Saturday, 22 December 2012

Service notice

I'm taking a short Christmas break but I'll be back after the holidays!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Views of India

My new fiction project is set in India in the 19th century, and conveniently enough, Anna just posted a bunch of pictures of India in the 1860s on The Passion of Former Days. They're quite astonishing and my mind reels when I realize they practically contemporary with troubles of 1857.

Do check them out!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Review: The Lost Ambassador

Full title: The Lost Ambassador (also known as The Search For The Missing Delora) (novel) 
Writer: E Phillips Oppenheim
First published: 1910
Available: At Project Gutenberg

Quote: I saw the usual throng come strolling in – I myself had often been one of them – actresses who had not had time to make toilette for the restaurant proper, actors, managers, performers from all the hundreds of pleasure houses which London boasts, Americans who had not troubled to dress, Frenchwomen who objected to the order prohibiting in hats elsewhere, – a heterogenous crowd, not afraid to laugh, to make jokes, certain to outstay their time, supping frugally or au prince, according to the caprice of the moment.

E. Phillips Oppenheim was a prolific writer around the turn of the last century who wrote adventure and spy tales. The Lost Ambassador is one of his more well-known works and the first of his that I read.

Captain Rotheby arrives in Paris on a mysterious mission of vengeance and chances upon Louis, the head waiter of his favourite restaurant. Bored, he follows Louis to a shade café where he spots a pair he's long been intrigued by - a South American gentleman and a young girl. Because of certain complications, Captain Rotheby finds himself forced to leave Paris, only to find himself travelling with the aforementioned gentleman, Mr Delora, and his niece, Felicia.  Arriving in London, Mr Delora seemingly falls ill and excuses himself, leaving Captain Rotheby to take care of Felicia. They install themselves at the Milan Hotel, where Louis works, and waits for Mr Delora, who seems to have vanished into thin air...

This is a classic British tale, where Frenchmen are unreliable, women either innocent damsels in distress or wicked temptresses, and English captains are  perfect gentlemen at all times. Do not expect realism in the sense of "oh, it might have happened" but expect extreme realism in setting - this book is a treasure trove of information on the era it takes place in, from what sort of hat a Frenchwoman might wear to dinner to the arrangement of a country shooting party. It's a rather well-spun tale - I admit I had it figured out - mostly - but there are lots of unexpected turns and twists to the adventure of poor Captain Rotherby, and, like I said, the local colour of the setting is extremely charming.

Definitely recommended as a light-weight holiday read!

I gave it 3/5 on Goodreads.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Wilhelm Voigt: The Captain of Köpenick

Wilhelm Voigt at his arrest (source: Wikipedia)
In October, 1906, Wilhelm Voigt, aged 57, was down on his luck. He'd first been convicted of theft at age 14, and had since then managed a rather impressive career of thievery and forgery. In February of 1906, he'd been released after a 15 year long sentence for having broken into the building of the Court of Justice at Wongrowitz, in Posen, and stolen the money box. It would later be noted by the judicial authorities that the sentence had been "excessively heavy and to have been imposed after a somewhat irregular trial."[1]

According to the accounts that were later given of his prison time, Voigt had been an exemplary prisoner who had shown great interest in reading, especially history, and apparently upon release, he had expressed a desire to live an honest life. He finally settled down outside of Berlin to work as a shoemaker. His employer, aware of his antecedants, later testified that "Voigt had rewarded his confidence, and had led an honest and most industrious life, and had made himself useful in a variety of ways. He had regularly attended church, had eaten his meals with the family of his employer, and had been kind to the children." [2] However, as a former prisoner he was an "undesirable", and on those grounds he was expelled from Berlin by the police. According to his employer, "[w]hen the order for his expulsion came, Voigt had utterly broken down and had felt that his last chance of leading an honest life."

But apparently Herr Voigt decided not to take this lying down. No, instead he planned and executed a caper which would resonate across the known world. First, he visited several used-clothes stores  and managed to piece together a uniform of an officer of the 1st Foot Guards. Thus equipped, he was ready to execute his coup.

His exact intentions may be disputed – he would later himself claim that "it had not been his original intention to rob the municipal treasury, that what he had chiefly desired to secure was a pass which would have enabled him to earn an honest living" [3] but that might obviously not have reflected the truth. Undisputed, however, is the fact that on 16 October, 1906 he commandeered all in all 11 soldiers from the local garrison and travelled with them by train to Köpenick, where he led them into the town hall. He then placed the local Burgomaster, Dr. Langerhans, and his treasurer under arrest for charges of crooked book keeping. He told the local police to care for law and order and to prevent calls to Berlin for one hour at the local post office. Then he ordered the treasurer to hand over the money box, containing 4,002 Marks. Frau Langerhans, the wife of the Burgomaster, would later state to the press that "it was the extreme politeness of the 'captain' towards herself and his official gruffness towards her husband which chiefly convinced her that he was a real officer." [4]

He then told some of the soldiers to take the arrested men to Berlin for interrogation in two commandeered carriages and left the remaining guards under orders to stay in their places for half an hour. Himself, he left for the train station and disappeared.

The incident caused great mirth and excitement. Only a few days after the incident The Times could report that in Berlin "(t)he music-halls are already giving representations of the whole drama, illustrated postcards with descriptive verses are being sold in thousands in the streets, and the schoolboys have invented a new game which they call 'Der Hauptmann von Köpenick' and in which they re-enact the comedy in all its details." [5] As the National-Zeitung reported "(i)mmeasurable laughter convulses Berlin and is spreading beyond the confines of our city, beyond the frontiers of Germany, beyond the ocean. The inhabited world is laughing, and if we still had an Olympus, the gods would undoubtedly be laughing too". [6]

But there was more to the attention that just ridicule, though. To a great many people, this was a comment on German society. In the words of the National-Zeitung only two days after the incident "(t)he boldest and most biting satirist could not make our vaulting militarism, which 'o'erlaps itself and falls on the other side' the subject of a satire which could stand comparison with this comic opera transferred from the boards to real life /.../ Somebody's brains and somebody's backbone have been lost; the honest finder is invited to hand them in at the office of the Köpenick town-hall". [7) The Social Democratic Vorwärts found "(t)he chief actor in the farce /.../ much more intimately acquainted with that mental attitude of the officials which has been produced by militarism and by Prussian administrative practice than all those questionable geniuses who have just been philosophizing in the Conservative Press upon the specific Prussian spirit." [8] The "Köpenick Caper" was considered by many to be the inevitable consequence of the "rule of uniform" and it gave rise a number of acerbic comments. The Berliner Tageblatt summed up the feelings of a great number of Germans when they wrote "(w)e talk of our civic pride, of manly courage before the thrones of Kings, of the State based on law, and of our constitutionalism. It is a strange commentary upon these and upon the rest of the fine phrases we employ, but it is undoubtedly a fact that in Prussia the uniform governs." [9]

On 26 October, Herr Voigt was arrested and later charged with "unlawfully wearing uniform, with offending against public order, with depriving subjetcs of their liberty, with fraud, and with forgery." [10] At the trial, sympathies lay almost universally with the defendant. Even the judge in the case the chief in summing up the case passed his chief censure "upon the police system or expelling discharged prisoners from places where they had settled down to a new life and to honest work." [11] He then admitted several of the extenuating pleas which were advanced by counsel for the defense, and, after having found Voigt guilty on all counts of the indictment, sentenced him to four years' imprisonment. Kaiser Wilhelm II, however, pardoned him on 16 August, 1908, and Voigt would go on capitalizing on his fame until he died in 1922.

The case gave rise to several books, songs and plays. There was simply something irresistibly fascinating about the simplicity and sheer gall of Wilhelm Voigt's exploit. Not only had he dared to camly impersonate a Prussian officer; he had managed to do so in such a manner that it never even occurred to the soldiers that he was not the genuine thing. As The Times put it; "(f)rom his studies of the German officer at work and at play this decrepit cobbler of nearly 60 years of age, with his horny hands, his white hairs and his gaunt figure bowed by years of penal servitude, was able to evolve a personage which passed for a captain of the 1st Foot Guards." [12] And even if the comments on "the rule of uniform" weren't entirely on the mark, in the general debate following it was claimed that "the soldiers who took part in the raid are understood to have been exonerated from all blame by their genuine military superiors and to have been told that they acted quite correctly. Some /.../ jurisconsults are indulging in speculations as to what would have been the position of those ten soldiers if /.../ they had shot down or bayoneted the unhappy Burgomaster of Köpenick. there appears to be consensus of opinion that they could not have been held legally responsible for their homicidal action." [13] As such, the interpretation of the event at the time was as important as what had actually transpired.

And poor Dr. Langerhans? Well, not suprisingly, he was overwhelmed by the public ridicule and sent in his resignation a few days after the incident. However, the citizens of Köpenick held a meeting at which they passed a resolution of confidence in their Burgomaster and promised to stand by him.

As a great writer once put it – all's well that ends well, isn't it?

1. "The 'Captain Of Köpenick.'." Times [London, England] 3 Dec. 1906: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012
2. Ibidem
3. Ibidem
4. "The Kopenick Raid." Times [London, England] 19 Oct. 1906: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
5. "The Köpenick Raid." Times [London, England] 20 Oct. 1906: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
6. The National-Zeitung, as translated and referred in The Times; "The Kopenick Raid." Times [London, England] 19 Oct. 1906: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
7. As translated and referred in The Times; "The Kopenick Raid." Times [London, England] 19 Oct. 1906: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
8. As translated and referred in The Times; "The Kopenick Raid." Times [London, England] 19 Oct. 1906: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
9. As translated and referred in The Times; "The Kopenick Raid." Times [London, England] 19 Oct. 1906: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
10. The 'Captain Of Köpenick.'." Times [London, England] 3 Dec. 1906: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012
11. Ibidem
12. "The 'Captain' Of Köpenick." Times [London, England] 30 Oct. 1906: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
13. "The Köpenick Raid." Times [London, England] 22 Oct. 1906: 6. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
(This post was originally posted on my old blog)

Monday, 17 December 2012

London Transport Museum

I'm a nerd, I know, but I just can't help it. I'm fascinated by all those little mundane things about the past – I don't just want to read about the past; I want to see it, hear it, smell it, taste it... Many museums, being scholarly institutions and not historic amusement parks, don't really cater to that interest but one that should be commended is the London Transport Museum. Not only do you get a year's member card when you purchase a ticket so you can go there often (provided you live reasonably close by), but it's focused on one of the most mundane things possible - travel.

You can peek into a train compartment as it might have looked 100 years ago:

You can take a close look at the door handle, even, and try to imagine just what might jam if you're a writer and need that sort of scene:

Or you can go for a ride on the Underground:

Or you can walk down the winding stairs on a bus:

and be confronted by a stern-faced conductor:
I love the cultural clash of this 1960s Tube carriage!

It's all those little things that do it for me; the texture of the upholstery, the worn floor, the ads that speak of a very different mentality... Or am I the only one to find this ad a little, well, awkward?

Anyway, a visit is highly recommended if you pass by Covent Garden!

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Review: The Last Mughal

Full title: The Last Mughal: Eclipse of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 (non-fiction) 
Writer: William Dalrymple
First published: 2006
Available: From a well stocked bookstore, or in paperback from Amazon

Quote: "As the sun set, the churches, mosques and temples filled again: the ringing of the bells of the evening arti, the final call to prayer from the minarets, and the basso profundo of the organ chords concluding Padre Jennings' evensong in St James's, all fusing together with the rumble of British carriages heading out towards the Civil Lines through the bottleck of the Kashmiri Gate –where the bricking up of the second of the two arches was a cause of frequent complaints in the Delhi Gazette."

The Last Mughal is a very ambitious book. It seemingly has a rather narrow focus – Delhi during the Mutiny of 1857 – but the scope is still immense. William Dalrymple went where few had gone before him in taking on not only the sources from one side of the conflict, but both, and in doing so, he utilized  Indian archival material in Urdu that has not been available to Western readers until this book was published.

With a florid and evocative prose, Dalrymple starts out by painting a picture of Delhi in the 1850s - the poets and artists; the princes and the colonial bureaucrats. The major events leading up to the fateful day of 11 May, 1857, are all described, as are the major players - Theo Metcalfe, Queen Zinat Mahal, the zealous Reverend Jennings and, of course, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal Emperor himself.

The chain of events that lead to the massacre of Englishmen and the subsequent British attempt at extermination of Delhi, is described as complicated and going far back, being built into the very structures of the British presence in India. In one sense, the events seem perfectly unnecessary - surely, they could have been avoided with a little more tact and less polarisation - and at the same time, they seem as unavoidable as the impact of a running steam train.

Dalrymple doesn't spare the reader, neither in depicting the atrocities committed by both sides, nor by handing out simple answers, such as who was right or how this might easily have been avoided. It is remarkable to be able depict the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of humans in cold blood without dehumanising the perpetrators; something that might make the events easier to understand but would also serve to detach the readers. These horrors are committed by people, not monsters, and as such it is a chilling read, indeed.

One is struck – or at least I am – by how unfamiliar with the Hindu-Muslim culture of the Mughals most of us are, and how much Islam has been invariably linked with intolerance in Western propaganda, as if fanaticism is equal with true Islam, rather than an interpretation made by certain individuals. In that sense this book is invaluable in understanding the radicalisation of Islam and the part the Western world has played in it. In fact, anyone seeking to understand the roots of fundamentalist sects in Pakistan and Afghanistan today is well-served by reading this book, as is anyone with an interest in Indian history.

Highly recommended.

I gave it 5/5 of Goodreads.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...