A colour photo taken over a century ago of one of my relatives

This remarkable photo dates from 1903.

I recently encountered it at BabelColour, which I follow, and where I learned who it was:

It shows Rear Admiral William Acland (1847-1924) & was taken by his sister Sarah 117 years ago using the Sanger Shepherd process.

Follow the first link above for a bit more about the Sanger Shepherd process.

This got my attention in quite a big way because I am distantly related to this Admiral Acland. He wasn’t a direct ancestor, or I don’t believe so. But the maiden name of my grandmother on my mother’s side was Acland, and she was the daughter of someone just like this Admiral. I possess a book entitled “Aclands and the Sea” which I acquired when my mother died and I cherry-picked the books in the family home where I grew up, and in any case I recall that my mum’s family were related to various Aclands, including, for instance, this guy. Although I couldn’t find in this Aclands and the Sea book any references to Aclands and their daughters, it’s the sort of book you only have if there’s a family connection. Not quite, so to speak, a real book. So, that Admiral Acland is like a first or second cousin of mine, about five times removed, or some such thing.

I haven’t linked to where I confirmed that my granny’s maiden name definitely was Acland, because, well, because I didn’t. What I will say is that one of the many things the internet does is tell each of us, as and when we ever get interested in such things, lots of stuff about our forebears and relatives, without anyone having to spend weeks grubbing away in libraries. That’s quite a change. I don’t know what it means exactly, but surely something.

On reflection, it may be more significant that we can, should we wish to, research the relatives of people we bump into and get curious about. That never used to be easy but now is. We now live, that is to say, in a world where uncongenial relatives have become that little bit harder for us to forget about being related to.

Stephen Davies on the Growth of Sympathy

The Wealth Explosion by Stephen Davies is not just about the when and where of that kink in the graphs. It is also a description of what that transformation in human affairs consisted of, not just materially, and in how people thought and felt and behaved. In an early chapter, “The Way We Once Lived and The Way We Live Now”, under the heading “The Growth of Sympathy” (pp. 26-28), Davies describes (in the bibliographical note at the end of the chapter he mentions this book by Stephen Pinker) how people started being nicer to each other:

Another significant change that marks out the cultural and mental world of the modern as compared to what went before is one that attracted much attention from an early date. This was the growth of what eighteenth and early nineteenth century authors termed ‘sympathy’ and ‘sensibility: As defined by authors such as Adam Smith and Lord Kames this meant the capacity to put oneself in the position of another person and feel an intimation of what that person felt or experienced. This was associated with a general ‘softening’ or ‘polishing’ of manners and behaviour. In other words, there was a tendency for people to be gentler, less aggressive, more self-conscious and controlled, less impulsive, more sensitive to the suffering or hardship of others. This was seen as being connected to the growth of trade and commerce and what they called ‘luxury’ and we would call affluence or comfort. In other words, as people became more connected to others, often distant, by the connections of trade and by social intercourse, and as their lives became more comfortable and less harsh so their psychology changed and they became gentler, less violent and aggressive and more controlled and ‘refined’ (to use a key term) in their way of behaving. In the language of the time this meant that the ‘passions’ as they were called, that is strong and natural human desires and feelings, came to be tamed and made milder and less fierce and powerful or even subject to the check of reason and calculation.

This may seem to be simply a reflection of eighteenth century rationalism and optimism but in fact there is a lot of evidence for the view that the modern world has indeed seen such a change. Again, people such as Smith, Hume and Kames thought that the change was gradual (although they were struck by the extent and rapidity of change in their own country and lifetime) but very soon after their own lifetimes the change in this aspect of human life also underwent an abrupt acceleration. At this point, many people will simply find the argument implausible. Given the terrible political events of the last hundred years and the widespread evidence of cruelty, violence and aggression that fill the daily news, how can anyone think that over that period human beings in many parts of the world have become less passionate, gentler and more in sympathy with the suffering of others?

One point to make is that the attention given to such matters and the horror they inspire are because there has been such a change. Things that were seen as unexceptionable and normal in the past, even if regrettable, are now regarded as egregious and horrible precisely because they are less common. Clearly something as intangible yet profound as a widespread or even general shift in the way most people feel or in their psychology is hard to measure or demonstrate. However, there are a number of indicators, some of which can actually be quantified. One is the evidence of delinquent behaviour as captured in the records of the criminal justice system. The evidence here is that over the last two to three hundred years there has been a long term secular decline in interpersonal violence. Three hundred years ago the bulk of the cases brought before criminal courts were crimes of violence. They now make up only a small proportion of the courts’ business. In addition the actual incidence of such crimes on a per capita basis has also declined so that they are a much less frequent part of experience.

There are several other prominent indicators. One is the change in the functioning of the criminal justice system, with a pronounced shift away from harsh and brutal or sadistic physical punishment such as public execution, flogging or branding. Another is the transformation that we can trace in popular attitudes towards children and animals. In very recent times historically what we would regard as brutal and cruel treatment was widespread or even normal for both whereas now this arouses revulsion and disgust. Literature and personal writings such as diaries and correspondence are another kind of evidence, which again shows a significant alteration in popular psychology, at both an individual and a collective level. Finally, there is the evidence of manners, where we can clearly trace what one author calls the ‘civilising process’ by which ways of speaking and behaving become steadily more controlled and moderate. Looking at this evidence we can say firstly that there has been a radical change in what historians call the ‘collective mentality’ of modern men and women, that is the common mental assumptions, habits and ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that they share. The second thing we can say is that this change became much more rapid and widespread among all levels of society at some point in the early nineteenth century. Here we can draw the analogy and connection with trade and economic development. In the case of trade and economic development, we can indeed trace a very gradual process of increasing trade and economic integration between different parts of the world and a slow corresponding rise in the level of economic development and standards of living. After the later eighteenth century, this process becomes so much more rapid and extensive that both it and its effects are wholly different order of magnitude – explosive in fact.

Similarly, there is clearly a long-term trend in the direction just described with respect to human mentality and ways of behaving. Thus, there is a very long term trend for inter-personal violence to decline. Our Stone Age ancestors lived in a society that was unbelievably violent by contemporary standards (as do many more recent hunter-gatherers) and we can trace a decline in levels of violence since that time. However, as with trade, the process while of long standing underwent a dramatic breakthrough or acceleration after the later eighteenth century so that, as in the economic sphere, there was a greater change in popular psychology and ways of behaving between 1800 and 1900 than for several centuries at least before then.

A rearrangement

Around three days ago, GodDaughter2 and I fixed to meet up, face to face, for the first time since Lockdown began, and before she disappears to the South of France for a month. We agreed on: Royal College of Music, 2pm. I would have preferred somewhere different, like somewhere nearer to where she’s been living over the summer (Acton), because I like having reasons to journey to and photo new places, and because the College is a bit of a walk from South Kensington tube and a walk I’ve now done many times. Also, a couple of hours later would be better, because I’m a lazy old bastard. Plus, I don’t mind long train journeys because I can sit and read a book, undistracted by the Internet, which I don’t do nearly enough of. But what the hell, RCM 2pm it is.

But, this morning, an email from GD2 arrives. She’s running a bit behind, and could we possibly (grovel grovel xxx) make it Acton Central Overground Station, 4pm?

Yes. I can do that. No problem. It’ll be fine.

Whatever I say in such circumstances will sound like a polite lie and a big old sacrifice, even though it’s nothing of the kind. Sometimes, when your Jewish Mother says to you: “Don’t you worry about me, I’ll be fine”, what she really means is: “Don’t you worry about me, I’ll be fine.”

Flying cars are stupid

Apparently some idiots in Japan have tested something they describe as a flying car. What it really is is an aircraft capable of lifting a car. Big bloody deal. Why would you want to combine a car with an aircraft? They’re two different things. Cars are compact, to avoid occupying too much road. Aircraft reach outwards into the air, with big propellers or with big wings, to grab hold of the air and push themselves upwards. Two totally different things. Oh, you can build a “flying car”, that is to say a car which always carries a huge set of wings or propellers around with it. To put it another way, you can make an airplane capable of travelling on a very long runway shared with lots of other vehicles, by, you know, folding up its wings or propellers really really tightly. Yes. And you can make a baby pram that can also mow your lawn, really quietly so as not to enrage the baby. You can make a toaster that can also do the ironing. You can make an umbrella that doubles up as a snooker cue. But what the hell is the point of doing two such distantly related things, both very badly? Why not just do each thing separately, and each thing well?

I tried googling “flying cars are stupid”, for the first time just now. The least silly thing I read was this called that exact thing, by someone called James McNab. McNab ignores the point I just made and makes a whole other point, which is that flying cars would need to be driven by people as careful and skilful as pilots are now, rather than people as careful and skilful as car drivers are now. “You can’t handle flying cars!”, is how he puts it, referring to that movie where Jack Nicholson says “You can’t handle the truth!” Which, now I think about it is actually the same point as my point, but put in another way. Why waste a pilot driving a mere bus with hideously low mileage for half his working day, merely because, if you are rich enough and stupid enough, you could preside over such an arrangement? Makes no sense. We’re back to cars and planes being different.

Another big flying car idiocy is that flying cars will get rid of traffic jams. No, they’ll just create bigger and jammier traffic jams in the sky.

McNab also makes another point, which concerns why people who ponder innovation often start thinking that innovation has slowed down and may soon stop.

One source of innovation pessimism would be if you “invent” something that you think ought to have happened by now, like a flying car, note that it still does not exist, and say that therefore “innovation” itself has stopped. No mate. It was just a stupid idea, that did not happen for bloody good reasons. There’s plenty of non-stupid innovation going on nowadays. You are just fixating on stupid stuff. McNab accuses Peter Thiel, no less, of this non sequitur, when he goes from the non-arrival of flying cars to the slowing down of all innovation.

Interestingly, the writer of a book called The Rational Optimist has since written a book about innovation which ends rather pessimistically, in just this kind of way that McNab talks about. Matt Ridley’s fixation is on genetically modified crops, which don’t now work as well as they could because a lot of governments don’t like them. But those same governments have allowed plenty of other new stuff to happen. One of the features of a successful innovation is that it doesn’t piss off politicians too much. It sneaks under the political radar, and by the time the politicians have noticed it, the people already have millions of the things.

As you can surely tell, I am stream-of-consciousness-ing about this, thinking in internetted words. Which is one of the things this blog is for.

Patrick Crozier and I talk about French military disappointments (and so does Antoine Clarke)

These disappointments happened in 1870, 1914, 1917, 1940, 1944(?) and 1954. We don’t talk about them in chronological order, because we started with 1914, which was the failed French Ardennes offensive, right at the start of World War 1. But events in all of those years get a mention.

Listen to our conversation here, where there is also lots of further detail from Patrick. Under where it says “Notes” there are 20 items of relevant information, any one of which could have been expanded into a decent blog posting in its own right.

But hello, what’s this? It’s a conversation between Patrick and our mutual friend Antoine Clarke, whom Patrick and I mentioned in our conversation, several times. This was recorded nearly a decade ago. Not having heard it before, I listened to it last night, further delaying me in putting up this posting.

My main reaction to what Antoine said is that, clearly, what I said about how the French “self image” switched, in Parisian artistic circles, from warmonger to peacenik, took its time spreading to the rest of the country. Antoine talks vividly about his ancestors telling their children that the reason they were born was to get Alsace-Lorraine back from the Germans. Also, he said fascinating things about reparations. French had to pay reparations to get the Germans out of France after the 1870 disaster. And they paid the lot, and the Germans left, far quicker than had been expected. Everyone chipped in voluntarily. I knew none of this.

In general, I think that following our chat about Lockdown, Patrick and I showed a return to form, assuming I’m allowed to say that. Maybe you’ll think better of our Lockdown chat than I do, but for me the trouble with that was that all I recall us doing was expressing our own opinions, much as anyone listening could have done for himself. But people listening need to be told at least some things they didn’t already know, just like Antoine does in his talk with Patrick, for instance with all that stuff about reparations that I knew nothing about. At least, when we talked about France, Patrick and I had read interesting books which people listening might not have read. Patrick had been reading this book, and I’d been reading this book. (I copied both those links from Patrick’s Notes.) That may not be anything like an eyewitness account following one of us having been present as a small child at Dien Bien Phu, or a great uncle reminiscing about bombing French civilians following the D-Day landings. But it is something.

Incoming from Amazon

All of these arrived today, from Chateau Samizdata, where nobody cons their way past the front door and nicks stuff:

Looking forward to reading this one especially. It has been warmly received.

The C.S. Forester one I never knew existed, until Tom Hanks made a movie based on it. I wonder how it’ll compare with The Cruel Sea. Both central figures and commanders in these books had German sounding names, Krause in the Forester, and Ericson in The Cruel Sea, I recall some German trying to make a joke about Ericson’s name. Ericson was not amused. I wonder if Krause will be subjected to similar banter. Guess: yes.

The Blitz book is because I’ve always wanted to know more about that. John Ray’s book on the Battle of Britain was a very interesting read, so this one made good sense. And I seem to recall it having been very cheap, what with it having been published a while ago.

Following the chat we had yesterday about France and its various armies, Patrick Crozier and I will be discussing the Industrial Revolution. My core text will be the book on this subject by Steve Davies, but I’d be surprised if Ridley’s book on innovation doesn’t also get several mentions in our conversation.

The education book is by this guy.

Neema Parvini is someone I’ve been noticing for a while now. That’s because he’s a classical liberal and a humanities academic. Such persons must be cherished. Also, I do love Shakespeare.

Some well written advice about how to write well

At 6k:

I sort of knew this. I now know it better. I might buy this book. I now need a longer sentence, one that drives the point home a bit, but not too much, because after all I didn’t think of this, I just nicked it.

LATER (also from 6k): Plummenausfahrtwunderschein. In Germany, if you want to drive your point home really hard, you don’t construct a long sentence. You construct a long word.

Roz Watkins “in the front rank of British crime writers”

About three weeks ago, I mentioned the latest DI Meg Dalton book, and its author (also my niece) Roz Watkins.

The Daily Mail just gave Cut To The Bone, which comes out this month, this glowing review:

TWO years ago, I warmly welcomed DI Meg Dalton in Watkins’ debut. Now in her third outing, she has developed into a memorable detective with attitude, pounding Derbyshire’s Peak District with commendable fortitude.

A young social media star — famous for cooking sausages on a barbecue wearing only a bikini — goes missing from her job at an abattoir on a summer’s night.

Traces of blood and hair are found in one of the pig troughs, but there is no sign of the victim. Has she been killed?

Even more importantly, what on earth was she doing working in an abattoir in the first place?

Have animal rights protesters harmed her, or is there something more sinister at work? Has she fallen prey to the ghost of the Pale Child who, legend has it, announces death if once seen?

Subtly plotted, and with a delicate sense of place, it confirms Watkins in the front rank of British crime writers.

Strong stuff, especially that last bit.