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6 posts from May 2011

25 May 2011

President O'Bama and the Pacific (I)

I sometimes manage to drag myself out of bed to ride some laps of the Outer Circle of Regent's Park before work; indeed, I managed it yesterday.  However, an Icelandic ash cloud had other ideas, and the route was blocked.

The reason, of course, is that Winfield House, the U.S. ambassador's residence, is located behind a thick yew hedge.  Fears of flight disruptions from the ash cloud meant that President Obama and his entourage arrived a day early for the London leg of their European tour, and stayed the night there rather than crashing at Buckingham Palace.  The Metropolitan Police augmented the SO16 presence with a full roadblock; my fellow-rider was an American, so he repaid the cops' actually very polite and apologetic notice to turn around with a full-throated rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

As you know, Obama had just arrived from Ireland, where he delighted the crowds with his search for the missing apostrophe.  Expert commentators (including the Eccles Centre's Director, Phil Davies, who is presently sat on stage in Westminster Hall, listening to the main speech of the day) have been asked their views on what this all means for the Special Relationship and the administration's views on Europe.  Several have noted that Obama begin his presidency as America's 'First Pacific President', and that this visit, as well as having electoral appeal with an Irish stop-over, is also about making sure the traditional North Atlantic alliance is given a comforting dose of mood music (as well as securing more European men and matériel in various military actions).

Meanwhile, I was doing a little bit of research into the 1892 Samoan celebration of the Fourth of July.  Islanders were also given the chance to sing the Star Spangled Banner over two days, as the islands moved from Antipodean time to 'American Time', gaining an extra day as a result of their manoeuvringson the international date line (it was recently announced that they will be shifting back to be more aligned with Australia and New Zealand on 28 December 2011).  The usual reason given for the 1892 change was the influence of American merchants; was this true, I wondered, and if so, did it make anything more than a symbolic difference?  A cable for telegrams was proposed in the 1870s, but it appears that this was never laid.

Some more research may turn up the answers, but in the meantime, it was a reminder of the importance of the Samoan question in the late nineteenth century, when the islands became a nexus for a strategic, diplomatic and commercial battle between Britain, Germany and the United States, all of which contributed to a series of civil wars on the islands.  As it happens, we have the papers of Sir Charles Stuart Scott, who attended the Berlin Convention; among them are a series of photographs (including the perforated waistcoat of the executed Maximilian I of Mexico), and two of the 'King of Samoa' and a 'claimant to the throne'.  But who were these two men?

More, and a bibliography, to follow.

20 May 2011

Out of this World Rapture

It was an ordinary evening, but then, disaster struck: halfway home, I realised that I'd left my phone on the desk, so I turned my bike around and headed back to the Library, planning on popping back via the main entrance.

Leaving my bike in the piazza, I noticed that something out of the ordinary was up.  Why all these people heading towards the entrace with a certain eagerness and intensity?  Was that the author of The Unconsoled?  And didn't she write that book about xyz?  Was that something odd overhead, something strange in the air? As I had a bag with me, I presented my pass at the door to skip the usual search and then noticed that the Front Hall was full of people.  The security guard then reminded me that it was the opening for the Library's Science Fiction exhibition -  Out of This World: science fiction but not as you know it.

Not being one of the elect, I duly headed (as I should have done all along) to the staff entrance.  But it was good timing, given that a US preacher has declared tomorrow as the beginning of the end of the world: the Rapture, no less.  Those inside would have been able to prepare themselves by studying one of the sections, which looks at this very topic.  From an American Studies point of view, the phenonomen of 'End Days' literature, such as the bestselling 'Left Behind' series, has begun to attact a range of academic study, ranging from literary criticism and theology to military strategy, as well as comment pieces like this one in the Guardianand an online host of satire.  It is, after all, very American form of Millennialism.

The exhibition is free, and is now open for visits at the Library's St Pancras building, assuming we are all still here.  There are also plenty of events, as well, including many sponsored by the Eccles Centre with an American twist.  You can also keep an eye on things via the exhibition blog.

[Update: 23 May] We are still here, which gives me the opportunity to add a link to UEA's Thomas Rus Smith's post on 'Apocalypse on the Mississippi!'): 'There is a long history of prophesying Armageddon, particularly along or in relation to the Mississippi. Indeed, the current interest in the possibility of imminent rapture is as nothing compared to events in the nineteenth century...'


17 May 2011

High Water Marks (and League Tables)

High Tide

You will have heard of the troubles along the banks of the Mississippi River, as the midwest and south experiences its worst flooding in decades.

The UEA American Studies blog 'Containing Multitudes' has a post, 'News: High Water Everywhere', bringing together many of the best reports on choices facing the U.S. authorities - and those who have to live with the results.

Closer to home, the Guardian newspaper has published its annual university league tables.  Its method appears to concentrate on the undergraduate experience: their measure of American Studies departments is now online


11 May 2011

Readex Digital Resources Pilot

The Library holds a large collection of electronic resources, from digitised newspapers to bibliographic databases and videos of theatrical performances (there's a guide here). In BL jargon, they're referred to as 'e-resources', and, on the whole, they are great. 

There are problems, though.  Not least, for many British Library readers, is the requirement that the resources can only be accessed in the reading rooms, typically on the Library computers, rather than their own laptops via WiFi.  Nor can they be accessed at home.

This, of course, is a result of the licencing restrictions, and the need to balance readers and publishers' rights and requirements.  But today, I'm pleased to report that a pilot programme has been launched, testing remote access to three resources we purchased from Readex: Early American Newspapers (1690-1876), World Newspaper Archive: Africa 1800-1922, and Foreign Broadcast Information Service: regions 1-4, 1974-1996.  I'm particularly pleased about the newspapers, but the other resources are great, too.

If you hold a St Pancras Readers Pass, then you should be able to access them via the link towards the bottom of the e-resources page using your reader pass number and password for the integrated catalogue.   There's also a link on the login page to leave feedback - which would be very welcome - as well as details about the terms and conditions and FAQs.   This pilot should run for six months. I hope that you find it useful for your research.



06 May 2011

Mulberry Row

Monticello, VA , photo M. Shaw

The Soane Museum Study Group arranges a series of talks on architectural topics.  Thursday night saw Danielle Willkens (the Bartlett, UCL) present a paper entitled 'A Case for Ruins and a Cause for Concern: the Digital Mulberry Row Project at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello', a survey of the buildings provided for the enslaved workers at Jefferson's Charlottesville residence, with some natty 3D fly-through reconstructions and some thoughts about what happens when these places, people and activities are commemorated, reconstructed; or, as has more often been the place, erased from history.  In particular, she wondered what visitors take away from reconstructions of such sites, and, if the decision to reconstruct is taken (e.g. if they look spick and span, perhaps it looks like things weren't so bad), what period of habitation should be rebuilt: Monticello went through at least three phases of slave housing, from an a relatively dense and populated village, with a nail factory, to a more limited collection of more aesthetically constructed buildings.  I liked the suggestion that the neglected ruins spoke particularly eloquently of the social status of enslaved black workers, when compared to the attentions lavished on the main house.

All this is now a live issue, as Mulberry Row is the recipient of a NEA grant, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation is now working on restoring and interpreting the Row, drawing on more than fifty years of archaelogical and historical work.  You can follow the process - and comment on it - via their blog.

All this reminds me of my recent visit to Lancaster, whose connections to the slave trade have only recently been brought to the surface and memorialised.  No reconstruction is perfect, and memorialisation brings with with it all kinds of cultural and aesthetic complexities, but there are also many dangers and potential hurts in forgetting as well.


05 May 2011

'I remember the day when I first came here'

Everyone's geographical knowledge has improved over the last week.  I wondered a bit more about the man after whom the town just outside of Islamabad was named, so I snatched half an hour to look through Major James Abbott's Narrative of a Journey from Heraut to Khiva, Moscow and St Petersburgh (London, 1843).  (There are several later editions, and also some holdings of his manuscripts in the India Office Private Papers and Western Manuscripts.) 

It's an account of Abbott's part in the 'Great Game', Russia and Britain's long struggle over the northern approach to India.  In 1839, Abbott was sent on a mission to Khiva to help release captured Russians, who it was feared would be used an excuse for a Russian incursion in the territory.  Lacking an understanding of the khan's court, he failed in this mission, but was persuaded to travel to St Petersburgh as an intermediary between the Khivans and the Russians, something that far exceeded his brief.  After his kidnap and release by Kazakhs (he lost several fingers during the attack), he eventually reached St Petersburg, where the Russians rejected his terms.  He then returned to England, and published his Narrative, which is full of detail about the terrain and peoples he met during his epic journey, as well as thoughts on Russian aggression and defence of his actions (and a curious account of the Giraffe House at London Zoo, opposite the modern-day residence of the American Ambassador; what would an Iain Sinclair make of all this?).  He returned to India, where he pursued a successful career as an administrator, leading to the naming of the town after himself.

As well as an imperialist adventurer, Abbott was also a poet, author of perhaps the 'worst poem ever written'. Jeremy Bernstein has included it in his New York Review of Books blog post, That 'Sweet Abbottabad Air':

I remember the day when I first came here
And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air

The trees and ground covered with snow
Gave us indeed a brilliant show [...]




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