedition in the Amazon rain forest; Ann was engaged to George before she agreed to marry Lord Cranleigh after the elder brother died.
The TARDIS team (at this time consisting of the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan) have arrived on the day of an annual masquerade ball at the Cranleigh residence. At Lord Cranleigh’s insistence, they agree to attend; Cranleigh and Ann provide them with costumes from the house supply.
What neither the TARDIS crew nor Ann know, though, is that George Cranleigh is not dead; during his expedition to the Amazon, the natives tortured him in a way that left him physically deformed and mentally unbalanced. Once George was returned to England, Lord and Lady Cranleigh decided to keep his survival a secret, and have been holding him captive in a secret room deep within their manorhouse in order to save both him and themselves the embarrassment of being made a public spectacle.
While the masquerade ball is going on, however, George manages to escape from his captivity, killing one of the household staff in the process. He then sneaks through the secret passages that riddle the house until he arrives in the Doctor’s bedroom, where he dons the harlequin costume the Doctor is to wear to the ball.
The Doctor does not see George, but he does find the secret passageway that George used to get to his room. He follows it back to George’s room, where he finds the body of the murdered servant. He summons Lady Cranleigh and shows her the body; she express shock and mystification at the murder, but fails to tell the Doctor about the existence of George. She promises him that she will call the police immediately, and asks the Doctor not to tell the other guests about the murder so as not to upset them. The Doctor is reluctant but agrees and returns to his room.
George, meanwhile, with his face covered by the harlequin mask, has infiltrated the masquerade, where he brutally attacks Ann Talbot and murders a second servant. He then escapes back into the depths of the house, where, after he politely returns the harlequin costume to the Doctor’s room, he is secretly recaptured and returned to captivity by Lord and Lady Cranleigh. The Doctor, meanwhile, has returned to his room, where he puts the harlequin costume on and arrives at the masquerade just in time for Ann to identify him as the man who attacked her.
This is followed by a fairly predictable twenty minutes in which Lady Cranleigh refuses to help the Doctor and covers up the fact that she knows it was her son George who is in fact the culprit, leading to the police arresting the Doctor for murder. Matters come to a head when George escapes once more. He sets fire to the house, then kidnaps Nyssa and retreats onto the roof with her as a hostage. Lord Cranleigh redeems himself (apparently) when he and the Doctor follow George onto the roof of the burning manorhouse and persuade him to release Nyssa. Lord Cranleigh, realising the error of his ways, steps forward to embrace his brother, but George instead hurls himself off the parapet and falls to his death. I think we’re meant to take George’s suicide as demonstrating just how far his mind had gone, but it more feels to me like he was simply terrified of the man who has kept him tied to the bed in a darkened room for the past two years.
But it doesn’t matter why George has killed himself; he has, so now that’s cleared up, the TARDIS team and the Cranleighs can all be friends again, and there is much smiling as our heroes bid farewell and depart through the TARDIS doors.
Which, of course, points up the biggest problem with viewing “Black Orchid” nowadays—that this ending is considered happy. The conflict has been resolved, and so everyone can move on with their lives. This necessarily implies, then, that the conflict in “Black Orchid” is that George Cranleigh has survived his torture in a deformed and unbalanced state, and not—as I think any viewer in 2014 would expect—that his brother and mother are so monstrously inhumane that they have secretly kept him imprisoned in a tiny room with no natural light because admitting that he is still alive would embarrass them.
(You can make the argument that George Cranleigh might have been so proud a man that he would rather have the world think him dead than be exposed to public scrutiny in his present state; but his repeated and violent attempts at escape would seem to give the lie to that idea.)
It’s important when we look at “Black Orchid” to distinguish between ideas that the story thinks are A-OK by 1982 standards and ideas that the story presents as A-OK by 1920s standards. We’re obviously not meant to think it’s all right for the Cranleighs to so callously imprison George, or for Lady Cranleigh to allow an innocent man to be arrested for murder rather than admit the truth, but the problem is that our reaction is meant to be one of disapproval rather than condemnation. Once they stop engaging in their objectionable behaviour—ideally by seeing the light and setting George free, but, you know, I guess him throwing himself off a building and thus removing the dilemma works just as well—then there don’t need to be any consequences for what they’ve done, and it shouldn’t even occur to us that they’re morally responsible for their son/brother’s death. So incongruous is the ending that I was certain that in my previous viewings of “Black Orchid”—on TV in the mid-90s and when the DVD first came out in 2008—that the Cranleigh brothers had fallen to their deaths together at the story’s climax.
There’s something really ghastly about that final farewell scene, with all the smiles and hugs goodbye. Tegan, as the only human amongst the Doctor’s companions of the moment (and as a pretty outspokenly judgemental character), is the voice of the 1982 viewer, but the only emotions she displays here are excitement and gratitude when the Cranleighs let the TARDIS crew keep the costumes they wore to the masquerade. (Read in a broad Australian accent: “D’ya really mean it? We can keep them?”)
And then there’s the deep creepiness of Lord Cranleigh’s relationship with Ann Talbot—and when I say creepiness, that’s definitely something that we bring to it as 2014 viewers, because the script doesn’t expect the 1982 viewer to have any problem with it whatsoever. Lord Cranleigh, a man in his mid-thirties, lumps his fiancée in with a group he refers to as “the children”, by which he means the teenagers who are too young to be served alcoholic beverages. And yet not only is Ann, who we might therefore guess is twenty-one at the oldest (actress Sarah Sutton was twenty at the time the episodes were taped), old enough to be engaged and live with her fiancé, but she’s apparently old enough to have been engaged to an even older man, George Cranleigh, several years ago.
(I think we’re meant to conclude that Ann is the Cranleighs’ ward, which makes the idea of her living with them totally fine at the cost of making her engagement to successive Cranleigh brothers much, much skeevier on the men’s parts.)
And if we the viewers find it impossible to forgive the Cranleighs for what they have done, how much worse is it that Ann seems to forgive them in no time at all? Sure, she has a tearful exclamation of, “How could you!” when first she finds out, and flees from the room, but her disgust with them seems to last approximately six or seven seconds. The next time we see her in the sort of context that allows her to show us her state of mind, during the goodbye scene, she is snuggled comfortably in the arms of Lord Cranleigh, the man who knew that her fiancé was still alive but kept that knowledge from her, imprisoned her beloved and used that pretence as a cover to allow him to woo her himself.
That final scene isn’t the be-all and end-all of the story’s problems, but removing it would go a long way to rinsing out the bitter taste that “Black Orchid” leaves in the mouth. In my last post I wrote from the perspective of being left behind as society changed around me; this time I’m glad that it is I who have changed with society and left behind the outlook that would have allowed us to think of this story as having a happy, or even an acceptable, ending.
Back when I was in high school in Florida in the 1990s, every weekend my dad and I would go down to the Rose and Crown English pub (funnily enough, owned by a Scot) in Largo and watch the Premier League match of the week. This was back long before the days of Fox Sports World (which went on to become Fox Soccer Channel and is now Fox Sports One), when the Premier League’s North American broadcast rights were owned by Setanta, and the only way to see a league match was to go to a bar or restaurant that was a Setanta subscriber and pay a mandatory twenty-dollar cover charge for the privilege.
(It’s never occurred to me until I just wrote that paragraph, but that means it cost my dad forty to eighty bucks a week for the two of us to watch the football: twenty dollars for each of us, potentially doubled if we decided we wanted to see both the Saturday and Sunday matches on a given week. And that’s before you factor in the costs of our English breakfasts and however many pints he had.)
We watched the matches with a crowd of other expats who were mostly male, mostly white and mostly British or Irish. We had a fairly broad spread in terms of age, but I, in my middle teens, was the youngest by probably ten years. And it was a fairly regular occurrence that the crowd would, whenever the referee blew for a free kick, raise their voices in discontent, as they seemed to feel that whatever perceived infraction the ref thought he had seen was not, in fact, a foul.
This wasn’t necessarily partisan; there were lots of instances where supporters of both sides seemed to think the ref was taking too hard a line. It always confused me, because it generally seemed to me—and, significantly, to the commentator on the TV—that one team clearly had fouled the other. This was my introduction, though I didn’t entirely realise it at the time, to the fact that football is an evolving sport, and that one of its most visible evolutions over the last, oh, twenty-five years has been a dramatic shift in the line that separates a tackle and a foul.
The amount of physical aggression allowed a defender attempting to tackle an opposing attacker has been drastically curtailed, while the expectations upon him to maintain control of his own body and to look out for the safety of his opponent have been inversely raised. This happened initially in order for football to place an emphasis on technical ability and individual flair, and then continued in the name of player safety. What would have been a good, solid, exemplary tackle in 1990 would be penalised with a free kick in 1995, and would get you a yellow card in 2000. What would have been a good tackle in 1995 would get you a yellow card by 2010. And that excellent tackle from 1990 will get you not only red carded nowadays, but then slapped with a multi-match ban.
I remember specifically my dad talking to one of his friends at a party during the 1998 World Cup. The friend was expressing how impressed he had been by Marcel Desailly, who (like most of the France team from 1998) had been virtually unknown to British football fans prior to the tournament. “You always expect him to foul [when he goes in for a tackle],” he said, “but he never does. He has such long legs, he always comes up with the ball!”
That was the moment that it struck me: my dad, and his friends of his generation, felt that if you came away from a tackle with the ball, then you hadn’t fouled. That was, for them, the only requirement. Whereas it seemed obvious to me that that was wrong: a tackle is when you get the ball first. It’s perfectly possible to foul a player before you get to the ball, by going through him to get to it, and when you do so, then it doesn’t matter to me if you come away with possession—you’ve still fouled. But if you can contact the ball first, then (barring certain easily-quantifiable caveats, like tackling from behind, or coming in with your studs up, or attempting to take out your opponent’s legs with your trailing foot) your tackle is clean.
Essentially, I realised at that time, they had a definition of football that they had been taught when they learnt the sport, but the definition that was now being used by the governing bodies and the broadcasters—the definition I had been taught—had moved past that.
Well. I’ve got to tell you that over the past year, I’ve had to face up to the fact that the presentday definition of what’s a tackle and what’s a foul has now definitely moved past me. Now, as commentators have explicitly reminded me at least a dozen times during the first 56 matches of this World Cup, the standard for a foul isn’t about when or whether the defender made contact with the ball, but rather whether the force with which he came in didn’t show sufficient respect for the attacker’s safety. There’s a fairly low threshold for physical aggression which, if exceeded, will concede a free kick to your opponents regardless of any other aspect of your tackle.
Football has moved its definition of a foul to a new place, and I simply can’t move along with them. I cannot watch a defender slide in from the side at an attacker sprinting forward with the ball, see him display the incredible precision necessary—with ball, defender and attacker all moving at fifteen to twenty miles per hour in different directions—to slide the side of his foot over the top of the ball before his momentum slams him into the attacker’s legs, and have any reaction other than, What a bloody inch-perfect tackle. Wow.
Nigeria received a yellow card—during their match against Argentina, I think, though it might have been Bosnia—that prompted the commentator to say, “Well, let’s put it this way: twenty years ago, that was a great tackle.” And I said out loud, “It should still be a bloody great tackle now.” For two or three years now, but increasingly over the course of the last season, I’ve found myself snapping at the television, “Oh, come on—he got the fucking ball!”
This isn’t a demand that football go back to where it was fifteen years ago, or a declaration that I’m any less engaged with the spectacle of football than I was when I was a teenager—how can one possibly complain about the how the game is played today during a World Cup finals that has given us van Persie’s header against Spain, Cahill’s goal against the Netherlands, Ochoa’s game against Brazil, Howard’s game against Belgium, or pretty much any touch of the ball James Rodriguez has had?
It’s just an acknowledgement on my part of the fact that, in this aspect, the world has left me behind.
There’s a word that I’ve seen in alternate history discussions, and I like it a lot—overdetermined.
Essentially, a historical event or phenomenon is overdetermined if its likelihood of happening remains robust across different alternate timelines—that is to say, if the event remains likely to happen even in timelines where prior events that led up to it have been changed.
The French Revolution would seem to be overdetermined, in that after 1750 (and very possibly before), there’s very little that can be done to change it. No matter what change you make, France still has a brittle, inadequate fiscal system held in place by very strong forces of social inertia. The Seven Years’ War is still going to push that system to its limit, no matter how you change the war’s outcome; and French participation in the next general European war (in real history, that was the American Revolutionary War, but even if you somehow remove it, there’ll be a different war to fight in) is still going to push French finances beyond that limit. Therefore the French monarchy will have to initiate some sort of drastic fiscal reform, which will necessarily entail also attempting social reform, which will almost certainly unleash the same revolutionary forces that it did in real history; all this will happen somewhere between five and ten years after the end of the American Revolutionary War or whatever war replaces it.
Similarly, the historical consensus would probably be that the outbreak of the First World War was overdetermined after, oh, probably 1870. After a German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, it becomes almost inevitable that, once Bismarck eventually falls from power (1891, in real history), the European Great Powers will eventually crystallise into two armed systems of alliances; and once that happens (say, by 1905), it becomes overwhelmingly likely that one of the series of crises that gripped Europe during the period will eventually spark a general conflict. It could have happened in the Moroccan Crises of 1905 or 1911; or in the Balkan crises of 1908 or 1912–13. In the event it happened with the Sarajevo Crisis of 1914, but even if it hadn’t, well, Sarajevo was the fifth in nine years, so there’s no reason to think there wouldn’t have been several more such incidents in the next several years to light the touchpaper.
I don’t know if there’s a word to describe the opposite end of the spectrum from “overdetermined”; if not, I recommend overcontingent. An overcontingent event would be an event, not necessarily that was unlikely in real history (though many of them are), but rather that becomes unlikely to the point of impossibility when you change previous events.
It’s slightly harder to identify overcontingent events because we are human and therefore inevitably subject to confirmation bias—that is, we inevitably feel like most events, even the genuinely overdetermined ones, were more determined, to one degree or another, than they actually were. But I’ll throw out one possibility: the Mexican–American War of 1846–48, by which the United States conquered from Mexico about one third of the area of the contiguous forty-eight states (the presentday states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado).
The Mexican war only broke out because of series of events in Texan, Mexican and American history of the preceding decade, plenty of them producing fairly unlikely outcomes. This starts with Texas even managing to win its independence in the first place in 1836, which only happened because of a combination of a wise commander (Sam Houston) and an exceptional stroke of luck at the Battle of San Jacinto. Then you’ve got the defeat of Mexico’s one serious attempt to reconquer Texas during the next nine years (in 1842), despite outnumbering the Texan army by eight to one. There’s the death of President William Henry Harrison from pneumonia one month into his term, after insisting on delivering his two-hour inaugural address in the freezing rain; without succeeding Harrison as President, Vice President John Tyler would never have had the standing to make Texas annexation the major issue of the 1844 election, and the election would have been contested by two anti-annexationist candidates (Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren). And even with annexation as the election’s major issue, 1844 was still one of the closest elections in American history; give Clay only 2600 of his opponent James K. Polk’s votes in New York (out of half a million cast), and he wins the state and the presidency. Even once Polk won the presidency and annexed Texas, war didn’t become inevitable until he decided on pursuing his territorial ambitions against Mexico in the most brusque, aggressive manner he could.
Most people assume the American Revolution was an overdetermined event, and from time to time to time I’ve talked about why I think they’re wrong and that the Revolution was, quite the contrary, fairly overcontingent. I’d also give the Allied victory in the First World War as an outcome that, while not necessarily overcontingent, was at least contingent, in that it was a conflict where (unlike alternate history favourites like the Second World War and American Civil War) it was a fairly evenly balanced affair and the losing side had about the same chance to win it (by taking Paris in September 1914, by winning the Battle of Verdun in 1916, by not adopting a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, by taking Paris during Operation Michael in Spring 1918) as they did of losing it.
So I guess I’m curious what other people think, what other events people think are particularly overdetermined or overcontingent. What do you think was bound to happen, and will show up in timeline after timeline? What do you think was a fluke of history, and will take only a small tweak to abort?
My mother visited last week, and since it’s the first time we’ve seen each other since she went to my grandfather’s funeral, she brought with her some of his effects.
Amongst other things, there’s a number of mementos from his service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. I was really excited by all this; I dedicated A Traitor’s Loyalty to my grandad specifically because it was his stories of his wartime experience that first got me interested in the topic.
I’ll start with the photographs. There’s one of my grandfather and the men with whom he did the flight engineer’s training course in the summer of 1943. There’s another of him with three comrades, only his head has been torn off; the note on the back says that his head can be found in my grandmother’s gold locket. (I love it so much.)
There’s two pictures of him with his flight crew: one taken right after the conclusion of an “operational flight”, with them still in their flight gear, and this more formal one, in which my grandfather is second from the right in the front row:
And a photo of his whole squadron from May 1945, commemorating the German surrender. He’s second from right in the fourth row back:
There’s also a number of newspaper clippings, wherein my grandfather has carefully cropped news photos of Halifax bombers, the specific type of bomber he crewed. (That’s a Halifax his squadron are adorning in the picture just above.) For me these are particularly fascinating because of the little snippets of news report on their reverse side. One from October 1945 has half the headline and lede from a story that appears to be about a debate over how much of a voice “the dominions” (at that time, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) should receive in the Allied Powers’ peacemaking process. Another has the first two, contextless sentences of a news story: Before the war, the precise location of Casablanca was probably known to few Britons except the bright lad who was top in geography. Now it is almost as familiar a name as Brighton or Birmingham, though it would perhaps be difficult to say whether Winston Churchill or Humphrey Bogart is chiefly responsible for this improvement in our education.
And there’s his log book, wherein he had to record all his flying hours. Every mission he flew is in here, from his first on 20 August 1943 (the only description of the mission is “circuits and bumps (dual)”) through to December 1945, with a break between May and September 1945, during which he was “posted to Dallarchy, Morayshire, Scotland” for “lectures on flying against the Japanese”, in preparation after the German surrender for his redeployment to the Pacific theatre. Each flight lists the pilot, the specific aircraft, and the nature of the mission:
By December 1945 he’d been posted to a meteorological squadron—essentially busywork while he awaited his turn to get demobilised and discharged, and as such his records become sketchier. But he does record a couple of flights he took as a civilian after the war, such as when he took my uncle with him aboard an aircraft listed as “Comet Dove” and flew as “Passenger” in September 1957. (I love it so much.)
And my mother brought a small packet of medals, which she had assumed were my grandfather’s campaign medals. One of them indeed was his, a service pin for No. 58 Squadron, but I realised pretty quickly that the others couldn’t be—because they weren’t from the Second World War, but rather from the First.
They were at first puzzling, because they were inscribed as belonging to “Gnr. A. Massey RFA“. The obvious assumption would be that these belonged to my great-grandfather, my grandfather’s father. (My mother’s maiden name is Massey.) But my great-grandfather wasn’t “A.”, he was “John”. My uncle recollected that John Massey’s middle initial was A., so there was a hypothesis that perhaps he had enlisted in the Army using his middle name. I’ll admit I was unconvinced by that and thought it was more likely these medals belonged to a different male relative, perhaps one who had been killed during the war and whose medals had passed to John Massey, then to my grandfather Alf.
But! Whoever this mysterious Gunner A. Massey was, his service number was inscribed on the medals, which I figured out only when I researched the medals online. (I had seen the number on one of the medals but hadn’t realised it was his service number because it’s only five digits long. I figured it was an individual number for the medal or something. I mean, all the numbers by which we’re identified today, does it seem at all reasonable to you that an army serial number would only need to be five digits long? I’m guessing that in A. Massey’s case it’s a reflection of the fact that when he enlisted in August 1914, the British Army was an organisation with fewer than a hundred thousand members.)
Anyhow, I figured the service number would make A. Massey a fairly easily searchable individual, so I set out to find what I could about him. And I should pause right here and say a big thank you to Kris, because most of what I’m about to say isn’t stuff I found at all, but rather stuff that she did. I would still be entirely in the dark if it weren’t for her, and I’m really grateful.
One thing I learnt yesterday: the service records of only forty per cent of the British Army’s First World War soldiers are still extant. The other sixty per cent were destroyed by a German bomb in September 1940. But I also learnt that his service number belonged to a soldier who served in the British Army during the war under the name Alfred Massey (my grandfather’s name, though my grandfather wasn’t born until the 1920s). His medal card gives a “qualifying date” of 16 August 1914, which I think is the date he enlisted in the British Army but might possibly be the date he arrived with his unit in France or Belgium. Either way, his involvement in the war began very very shortly after Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on 4 August.
Kris then discovered that Alfred Massey married my great-grandmother in Sunderland in 1915, at which point we knew that either Alfred Massey was my great-grandfather John or else my great-grandmother had a weird habit of marrying Massey men from Sunderland. It was when I saw Alfred Massey’s entry in the 1911 census that it all made sense.
In 1911, Alfred Massey was sixteen and living at home with his parents—including his father, John. So it would seem that my great-grandfather John Alfred Massey went by the name Alfred as a young man, when his dad was John, but then later on, after he had a son of his own named Alfred and after his father had presumably passed on, he became John.
There was also some additional family detail Kris found that I had no knowledge of and am so pleased to have, but I won’t go into it here, because I want to finally take a moment to talk about the actual medals themselves.
What you’re seeing there, from left to right, are the 1914 Star (or Mons Star), the British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal, also known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. The British War Medal and the (British version of the) Allied Victory Medal were, broadly speaking, awarded to anyone who served in British uniform overseas during the First World War; about six million of each were issued. The 1914 Star, however, was rather more restrictive:
This bronze medal award was authorized by King George V in April 1917 for those who had served in France or Belgium between 5th August 1914 to midnight on 22nd November 1914 inclusive. The award was open to officers and men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces, doctors and nurses as well as Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Navy Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who served ashore with the Royal Naval Division in France or Belgium.
. . .
It should be remembered that recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres. There were approximately 378,000 1914 Stars issued.
So this essentially means that Gnr. Alfred Massey was part of the initial British Expeditionary Force, the Old Contemptibles, so named because of the Kaiser’s (possibly apocryphal) order of 19 August 1914 to “exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French‘s contemptible little army”. (Spoiler: the German army found itself unable to carry out such an order.)
I had no idea of any of this.
(I should note that my great-grandfather’s Mons Star does not bear the additional clasp indicating that he actually came under enemy fire during the 5 August-22 November period; apparently slightly fewer than half the Mons Stars do.)
So! I know a lot more about my family history now than I did two days ago. And I’ve got a new bunch of family heirlooms to tuck away and hopefully someday to be able to teach my own kids just how precious they are.
I opened this post by mentioning that I dedicated my first novel to my grandad. Somehow when the novel got reissued last year, the dedication didn’t get included in the new edition, something I didn’t realise until my grandad’s death at the end of the year. So I’ll close by repeating it here:
For my grandfather, Alf Massey (RAF 1940-1946), who first introduced me to British spies, the Second World War, and so many other elements that make up this story.
When my imagination first gets captured, when I get that first spark of an idea that there’s a story here I want to tell, it almost always has to do with setting. Characters and plot follow on later.
There’s a lot of things that can fascinate me about a setting. Social class, nationalities, history (particularly its influence on the present), politics and diplomacy, custom and tradition, criminal underworlds. Usually what I find myself wanting to explore is the dichotomy all these factors create between how the rules of how things should be and the realities of how they are, between people’s public virtues and private corruptions. Almost always, my settings are urban.
And one type of setting that I’m particularly fascinated by is the port city. Ports are gateways (porta is the Latin word for gate), the portals that allow for the interaction between a specific country or land and the outside world. They’re crossroads (crossroadses?), the endpoints for routes of communication, commerce, invasion, diplomacy, intrigue, espionage.
But it’s a specific type of port I love. It’s one that is just as alien to the country it serves as it is to its foreign arrivals. Liverpool and London, for instance, have their own unique identities within England, but they are English identities. Ditto the relationship between many of the world’s other historically great ports and their hinterlands—New York, Charleston, San Francisco, Hamburg, Veracruz, Buenos Aires.
But there are other ports that are not—or historically were not—of their lands. Singapore. Istanbul. Alexandria. Shanghai. Often this is because of the mixing of locals and foreigners, whose national identities fuse and overlap and create something divorced from its origins. Shanghai and Hong Kong, by being both Chinese and European, became something neither Chinese nor European. Alexandria, by being both Greek and Egyptian (and later, Roman), became something neither Greek nor Egyptian nor Roman—indeed, the ancient Egyptians never considered Alexandria a part of Egypt, and the Ptolemaic pharaohs bore the title “Pharaoh of Egypt and King of Alexandria”. New Orleans, from its purchase by the United States in 1803 until after the American Civil War, was something that was neither properly French nor properly Spanish nor properly American.
(Related to this would no doubt be my fascination with city-states, especially imperial ones.)
So I like ports where all of those inhabitants who come from elsewhere—as most of the populations of great entrepôts do—can never be truly native; only those who happened to have been born and spent their lives there can, and they, in turn, can never be truly native anywhere else.