Anecdote v. data, story v. research, books v. telly

Last week’s BBC programme The Secret History of Our Streets has caused a right lorryload of response. In brief, it told the story of the “redevelopment” of Deptford in the 1960s and 1970s, from essentially two points of view: the descendant of a family of stallholders in the old market in Deptford High Street; and the retired chair of Lewisham’s planning committee during the period concerned.

Deptford Misc cheekily but accurately characterises the story told as:

Settled white working class area full of salt of the earth types earning an honest crust destroyed and dispersed by nasty middle class Cholmonderly-Warner types who then shipped in people who have to be sub-titled on television because of their skin colour.

He then follows this up with eye-popping research of his own into the possible sources of wealth of the “working-class” families in Deptford; read the whole post for more.

David Hepworth watched the programme and said this:

It raised questions it failed to even try to answer. Who did this and why? There was no mention of the political leadership of the London County Council at the time. Maybe if they’d been Conservative there would have been. Some streets that were in worse condition than the ones demolished are now gentrified and eye-wateringly expensive. No TV producer can resist the sight of a plummy-voiced agent showing young professionals round one but it would be a lot more edifying to be told how exactly this change came about. What had happened in the 70s, 80s, 90s? What had happened last week? The film didn’t go there at all, probably because it had no pictures.

I came away wanting to read a book.

I agree with pretty much all these comments. But, as Hepworth himself has said on more than one occasion, television is rarely interested in telling the truth. It tells stories. Actually, it tells anecdotes. BBC News has become alarmingly dependent on vox pops over the years, spending more time talking to, for instance, “ordinary” Greeks when covering the Euro crisis than it does talking to Greek economists. BBC News is arguably the strongest holdout for “the story’s the thing” in all of journalism. It refuses, on pretty much any of its platforms, to admit complexity or to parse data. Any of us who have researched a historical period in any depth are familiar with the sinking feeling of things being made simple when watching a BBC history programme. We’re all of us treated like small children, unable to learn unless the gobbets of knowledge are sweetened with enchanting narratives.

Although ironically, the Secret History programme skated right over the most interesting story of all: the tale of the Jamaican immigrant, banged up on arrival in Britain for 28 days and then essentially impressed into army service. In Suez. Now there’s a story worth the telling.

Walking in the landscape

There’s a key scene in The English Monster (coming to a bookshop near you in, ooh, eight months or so!) where a character sails down the Thames from Wapping to Sheerness. It’s in the final third of the book, and is a bit of a narrative sit-down-and-put-your-feet-up before everything goes hell-for-leather towards the end. It’s probably the chapter I’m most pleased with in the book, and it was the result of a walk with friends.

Two years ago two friends and I drove out to the Hoo peninsula and wandered around, before driving back and around to Sheerness for another wander. None of us had done any yomping in that part of north Kent, and it was a bit of a revelation. The sky, the estuary, the fields, the churches – Turneresque and Dickensian all at the same time.

One of the friends I was walking with was transmedia componaut Tim Wright, who is doing some astounding stuff with “bookmapping” – taking a famous “located” book and revisiting the landscape it is set in. Two years ago he did Kidnapped (you can see the results here), and now he’s plotting something with Great Expectations.

So, Great Expectations, right? Where else are you going to go but North Kent? So yesterday we got the train to Gravesend, and started walking. Thirty-two kilometres, four pints and several pork pies later we got back to Gravesend, ancient muscles grinding, after seeing forts, “wild” horses, inspiring churchyards, South American workers, lonely portaloos and island-sized ships. An amazing day. Here are my pictures of it:

And here are Tim’s:

The excitement of authenticity

Captain James Cook, painted in 1768

I assume it’s possible to teach people how to write “excitement” – I imagine it’s a combination of shorter sentences, more direct clauses and description, clustering events together so they come thick and fast, perhaps a sudden change of viewpoint. Or some such set of trickery.

But I’d argue there’s nothing more exciting than the authentic voice of a professional man – say, a British naval lieutenant – describing a calamity – say, the sudden physical meeting of a tired little bark with the sharp immensity of the Great Barrier Reef:

11 June 1770

Monday 11th Wind at ESE with which we steer’d along shore NBW at the distance of 3 or 4 Leagues off ^having from 14 to 10 & 12 fm water – and saw two small Islands in the offing which lay in the latitude of 16° 0′ So and about 6 ^or 7 Leagues from the Main – At 6 oClock the northermost land in sight bore NB1/2W and two low woody Islands which we some took to be rocks above water bore N1/2W – At this time we shortend sail and hauld off shore ENE and NEBE close upon a wind. my intention was to stretch off all night as well to avoid the dangers we saw ahead as to see if any Islands lay in the offing, especialy as we now begun to draw near the Latitude of those discover’d by Quiros which some geographers, for what reason I know not have thought proper to tack to this land, having the advantage of a fine breeze of wind and a clear moon light night in standing off from 6 untill near 9 oClock we deepen’d our water from 14 to 21 fathom when all at once we fell into 12, 10 and 8 fathom   At this time I had every body at their stations to put about and come too an anchor but in this I was not so fortunate for meeting again with deep water I thought it [check MS] ^there could be no danger in stand.g on – before 10 oClock we had 20 and 21 fathom and continued in that depth untill a few Minutes before a 11 when we had 17 and before the Man at the lead could heave another cast the Ship Struck and stuck fast – Emmediatly upon this we took in all our sails hoisted out the boats and sounded round the Ship and found that we had got upon the SE edge of a reef of Coral rocks having in some places round the Ship 3 and 4 fathom water and in other places not quite as many feet – and about a Ships length from us on our Starboard side / the Ship laying with her head to the NE / were 8, 120 and 12 fathom, the next thing we did was to   as soon as the long boat was out we struck yards and Topm:ts and carried out the stream Anchor upon the starboard bow.  got the Casting anchor and cable into the boat and were going to carry it out the same way, but upon my sounding the second time round the Ship I found the most water a stern and therefore had this anchor carried out upon the Starboard quarter and hove upon it a very great strean which was to no purpose the Ship being quite fast upon which we went to work to lighten her as fast as possible which seem’d to be the only means we had left to get her off as we went a Shore about the top of High-water – we not only started water but threw’d over board our guns Iron and stone ballast, Casks, Hoops staves oyle Jars, decay’d stores &Ca many of these last articles lay in the way at coming at heavyer – all this time the Ship made little or no water. At a 11 oClock in the AM being high-water as we thought we try’d to heave her off without success she not being a float by a foot or more notwithstanding by this time we had thrown over board 40 or 50 Tun weight, as this was not found sufficient we continued to Lighten her by every method we could think off   As the water began to Tide faell the ship began to make water as much as two Pumps could free     At Noon she lay with 3 or 4 Strakes heel to Starboard – Latitude Observed 15°..45′ South —

via Cook’s Journal: Daily Entries, 11 June 1770.


Museum of London = Museum of Stories

Wellclose Square Prison Cell (image is copyright Museum of London)

The Museum of London might just be my favourite museum on the planet, and after visiting again yesterday I think I know why. It tells stories. Of course, all these stories sit within one greater story, the story of the city itself, which doesn’t have a half-bad arc of its own (born from nothing, makes good, is destroyed, comes back stronger than ever, lapses into a self-satisfied decline of which it is only half-aware). But within that meta-story are some powerful tales in their own right.

I was snapping away merrily in Evernote, and am still working through the notes, but here are some highlights:

  • the “baby farmer” (child minder – where in Hell did that name come from though?) Margaret Waters, hanged at Horsemonger Lane Gaol (near present-day Newington Causeway in Southwark) for murdering a baby called Cohen in Brixton
  • the extraordinary Pleasure Gardens exhibit, with lifesize video playing inside a dark space in which strange figures (women with antlers!) seem still and then start to move, and with a start you realise they’re the other visitors, wandering around this time-slip Pleasure Garden with you. Were the Gardens really that dark? I felt like having an illicit tryst myself in there
  • the rebuilt cell from Wellclose Square prison, 1750, with the original walls and the original scratchings of the prisoners on them. One in particular – EDWARD BURK – scratched in bigger than all the others and several time. Who was Edward Burk?
  • the real fragment of a medieval wharf, with even the builders’ instructions still visible
  • the model of the Roman forum. Was London ever that orderly?
  • the Two Hills of London (versus Rome’s Seven), Ludgate Hill and Cornhill, with the Walbrook separating them. Must admit, I’d never thought of the place like that.
  • the little model (I took a picture, it’s rubbish) of the Bronze Age method of building walkways across the swampy Thames marshlands with twigs and sticks. Don’t why this struck me. But it did.

And lots, lots more. Brain food round every corner. And probably enough material for about a half-dozen novels on one visit.

There’s always someone standing and watching

Spitalfields Life introduced me this week to John Thomson’s Street Life in London. Thomson gave us the monthly photographic magazine Street Life from 1876 in which he published photographs of London life, each with pen portraits and vignettes from Adolphe Smith. The photographs are available to view at the Bishopsgate Institute, which has copyright on the photos themselves (sidenote: can there really still be copyright in photos that are almost 140 years old?).

The main thing that struck me looking at these images was the nature of watchfulness which existed on London streets. Many of the pictures (like the one of the shoe-shine I’ve shown here) are haunted by onlookers, often children, just gazing out at the camera, which presumably was still a pretty unusual sight in working-class London. They stand as if they’re just there, hanging out on the street. It struck me that all these people would today be collapsed into sofas gazing at their television screens. But back in the day, when no televisions existed, no radios even, people must have watched life itself out in the street. The thought that connected to that was that so much of the literature of the 19th century, principally that of Dickens, is all about appearances and action and external events. People watched people doing things. I wonder what the flight to the sofa and the living room in the 20th century did to our thinking, and did to our literature. Did it turn us into more internalised, self-obsessed things? Or did the images from around the world and beyond the world that the television made available to us broaden our horizons? Or are soap-operas just another way of standing in the street and watching the world go by?

Anyway, there was another picture which was more directly relevant to my work at the moment. Two men on a barge, out on what is described (by Adolphe Smith, presumably) as the Silent Highway:

“their former prestige has disappeared, the silent highway they navigate is no longer the main thoroughfare of London life and commerce, the smooth pavements of the streets have successfully competed with the placid current of the Thames.”

Beautiful, that, isn’t it?