Yesterday, I asked where all the historians were on twitter. Thanks to the generosity of retweets, my message got around, and I received greetings from many – and I decided to compile a list here (including anything they posted about what they work on).

@jcmeloni Julie Meloni

@jaheppler Jason Heppler - History PhD student at the University of Nebraska-Linicoln

@jmcclurken Jeff McClurcken - My own fields are 19th C. US families, veterans, gender, mental institutions, & the digital humanities

@sfern Susan Fernsebner - historian of 19th-20th c. China, working on material culture, colonialism

@parezcoydigo Chad Black - colonial Latin Americanist, working on 18th c. Quito, Ecuador.

@history_geek Holly Tucker - early-modern history of medicine.

@glrichard Gregory Richard - legal/Southern U.S. hybrid history Ph.D. student

@lucyinglis Lucy Inglis - London from 1660 to 1836.

@twicklicious Jan Cornelius - Ancient Greece, specializations: Neolithic and Bronze, Cycladic and Mycenean mainly ... currently not more than a "hobby"

@marri Marri Lynn

@TheHistoryWoman Gaby Mahlberg

@Greeneland Julie Greene - US labor, politics, and empire, I tweet mostly on history matters and contemporary labor.

@Airminded Brett Holman - Historian of the British fear of aerial bombardment, early 20th century here.

@llmunro Lisa Munro - I'm a grad student: I study 19th c. cultural history of Guatemala

@maureenogle Mareen Ogle

@boston1775 J.L. Bell

@mercpol Nick P.

@tanya_roth Tanya Roth - PhD candidate, US/women's history

I was already following a few historians, so here they are too:

@big_valley Susan Johnson-Roehr – architectural history

@larrycebula Larry Cebula – of Northwest History

@adevenney Andrew D. Devenney

@sepoy Manan Ahmed – of Chapati Mystery

@sharon_howard Sharon Howard – of Early Modern Notes

@publichistorian Suzanne Fischer

@hallnjean Norma Hall

@joguldi Jo Guldi

@TenuredRadical Claire Potter

@kmlawson K. M. Lawson – of Frog in a Well

@dancohen Dan Cohen

@worldhistory Russ Lewis

@digitalhumanist Dave Lester

@clioweb Jeremy Boggs

@sterflu Sterling Fluharty

Apologies if I have missed anyone out, if you want to add yourself or others please post a comment or message me on twitter @katrinagulliver

UPDATE - New additions:

@peregrinatrix Alexandra Guerson - phd candidate working on xn-jewish relations in late medieval spain

@TimHitchcock Tim Hitchcock - 18th century London, gender, sexuality, masculinity

@marcinwilkowski Marcin Wilkowski

@HouseHistorian Melanie Backe-Hansen

@quackwriter Caroline Rance - My interest is 18th & 19thC history of medicine, and I write historical novels.

@JimTurnerAZ Jim Turner - Arizona, New Spain, Reconquista, and Conquest of Mexico.

Further updates - 9/9





Still more! (plus the folks in the comments below)

@daintyballerina Early Modern drama & politics. Jacobean stage.

@conservadora Lara Kelland

@historine Anna Gesa


@WWIIToday A.T. Nelson

@foundhistory Tom Scheinfeldt

@historying Cameron Blevins

And some twittering institutions of interest to historians:























Needle in the hay

What is an editor?

When I was a PhD student, I copy-edited some articles for a professor. When I did this, I checked every footnote - by which I mean, I found the book in the library, checked the wording of the quote, checked that it appeared on the page referenced, checked the publication details of the book. I later discovered that other copy-editors doing similar work did not believe that to be their job. They just looked for stray commas.

The differing expectations of editors are something I came up against later, when I hired a copy-editor for my first book (this was not something the publisher would do). In the manuscript, I had misspelled the name of a scholar I quoted. The mistake was mine, but I (naively) had assumed that hiring someone to proof it was some backstop against that kind of thing making it to press. The copy editor missed it. Later, someone who wrote a negative review of the book did not. 

The copy editor I hired was in fact an un(der)-employed academic, and since then I have noticed a trend. Humanities academics offer themselves as "editors" without necessarily any skills or training, or even experience, in editing the work of others.

So I was interested to read this excellent piece, by a professional editor, about the sliding standards of book editing. I know I'm not the only writer who has been expected to provide my own copy-editing services for an academic book, and the results are not pretty.

And that's beyond even having someone at the press who will EDIT a book - such as, tell you that chapter three should be excised, that the section from p.58 should be brought forward, and have you thought about adding a bit more about President McKinley? When I write for magazines and websites I've received that kind of editing, and been grateful for it. I've never had it for a book. Certainly not from the person whose job title is "editor" at the press.

The only good experience I've had hiring editorial help was actually with an indexer. She worked on my second book, and was wonderful. Worth every penny. Hire her (Laura Knox).



Little Boxes on the Hillside: the housing crisis and history

The UK is in the midst of a housing crisis. More people want a house than can afford to buy one, and in the rental market prices are out of line with salaries in many places. As a historian of cities and urban development, I'm taking a moment to consider what the problem actually is, and whether the suggested remedies will actually solve it.

More people want a house than there are houses available: basic market economics pushes the prices of houses up. In the UK the issue is also complicated by geography. There are empty houses, and properties languishing on the market. I'm not just talking about luxury flats in London owned by foreign investors (although this is perhaps part of the problem I doubt it's a large proportion). The unwanted houses are in towns where the mill or mine closed down decades ago and employment opportunities are few. So the problem cannot be framed as simply "UK needs XX,0000 new houses per year" when the demand is for houses specifically within easy reach of London (and to a lesser extent Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester). All these cities have brownfield sites that could be effectively converted to housing, and that is certainly something to be encouraged.

But there are further questions I don't see asked in most of the discussion of the housing crisis. The questions are as fundamental as what we think of as "normal" patterns of residence. One element is a culture that has emerged over generations and seems specific to English-speaking countries, of home-ownership as a prime means of investment and the owner-resident being the normative middle-class position. This has been encouraged by the state in various ways (for instance making mortgage interest tax deductible, which is no longer the case in the UK but still is in the US, and not counting primary residence for means-tested benefits). It is also encouraged more broadly in society, where long-term tenancy (except in social housing) is rare. Real estate is seen as a safe investment - and given the last few decades' massive price inflation on residential property it has definitely paid off for many. In fact, so entrenched has the idea become of homeownership as a retirement plan that lifetime tenancy is seen as a social problem (as it is not in, for instance, Germany or Italy).

This social focus on home-ownership as a standard life goal is part of the explanation for the housing crisis, but we need to also recognise changing social patterns of residence - and consider whether proposals to address the crisis will anticipate how society may change further.

The type of housing people want changes. Even a generation ago, it was normal for a middle-class family to have a 3 bedroom house, with one bathroom, and to raise a family in that space (and it was affordable for single-breadwinner families). The expectation of multiple bathrooms, a bedroom for each child, and the amount of personal space now considered "normal" in suburban residences only came to be seen as normal once it became affordable for a significant proportion of the middle class (notably, once households with two working parents also became standard).

This does not mean that the suburban tract is always the answer, though. The UK already has some traces of the larger problem in America, of unsaleable suburban houses, while millennials prefer to live in the city.

The proportion of the population living alone has also increased. This has shaped the development of new housing, with more studio and one bedroom flats, and in many suburbs the conversion of houses to multiple dwellings. But we don't know that this trend will continue. It is historically not "normal" for significant numbers of adults to live alone. It only became normal, again, once it became affordable for a large-ish cohort during a particular historical window.

In the early twentieth century, single adults in cities often rented a room from a family, or lived in residential hotels. In high-demand cities like London or New York, these would seem like an ideal answer to some of today's housing pressure, but the residential hotel is largely a thing of the past (as is the lodger). After the Second World War, such residential models dropped in popularity as people moved to the growing suburbs, and living in a residential hotel ceased to be seen as "normal". Meanwhile, cities imposed various laws to drive these housing types away, in the case of the hotels often in favour of more lucrative corporate development. But we must remember that the regulations only shut down the lingering elements of the residential hotel model already waning in popularity (most residents were elderly long-termers). Cities would not have been able to legislate successfully against a housing type that was still popular with a significant number of urban residents. Urban authorities could turn this around, particularly in the age of Air BnB, and offer ways for the residential hotel to become viable again - and perhaps again seen as normal.

For new development, the challenge is providing more housing which is both affordable and of a kind that people actually want. This may seem obvious, but the difference between the architecture people want and what they're offered can be stark.

What the UK could also work on is expanding transport infrastructure so that houses (currently empty) in smaller towns could be viable for commuters. The money being spent on HS2 could have been better assigned to reopening some branch lines, to towns that have been cut off from railways since the 1960s.

While the demand is there for more houses, I am not convinced that this can ever be fully addressed. This is cynical, but I suspect that much like Parkinson's law of tasks expanding to fill the time available, that housing demand will expand as more houses are built. As long as the population keeps growing, we will never have "enough" of whatever type of housing is currently in demand. (This is even before we consider the environmental impact of increasing urban sprawl and the morality of encouraging it).

All the small things: True care, truth brings

I'm often wary of historical books and TV shows, because of the (almost inevitable) inaccuracies. I was recently watching Deutschland 83, a show about which people have justly raved. It has been credited with a Mad Men-like attention to period detail.

So it was rather jarring to see a character with multiple foreign passports, one of which was British, and looked like this:

Anyone who ever had one, knows that UK passports in the 1980s looked like this:


Now it might seem like a trivial error (and maybe most viewers in Germany would not have noticed), but for me this kind of mistake is like the Van Halen Brown M&Ms.

Which is to say, if the producers made a small mistake like this, I start assuming they got other things wrong, things I wouldn't have known about.

It works the same way in books. I was reading a book (which I shan't name), set in England in the 1840s. It seemed well-researched, until the main character spoke of sitting "Indian style", meaning "cross-legged". At that moment, I was reminded that the author was American, and living in the present day, and that many other things in the story were probably also wrong - I just hadn't spotted them.

The Times Aren't A-Changing Very Much

I was one of the many people whose response to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel prize for literature was "are you kidding me?!". There were plenty of people commenting on twitter that the Nobel committee were just trolling Philip Roth (or Leonard Cohen): all other men.

The Slate Double X Gabfest had an interesting discussion about whether the Nobel prizes are sexist, and went on to talk a bit about Dylan himself, and the myth of male "genius".

There have been rumours for years about Dylan being a contender for the Nobel - conveniently, the Nobel committees will never confirm or deny any names under consideration, which helps the traffic in this kind of speculation (along with all those supposedly "nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize").

But Dylan has acolytes, or rather, scholars of his genius in a way that women songwriters (and writers in general, in fact), tend not to. Female songwriters have fans, but not "ologists", scrutinising their work with Talmudic intensity, and writing dense scholarly narratives about their significance.

The great female songwriters of the last fifty years are never mentioned as Nobel contenders. The prizes can't be given posthumously, so Nina Simone is out of the running, as deserving as she would have been. Dolly Parton? Surely at least as great as Dylan. Carole King? At least she got a Broadway musical about her life (but then, so did Eva Peron).

I'm sure that the Nobel prizes are not consciously sexist, but they are part of a society that doesn't see in women a flash of the transcendent inspiration we attribute to "genius". After all, a woman writes a novel about marriage, it's called "chick lit" - when a Jonathan (Franzen or Foer) does the same thing, it's taken seriously as literature.

We can't disabuse society of the notion of male genius, but perhaps we can work on seeing women as geniuses too. Dolly Parton-ology: I'm going to make this a field.

Fool's gold?

A couple of days ago, the Times Higher Ed published a piece about journals ranking their reviewers (in terms of who gets their reviews in on time). This led to a discussion on twitter about how fair it is to judge and rank people who are doing a voluntary task.
The timeliness of reviewers is an important element in publishing, but it is understandably hard for many scholars to prioritize putting time into reviewing if they are facing other time-sensitive demands from their employer (like, you know, TEACHING).

One thread of the discussion moved to “why shouldn’t reviewers be paid?” I had an exchange with another twitter user on this which highlighted the divide between STEM and humanities academics. He was thinking of the publishing “behemoths” like Elsevier and SAGE, who probably could afford to throw some money at reviewers. I was thinking of the small scholarly associations (who publish many humanities journals), and who definitely could not.

This got me thinking again about scholarly publishing and who pays for it. There have been some insightful discussions over at Scholarly Kitchen on Open Access in the last year. Some of their analysis has discussed the cost (or savings) to institutions of Gold open access. For some it would be a saving (they would pay less in submission fees for their academics than they currently pay for subscriptions), while at highly productive institutions it might actually cost more.

My feeling has tended to be that Open Access (and the expectation of it) is going to be increasingly a cudgel used against smaller publishers/academic societies, who will cut off their main income stream if they lose subscriptions and memberships. Large publishers may have the financial cushion to subsidize the transition, but smaller players will not. Meanwhile the author-pays element will increasingly freeze out scholars who are marginally employed, or at institutions who don’t have the cash to pay for their submissions. My sense is that this will hit the humanities much harder for two reasons—first, more of our journals are published by academic societies rather than Elsevier et. al.; second, there are more independent scholars trying to publish in the humanities (it’s easier to do some humanities work as an independent scholar than if your research requires access to lab facilities).

The scholarly associations I am thinking of often have a membership/subscription bundle - all members are subscribers and vice versa. While it may be that they can replace the subscription funding with author payments to the journal, they will lose the membership element. Membership confers much more than just access to a journal. These are often societies going back over a century, with a history of advocating for their members. They organise conferences, give scholarships, create disciplinary networks. Without members, who will feel invested in them? And what will scholars lose when we don’t have these groups to speak for us?

Then it fell apart....

It is some years since I worked as a film critic, but I still occasionally see a film that I want to write about. In this case, the long-awaited Jason Bourne.

[mild spoilers]

I yield to no-one in my love of the Bourne series, and I was looking forward to this. There was no clear need for a sequel after all this time, 14 years after the Bourne Identity and 9 after the Bourne Supremacy. But the question of what had become of Bourne was one that could have been worth answering.

Unfortunately, the answer suggested by this film is not a great one. We first see Bourne making a living in prize fights in Eastern Europe, and the camera lingers over the signs of the toll his life has taken. Scars from bullet wounds, the greying hair at the temples, the sinewy muscles.

The story here involves Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacking in and retrieving information about CIA black operations, and passing this to Bourne. The NCIS-level plotting has the CIA storing such data in a file labelled “Black Ops”. The CIA operative who spots the hack then attempts to track down Parsons, and through her, Bourne.

This young officer (Alicia Vikander), is a computer whiz who was hired straight from university - which from the looks of her was about six weeks ago. Vikander is fine as an actress, but the character is totally implausible. She’s far too young to be not only given control of an operation, but then to have the stones to ask to be made CIA director.

Vikander’s character should have been 10-20 years older, like Pam Landy (Joan Allen in The Bourne Supremacy). Landy was in the position of choosing between supporting her employers and having doubts about the Black Ops enterprise. Landy’s character also demonstrated what many mid-career women experience in male-dominated workforces. She gets gaslighted by her male colleagues, who plan to scapegoat her when a project goes wrong.

That level of nuance and development among the agency staff is absent here. Vikander’s character is apparently only driven by ambition. But having introduced a junior tech genius who could trace a hack, there should have been a character somewhere in the hierarchy between her and the old guy in the corner office. The character of “Generic senior CIA guy who wants Bourne gone" (previously played by Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, David Strathairn) is played by Tommy Lee Jones.

The limited storyline also involves some folderol about Bourne’s father, and Bourne’s motive for volunteering for Treadstone. But we learn nothing really new about Bourne, and this additional backstory is too hackneyed to build on the web of subterfuge created in the earlier films. Although his name is the title, Bourne is more the object than the subject of the action.

Bourne's nemesis, or rather, his opposite number, is a character not even given a name beyond "The Asset”. “The Asset” is played by Vincent Cassel, a lean actor with high cheekbones and a sardonic pout. An award-winning actor in France, he has appeared in action-thrillers making use of his martial arts skills, as well as more serious dramas. His forays into English-language cinema have been few, notably the choreographer in Black Swan and the cat burglar in Ocean's 13. However, he is wasted here. In what passes for character development, we are told the Asset was held hostage in Syria and tortured. But whatever sympathy that was designed to elicit evaporates the second we see him killing civilians left, right, and centre. He is the Big Bad, with no moral gradations.

In the earlier films, Bourne - and the system that created him - existed in a moral grey area. Individuals might be bad or good, but they were all in the same swamp of ambiguity. In The Bourne Identity, another Treadstone assassin (played by Clive Owen), was sent after Bourne. In him we saw that Bourne was not alone, as an agency man trapped in his role. As he died, he said to Bourne: "Look at this. Look what they make you give”. Both men knew that they were victims of the same system. The idea that such men are morally compromised, have doubts, and are psychologically damaged by their work, is the heart of the Bourne character. But here, such nuance has disappeared.

The tone is also changed. There are two big chase sequences: one, on a motorcycle through Athens, is pure Bourne. The other, in Las Vegas, looks like it belongs in Mission Impossible, or another more glitzy action flick. (One driver is even in an armored SWAT vehicle, and the smashing of casinos reminded me of Con-Air, when a plane was landed on the Vegas strip). The earlier Bourne films always avoided glamorous locations. In European cities, the action took place in rail stations or anonymous suburban streets. That gritty realism was part of what gave the films their edge. Glitzy action and a flimsy plot: Jason Bourne deserved better than this.

In my enjoyment of the series, I have wondered about what the future would really hold for Bourne. Since he wants to stay off the grid, he can’t seek legitimate employment or start a business as a security contractor. How, as our net of surveillance grows tighter, does someone really escape? (Especially when you’ve been on an Interpol watchlist for the past decade).

In this film, people talk about Bourne “coming in”, but never say why. To work for them? Face trial? This is unclear. But his return to the nest would at least have been a reason for a final film after such a hiatus. As he gets too old to be scratching at the margins of the cash economy, why not finally decide that the only way out was back to the start? Surely, while beating up Serbian toughs on the Greek border for a handful of sweaty banknotes, the option must have occurred to him. Plot-wise, a story in which his hand were forced—such as finding himself in a foreign jail, or stumbling onto a genuine threat to the USA—could have presented the situation for him to make the choice he’s been avoiding for years.

A film could end with him settling into an office at Langley, with JASON BOURNE (or even DAVID WEBB) on the door. That would have been a better outcome for this troubled but patriotic (and pragmatic) character. Extreme ways indeed.

How brave of you!

Recently an academic told me he had "pledged" to not participate in any all-male conference panels.

I wasn't sure how to respond: was I supposed to be grateful, as a female academic, that he was making this gesture? It seemed both condescending and smug. But I couldn't clearly articulate quite why it pissed me off until I read this piece in Jezebel:

Damn, You're Not Reading Any Books by White Men This Year? That's So Freakin Brave and Cool

If you want a change to be normalised, just do it. Don't ask for applause.

Here, there, and everywhere

I was recently fortunate enough to interview members of ICE's human rights group, who work tracking down war criminals in the United States. I wrote about it for TIME.

I've also written for the Chronicle, on teaching

and university finances

Are the only real "Expendables" women?

The Expendables 3 is coming out. I will confess I did see the previous two, but I doubt that's necessary to follow the plot.

I notice there is a woman in this one, getting main billing on the poster with all the men. Will this film pass the Bechdel test? I somehow doubt it, I suspect it's going to be the Smurfette syndrome.

The female star is Ronda Rousey. She is a mixed martial artist, which means she should be convincing in the fight scenes. (I've no idea her acting skills but it's not like anyone else in this line-up is Laurence Olivier). Also, at 27, she's young enough to be the daughter of most of the men in the film.

But where are the VETERAN female action stars? Where are Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver, or Michelle Yeo? Or Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Kate Beckinsale, Lucy Liu?

I mean, come on, Kelsey Grammer? A guy whose most action-y role so far was playing a psychiatrist who probably sprained his ankle hurrying to the box office for opera tickets?
I want to see Geena Davis (who has spoken out so much against the underrepresentation of women in film) as a bounty hunter.

Face to face with the man who sold the world

The last three weeks have been a hectic whirl, of four countries and a nightmare of moving that I won't even begin to express. 

In London I went to see David Bowie Is.... , a mindblowing exhibition. It's rare for any museum to put on a show about such a talented, fashion-shaping individual, but the way they laced different phases of his life (personal notes, clothing - lots of clothing - and drawings) was so involving, and the soundrack on the audioguide was brilliant. I have never seen anything like it—and I doubt I will again.

Meantime, my own scribblings have appeared elsewhere: 

In Slate, I reviewed a book on the History of Neon.  

And for The Australian, a book on the history of whale hunting.  

And now through the miracle of technology, I can track the ship carrying my possessions from Munich to the Pacific.  

Need a big loan from the girl zone?

Salon just published a piece saying that the gay rights movement has an advantage over the abortion rights movement, in that celebrities are willing to come out as gay, while few come out as having had an abortion.

This distinction can be parsed further though, in ways they do not: gay is an identity, having an abortion is an event - in a life full of other events.  

Nonetheless, I said recently to my students that people will more readily admit to a drug addiction to an abortion. Most (especially the male students) seemed surprised by this. But it's obviously true: there is a tv show called Celebrity Rehab, not Celebrity Abortion Clinic.  

I realise this is because abortion strikes at the twin axes on which women are most harshly judged. One: their sexual behaviour (if you need an abortion, you must be a slut having sex out of wedlock), and Two: their maternal skills (getting rid of a pregnancy is about as unmaternal as one can get). The women who tend to speak publicly about abortions are the repentant, putting it in the "terrible mistakes I made when I was young" category, not the "damn straight I did it and I'd do it again" school.  

It's true that if women more willingly admitted to having ended pregnancies, this would have the power to overturn the debate on the issue: as politicians would realise how many women they know have made use of the right to choose.  

All I need is a rhythm divine

In 1941, Desi Arnaz was an up-and-coming performer, with some Broadway and Hollywood credits, looking to become a headliner. He had married Lucille Ball the previous year, after they met on the set of Too Many Girls.

But when he premiered his song "Babalu" at Newburgh’s Ritz Theater, few in the audience would have known the significance of the date: December 17.

Babalú, first a Yoruba deity, crossed the Atlantic with his adherents when they were transported as slaves. As Santeria emerged in Cuba as a syncretism of African spirit worship and Catholic rituals, Babalú became one of the most popular of the Cuban Lucumí Santería orishas. He has been linked with Saint Lazarus, and now shares that Saint’s feast day of December 17.

The name Babalú-Ayé translates as “Father, lord of the Earth”. He is believed to be associated with epidemics—curing them, as well as bringing them down upon communities when displeased. In Cuba, thousands of devotees gather each December at the Church and Leprosorium of Saint Lazarus in El Rincón.

The Spanish version of the song, written by Margarita Lecuona and performed by Arnaz, describes invoking the god with offerings of tobacco and alcohol, and lighting seventeen candles in the shape of a cross. He asks Babalú for protection.

Ta empezando lo velorio
Que le hacemo a Babalu
Dame diez y siete velas
Pa ponerle en cruz.
Dame un cabo de tabaco mayenye
Y un jarrito de aguardiente,
Dame un poco de dinero mayenye
Pa' que me de la suerte.

However, the English version published that year (lyrics by S. K. Russell) doesn't translate the story, but change it completely. The lyrics set the piece back in Africa, making the (implicitly white) singer an observer, not a participant in the worship of Babalú. It also refers to Babalú as a "Voodoo" god of love.

Jungle drums were madly beating
In the glare of eerie lights:
While the natives kept repeating
Ancient jungle rites.
All at once the dusky warriors began to
Raise their arms to skies above
A a native stepped forward to chant to
his Voodoo Godess of love.

Of course in December 1941, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, audiences were also looking for a distraction. Arnaz’s music, and his long conga solo, would have been a welcome source of entertainment. A few years later “Babalú” became the signature song of his character, Ricky Ricardo, on I Love Lucy. That he chose to perform it first on December 17 shows that perhaps he was hoping for some protection, and luck, too.

I am the words, you are the tune

I like Regina Spektor's music. But when I heard "On The Radio" the other day—being sung along to by a couple of girls—I was struck by the line "everyone must breathe, until their dying breath". Well, yes, I suppose they must. But where does this pseudoprofundity come from? (or rather who decided this was an ok line to go ahead and record? Cole Porter wouldn't have gone near it, Jimmy Webb might have but regretted it the next morning). But there seems to be a lot more of this kind of nonsense in music these days.

The popular singer-songwriter is a modern creature, dating only from the availability of sheet music and recorded music. Earlier singer-songwriters were troubadours, who adjusted their ballads to suit the audience, or related recent events—and what they performed generally wasn't written down.

Folk songs, which everyone knew, weren't written down either, and were probably written collaboratively over generations by Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

There were also people who wrote down songs that aspired to universal themes, about life, death, and God. Those songs are called hymns. "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away".... more affecting than something about breathing until you stop breathing.

Once we got into the twentieth century though, people wrote (and recorded) songs typically on the themes of:

1. I'm in love!
2. The person I love doesn't love me, and it's a bummer.
3. My whole life's a bummer. Dead dog, no job.
4. Everyone's life's a bummer. Try to look on the bright side. (a popular theme in the Great Depression).
5. Commentary on blue-collar life and/or prison.
6. The apparent suicide of Billie Joe McAllister.

But songs that include the singer's (banal) pronouncements on the meaning of life started increasing since the 1960s (with the arrival of a new theme: 7. Stick it to the Man), and seem to have really proliferated today. It's one thing to get musings on life from people who've really clocked up some city miles, like Tammy Wynette, or Johnny Cash, or Neil Young, or Edith Piaf. But learning that "If the light is off, then it isn't on" (Hilary Duff), brings to mind the all-time-stupid of Des'ree's preference for toast over ghosts.

A song relating personal feelings, performed in the first person, can be one of the most moving art forms we have. "Love Me Tender" and "Cry Me a River" are aimed at specific, second-person recipients. But any listeners can imagine themselves either as the singer or the recipient. These songs paradoxically achieve universality by being personal. Many of us have acquired our emotional vocabulary through such songs.

However, when songwriters strive for universal observations on the human condition, they wind up sounding like fortune cookies. We don't experience life in general, but in specifics.

If you think I'm being harsh towards Spektor (and before anyone tells me that English isn't her first language, I'm pretty sure that "dying breath" stuff doesn't sound any better in Russian), she is clearly innovative musically, and this kind of lousy lyric lets her down.

That same song has the far more evocative passage:

And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else's heart
pumping someone else's blood

This reminds me of another form of songwriting, the factory-like production of pop and dance songs by Ester Dean to be performed by the likes of Rihanna. The astonishingly talented Dean's feelings, her words, are put into someone else's heart, filling someone else's album. In fact, she is able to step into another performer's persona, in creating a song to suit their image.

Of course, it remains to be seen which of today's singles become part of tomorrow's songbook. As Van Halen said, "Only time will tell if we stand the test of time."

Going in for the kill

Today I visited the Museum of Crime in Vienna, a wonderfully old-school museum. No interactivity here, or apologies to the squeamish. Tracing the history of criminal policing in Vienna since the early modern period, there are displays on numerous celebrated crimes for each period.

These are illustrated by (for the earlier periods), woodcuts, then newspaper illustrations (themselves entertaining, showing people being variously shot, stabbed, or thrown out of carriages in the best traditions of the sensational press).

But they also have various artifacts from some of the crimes. These include a mummified head, the skull of a multiple murderer which was said to demonstrate "abnormalities", plus fragments of clothing, murder weapons, and a guillotine. There are death masks, life masks, and wax models made of victims' chests showing stab or bullet wounds. There are even the skulls of two small children who were murdered by their father.

They have a photocopied leaflet giving some information (to call it a guide would be generous) - but the displays themselves are abundantly textual, albeit all auf Deutsch. Their English leaflet is itself an adventure in linguistic crime, which includes the sentence "Lively bloodcurdling ballads were distributed in ancient Vienna until the end of public executions in 1868, bringing a farewell to the idyll of the Biedermeier period". I've always found public hangings idyllic, haven't you?

What the museum does remind us are the graphic ways crime was reported in the past. Today, even as we hunger for more crime-focused stories (look at CSI, and murder mystery novels, many today with levels of gruesome detail that would have given Agatha Christie the vapours), the reporting of actual crime is ever more sanitised. At least in Western countries, we don't normally see photos of corpses or crime scenes in the paper.

One of the museum's displays relates to a crime in 1685, when the dismembered body of a woman was found (piece by piece, over successive days), and it was put back together and put on public display in the hopes that someone would identify the woman. Nobody did, however the tactic of displaying the bodies of unknown victims seems to have continued (we see both photos and newspaper illustrations of looky-loos lining up to gawp at the corpse).

The idea of putting a corpse on public display to aid identification seems unpalatable now, Even the Doe Network, dedicated to helping identify unknown (or "John Doe") victims, has identikit sketches of the deceased; not photos.

The museum also shows the evolution of police uniforms, and its displays cover celebrated crimes up til the 1980s. Towards the end, there is more about the development of forensics which is also interesting. The pictures here show a criminal's skull and a display relating to a couterfeiting case.

If you're in Vienna, and willing to look at this kind of thing, worth a visit. If you're of a gentle disposition, skip it and go to the art museum.


Older property, seeking loving owner, for LTR

On Thursday I had the opportunity to walk through a house that is up for auction, near where I am living in Newburgh. I had been curious about this unusual property from the outside, and wondered about what the interior must be like. The answer is: in severe need of repair, but still retaining some of its best features, including the original wood panelling.

It has become city property due to non-payment of taxes, and they are auctioning it. This 1870 house was once a beautiful example of the city's heyday. Originally symmetrical, an early owner modified it to add the turret on one side. The rooms in the turret actually feature curved windows, with curved glass.

So the fate of this house will be decided by the purchaser. For someone with a passion for re-habbing (and deep pockets), this could be the one. From the back, there are views of the Hudson - this house has the potential to be a stunning home.

Whoever they are, they will join a growing community in Newburgh restoring these elegant properties. The city is keen to encourage these projects, and tax breaks and special loans are available for historic restoration.

The house is at 288 Grand St, and there will be further open house opportunities on October 5th and 12th.