Injured Sovereigns, Foucault, and Jessica Price

Why does Jessica Price’s firing continue to attract so much attention? There’s plenty of other subjects I want to write about, but there is something about the story that draws me to it, just as it’s drawn literally thousands of people to my Twitter this blog, some of whom have called me “subhuman scum” and so on. It’s safe to say that nothing I’ve written in over two decades has attracted this kind of active fury. 

There are two curiosities here, the first being the minute nature of Price’s supposed offence. Even if you consider her comments to be exceptionally rude, why should rude comments cause such an uproar? We are not short of famous individuals who are far ruder, far more frequently. For those who are fond of throwing around accusations of overreaction amongst ‘snowflakes’, a few sharp tweets seem exceptionally small beer. Even the subject of her comments, Deroir, did not seem especially hurt at the time, and did not seek any redress – instead, it was others who came to defend his honour.

The second curiosity has been the active pursuit of any journalist or, indeed, individual who would dare to defend Price. But Price has been fired! Surely ‘justice’ has been done and the matter is over. Yet clearly there is something so dangerous about Price’s actions that they require an overwhelming repudiation, such that even her sympathisers must be challenged and punished.

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I’ve been reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison recently, by way of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues (my review). The book attempts to understand how and why the treatment of criminals changed in the past 400 years, from torture to prison. Unexpectedly for me, Foucault’s analysis of why torture and public execution were thought to be necessary has provided an unusually intriguing new lens to decipher those two curiosities about Price’s story.

Why did western societies use such torture and execution – practices that even at the time were considered extreme – to punish criminals, instead of prison? Why kill someone for crimes as minor as larceny? Because:

Besides its immediate victim, the crime attacks the sovereign: it attacks him personally, since the law represents the will of the sovereign; it attacks him physically, since the force of the law is the force of the prince.

… Punishment, therefore, cannot be identified with or even measured by the redress of the injury; in punishment, there must always be a portion that belongs to the prince, and, even when it is combined with the redress laid down, it constitutes the most important element in the penal liquidation of the crime. Now, this portion belonging to the prince is not in itself simple: on the one hand, it requires redress for the injury that has been done to his kingdom (as an element of disorder and as an example given to others, this con­siderable injury is out of all proportion to that which has been committed upon a private individual); but it also requires that the king take revenge for an affront to his very person.

In a time of monarchy, where all laws are determined by a sovereign (here termed the prince or the king), any crime cannot merely be considered as an attack on the immediate victim; not merely an attack on the order and control of the sovereign; but in fact an attack on the sovereign himself. Such an attack demands redress and punishment.

In our case, who is the sovereign? The most obvious answer is ArenaNet, Price’s employer, which alone sets the conditions of her employment, and has the unique power to terminate her employment at will. Yes, one may argue that some harm has been done to the honour of Deroir, and one may even argue (although I would not agree) that some modicum of harm has been done to the sovereign – but not that much. We are talking about a few supposedly rude tweets.

So why the termination? Disorder has been introduced to the land. That is the true crime, the considerable injury that eclipses the mild sting of the tweets themselves, and so it requires immense revenge for the contempt it shows to the sovereign, ArenaNet. Contempt may easily turn into insurrection – unionisation – turmoil – bankruptcy:

In every offence there was a crimen majestatis and in the least criminal a potential regicide. And the regicide, in turn, was neither more nor less, than the total, absolute criminal since, instead of attacking, like any offender, a particular decision or wish of the sovereign power, he attacked the very principle and physical person of the prince.

It may only seem like a few rude tweets, but it could end in bankruptcy, a fate to be avoided at all costs. In that light, termination can be the only appropriate response.

Why must the termination be public? Even in the US, disciplinary procedures typically take days, if not weeks or months, and do not result in the kind of lengthy explanations and justifications that ArenaNet provided. Again, sovereignty is core:

The public execution … is a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is recon­stituted. It restores that sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular.

… Its aim is not so much to re-establish a balance as to bring into play, as its extreme point, the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength.

Price’s termination must be seen by all employees, and must demonstrate the power and determination of ArenaNet towards anyone else who might challenge its authority; hence the immediate firing of, Peter Fries, who did not tweet at any customers, but who, by supporting Price, lent support to her implicit challenge of authority.

The speed of the termination also demonstrates ArenaNet’s ceaseless presence in its employee’s lives:

…What had hitherto maintained this practice of torture was not an economy of example, in the sense in which it was to be understood at the time of the ideologues (that the representation of the penalty should be greater than the interest of the crime), but a policy of terror: to make everyone aware, through the body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sover­eign.

If you make any mistake, ArenaNet will terminate your employment immediately. They have unrestrained presence. And while some claim that the problem is because she used her ‘public’ Twitter (more on that later) and she mentioned her employer in her profile: do we really believe this would altered the outcome? Jessica Price is not famous, but she’s not unknown. It’s certain that fans would have found her profile and asked her questions.

This can’t be the whole story. True, only ArenaNet has the power to terminate Price – but are we to believe that the company wasn’t pressured into this action by part of its customers? What role do these ‘Customers’ (the vocal portion which I should stress is only a tiny minority of the total) play in proceedings?

An offence, according to the law of the classical age, quite apart from the damage it may produce, apart even from the rule that it breaks, offends the rectitude of those who abide by the law: ‘If one commits something that the law forbids, even if there is neither harm nor injury to the individual, it is an offence that demands reparation, because the right of the superior man is violated and because it offends the dignity of his character’ (Risi, 9).

Many of the complaints about Price – her rudeness towards Customers – remind me of the rectitude of those who abide by the law. The law, after all, is what matters. I have lost count of those who’ve told me that they would expect to be terminated immediately if they were rude to a customer. There is no question as to whether this would be fair or no, and no mitigating circumstances will be considered. “Perhaps termination was excessive, but we cannot dispute the ultimate right of power of the corporation.”

The Customers have been harmed. They require redress. They require recognition. In fact, like corporations, they also see themselves as sovereign. It is totally unacceptable that a mere employee, their servant, should be disrespectful towards them. They demand punishment out of proportion to the harm done to Deroir, because their person had been affronted. Price’s disrespect may seem minor but it could end in disregard – disdain – banishment.

Many Customers have dredged through Price’s social media, include comments about deceased YouTubers. These direct and indirect offences have been tallied and presented point by point, as if enough points might lead to a conviction in the minds of the public. Thus an “asshat” is worth one point, “stop fucking tagging me” two points, etc. It is obviously the performance of a judicial process: the gathering of evidence, the testimonies from would-be-YouTube-magistrates, not unlike how justice was performed a few centuries ago in France:

We have, then, a penal arithmetic that is meticulous on many points, but which still leaves a margin for a good deal of argument: in order for a capital sentence to be passed, is a single full proof enough or must it be accompanied by other slighter clues? Are two approxi­ mate proofs always equivalent to a full proof? Should not three be required or two plus distant clues? Are there elements that may be regarded as clues only for certain crimes, in certain circumstances and in relation to certain persons (thus evidence is disregarded if it comes from a vagabond; it is reinforced, on the contrary, if it is provided by ‘a considerable person’ or by a master in the case of a domestic offence).

Each piece of evidence, each point contributes to Price’s guilt:

The different pieces of evidence did not constitute so many neutral elements, until such time as they could be gathered together into a single body of evidence that would bring the final certainty of guilt. Each piece of evidence aroused a particular degree of abomination. Guilt did not begin when all the evidence was gathered together; piece by piece, it was constituted by each of the elements that made it possible to recognize a guilty person. Thus a semi­-proof did not leave the suspect innocent until such time as it was completed; it made him semi-guilty; slight evidence of a serious crime marked someone as slightly criminal. In short, penal demonstration did not obey a dualistic system: true or false; but a principle of continuous gradation; a degree reached in the demon­stration already formed a degree of guilt and consequently involved a degree of punishment. The suspect, as such, always deserved a certain punishment; one could not be the object of suspicion and be completely innocent.

Finally, why are the Customers so fervent in the pursuit of Price’s supporters? My article was barely published before I started receiving replies from strangers who had evidently been searching for “jessica price” on Twitter. I asked one person why they’d been searching, and they said they were bored. OK: but if you’re bored, why not watch Netflix or play a game? It’s because the Customers, as sovereign, must demonstrate their unrestrained presence.

…What had hitherto maintained this practice of torture was not an economy of example, in the sense in which it was to be understood at the time of the ideologues (that the representation of the penalty should be greater than the interest of the crime), but a policy of terror: to make everyone aware, through the body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sover­eign.

If you agree with Price, we will find you, wherever you are.

It is the combination of these two sovereigns – Corporate and Customer –  that is new and unusual. Both reinforcing each other, in their demand for respect, for a public execution in response to attack on their persons. The precise wording used by ArenaNet, “attacks on the community”, was not lost on Price:

Neither was the very public nature of proceedings:

Have I stretched the analogy too far? Am I blowing things out of proportion?

We’re already past that. Price has been fired and she is likely to be hounded on social media, and very likely in person, for many years. And for what? A few tweets. But these are tweets are so dangerous, so threatening to the natural order, that nothing short of termination will satisfy.

(Once, there was a third sovereign – the employee. Or the union. Or, yes, the guild.)

Where is it that humans can get respect, today? The option of last resort is as a customer. The customer is always right. “My money will force your respect.” And because many workers are now on social media for the very simple purposes and pleasures of talking with their friends and colleagues about their life, and yes, their work – the thing they spend eight hours a day on, the thing that keeps them clothed and fed – and because they do not want to make an artificial distinction between their personal and work lives (as if that would stop harassment, really!) – well, you as a Customer can demand their attention and their respect whenever they’re on social media. Which means their whole lives.

But what happens when your money no longer forces their respect?

It is disturbing to some Customers that some companies – not including Arenanet – will now overlook or even tolerate perceived rudeness. Whether this ‘lenience’ comes from a simple consideration of their staff as humans worthy of care and respect, or from a cold-hearted calculation that the loss of your few dollars, and your community’s few dollars, do not outweigh the financial benefit to the corporation of the occasional “rude” tweet made by the employees (aka humans) necessary to actually make products and services. Indeed, some rudeness may even be encouraged, in so far as it helps to retain and attract employees who can make profitable games.

(The expectation of total servility from those interact with Customers exists regardless of the sex of the employee. However, sexism is relevant to the extent that politeness is expected more from women than men, and rudeness is tolerated and in some cases celebrated more from men than women.)

All of this leaves the obvious question: what happens when two sovereigns go to war – when the Customers (again, I’m talking about the vocal minority) fight the Corporations?

As it turns out… usually very little. Which highlights the absurdity of these Customers taking the Corporation’s side over that of the employees who actually make the entertainment they value. But perhaps it is not so absurd when you consider that these customers value certain things over even their most beloved hobby, like the desire to see employees abasing themselves.

Now that’s entertainment.

 

History suggests a silver lining to Brexit

Linda Colley on the lessons history can teach us about the aftermath of Brexit, and how it could have a silver lining:

By instinct I am a Remainer, but I think that some form of Brexit may now be unavoidable. If that does turn out to be the case, I suspect that the resulting disruptions and realignments will affect far more than the economy: the trick will be to see if this can be turned to the good, or at least to something halfway productive.

In a recent pamphlet on the constitutional ramifications, Vernon Bogdanor has hinted at ways in which Brexit might conceivably have some constructive, albeit unpredictable, effects. As is becoming clear, and as Bogdanor sets out, Ireland represents a major challenge, and not just for reasons of cross-border trade. The Good Friday Agreement promised Northern Ireland parity of rights with the Republic. But if the UK does pull out of the EU, Northern Irish rights will no longer be protected by Brussels and the European courts, but will come back substantially to Westminster. And by the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, Westminster would be free in the future to modify those rights. Indeed, these challenges extend to all of the UK. The British government has undertaken to incorporate relevant sections of EU law and rights in statute law. But the same caveat applies: such incorporation would mean that these transferred rights and laws could be altered in the future by a sovereign parliament.

As Bogdanor remarks, some thoughtful politicians, such as Dominic Grieve, are proposing a new British Bill of Rights in the event of Brexit so as to protect vital rights against such legislative tinkering. This would be a good idea. It would also be valuable if more UK citizens and all political parties shifted some of their focus away from purely economic matters, and devoted more attention to the political, structural and legal vulnerabilities and quandaries that have been exposed by this crisis, and to the question of how these could be addressed.

Another of Colley’s hopes is that Brexit will force “Global Britain” to, well, actually learn how to speak other languages and learn the history of other nations. We’ll see.

The 19th Century Fibit

After admiring the cutting-edge central heating, bathroom, and electrical wiring at Lauriston Castle in Edinburgh, our tour guide pointed out another neat gadget in Mrs. Reid’s bedroom: jockey scales.

Dating back to the late 19th century, these scales were designed to weigh jockeys before horse races, but Mrs. Reid’s scales were used to weigh visitors to the castle. They’d be weighed twice, in fact: firstly on arrival, and then on departure. Ideally, the visitor would have gained weight, demonstrating a healthy and nutritious stay.

Attitudes towards health and fitness were, of course, very different a century ago. While they were concerned about weight, this little ritual shows they were worried more about being underweight than overweight.

Of course, there is at least 25% chance this story is utter bullshit — it wouldn’t be the first time a tour guide told a tall tale. But what a cautionary tale it is!

Fitness trackers are the jockey scales of our time, a fashionable gadget that demonstrates your personal commitment to healthy living. And just like gaining weight, there is little evidence that using a Fitbit will actually make you healthier.

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Now, it is true that you can be unhealthily thin, in which case it may be helpful to put on weight while you stay at your friend’s house (or castle). Likewise, you can be too sedentary, and so it may be helpful to wear a fitness tracker, assuming you actually use it properly, which most people don’t.

The point is not that I think fitness trackers are trash or that no-one should use them; rather, we should be aware that they represent a particular wave of fashion, one that is likely to dissipate in a few years in favour of an even more high-tech fad.

By all means, use a Fitbit if it works for you — but there are more important things you can do, like eating a little more vegetables and a little less meat, and doing more vigorous exercise that you find fun.

As for myself, I‘ve worn three step counters over the years. The first was a very uncool pedometer I wore for a few weeks to school in the 90s, and I don’t think it helped me at all.

The second was an early-model Fitbit, which I kept clipped to my belt. I was addicted to checking it throughout the day, and it did occasionally encourage me to walk a few hundred or thousand more steps. Whether that had any lasting impact on my health, I don’t know.

Today, I wear an Apple Watch. It is also addictive to see my ‘activity rings’ fill up during the day, and I find its use of calories to be marginally more scientific (as opposed to steps). Again, I don’t pretend that it is really doing anything to my health. I still walk exactly the same route to work, and I do the same 3–5 runs per week.

It does look cool, though, and isn’t that what really matters?

Ancient Egypt: Generation Country

I spent a week in Luxor in February, which qualifies me as an expert on all things Egyptian.

OK, fine — but it does qualify me as an expert on being a tourist in Luxor. I had two thoughts per day, which makes fourteen thoughts in total:

1. The Baksheesh Problem

“No, sorry,” he said, rapidly backing away, “I’m all out of baksheesh.” The man patted his pockets for added effect as the Egyptian tomb guard followed along for a few steps, then gave up. What an asshole, I thought, and then I patted my pockets and realised that perhaps I was an asshole as well.

We’d only visited a couple of tombs in Sheikh Abd el-Qurna — the Valley of the Nobles — when it became clear that we had a serious baksheesh problem. It was a issue of simple mathematics: Sheikh Abd el-Qurna has dozens of tombs dating from the New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt, which is to say that the tombs are older than pretty much any structure still standing in Europe or North American, not to mention a good deal prettier. Around a dozen are open to the public, and you can buy tickets for them in groups of two or three tombs each, for around 50 LE. LE means Egyptian Pounds; $1 equals 8 LE, which means a ticket is about $6.

Sheikh Abd el-Qurna

Usually each tomb has its own guard — a man (and it’s always a man) who checks tickets, ensures tourists don’t wreck it up, and provides running commentary on the various ancient gods and kings and queens on display inside. Sometimes the commentary is accurate and welcome, often it’s unwanted. In any case, the tomb guards really expect a tip from tourists, because:

  1. The Valley of the Nobles is not especially well-visited, being overshadowed by the far more famous Valley of the Kings next door, home of bigger tombs for more important people. These tombs aren’t necessarily ‘better’ than those in the Valley of the Nobles — and that goes doubly so for Tutankhamun’s tomb (also in the Valley of the Kings), who by all regards was not a very important person by ancient Egyptian standards, nor does he have a very spacious or impressive tomb. But hey, you’ve heard of The Valley of the Kings, you haven’t heard of the Valley of the Nobles, and you’ve only got a day or two in Luxor, so what are you going to do? The point is, there’s not much traffic and a guard’s gotta make money somehow, because:
  2. They’re paid very little. I have no idea exactly how much, I’m guessing a few dollars a day. This guess is based on the fact that taxi drivers in Luxor are willing to work for an entire day for under $25, and they’re much further up in the social and financial hierarchy than tomb guards. A tip of just 1 LE, or a bit over a dime, is therefore a pretty big deal, especially when:
  3. Thanks to the Egyptian revolution, which everyone just called 2011, plus various well-publicised terrorist attacks, tourism has just about dried up. Of the 350 Nile River cruise boats that used to visit Luxor, only a hundred are still running. Hotel occupancy in Luxor is under 25%. It’s not fun times.

Now, no-one likes being hassled for a tip. You’d prefer to hand over a buck or two in a benificent manner for a job well done, delivered via a subtle handshake just like how Monica’s old boyfriend Richard taught Joey and Chandler how to do. But as established, the going rate of 1 LE is practically zero money to a western tourist, plus the tomb guards get really bummed out when you stiff them, so you’d be advised to get over your initial irritation.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that no-one has any change in Luxor! ATMs usually dispense 200 LE notes, with the odd 100, 50, and 20 thrown in, and most things that tourists buy are denominated in 5 or 10 LE increments. This means that you barely ever have any 1 LE coins in your possession. Sure, you could give out 5 LE or 10 LE notes as tips, but you’ll run out of them rapidly as well. The end result is the Baksheesh Problem.

As we trekked between tombs in the Valley of the Nobles, I had to perform triage arithmatic to see how far we could stretch our meagre stock of coins and 5 LE notes. I wondered why the authorities couldn’t just add a few LE on to the cost of each ticket and give it to the tomb guards, or just install a change machine in the car park.

Later in our trip, we asked the hotel receptionist for change from a 10 LE note. She shook her head sadly, and then gave up two 5 LE notes from her purse. This made me feel appropriately bad. Going to the bank wasn’t possible because they were closed for the weekend.

And then we found out that small water bottles cost 2 LE, and our pockets overflowed with coins, and our hotel minibar overflowed with bottles, and the Kingdom was once again at peace, with order and Maat restored.

*There was little logic in our tipping behaviour. We gave guards anything from 1 LE to 10 LE, and hotel staff even more. I suppose this isn’t any different from tipping culture in the US or UK though. Continue reading “Ancient Egypt: Generation Country”

200 Years of Change

A game I like to play at history museums is imagining the present-day equivalents of past behaviour and objects. So at The Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton, London, it’s fun to look at their Period Rooms and link up past and present behaviours.

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Take the 1935 Living Room; the armchairs are pointed at the fireplace (which obviously would be a TV today), and there’s a record player and radio in the corner (also TV/hifi). Or the 1695 Parlour, in which the woman of the house would spend her day noting down the household receipts on the writing cabinet (i.e. iMac) before joining her husband for dinner and listening to him read out the day’s newspaper (watching Netflix).

1790

Then there’s the 1790 Parlour, with a set of playing cards laid out on the table. Just imagine what present day families might do when entertaining friends – why, they’d… play cards! Or maybe boardgames. Yes, it turns out that we still all want reasons to talk and gossip in an formalised way, and the things we did back 200 years ago are still pretty much exactly the same now.

1998

The Period Rooms go all the way up to 1998.

As you might expect from me, another fun thought experiment is imagining what the Period Room and gallery notes for 2014 would be; probably a room dominated by a big Samsung TV with a Playstation, some bluetooth speakers, Ikea bookshelves, a corner sofa, surround sound speakers, and a coffee table. “Here, the co-habiting couple would gather in the evening to watch ‘television serials’ and ‘YouTube cat videos’, while perusing social media on Twitter and Facebook on their tablet computers.”

The Period Room for 2034, of course, would just be an empty room with a near-invisible projector, an easy chair, and a virtual reality headset.

A Preview of A History of The Future

Two and a half years ago, I began a Kickstarter project for A History of the Future in 100 Objects, a book that would map out the 21st century in a hundred speculative objects. I wanted to cover more than just technology; I wanted to look at the future of religion, politics, sport, food, health, architecture, transport, work, and, well, everything.

That’s quite a tall order, and of course it ended up being far harder than I anticipated; what I thought might take a year took over twice as long. Let’s just say I learned a lot (if you’re interested in hearing more about it, check out my latest Kickstarter update) about how writing a book at the same time as running a company means that you don’t get evenings or weekends any more.

Not that I’d take back the experience. I’m proud of the book. It’s not perfect by any means, but I think that among the hundred chapters that make up the book, from factual articles to newspaper reports to interviews to short stories, there are some new ideas and new expressions of old ideas that many people have never seen before. And that’s all I could ask for.

You can see a preview of A History of the Future right now on the official website, and in fact the eBook is for sale on Amazon and via Gumroad now as well. However, the ‘proper’ launch of the book will be later this month after I talk about it on Radio 4 and at the Futurefest conference, and after it’s available as a physical book — hence why I’m not making too much noise about it.

The energy I poured into the book meant that I didn’t have time to write here. I’m looking forward to coming back, though.

Educational games from 3500 years ago

Freeborn children [of Greece] should learn as much of these things as the vast throngs of young in Egypt do with their alphabet. First as regards arithmetic, lessons have been devised there for absolute beginners based on enjoyment and games, distributing apples and garlands so that the same numbers are divided among larger and smaller groups.

…The teachers, by applying the rules and practices of arithmetic to play, prepare their pupils for the tasks of marshalling and leading armies and organizing military expeditions, managing a household too, and altogether form them into persons more useful to themselves and to others, and a great deal wider awake.”

This is Plato, writing around 360BC, about how Egyptian children learned about maths through ‘enjoyment and games’ [Laws 7,819].

I heard this during the A History of the World in 100 Objects podcast about the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus from 1550BC, which “contains 84 different calculations to help with various aspects of Egyptian life, from pyramid building to working out how much grain it takes to fatten a goose.”

Redcoats

Being a fan of Sharpe, I’ve long wondered why the standard British Army uniform was a ‘redcoat’ – surely the bright colour made the soldiers into obvious targets? I finally discovered the truth behind this (oddly, via a Metafilter comment about the F-22 fighter):

From the modern perspective, the retention of a highly conspicuous colour such as red for active service appears inexplicable, regardless of how striking it may have looked on the parade ground. It should be noted, however, that in the days of the musket (a weapon of limited range and accuracy) and black powder, battle field visibility was quickly obscured by clouds of smoke. Bright colours enhanced morale and provided a means of distinguishing friend from foe without significantly adding risk. Furthermore, the vegetable dyes used until the 19th century would fade over time to a pink or ruddy-brown, so on a long campaign in a hot climate the colour was less conspicuous than the modern scarlet shade would be.

Consuming Passions, Part One

Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders has to be one of the most information-dense books I have ever read. I’m used to blasting through novels in a few hours, but despite finding Consuming Passions extremely interesting, I’ve barely been able to get halfway through its 500 pages after at least a dozen hours.

The book tells the simple yet incredibly intricate story of how the Industrial Revolution changed the consumption habits of British people; from newspapers to holidays to museums to clothing. A lesser (but perhaps more commercially-savvy) author could easily have split this book into five novels; a writer for the New Yorker probably could have spun off several years’ worth of articles. I began putting in bookmarks for particularly interesting pieces of information, and eventually gave up when I realised I’d ruin it that way.

It’s essentially impossible to summarise the book, but there are a few interesting bits and pieces that I’ve pulled out:

Newspapers

Sophie von la Roche, in 1786, wrote to her family in Germany describing the contents of the daily papers (which she numbered in London at twenty-one). The proportion of news to advertisements and announcements was fairly standard:

“The notices in to-day’s paper run: . . .

  1. Plays produced at the Haymarket theatre; names of actors and actresses… following by the prices of the seats…
  2. Plays at the small Sadler’s Wells theatre, where to-day’s programme offers a satire on magnetism and somnambulism in particular, and where tumblers and tight-rope walkers may be seen…
  3. At the Royal Bush, Mr Astley’s amphitheatre; men, boys and girls in trick-riding; fireworks; short comedies and ballets…
  4. Bermondsey Spa, a place where firework displays are held, announces that the scaffolding has been well and strongly made.
  5. The royal Circus; adults and children in trick-riding, children in comedy and pantomime; Italians in dancing and buffoonery.
  6. Two fine large green tortoises for sale.
  7. A notice against some piratical printer.
  8. Discovery of new pills.
  9. Notice of maritime matters…”

This excerpt brought home a few things to me. Firstly, that people in 1786 were really very sophisticated; I’d certainly be interested in seeing a satire on magnetism and somnambulism! I’d always had this bizarre notion that people in the past were somehow slower and less intelligent than we are today; perhaps it’s because we’re trained to view the past through the perfect hindsight-enabling prism of history textbooks. I never really got a feeling of what day to day life was like in my history lessons.

Secondly, I felt vaguely sad that we know so little about life only two hundred years ago. We don’t have many sources for what newspapers were like back then, so we have to resort to summaries like this one.

Advertising

Early on in the book, there’s a wonderful section describing how retailers, in the space of a few years, effectively invented all of the sales techniques we take for granted today; money-back guarantees, branded produce, paid advertisements, attack ads, puff pieces, and inertia selling.

Inertia selling caught my eye, not merely because it sounds cool and scientific, but because it’s so audacious:

[Wedgwood] pioneered inertia selling, by sending parcels of his goods – some worth as much as £70 – to aristocratic families across Europe, spending £20,000 (altogether the equivalent of several million today), and following up each parcel with a request for payment or the return of the goods. Within a couple of years he had received payment from all but three families.

Wedgwood was evidently the very master of sales, and Flanders provides this brilliant 1770 letter from him to a colleague, describing a whole host of major new selling techniques (marked in bold by Flanders, paragraph breaks by me):

Wo’d you advertise the next season as the silk mercers in Pell mell do,

– Or deliver cards at the hosues of the Nobility & Gentry, & in the City,

– Get leave to make a shew of his Majesty’s Service for a month, & ornament in the Dessert with Ornamental Ewers, flower baskets & Vases

– Or have an Auction at Cobbs room of Statues, Bassreliefs, Pictures, Tripods, Candelabrias, Lamps, Potpouris, Superb Ewers, Cisterns, Tablets Etruscan, Porphirys & other Articles not yet expos’d to sale. Make a great route of advertising this Auction, & at the same time mention our rooms in Newport St

– & have another Auction in the full season at Bath of such things as we now have on hand, just sprinkled over with a few new articles to give them an air of novelty to any of our customers who may see them there,

– Or will you trust to a new disposition of the Rooms with the new articles we shall have to put into them & a few modest puffs in the Papers from some of our friends such as I am told there has been one lately in Lloyd’s Chronicle.

Damn, this guy was sharp. No wonder we still know his name now.

Sharpe, and the 95th

Sharpe remains a fond favourite of mine, and I’ll often reminiscence about the scenes (essentially identical in every movie) in which French soldiers slowly march towards the British in a line while being blasted by Sharpe’s green-jacked rifles, firing three shots to the minute.

This Christmas, the oddly-named UK TV History channel are running a Sharpe marathon, and I eagerly tuned in to watch Sharpe’s Eagle. Like other childhood favourites, I was worried whether it would age well, and first impressions indicated that it had not. The quality – at least on TV – was grainy and blithely non-widescreen. Once I’d gotten over these superficial problems though, Sharpe looked pretty much the same as if you’d produced it today – there’s only so much you can do with a story about some Napoleonic-era soldiers marching around in Spain, sleeping in tents and shooting each other with rifles.

The dialogue and acting held up wonderfully; Sean Bean is Richard Sharpe (thus ensuring a lifetime of typecasting) and the writing, presumably closely adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s original novels, barrels along with jokes, action and backstabbing. It’s about the only ITV programme I can bear to watch any more.

I noticed that Brian Cox featured in Sharpe’s Eagle, and I had a nagging suspicion that I’d seen one of the other actors before. A quick trip to IMDB revealed that the extremely nasty Lt. Berry was in fact a young Daniel Craig with black hair. Even better, he spent most of the movie either playing cards or beating people up, which provided a wonderful moment of serendipity given that I was occasionally flipping channels to watch Casino Royale at the time.

What I found most interesting about Sharpe, however, is the history that it’s based on. The main characters in the shows belong to the 95th Regiment of Foot, a highly innovative and experimental company:

In 1800 an “Experimental Corps of Riflemen”, the 95th Regiment of Foot was raised by Colonel Coote Manningham and Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. William Stewart, drawn from officers and other ranks from drafts of a variety of British regiments. The Corps differed quite a bit from the main infantry of the British Army. The Riflemen wore dark green jackets rather than the red more customary to the British Army of that time … The “Rifles” were armed with the formidable, but slow-loading Baker rifle which was more accurate and of longer range than the musket

The Rifles were trained to think for themselves, not to blindly follow orders and together with the riflemen of the 60th (later the King’s Royal Rifle Corps) were the sharpshooters, skirmishers and scouts of the British Army. They went into battle not in line, but in skirmishing formations ahead of the main infantry, who were bunched into close formations, to snipe at their opponents and take cover in the process. These tactics – originated by the 60th in campaigns in North America – were unusual for that time. It was generally deemed to be dishonourable to deliberately aim at an individual, and conventional tactics favoured the volley from a close formation and the bayonet…

On top of this, the unit’s operation was markedly different from the line infantry. Flogging was abolished as a means of enforcing military discipline (a very progressive move and unheard of for the times), they held regular shooting and sporting competitions, and were rewarded for their achievements. Officers would regularly dine with their men and in so doing would become familiar with each man in their respective companies, a practice also unheard of at the time.

The performance of the regiment can be demonstrated by the story of Rifleman Thomas Plunkett of the 1st Battalion, 95th Rifles. Plunkett, armed with a Baker rifle, allegedly shot the French General Colbert at a range of between 400 and 800 yards during the Peninsula War. Apparently, he then shot a second Frenchman who rode to the general’s aid, proving that his was not just a lucky shot. By comparison, a standard issue Brown Bess musket could not be relied upon to hit a man-sized target at over 60 yards.

(compiled from Wikipedia)

It’s hardly surprising that Bernard Cornwell picked the 95th as Sharpe’s company given its groundbreaking nature, and this finally explains the eternal mystery of why the French would always march – very slowly – towards their doom in every single movie…