Boer war reminiscences

When I first lived in York, I lived in Milner Street, in a brick terrace house built in the early 1860’s by the railway company to lease to its clerks.

The name ‘ Milner’ always puzzled me – the adjoining streets were Beaconsfield Street and Gladstone Street, names that were a little too early for the 1860’s, but then the streets had clearly been bit piecemeal with blocks of half a dozen houses being built separately.

My guess is that sometime at the end of the nineteenth century the council decided to tidy up the street names and (re)named the streets after notables of the time.

Beaconsfield was of course Disraeli and Gladstone was self evident. But Milner ?

My best guess is that the street was named for Arthur Milner, the British High Commissioner for the Cape Colony and one of the instigators of the second Boer war. I could of course be hopelessly wrong, but the only Milner of note in Wikipedia is indeed Arthur Milner.

I’ve got to confess that I only heard of Arthur Milner while watching a travelogue on tv where the host visited a pub called the ‘Lord Milner’ in Oudthoorn – something deeply symptomatic of the lack of information about the Boer war.

Later on I lived elsewhere in York, in a street built in 1904 and with an impeccably English name, but one of the cross streets was named Colenso Street, something I always thought a trifle weird and out of place. Not until I read Thomas Pakenham’s history of the Boer war did I realise that Colenso was the site of an important battle of the war.

At the same time, my parents lived in Edzell, a village in Angus, Scotland, hard by the Kincardineshire border. Unusually, as well as the conventional war memorial for the first and second world wars, it also has second memorial, this time to the Boer war – the immediate question being why Edzell and why not other towns?

When it comes to the Boer war it’s as if a veil has been drawn over the whole sorry story of the war, and a sorry story it is too.

However the Boer war is more than just the story of a colonial landgrab  – if it hadn’t been fought the experience of the BEF in France during the early days of the first world war might have been sorrier than it was, for the simple reason that the Boer war was the first time in fifty years the British did not simply fight hopelessly outgunned tribal levies, but fought a foe equipped with modern weapons and an understanding of modern warfare.

So why is the Boer war so little discussed ?

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Pottery and prosperity

Around a week ago, some people were getting quite excited about finds of high status Roman pottery from Carlisle, and how it suggested that it was more than a rude frontier settlement on the edge of empire – one commentator went so far as to claim that proved that Carlisle was not just ‘hairy barbarians selling cows’.

Myself I’m not so sure. Analogy is a dangerous game but one possible analogue is the mid nineteenth century gold towns of Victoria.

These towns were established quickly, were often formalisations of existing miner’s camps and were usually nicely and regularly laid out by colonial surveyors.

Among the first things built (after pubs) were usually some imposing and quite massive bank buildings, plus a post office and a court house. And of course the banks in particular were staffed by bank officials who expected the conveniences of mid Victorian life even if they were surrounded by gold miners and kangaroos.

So these people would have lived in nice houses, had nice crockery and probably drank imported wine from nice glasses, all of which would probably turn up in the archaeological record were we to look.

The people who lived in these nice houses would have been very much a minority. Most of the population would have been gold miners, often of Irish or Chinese descent. The Chinese are particularly interesting as a proportion of them came via California where they had been pushed out due to an increasing hardening of US attitudes to Chinese migration. The consequence is that in some of the camp areas or around the mines US and Mexican silver coins from the 1850’s sometimes turn up – either lost or hidden by their owners.

The Irish and other miners of European origin in the main only left whisky bottles and bits of discarded equipment behind them. The point is that the majority of the community was materially poor and only had their mining equipment and the clothes they stood up in. If we didn’t know about the Chinese we might even think that the coin stashes were associated with the high status houses and hypothesize about a shortage of Sterling currency in 1850’s Victoria, and people hiding their portable wealth.

So, the presence of nice pottery does not imply that everyone was prosperous, it implies that some people might have been and that might be because they had high status occupations and expectations – bank officials in colonial Victoria, imperial functionaries in colonial Carlisle …

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Tom Roberts at the NGA

New Year’s Eve and what to do?

We had our prawns, a bottle of champagne in the fridge, and our evening planned, but we had a dead space in the afternoon.

So rather than mooch and read we went to the Tom Roberts exhibition at the NGA.

Tom Roberts was a seminal nineteenth century Australian artist who knew everybody, mentored Streeton and others of the Heidelberg school. Nowadays he’s mostly known for his portrait of Parkes and his quite remarkable beard and the massive painting of the Duke of York opening the first Parliament of the newly minted Commonwealth in 1901.

But there’s more to the man that that – portraits of great and the good, landscapes, and perhaps most interesting impressionist (with a small i admittedly) paintings done on cigar box lids for the Melbourne 9 by 5 exhibition – Australia’s own analogue of the Vienna Secession movement.

Added up you get a complete picture of the man and his work – society portraits painted to pay the rent, consequently very conventional as the sitter go what the sitter wanted, his own more innovative experiments, including some quasi impressionist oil sketches for the opening of Parliament painting – Roberts was clearly using what he’d learned in his impressionist moments to try out combinations of colour to get the light and the atmosphere right.

Previous summer exhibitions at the NGA have involved collections from overseas. This one is different, but no less interesting – the NGA curators have not only borrowed paintings from the big state art galleries such as the AGNSW and NGV, but have also scoured the smaller regional galleries to track down less well known examples of Roberts’ work and melded them to tell a story of Roberts and his work. Outwardly a respectable society painter, and a safe pair of hands for major works, but behind closed doors a raffish innovative painter not afraid to try new things.

[and if you’re there over lunch, skip the gallery restaurant and try the Vietnamese street food cafe outside – pork banh mih, grilled chicken skewers and excellent coffee]

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Like everyone used to in the dark pre-internet ages I used to have a diary for appointments. Full of scribbles and crossings out but a bound hardback diary.

It also served as a record of what I’d done over the year, expenses claimed, notes for petty cash, but basically it was an appointment book.

Sometime in the mid nineties it became a Filofax, which made the notekeeping easier, and then sometime around the millennium I bought myself a Palm Pilot (I’m lying – it was a Handspring Visor, a palm pilot clone bought from an online computer disposals store) and I never looked back.

Everything online, synced with outlook, meeting reminders, offline email composition, note taking. I was in heaven. It was a truly wonderful device.

And I kind of stopped using paper diaries. I’d keep a day book, but that kind of degraded into an unstructured heap of scribbles.

But this year I tried something different. I bought myself one of these planner diaries – with a week on the left and a blank page for notes on the right. And I would keep notes about discussions, outages and problems in it as well as writing major appointments in it – I still used my smartphone and google calendar to run my life.

And each week the last thing I did on Friday was scan that week’s double page and save it to Evernote.

And it’s been invaluable.

Am I away three weeks tomorrow – easy. What day did a system have it’s SSL certificate updated? When in June did I go to Sydney? All easy.

And because I name all my notes about things yymmdd_name.ext it makes it easy to find the correct document in either evernote or dropbox by using the diary as an index.

So, fifteen years after I stopped using a paper diary, I’ve started again …

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The Beechworth gun …

About a year ago I posted about the unusual provenance of the the Beechworth gun.

At the time I didn’t think to take a picture of the crest, but I was in Beechworth last weekend, and this time I did:


in the ideal world I’d have used something a little better than my phone to get a higher resolution image but after playing with pixlr the Carol I crest is quite clear making the provenance of the gun totally unambiguous.

Probably the best thing would have been to take a rubbing of the crest and the manufacturer’s plate but grave rubbing media are unavailable here in Australia, so a photo it is …

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The Nizam of Hyderabad’s mummy …

Yesterday, I tweeted a link to an article from the Hindu, a major Indian newspaper, about conservation work to be undertaken on an Egyptian mummy in the Hyderabad museum.

This of course begs the question of quite how an Egyptian mummy ended up in Hyderabad. The truth is quite prosaic – one of the late nineteenth century Nizams was an avid collector of curios and artefacts, took a fancy to the mummy and bought it for the reputed sum of a thousand pounds.

As Egypt was on the way between England and India, and this was the height of the Raj, I’m guessing it was bought by the Nizam during a stopover in Egypt.

While possibly the most exotic example of the dispersal of Egyptian artefacts by the activities of gentlemen collectors, it’s by no means the only one, nor is it a purely Anglosphere one – for example the remarkable collection in Zagreb is really down to the activities of a nineteenth century AustroHungarian aristocrat, Baron Franz Koller, even though the famous mummy with wrappings in the Etruscan language came as the result of a minor AustroHungarian public servant who took a tour to Egypt, bought a mummy, and brought it back to display in his Vienna apartment.

After his death, the mummy passed to his brother, a priest in Slavonia (now part of Croatia) who gave it to the Zagreb museum.

The Nizam was neither the first nor the last to do such a thing, but it does beg the question as to what other Egyptian artefacts have ended up in unlikely places as a result of the Suez canal sea route between Britain and India.

The Egyptian craze of the early nineteenth century led to a vast number of mummies and artefacts being acquired from Egypt and in time, like the mummies in Perth and Belfast ending up in museums with, at times, uncertain documentation.

Using modern technology to study these remains can help expand our knowledge of ancient Egypt (or in some cases not) but because so many artefacts were acquired in the nineteenth century before people cared overmuch about documentation and provenance, there’s a great risk of knowledge being lost because these items have ended up in small local museums where there are either not the resources or the interest in investigating them fully.

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Bad Hair (cut) Day …

I went to get my hair cut yesterday.

I normally go to a moderately upscale place that has staff who have mustered the art of cutting my slightly unruly hair short enough to look neat but not so short that I look like an elderly member of the mafia.

When I got there, half the staff were clustered round the reception desk staring at computer screens. It was clear that something was wrong, very wrong.

Their booking management system had crashed.

This had a whole range of implications. Not only did they not know who was booked to come in, the individual stylists who are mostly subcontractors rather than employees, didn’t know what work they had, or who they were having as customers.

But they covered it beautifully.

They asked me for my name, offered me a coffee, found me a stylist – rather than one of the two people who regularly cut my hair it was someone else – they’d resorted to a round robin system rather than trying to reinvent the booking schedule.

Ok, there was a bit more sitting about waiting than normal, and a bit of complete confusion at the start of the job, with someone mistaking me for another client, but they found me a gofer to shampoo my hair, and someone to cut it, the boss came round to apologise for the chaos and make sure I was happy, and I ended up with a good haircut.

And for those of us who just go and get our hair cut there was an insight into the backend of the business. Emma, the girl cutting my hair, broke off in the middle for a fast conversation with a colleague:

“No, it’s in my book, 10,12, 8”
“10 ?”
“yep, just be sure to drag it through”

Obviously, someone else was colouring one of Emma’s regular’s hair and needed to check the details to get the same effect.

The reason why I was so struck by this experience was the way they handled what must have been a really bad day:

⇒ Keep cheerful
⇒ Tell the customers you’ve had a problem and that you’ve got a workaround
⇒ Involve them in the problem, and check they’re happy
⇒ Give the customers decent service

Sure, it probably cost them a few extra complimentary coffees, but they probably didn’t lose any customers as result of their little problem.

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