Category Archives: Science

Fortissimo

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the strange world of Forteana, suggesting that it was the sort of thing that would probably appeal to me. She was right in this belief – in fact, I’d come across the work of Mr Charles Fort before. I’d often passed the house in Bloomsbury where he lived in the 1920s while studying at the British Library (it’s on Marchmont Street, marked with a silver plaque, if you’re interested). I’d looked into the work of this fellow, and discovered that, unconsciously, I was already familiar with it.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by weirdness – ghosts, alien abductions, monsters in lakes, the lot. Believed in most of it, too. It was only when I got a bit older, developed the ability to think critically and learnt the difference between “true” and “things you really want to be true” that I developed that healthy level of scepticism that has prevented me from, e.g., giving heinous amounts of money to a homeopath every time I get the sniffles.

Charles H Fort is legendary in the circles that take an interest in strange phenomena – in fact, he more-or-less invented the concept of paranormal studies (or Forteana, as such studies are often called in tribute to the man). It may come as little surprise to sceptics among you to learn that he was not a scientist himself – in fact, he was a writer by profession. As anyone who’s read Dianetics can tell you, few things are more irritating than a writer who acts like he has scientific expertise without any actual academic study.

However, he did read widely. From a young age he took a great deal of interest in science. Like Yr. Humble Chronicler, he would appear to have been a science groupie rather than an actual scientist. He was born in New York in 1874 and, from a fairly young age, showed an independent streak (which I think is a polite way of saying “obstinate little bugger”).

His interest in science, combined with his rebellious tendencies,logically led him to take an interest in anomalies that science couldn’t explain. Anything weird and paranormal seems to have entered this field of interest, from spontaneous human combustion to rains of fish to UFOs. The only thing uniting his collection of oddities was the fact that science did not have a definitive explanation for them.

This, disciples of Fort are keen to emphasise, was the point of his work – that science does not have all the answers, and we shouldn’t mindlessly accept the opinion of the scientific establishment. This, I think, is a very fair point. After all, some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history have come from going against what is generally accepted as truth. It used to be accepted that the sun revolved around the earth and that ants have eight legs, but now we know better. Similarly, what we now consider to be a scientific truth may tomorrow be equally discredited.

Unfortunately, it’s here that Fort’s lack of a scientific background makes itself evident. The trouble is that, for all his impish mischief, Fort’s assembly of strange phenomena doesn’t really say anything to the scientific establishment that the scientific establishment doesn’t already know. No legitimate scientist would claim to have absolutely all the answers. Even theories that are pretty well established are constantly being refined and modified as new evidence comes in – consider the effect that the discovery of DNA had on studies of evolution, for instance.

In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the time, it’s the Forteans themselves who more closely fulfil the stereotype of the stubborn and short-sighted student of science. There is a tendency among believers in paranormal phenomena to say “If not X then Y,”  e.g. “If those lights in the sky are not any of these things, they must be alien spacecraft!” That is to say, they have no evidence specifically for their conclusions and don’t admit to the possibility that there may be yet another explanation that hasn’t been considered. This, to me, is just as narrow-minded as outright denying the existence of flying saucers, sea serpents, the Duck Beast of Wincanton &c, &c.

One wonders how seriously Fort himself intended his theories to be taken. His sources were often very dubious, he seems to have simply taken every record of weirdness at face value with no discrimination between scientific studies and anecdotal evidence. Some of his followers view him as a genius shining a light on the falsehoods of the scientific establishment, others view him as a Swiftian satirist out to troll everyone. Perhaps the final word on the matter should come from the man himself.

My own notion is that it is very unsportsmanlike to ever mention fraud. Accept everything. Then explain it your own way.

Make of that what you will.

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Bloomsbury, History, Lies, Literature, London, Museums, Notable Londoners, Paranormal, Science

The Need for Speed

It just so happened that last night Yr. Humble Chronicler was presented with an opportunity to have dinner at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. Such exalted circles I move in. The RAC may be familiar to you as a breakdown service. In fact, this is a spin-off of the main organisation, which is a gentleman’s club started to campaign for motorists’ interests.

The dinner for which I managed to wangle an invite was ‘Land Speed Legends,’ themed – as you might guess – around the Land Speed Record. The guest speakers were Don Wales, of the Campbell record-breaking dynasty, and Richard Noble, responsible for the successful Thrust record attempts in the 1980s and 90s.

Despite not being much of a petrolhead myself, and not even remotely a follower of motorsport, I do take an interest in the Land Speed Record. I think it might be because it’s one of the last remnants of that spirit of exploration that died out some time in the second half of the 20th century. With the globe mapped out and with humanity having got as far as the moon, there seem to be so few boundaries left to cross.

I think it’s also one of the few areas of engineering in which Britain still excels – decades of underinvestment have left us with an engineering industry that’s great for cutting-edge, high-end, one-off-type stuff, but not so much on the mass production side. It’s quite heartening to know that there are certain areas in which we can still fly the flag.

So therefore, I was rather looking forward to the evening. The RAC is a rather old-school club, not the sort of scummy place I normally hang around in, but I think I managed to avoid making a fool out of myself. What helped was the fact that most of the members are petrolheads, and car folk tend to be very friendly in my experience.

The decor was rather sumptuous in an early-twentieth-century way with, predictably, lots of paintings depicting motor sport. To my surprise, the lobby featured the electric car Bluebird (the latest in a long line of vehicles by that name) in which Don Wales intends to go for the record for an electrically-powered vehicle. With environmentalism a hot topic as ever, the pursuit of excellence in alternatives to petrol propulsion is to be lauded. Wales currently holds the record for a steam-driven vehicle and, er, a lawnmower. Seeing the Bluebird parked inthe foyer of a gentlemen’s club took me particularly aback, given the fuss my flatmates make when I park my car in the living room.

Dinner was utterly exquisite – I’ve noticed that often these places fall down when it comes to the food itself, but I have never had such fine duck in all my born days. That’s not some sort of 18th century euphemism, but it sounds like it could be.

After indulging freely in food and wine, Messrs Wales and Noble gave their talks. Andy Green, driver of the supersonic Thrust SSC that took the record back in 1997,  was also supposed to be in attendance but was unable to make it due to being an actual fighter pilot. Nevertheless, the talk was very interesting indeed if you are into that sort of thing, and I am.

Noble explained the Bloodhound SSC project to build the first car to go at over 1000 miles per hour (concept picture seen right). He described the difficulties faced in its design and some of the interesting findings they’ve made concerning the behaviour of vehicles at those kinds of speeds. Despite the best computer simulations available, this really is virgin territory – the smallest of factors can have dramatic effects on the final run. The value of these projects, quite apart from the fact that they are excellent promotion for British engineering, lies in the practical applications of these findings – today’s pioneering technology is that which we take for granted tomorrow.

Speaking personally, I hope the Bloodhound succeeds because, well, it’s pretty cool. And I was drunk on free wine when they pitched it.

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Science Fiction Single Feature

I love science fiction. I was first introduced to it at the tender age of 8, via the glorious medium of Thunderbirds repeats on Friday afternoons. From there, I discovered Doctor Who and Star Trek. Then, a couple of years later, I was directed to the works of Asimov and Clarke (and Douglas Adams, of course). And from there, things just sorta grew. Despite the best efforts of secondary school to wean me off this juvenile nonsense, it’s an interest I maintained into adulthood and, indeed, even had the opportunity to study at university.

So when my good chum Succubusface drew my attention to the Out of This World exhibition at the British Library, I figured it had to be worth seeing. One of my flatmates recommended it, and so the decision was made. On Saturday, Succubusface and I made our way to St Pancras.

I tend to be a little wary when serious literary folk start talking about science fiction because, as I suggested in the intro, there’s a tendency to be rather snobby about it, to assume that it’s a juvenile genre of square-jawed space heroes firing ray guns at marauding robots. I once came across a critical essay which suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t science fiction because it was too good.

I couldn’t disagree more – I believe that science fiction is as valid a literary genre as any other. It grants the licence to explore questions that could not easily be answered in other genres. What does it mean to be human? How do we know what’s real? What if humanity isn’t superior in the universe? What responsibility do we have to that which we create? How might political systems work when played out over centuries? One of my favourite novels is Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, the story of a man who struggles with Christian faith all his life, only to find himself transported to first century Galilee and the reality of the beliefs he’s fought – a story that inherently relies on time travel, but whose subject matter (religion and idealism) is universal. Another is, as I said above, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which Douglas Adams uses the broad canvas of space opera to satirise and absurdify (is that a word?) our society.

Of course, there’s a lot of junk lit out there, and this was particularly prevalent before the 1960s and the rise of the New Wave sci-fi movement. The picture on the right is a fine example. However, I am reminded Sturgeon’s Law. Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon was once confronted with the suggestion that ninety-nine per cent of science fiction was crap. His response was to look at the interviewer with an expression of mild bewilderment and say, “Ninety-nine per cent of everything is crap.”

The exhibition takes a more enlightened view than many critics, and as such would be enjoyable both to hardened geeks and relative newcomers. It describes itself as “science fiction, but not as you know it,” a mission statement which it fulfils admirably. A lot of the works covered therein are not what one would traditionally consider science fiction (although, when you think about it, they are). Things like Thomas More’s Utopia, J. G. Ballard’s High Rise or Stanley Kubrick’s film Doctor Strangelove. The classics you would expect to see are in there – Childhood’s End, Foundation, Flatland, Metropolis, Doctor Who, War of the Worlds, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (spoiler: yes) and the like. There were also quite a few of the less widely known and yet equally worthy works, like Jane Loudon’s The Mummy and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.

The exhibition is ordered by subgenre – dystopia, apocalypsealien invasion, time travel, steampunk etc,which I think serves to make it all more approachable to the casual non-geek. It also showed the many different approaches to different concepts – the utopia/dystopia section featured works as diverse as The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Utopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four and V for Vendetta. The displays explained the basics of each subgenre in an understandable and non-patronising way.

Speaking as a geek, I found it utterly absorbing, and might even make another visit. I found a load of titles that weren’t familiar to me, but which are now firmly on my reading list.

The only caution I would give is that it’s not really a great exhibition for young children. There’s the funny sleepy robot and the draw-an-alien activity, but the displays are very wordy and I suspect that boredom would quickly set in for a child. For everyone else, though, I can’t recommend it enough.

Further Viewing

Here, the subject of Yr Humble Chronicler’s literary mancrush, China Miéville, takes us on a tour of the exhibition for the BBC.

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Electrickery

I’m strangely fascinated by pseudoscience. Homeopathy, Young Earth Creationism, Scientology, all utter bollocks and yet I love hearing about them. I don’t know why. I frankly have nothing but contempt for all pseudoscience, particularly where it crosses into the realm of medicine.

Pseudoscience relies on ignorance to work its magic. You don’t understand quantum physics, do you? So when we tell you that this pendant will use quantum energy transference to resonate with your cellular integral field to reduce your risk of cancer, arthritis and diabetes, promoting weight loss, immunity to disease and essential wellbeing, you won’t know any better. You can’t say it won’t do that, so just run with this here. Only two hundred pounds to you, sir. A bargain if ever there was one.

Oftentimes, pseudoscientists work to actively promote ignorance – maybe those hoity-toity “legitimate scientists” claim to be able to understand quantum resonance, but why should you believe them? You can’t even understand what they’re talking about!

In the case of medical pseudoscience, or “quackery” as it’s more commonly known, I have particular contempt due to the emotional manipulation involved. Sure, quacks sound sympathetic, but that’s because they tell you what you want to hear. Doctors tell you cancer has no cure? Well, that just shows how callous they are, because I can cure it with simple-feng-shui-ley-line-type crap. There appears to be a concentration of toxins in your breasts, let me lay my hands on them. Even when quacks aren’t taking advantage of the desperate and incurable, they’re still emotionally manipulative. Diet and exercise are hard, wouldn’t it be far easier if you just used acupuncture to somehow, against all laws of physics, cause the fat to disappear? The worst aspect of all this is that people often reject conventional medicine in order to spend a fortune on the modern-day equivalent of a bottle of snake oil, endangering their chances of recovery and often their lives.

As quackery relies so heavily on people’s lack of scientific knowledge, it often employs whatever the latest weird and exotic science is to make suckers sit up and take notice. Potential patients may have heard of this new “magnetism,” “radiation” or whatever, but aren’t so likely to know the full range and scope of its abilities. Particularly given that many of these substances are used in legitimate medicine – radiotherapy, for instance.

For an awfully long time, the big thing was electricity. Luigi Galvani discovered in 1786 that passing electricity through a dissected frog’s leg would cause it to kick. This seemingly confirmed a popular misconception that electricity was a vital force.

Not that the quacks had been waiting for scientific confirmation, of course. James Graham (pictured below), for instance, had been convinced ever since seeing a demonstration by Benjamin Franklin in the early 1770s that electricity was worth paying attention to. He proclaimed it to be a force that “invigorates the whole body and remedies all physical defects.”

In 1779, he came to London and opened the Temple of Health and Hymen just off the Strand, at No. 4 Royal Terrace. This was showmanship of which P. T. Barnum would have been proud. No expense was spared. The place was filled with huge, exotic-looking machinery that promised to use electricity to blast “aetherial forces, vivifying air, and the magnetic effluvium into the whole body or any particular part of it.” Various other electrical and chemical treatments were available, including an electric bath and an electric throne.  Don’t try this at home, kids. If you fancied a takeaway, you could purchase Graham’s range of “Imperial Pills” and “Aetherial Balsams.”

If you were having a little trouble in the bedroom (cough), then you might consider a session on Graham’s notorious “Celestial Bed.” This was a large and magnetically-charged bed which vibrated, played music and released fragrances that were supposedly “aetherial” in nature (but frankly, what in the Temple wasn’t?). The unhappy couple would hand over a whopping fee of £50 and spend the night therein in the hope of relieving infertility. I suspect that any successes arising were purely coincidental.

Graham’s particular interest was matters of a sexual nature, and it certainly didn’t escape his notice that sex was a pretty good selling point. To that end, some of the most popular attractions in the Temple were the Goddesses of Health, delightful young ladies whose job was to assist Graham and to depict what physical perfection should look like. In the name of science, of course. Scantily-clad science. Rumour has it that one of the Goddesses, depicted right, would later marry into wealth, becoming Lady Emma Hamilton and later still Lord Nelson’s mistress.

The temple was, initially at least, a roaring success – so much so that within a couple of years, Graham was able to up sticks and move to fashionable Pall Mall. Alas, while Graham was a persuasive quack, he wasn’t so strong on the financial side of things, and his extravagance resulted just two years later in his having to sell up entirely.

He never quite managed to replicate the Temple’s success, and spent the rest of his days promoting ever more bizarre alternative medicines, such as being buried naked in mud and not eating for weeks at a time. He died in 1794 at the age of just forty-nine, which says a lot about the efficacy of his methods.

Fortunately, such quack electrical nonsense didn’t last long, because – oh wait, no, the belief in electricity’s mystical health-giving properties lasted until at least 1951, when the Food and Drug Administration in the USA banned the sale of electrical remedies. Hell, there are probably people even today who think you can cure impotence by electrocuting your gentleman’s prerequisites. There’s a sucker born every minute.

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Kill or cure

Now, if there’s one question I get asked more than any other, it’s “What, in your experience, is the best hangover cure?” Actually, that’s a lie, it’s “Are you sure you’re a qualified gynaecologist?” But that’s not relevant right now.

Hangovers are a bugger. Indeed, the Latin term for hangover is “sodomia summa sodomiae” or “bugger above all buggers,” and I’d actually be offended if after all we’ve been through, you felt the need to check to see that I hadn’t just made that up. Anyway, it’s the second day of January, and if you’re anything like me, you started the year badly in need of a hangover cure.

Usually at this point, someone says that the best cure for a hangover is simply not to drink. This is ridiculous. I mean, would you tell a cancer patient that the best cure for cancer is not to get cancer? In my experience, the fun of an awesome party far outweighs the agony of the hangover. If not, then that was a bad party and you should have left before you got drunk. If you’re having a bad time sober, you’ll have a bad time drunk.

But the fact is that alcohol is a holy thing. What did Jesus turn the water into? Here’s a clue: not Diet Coke.

[PARENTHESIS: Ah, but what about Islam? Well, there has been some debate over what exactly was meant by the prohibition in the Qu’ran. Some scholars have argued that drinking is fine as long as you don’t get drunk. Others have argued that “intoxicants” can be taken to mean any substance that affects the mind, which also includes coffee. Admittedly no interpretation really allows you to get roaring drunk, I just thought that whole passage was interesting]

If you want to go further back, you know how we raise our glasses to someone? That may actually be one of the oldest rituals humanity has. You see, alcohol actually dates back to the very early days of civilisation – one theory actually has it that we moved from hunter-gathering to agriculture purely so we could cultivate grain and make beer.

Whether you subscribe to this theory or not, alcohol was certainly one of our earliest inventions, and possibly our first interesting invention. To those early settlers, fermentation was a mystical process, not properly understood and believed to be the result of direct divine intervention. Thus, the custom was to offer part of every batch of beer to the gods who had provided it. And that, my friends, is why to this day we raise our glasses when we wish to salute someone.

17th century German hangover cure. Still in use in parts of Slough.

The most obvious religious comparison in the context of hangovers is that of karma. You have a wicked-awesome time the previous night, then you feel like death the following morning. Well, alcohol is technically a poison (so is water if you have too much of it, so there), so it’s probably going to have some negative effects. Your man alcohol is broken down in the liver into acetaldehyde and then into acetate. Once all the night’s alcohol is metabolised into acetate, you’re home and dry (literally). Unfortunately, the process of metabolising alcohol requires an enzyme known as  nicotinic acid derivative, which your body has in limited supply. If you drink enough alcohol to deplete your reserves of NID, you’ll get drunk and then you’ll get sick. Given that the average body can only metabolise one unit every two hours, expect happiness and then sadness if you’re out partying.

Alcohol is a diuretic, and will basically dehydrate you over the course of a night. It’ll also deplete a lot of the vitamins and minerals that the adverts are always telling us we need, and increased insulin production will see that your blood sugar levels will go way down. Your brain will readjust itself to the depressant effects of the alcohol, but will probably not have enough time to adjust back by the morning.

Complicating matters further are congeners – without getting too technical, these are what we’ll call impurities that make it much harder for your body to deal with alcohol. As a general rule, the darker your drink, the more c0ngeners it has. Port is very high, vodka is very low. This is the origin of the dread disorder known as “red wine headache.”

You should by now have some idea of why you have a hangover. Having said that, if you actually do have a hangover, you probably shouldn’t be staring at a computer screen.

Now, to combat a hangover. Firstly, it is recommended to have something to eat before you go out. This should top up your body’s store of what the hangover will take away. Some recommend eating something greasy to line your stomach. My great-granddad used to swear by two pints of milk before going out to the pub.

Then prepare yourself for the return. Do not allow yourself, upon returning to a party, to simply fall into bed. Yes, I know how tempting it is, but keep reminding yourself throughout the evening that you have to take preventative measures. Have them ready by your bed if needs be. The preventative measures I would recommend are:

1. Two pints of water.

2. A glass of effervescent vitamin C.

3. Two ibuprofen.

4. A sandwich, preferably something with protein. Chicken salad seems to work.

The water will take care of the dehydration, the vitamin C and the sandwich will take care of the nutrients your body will lose and ibuprofen is anti-inflammatory. Vitamin C will also take care of the congeners.

Now, if you haven’t done this before bed, you’ll have to do it in the morning when you actually have the hangover, in which case you have my sympathies. I’d recommend if possible doing these things and then returning to bed so you don’t have to think about how dreadful you feel while your miserable carcass mends itself.

If you have to go to work, you’re a bit screwed. Speaking as a hangover veteran, there are few things worse than being at work with a hangover. The classic folk remedy in such cases is black coffee. I disagree – caffeine can constrict the blood vessels. In Scotland they swear by Irn-Bru, which contains caffeine but also the life-giving substances known as quinine and sugar. A full English breakfast is highly recommended by many, but you may find this a little difficult to stomach.

Speaking personally, the hangover cure I favour goes thus:

1. Wake up. Drink two pints of water and take two ibuprofen. Return to bed.

2. Wake up again half an hour later. Have a shower, as you stink.

3. Walk to the supermarket. This will get oxygen moving around the body.

4. Acquire milkshake, aforementioned chicken salad sandwich, fruit salad and can of Pepsi, Cherry Coke or Irn-Bru.

5. Consume slowly.

6. Watch Withnail & I.

The simple fact is, though, there’s no hard-and-fast cure that works for everyone, and frankly a lot of curing a hangover simply involves gritting your teeth and enduring it. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and if you party hard then you’ve got to take the consequences. Sad but true.

One last tip: if you’re going to bunk off work, be creative. Every manager knows that “food poisoning” means “hangover.”

Anyway, assuming you’re feeling better, enjoy 2011. Here’s hoping it ends like 2010, in a drunken stupor.

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I get a kick out of you

Last-minute changes of plan are always good for a laugh, as I discovered on Friday when the event upon which I had anchored my weekend was moved. I shook my fist and generally cursed the fates until I received a call from Izzi asking if I’d like to go to see the High Society exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

The Wellcome Collection is a real oddity. I never know quite how to describe it to someone not already familiar with it. Describing itself as “a free destination for the incurably curious,” it’s part museum, part art gallery. The basic theme is medicine, human biology and their position in society. There are sculptures, art installations and historical artefacts relating to these themes. Its purpose seems to be to make you think rather than to supply you with information – there is no explanatory text beyond basic captions for most of the exhibits.

Morphinomane by Eugene Samuel Grasset, one of the paintings on display.

The High Society exhibition is the Wellcome Collection’s exploration of mind-altering substances. I hesitate to use the word “drugs” because one of the points the exhibition makes is that one man’s drug is another man’s mainstream stimulant. In this country, alcohol is generally considered to be a perfectly acceptable substance, provided you don’t make a tit of yourself. In many cultures, it’s considered to be four-star Satan fuel. Is the go-getter who takes a quadruple espresso to wake them up in the morning any worse than the stoner who lights a joint to relax? These are the questions the exhibition invites you to think about.

At the start of the exhibition, we’re presented with a load of drug paraphernalia, for the broadest definition of “drug.” As well as syringes and bongs, we see coffee and absinthe (which, incidentally, is nowhere near as crazy as it’s made out to be). We then go on a tour of drugs in medicine, in self-exploration, in social interaction and in law. We see prohibition posters, photos of pro-drug rallies, psychedelic light shows, tribal rituals, paintings and books, grouped by theme but not necessarily by stance or source.

No attempt is made at any kind of moral judgment, except that portrayed within the works themselves. The overriding message seems to be that nobody knows who’s right. We see that views on drugs depend who you are, where you are and when. The Victorians thought nothing of giving opiates to help baby sleep. In the Andes, coca tea is a popular cure for altitude sickness, seen as being no worse than regular tea over here. In the USA, coca leaf means cocaine (and Coca-Cola, but that tends to get glossed over when they take the moral high ground and spray defoliant over every back garden coca plot). Maybe none of us are right. Maybe Bob Dylan was right, and everybody should get stoned.

It certainly got Izzi and me talking. Like many people, I’ve done my share of experimentation, and Izzi’s done a lot more than me. I rather wish I hadn’t been talking about this experimentation so loudly, as while I was doing so I looked up and discovered that, by a million-to-one chance, my boss was attending the same exhibition. Shit.

Anyway, yeah, both Izzi and I are fairly liberal on the subject of drugs. Speaking personally, I think there’s quite a lot that could or should be legalised. I think it’s hypocritical that I could get in legal trouble for possessing a couple of joints’ worth of cannabis, but I could then drink two bottles of whisky and seriously endanger my life with no legal intervention whatsoever. Quite apart from such moral considerations, there’s the practical fact that with certain substances legalised, they can be taxed and policed more effectively.

But maybe I’m wrong as well. I invite you to take a trip (har har) to the Wellcome Collection to see for yourself. High Society runs until 27th February, entrance is free and it’s just a short walk from Euston and Euston Square stations. It might expand your mind.

Further Reading

http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/high-society.aspx – The official website

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London Lit: The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

Early nineteenth century literature revisited and reinterpreted is a popular theme with authors these days. Well, revisiting and reinterpreting Pride and Prejudice is a popular theme with authors these days. I heard Waterstones was considering introducing a new shelving category headed “Books In Which Modern Women Fantasise About Mr Darcy (N.B. You Know He Doesn’t Take His Shirt Off In The Book, Don’t You).” In a shocking display of defiance against convention, Peter Ackroyd’s reimagining focuses on an obscure 19th century work known as Frankenstein, written by Mary something.

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is a bit of an oddity. I suppose you could call it a parody of the original, in which Victor Frankenstein and his experiments are dropped into the real world of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his social circle. Frankenstein himself is a contemporary of Shelley, and conducts his experiments in darkest Limehouse (shades of Fu Manchu and The Picture of Dorian Gray). Fact and fiction intermingle as Victor’s attempts to defy death are overlaid on top of Shelley’s life and work. Indeed, there are several points at which things get dangerously metafictional – most notably, Frankenstein accompanies the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori on the trip to Geneva that would inspire Mary Shelley to write the original novel. The death of Bysshe’s first wife is here given a distinctly more gruesome motive. And, bizarrely, the body of a consumptive young man named “Jack Keat” is donated to Frankenstein’s experiments – though it’s not clear how far we’re meant to take this allusion, as few of the character’s biographical details match those of the real John Keats.

"I hope I didn't do anything stupid last night. Oh no, I've created a blasphemous parody of life. The wife's gonna kill me."

The novel as a whole appears to be a tribute of sorts to the Gothic genre – I’ve mentioned that there are echoes of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but Ackroyd also alludes to Dracula and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde at various points. The ending and the final explanation of just what the hell has been going on all this time leaves a lot of questions unanswered, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. To be honest, I found it something of a disappointment as twist endings go, but perhaps Ackroyd is playing with the tendency of the Gothic novel to be ambiguous on supernatural matters.

A major theme, and one that particularly grabbed my interest, was Ackroyd’s exploration of early nineteenth century science. The classic image of Frankenstein is the wild-haired scientist surrounded by electrical coils, lightning flashing all around as he brings his monster to life. Although this owes more to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis than anything in the original novel (although at one point in the book, Frankenstein is inspired by the power of a lightning strike), Ackroyd runs with the idea that electricity is how things are done.

Screen cap from Metropolis in which C3PO is turned into a woman using electricity or something.

Indeed, in those days, electricity did have all sorts of strange supernatural abilities ascribed to it. One early electrocution victim reported a distinct whiff of brimstone. Luigi Galvani (from whom we get the word “galvanise”) had conducted experiments in 1786 in which, when touching the nerves of a dissected frog’s leg with metal during a thunderstorm, the muscles would contract. From this, he concluded that electricity was the source of all life. We now know this to be a lot of hooey, but it was taken very seriously at the time, and Ackroyd goes with the idea that Galvani’s assumption was correct. The Shelleys were themselves rather interested in the possibilities of this hypothesis, and had discussed the possibility that it might function as a means of resurrection.

The morality or lack thereof of science is, as per many adaptations of Frankenstein, discussed. Although Mary Shelley never really made it clear how Victor creates his monster, Ackroyd uses the time-honoured “bits of dead people” explanation. This allows him to bring in the Resurrection Men, one of the grottier trades of the era. Long story short, surgeons and doctors needed bodies to carry out their experiments, and the Resurrection Men supplied them. Although hanging victims were the most legit source (apparently it was not unknown for friends of the condemned to have to fight the Resurrection Men off following the execution), bodies might also be sourced from mortuaries, graveyards or even – as per the case of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh – by cutting out the middleman and killing people yourself. Older cemeteries often have a watch house as a reminder of the scale of the problem. But the sad reality was, bodies were needed – were it not for the horrible trade in corpses, many of the medical discoveries of the nineteenth century might never have been made. Frankenstein’s use of such men, and the dodginess of their methods, crops up repeatedly and comes to have an important bearing on the story.

The juxtaposition of the scientist Frankenstein and the poet Shelley raises another factor concerning science of the era. Namely, the fact that science, politics and art were closely intertwined. This was perhaps best illustrated by the friendship of political writer Thomas Paine and steam engine pioneer James Watt, or Benjamin Franklin’s dual role as scientist and politician. The new inventions and discoveries of the era seemed fantastical, and raised certain questions concerning society. What did it mean for the class system if we could have engines to do our work? Meanwhile, the Romantics saw their own restlessness and discontent mirrored in the march of technology, which seemed Faustian or even Promethean. Indeed, the sub-title of Frankenstein was The Modern Prometheus. In short, this was an age when everything seemed to be pushing forward, and all fields of endeavour seemed to mirror each other.

Overall, it seems that Ackroyd’s aim here is to use the basic structure of Shelley’s original novel to offer a commentary on the world of the Romantics, both in fact and fiction. If I’m going to be quite frank (har har), I don’t think it’s his best novel, but it’s fairly enjoyable if you have an interest in that world. Otherwise, you may prefer the Mel Brooks version, which has Marty Feldman in it.

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