Monthly Archives: May 2020

Historical Slumming in the North of England

St. Mary’s Church York — The National Coal Mining Museum — Quarry Bank Mill — St. Michael’s Church Chester — Black Country Living History Museum

Comes over one an absolute necessity to move … and even when not: the National Archives in Kew only go so far which, with a topic like heritage, is not very far at all. So, last October, autumn holidays, we donned our hiking boots and backpacks and caught a train to the North.

First stop: York. York because it was here that one of the first “heritage centres” opened in 1975. After fighting many an uphill battle against “the planners” after the Second World War, the conservation movement in the end won the war. The 1975 European Architectural Heritage Year acknowledged the importance of historic preservation and triggered a flurry of grassroots activities across Europe and nowhere more so than in Britain. It also turned “heritage” into a household term and led to the creation of heritage centres, museums on local history based not on historic artefacts but organised around exhibitions and displays. Often, they were housed in disused churches such as St. Mary’s Church in York.

For the critics of heritage in the 1980s, the heritage centre was one of the worst outgrowth of what they called the “heritage industry” although it is not easy to understand why today. This criticism or, reversely, the lack of advocacy from academics, may have contributed to the demise of the heritage centre as it was once conceived, with rising costs in all likelihood a more decisive factor. Few of the original heritage centres survive and what calls itself heritage centre today is often simply a glorified gift shop, peddling localised merchandise. St. Mary’s Church is used as an exhibition space today.

Second stop: the National Coal Mining Museum for England. Not far from York in Overton is the National Coal Mining Museum. The first colliery opened here in the late eighteenth century. Miners went down for the next two hundred years digging ever longer tunnels with ever more advanced technology until they had to leave it all behind—the machinery, their livelihood, their culture—when the mine closed in 1985. In 1988 it became the Yorkshire Mining Museum renamed the National Coal Mining Museum in 1995. Today it is part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage that links the North of Britain with heavy industry areas in Belgium, France, Germany and elsewhere.

After ambling through the exhibition, we went on a tour down the shafts guided by a former miner who taught us about the history of mining from Victorian times to the 1980s, when he had worked there. It didn’t seem to make anyone yearn for the past—even in the bigger tunnels we felt cramped and claustrophobic and we were much relieved when the tour ended and we returned from the coal face to the face of the earth. Leaving the museum, I noticed a bright red steam train named “Progress”—the proud self-confidence of Victorian times today’s museum piece.

Third stop: Quarry Bank Mill. Steam trains were one thing you needed coal for, another was the growing textile industry. So, it was only natural that our route would lead us to a mill next, though the mill we went to, Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, Cheshire, was water powered when it opened in 1784, a steam engine was added only later. In 1939 the mill was donated to the National Trust though it continued to run till 1959. Like the mines, the mill today only exists for us to learn what industry once was. It makes one looking forward to a future when the same will have happened to the mighty institutions of our age, when you go to a bank not to get money or a loan but as a tourist, guided by a former banker wearing an anachronistic bowler hat, much like John Gandy painted the recently completed Bank of England as a ruin.

The exhibitions in the various parts of the mill cover many aspects: the history of the industrial revolution and the textile industry, the cotton plantations in America and the slave trade, the working conditions and the life of the employees. Because Quarry Bank Mill heavily drew on child apprentices—often orphans from workhouses in London, Liverpool and the surrounding region—child labour is a particularly prominent theme. It also helps to address the most important clientele of any museum: families with children. That the theme struck a chord with them was evident from a big brown board which invited visitors to leave comments.

If anything, the comments spoke of nostophobia rather than nostalgia: “My name is Kay I am 60 years old, and I used to work in a Cotton Mill. I used to run the machines. The ‘good old days’ eh!!” This was a general theme. To the question posed by the museum “Why does this matter today?” one visitor answered: “To make us appreciate what we have today”, “So glad I was born in 2004!” another. If this was the opposite of nostalgia, it was at least as problematic. If nostalgia, as is often argued, makes the past better as it was, here the past was made worse to make us feel better in the present.

It was a case “historical slumming” as the writer Douglas Coupland calls it: “The act of visiting locations such as diners, smokestack industrial sites, rural villages—locations where time appears to have been frozen many years back—so as to experience relief when one returns back to ‘the present’.”1 Yet, there were also visitors whose answer would do any teacher of history proud: “Do you know how the clothes you wear today are made? And by who?” asked one, “A reminder that these are still conditions in which people are working today” another. History may not life’s teacher anymore, but it still has some lessons for us.

Fourth stop: St. Michael’s Church Chester. And so, we came to Chester, like York founded in Roman times. Chester also shares with York that it had one of the first heritage centres in Britain in a former church. Whether the first or the second, it, too, later folded, making way for an exhibition space. I found much more material on this heritage centre in the local archives than in York. Historic conservation is taken very seriously in Chester probably because there is so much to conserve.

Fifth stop: The Black Country Living Museum. The Black Country Living Museum, an open-air museum west of Birmingham, is rather tricky to get to if you do not have a car. The nearest train station is Tipton and from there you have to take the bus, especially if you carry a lot of luggage—as we generally do—and it is raining cats and dogs—as it did on the day we went.

After a twenty-minute wait at the bus stop in the cold and damp, both of which seemed to be increasing disproportionately with every passing minute, the mood of some of us—me—had deteriorated so far that that  this minor inconvenience became a potent symbol of the state of post-Brext Britain. Thus, I grumbled under my breath, oblivious to an elderly lady also waiting for the bus.  When it finally—miraculously—arrived after another fifteen minutes, she got back at me in the most elderly ladylike way by insisting on giving us a packet of biscuits. There was no way to refuse—especially as we were all famished and I’m rather fond of biscuits.

Thus, I was doubly shut up, embarrassed and chewing. Put in my place, I settled into it, pretending to enjoy the scenery, though there wasn’t much to enjoy in the Thatcherite-ravaged landscape of take-away shops and small houses and smaller hopes, made even drearier by the rain. However, this was not the end of the story because the kindness of the old lady had not escaped the attention of the bus driver. Nothing could have pleased him more: the old lady had done herself, him and the whole Black Country proud, confirming his belief in the general kindness and hospitality of Black Country folk. “That’s how people are here in the Black Country,” he said. I’m sure he was rightly proud and yet such pride, it seemed to me then, it seems to me now looking back, has something treacherous: while it may help to weather events like deindustrialisation, it also threatens to keep people back from rising above themselves and from demanding something better even than a museum commemorating a time of a different pride as well as different hardships.

When we finally arrived at the museum, the rain had stopped. By now we only had two hours left but this was enough to get a general overview of the site and visit some of the 50 shops and houses on the site. What impressed us most was a conversation with the pawnbroker who really brought to life the economy of a Victorian village. After that, there was just enough time for a pint at the museum pub before we caught the bus back to the train station to return to the present.

  1. Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (London: Abacus 1992), p. 13. []

A kind of historical metaphysic

This is a follow-up post to the preceding one on W.G. Sebald, this time looking at the experience of time in his book Austerlitz.

Like any good novel, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is at heart a thriller. But though part of the book is set in one, this is not The Murder at the Vicarage and though Jacques Austerlitz wanders through libraries and archives, it is not The Body in the Library. The victim is not a well-to-do minister, manufacturer or widow, the victims count in the millions, Austerlitz’ parents among them. And Austerlitz, too, robbed of his mother and father, his childhood, his identity, the gradual, painful recovery of which forms the backbone of the narrative.

Memory and history are central themes in all of Sebald’s texts and so is nostalgia. Sebald didn’t use the term but his writing is suffused with it and he has given us a beautiful description when he writes about “a kind of heartache which … [is] caused by the vortex of past time” or “an overwhelming sense of the long years that had passed”. The nostalgia in Austerlitz is of three kinds. At the beginning memories catch Austerlitz unawares just as nostalgia jumps out at us when we might least expect it (think of Proust’s famous Madeleine); when Austerlitz begins to seek out these memories, they are tender and affectionate but overshadowed and suffused with unbearable pain; and, finally, Austerlitz is suffering from the transience and impermanence of life of which memory and history can save only fragments of. In an entropic view of history he regrets

how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.

In nostalgia we realise how time is ruthlessly removing us—has removed us—from everything we ever held dear. This constitutes its famously bittersweet character: the more delightful the moment we remember, the deeper the pain that we can never return to nor recover it. Nostalgia, then, is deeply bound up with the modern understanding of time as dynamic and linear that, striving towards a point in the future, kills the past behind it and has frequently been described as a rebellion against it.

Time plays a central role in Austerlitz. Austerlitz gives, the narrator tells us, a “disquisition on time” that, over the years, amount to “a kind of historical metaphysic”. The narrator first meets Austerlitz under the clock inside Antwerpen-Centraal station, “the governor of a new omnipotence“ ranging even above the state. When, years later, they wander to Greenwich observatory, Austerlitz notes how time is “by far the most artificial of all our inventions” (134). “Could we not claim, said Austerlitz,” writes Sebald, “that time itself has been nonconcurrent over the centuries and the millennia? It is not so long ago, after all, that it began spreading out over everything.“

For Austerlitz time as we experience and understand it today is not timeless, eternal but a modern invention that has a beginning—in time and place—from where it has spread out. And, indeed, before the introduction of steam trains which required a precise timing twelve o’clock in London was not twelve o’clock in Birmingham and even in two neighbouring villages the church bells didn’t ring out noon at the same moment. Time, or, more precisely, the measurement of it literally oriented itself at nature, whereas today it is artificial, underscoring the artificiality of time in a larger sense. But even modernity could not completely eradicate all deviations,

Even in a metropolis ruled by time like London, said Austerlitz, it is still possible to be outside time, a state of affairs which until recently was almost as common in backward and forgotten areas of our own country as it used to be in the undiscovered continents overseas. The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home or in hospitals, and they are not the only ones, for a certain degree of personal misfortune is enough to cut us off from the past and the future.

This is what has happened to Austerlitz. His misfortune of being born at a certain moment of the twentieth century as the child of Jewish parents who did not manage to escape but managed to get him out on the Kindertransport has cut him off from his past and from any future he may ever have had. Grown up without knowledge of but a dread of the past, Austerlitz has for many years scrupulously avoided it. He doesn’t even own a clock because

A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them, although that, of course, opens up the bleak prospect of everlasting misery and neverending anguish.

The idea of time as simultaneous rather than linear strikes Austerlitz as both attractive and monstrous. If “time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like”, then Austerlitz could return back home, back to the past, back to the parents he cannot remember or only glimpses of. But this would also mean that torture and murder are still ongoing, drawn out and repeated in eternity, the chains still clanking, the chimneys smoking, the pain never-ending.

Such ideas infallibly come to me in places which have more of the past about them than the present. For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?

Austerlitz himself seems to have such appointments. Without knowing why, he feels himself drawn time and again to return to Liverpool Street Station. One night, on a whim, he follows one of the cleaners only to find himself in the old Ladies’ Waiting Room— literally finds himself: the young boy he sees sitting on a bench, waiting to be picked up, is a memory of himself just arrived on the Kindertransport. Time becomes full circle, closing in on itself. Yet, this chance encounter, this sudden memory does not mark the end of the story but its beginning, triggering Austerlitz’ search for his past and his parents.

On another occasion, on one of his night walks through London, he sees “a man in a top hat, a woman wearing the costume of the 1930s”. Are they his father and mother or some other ghosts of the past? For Austerlitz, the past is not over, past and present not separate entities. As long as Austerlitz tried to ignore the past, it constantly chanced upon him, haunting him; when he seeks it out, it evaporates: he learns little more about his parents’ fate than that they most likely died in the death camps. At the end of the book, Austerlitz himself vanishes. Has he gone to the past? Has he become a ghost himself? Can we still see him today, prowling the nightly streets of London?