I’m going to make a confession here.

I like trains. Or more exactly, I like the social history of trains and railways.

Admitting you like trains is always dangerous. It gets you lumped in with these people who wear unfortunate trousers and have a deep fascination with valves and train schedules, or even worse these people who stand at the end of railway platforms in England collecting engine numbers – something that makes these people who flock to see rare birds almost rational.

That’s not what interests me. What interests me is how railways changed society in the nineteenth century, much as the internet has changed ours by providing new ways of doing things, and new forms of interaction.

These changes were immense – they defined the way of doing things. It became possible to order goods from afar and have them delivered, to travel, even though initially it was slow, expensive and unpleasant.

It also meant that letters no longer went at the speed of a horse, and in time the needs of signalling systems and communications gave birth to the telegraph, arguably a precursor of today’s internet.

One could go on and on, but perhaps a single example can explain.

Branwell Bronte, brother to the Bronte sisters, managed a railway station for a few months in the 1840’s during his decline into alcoholism and laudunum addiction.

Which is kind of interesting

1) Branwell had a job which was new – ten years before managing a railway station probably didn’t exist as a job

2) Working for the railway was acceptable for sons of gentry – Branwell’s other jobs appear to have been the more traditional genteel ones of tutoring and schoolmastering

3) Railways needed middle class people to do mangerial jobs and were recruiting the poor sons of local gentry – in effect building a middle class reliant on paid employment rather than land and rents

Branwell didn’t last at the paid employment thing, but these three observations tell us a lot about the impact that railways were having on rural England and the social changes accompanying them.

And that’s why I like trains …

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Analog August

There’s a mini meme going around – Analog August which is linked to a book by Michael Harris as to how everything is hyper connected and only anyone born before 1985 remembers life without the internet.

There’s enough bits of writing out there to suggest that some people feel the need to escape the always on pressure of being connected, and of course it’s holiday time in the northern hemisphere, meaning a slew of angsty articles about what to do about email when you’re away and about being disconnected.

Well I’m wierd. I’ve been using email on a daily basis since 1986 and irregularly before then. Working in a university computing centre and having a PhD supervisor who had a year with the CNRS in Marseille while I was stuck back in the lab with my data meant a crash course in email, file transfer and marked up drafts.

But of course it was different. Go away on holidays for a couple of weeks and you were uncontactable – even a few days out in the field or a library research trip and you were uncontactable and would come back to some emails, some yellow while you were out slips and the occasional official memo.

And this carried on well into the nineties – sending an email to work in lieu of the traditional holiday postcard from Turkey in the late nineties was a minor sensation – ‘what you mean they have the internet there ?’ but on the whole you just disappeared – even though I’d had a dial up connection at home for a few years previously.

In fact it really wasn’t until sometime into the mid 2000’s that connectivity started becoming important and started to be expected, end even then people were pleased if you responded to them while you were away.

But of course, all this was before social media and its instant on. Email was really just an analog of the postal service, or the good old internal memo. Once cell and data coverage became near universal people started to use social media as a substitute for email, and this spread to an expectation that you’d answer your emails – well not quite – recently when I was away we were in places out of range, and, embarrassingly while we were out of connectivity my script to consolidate my work, personal, and other email accounts stuffed up and I lost a few days mail – it’s odd to find no new messages even if you know most of them are irrelevant.

And I discovered something – people cope.

I used to say that the best way of dealing with an overflowing post vacation inbox was to delete everything – if it’s important you’ll find out about it. In fact I used to use a modified version of that solution, skimming the subject lines and the senders and deleting everything that seemed to have no relevance or importance.

Losing a few days email has shown me that it’s still true.

As to Analog August – it’s a marketing trick – a nice one and one that ties into people’s holiday email anxieties.

Switching off is no big deal – it’s a matter of having the confidence to do so and to be in a position to do so. Obviously if you’re expecting an important announcement at the weekend you’re going to be connected.

Also, this stuff has taken over our lives – it is how you book ferries, buy tickets, confirm flights, and the rest, and you do need it when you travel. You just need to have some distance from it and realise it’s a life tool, not life itself.

It’s true I occasionally fantasize about buying a house at the edge of the world and playing chess by sending enigmatic postcards to my protagonists, but actually I’d miss Amazon, buying second hand books on Abe, or reading news from elsewhere. It’s part of our lives, but the real issue is how much it’s a part of our lives .

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century people agonised about not receiving their mail, or about delayed mail ships from overseas. But they coped. The same is true today.

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African Iron age

I’ve already written about pre european contacts in Australia between the indigenous inhabitants and the populations of south east asia. Now, from South Africa a report on a dig at a pre-colonial smithy, which is interesting because among the trade objects found, they found glass beads from Asia – a long way from the high veldt of South Africa.

What of course it implies is a trade network, and one which ran down the coast of Africa from Somalia to the southern tip of Africa and one which extended across the Indian Ocean to India, Sri Lanka and South East Asia.

We’ve already had the Kilwa coins found on the Wessel islands – while I still incline to theory that they got there in someone’s lucky bag of trinkets, the excavations in South Africa makes it even more likely that there was direct trade between at the very least South Asia (India, Sri Lanka) and the various African polities – something suggested by the paintings of black concubines at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka.

It also quite clearly makes the point that when the first early modern voyagers rounded the Cape at the end of the fifteenth century they sailed into an existing trade network – the age of discovery was only an age of discovery for the Portuguese and the gentlement of the English Guinea company, not for the populations of the Indian Ocean …

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C18 Chinese coin found in Arnhem land

One of the themes of this blog has been pre-european contacts between the Aboriginal populations of Australia and those of neighbouring parts of SE Asia. That’s clumsily expressed, essentially we mean contacts other than those documented contacts by european colonists and explorers from the early seventeenth century .

It’s clear that those are considerably more complex and extensive than originally thought.

Today’s news brings the discovery of a Qing period coin in Arnhem land - given what we already know, it’s not surprising but serves to confirm that there was commercial activity in the area – either by Chinese traders, or perhaps more likely Makassan traders as we know that Chinese coins circulated in what is now Indonesia as a local currency.

As an aside, when I was recently in Cooktown, so named as that is where James Cook beached his boat for repairs after a close encounter with the Barrier Reef, I went to the Cooktown museum, and in one of the exhibits is a quote from Joseph Banks about how ‘there was nothing but a few shanties, perhaps used by Indians for shellfish preparation.’

There is of course the question as to what exactly he meant by Indians – did he mean the local Aborigines or did he mean people from what he would have called the East Indies and we would call Indonesia? 

This is not quite so far fetched as it sounds – Alfred Russell Wallace gives a description of similar temporary fisherman’s camps he visited  on the coast of Papua when bug collecting in the 1850’s …

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I’m a fan of microhistory, probably because I’ve always liked stories and because, when I was a child in Stirling, the main library had this permanent display of the town records and court transcriptions.

They were utterly mundane, but these stories of so and so being indicted for having an illegal midden in the street struck me as deeply fascinating, and spoke to me, told me something of the way that the society of a medieval Scots town functioned.

Currently I’m reading Stephen Bednarski’s treatment of the trial of Margarida de Portiu, who lived in a Provencal town at the end of the fourteenth century, and was accused by her husband’s relatives of poisoning him when he suddenly succumbed to something that was probably a cardiac arrest while working in the fields. Like Thomas Cohen’s recounting of the tale of Vispasiano and Innocentia, the tale tells us, through the details in the evidence, a lot about the daily life of the society.

The tales are not themselves remarkable –while sensational, they are not so out of band as to suggest that something similar could not happen in rural India, Morocco or Afghanistan today.

But today we can go and look, and observe how a particular society works. Microhistory gives us an anthropology of the past, by letting us see how medieval society functioned.

And of course they bring that touch of difference, that magical touch of exoticism so sadly missing in the world today where KFC is everywhere and hoodies t-shirts and jeans are well on the way to a universal default garb – even if the people wearing them still have different cultural heritages.

Necessarily the view we get is a partial view – we need records, and to be cynical, records of interesting trials, serial illegal dungheaps are much less interesting than tales of poison, of heresy and sex gone wrong, and this of course distorts both our view of the times and perhaps the choices researchers make when choosing the material.

Even so, it’s still valuable for the insights, the small details, the details of what people ate, and how they shared food, and how also society functioned as a web of minor obligations and loans, and also, the role written records took in formalising matters …

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A neo Romanesque puzzle in Brisbane

As we rattled north out of Brisbane on the Sunlander, the train stopped at Exhibition station, and from the train window I glimpsed what looked to be a rather stunning neo Romanesque church in the distance.

And then, in the way of trains, we rattled off before I could take a picture as an aide memoire.

Now I’ve always had a soft spot for neo Romanesque churches such as the rather fine example in Dalton Terrace in York – English Martyrs – so naturally I decided a little internet sleuthing was in order. Of course, as I don’t live within a 1000km of the building, I couldn’t actually go and look.

So I did the following – did an image search for Brisbane churches on Google, reckoning that if it was as nice a looking building as it seemed people would have taken pictures of it, and I could check the locations (and likely sight lines) on Google maps

The first church in the area that pops up is the Anglican Holy Trinity church, which is a rather nice faux medieval fantasy in red brick and white detailing, but very much the wrong style, and probably too far away to see. The second was St Andrews Uniting Church, claimed to be one of the best neo-Romanesque churches in the southern hemisphere, but in the wrong place entirely and a little too dour, lacking the white detailing.

At this point, I was on the point of giving up, and then I noticed on Google maps a building marked ‘Old museum building‘, clicked on streetview, and there it was – eclectic rather than strictly neo-Romanesque – but still rather a fine building and now used as a performance space.

Now all I need is an excuse to go back and take a proper look …

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The Sunlander …

We were going on holiday, with plan to head north out of Canberra’s winter cold to the far north of Queensland, to FNQ, and then work our way south, stopping at places of interest, finding places to chill and relax, to swim in the ocean and feel human again.

We could have driven both ways, but on the way north we decided to save ourselves two or three days of driving by driving to Brisbane, and putting our car on the train for the long haul up to Cairns.

As NSW’s railways are standard gauge (1485mm) and Queensland’s are all Cape Gauge – 1067mm or 3’6” in old money, the break of gauge meant we first had to spend a couple of days driving north through interminable roadworks on what will eventually be the Pacific freeway to Brisbane.

The deal was that you drove to Roma street station, they put your car on the train, and you had a sleeper compartment for the thirty hour journey to Cairns. You could book a luxy compartment, but being cheapskates at heart we opted for a standard three berth compartment and paid the supplement to have it for our exclusive use.

The last time we had been on a sleeper was in Thailand when we caught the night train frpm Bangkok to Nong Khai on the Thai/Lao border when travelling to Vientiane. Previously our experience had consisted of a second class sleeper in India, plus some trips on pre-privatisation British Rail in the early eighties before the discount airlines turned the London to Edinburgh service into something for nostalgia buffs.

The Sunlander is also about to be replaced by a newer, faster train, and some time soon the motorail service will stop along with the sleeper service, but for the moment the Sunlander is Queensland’s answer to the Trans Siberian, rattling north at an average speed of not much more than 60 km/h, past small coastal towns and through increasingly exuberant tropical vegetation and sugar cane fields, stopping at small towns, and in a couple of places appearing to run down the main street of the town.

The train was very much in the mode of British Rail, except no one offered us complimentary tea and biscuits, and the blankets were an unimaginative brown/beige rather than BR’s cheerful acrylic check.

And unlike Thai railways there was no cheerful man selling Singha beer and taking your order for food to be cooked at some restaurant up ahead and delivered when the train rattled through. Instead it was instant coffee, fatty chicken roasts and Thai fishcakes that were more your classic English potato based fishcake with a dash of Thai spice than anything produced by your neighbourhood asian takeway. In truth the catering was terrible, beating even American Airlines for producing food that looked and tasted like it had been made from roadkill.

But the journey was fun, like all train journeys letting you see into people’s lives by way of their back yards, and pretty restful. The train was pretty lo-tech, no wifi or cell phone coverage so for entertainment we read, wrote, or just looked out the window, and like the old British Rail sleeper trains, the rocking motion ensured a good nights sleep. Definitely a journey back to travel as it used to be, and all the more fun for that.


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