Category Archives: History

The Memories of 9-11

9-11 now seems to inhabit a historical hinterland; far enough away for us to be able to place it into some sense of context, but still recent enough for tears and loss. In a talk given for TED earlier this year, designer Jake Barton spoke about the challenge of designing exhibits for the 9-11 Memorial Museum, realising that visitors wouldn’t just be spectators of history but participants – the survivors, the bereaved, the first responders. It’s a haunting, moving talk that’s well worth checking out, showing ways in which a community can preserve its stories, and how museums can react when the first draft of history is still a thousand painful memories.

Let Freedom Ring: 50 Years of the ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech

imagesCA9KA8DRFifty years ago, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC echoed with the greatest speech of the 20th century.

This was long before I was born, inhabiting a world of both literal and figurative black and white, grainy film footage and crackly audio being my only connection to Martin Luther King’s iconic moment. From that perspective it’s history; inspiring history, yes, but history nonetheless.

But it’s easy to close the speech’s borders, to assume it’s only about the Civil Rights movement and racism, but it’s not that easily contained. It’s about economics and history and poverty and non-violence, themes with destinies that, like our own, are bound together with one another. How we treat refugees and the poor influences how we treat our neighbours; the decision to go to war made in plush London adn Washington offices impacts six-year-olds in Syria; one trolling joke about rape pollutes starts to pollute the whole of Twitter. King saw this, recognised how our destinies are intertwined and how our attitudes create policy and attitudes.

King says this better than you or I could though, his words carrying the weight of history and literature and scripture. Echoes of the Emancipation Proclamation and Richard III resound alongside heart cries of King David and the Prophet Isaiah. And yet that’s not all – about halfway through, King deviates from his original notes and improvises, and that’s the point everyone listening goes to church as Reverend King kicks into gear. The speech wasn’t originally meant to be about a dream; its most famous moment is the beginning of the improvisation and, possibly, the moment the orator becomes the prophet.

The Dream still isn’t a reality, not in the US, nor in the UK. The Trayvon Martin case points to that, as do the ‘Go Home’ vans driving around Britain. The narrative here is informed by racial tension, but is grounded in fear, fear of the outsider, fear of the unknown, and fear so often manifests as brutality. That’s why King’s call for nonviolence is so powerful – do you really win by using force, or do you just postpone the fight until the other guy comes back with a bigger stick? Besides, isn’t it better to live in a community defined by cooperation, not conquest.

“I Have a Dream” isn’t history, it’s a reminder. A reminder that the world isn’t equal, that racial tension is still real, that people still automatically equate ‘Muslim’ with ‘Terrorist’, that women are still forced to survive domestic and online abuse, that in some places you can still get arrested for being gay. Fifty years on, Dr. King’s words still matter.

Matt’s Derby Explorations #4: Take Me Out To The Ball Game

800px-Derby2BASEBALLAsk anyone: I’m not sporty. Never have been, mainly due to me being overweight and possibly dyspraxic. About the only thing I know about sport is that I’m British, and therefore my national sports are football and cricket. I know this because, when I was in Toronto a few years ago, everyone seemed to hear my accent and immediately ask me about Manchester United. There I stood, making positive noises and trying to remember if I knew any player who wasn’t Beckham, Rooney or dead.

Baseball, however, is American. Always has been.

Except for eight years in Derby.

I’ve lived here around a year, and now I’m over the initial culture shock, I’m asking questions like “Why was the old Derby County ground called the Baseball Ground when they’re a football team?”

The story begins in 1888, when local industrialist Francis Ley visited America. He’d established Ley’s Malleable Castings Company Ltd in 1874, and during his trip to the States, he was impressed by how companies provided sport facilities to ensure a healthy, productive workforce. On returning home, he built Ley’s Baseball Ground, a 12 acre park partly designed to promote Ley’s newly discovered interest in America’s national past-time.

This coincided with another attempt to give baseball a foothold in the UK. In 1888, baseball professional Albert Goodwill Spalding decided that what his sport needed was a spot of international promotion, and so he embarked upon a tour, taking a group of Major League players around the world for a series of exhibition matches. One of his stops was in England, which lead to a flurry of interest in baseball in the UK and the founding of the National Baseball League of Great Britain and Ireland. One of the first four teams to take part in the League was Derby County, alongside Aston Villa, Stoke and Preston North End, all of whom are now far better known for football.

And Derby County were pretty good, dominating the League in 1890. However, this was controversial, as Derby had hired three Americans as part of the team – Will Bryan, John Reidenbach and Sim Bullas (although there’s a theory that Sim was actually born in my birthtown of Dudley. Which is bizarre, frankly.) All three had played professionally in the US, and Bullas and Reidenbach had been transferred from a foundry in Cleveland to Ley’s factory as part of the activities following Spalding’s initial tour. This extensive professional experience was considered to give Derby an unfair advantage, and after a series of arguments and disagreements, Ley withdrew his team from the League. The Americans returned home at the end of the season; the club itself hung on until 1898, when it folded; the initial version of the Baseball League of Great Britain hung on till the early 20th century. Despite Spalding’s optimism, baseball never really took off in England. Its biggest influence may have been in inspiring Aston Villa’s William McGregor to start the world’s first associated Football League in 1888, based on the baseball system and ensuring a clear fixture list for the newly professionalised football clubs.

And maybe that’s not a bad thing, because the history of 19th century baseball in the UK is really the history of cultural identities and the building of empires.

See, Spalding’s tour had something of an ulterior motive – in promoting baseball, he was promoting American culture, with all the complicated issues that implies. Certainly he had a complex relationship with international baseball – sure he wanted the sport to take off in other countries, but on his own terms. When it was suggested that baseball had actually evolved from British rounders, Spalding was furious – he established the Mills Commission to investigate the origins of the sport, and when they reported back in 1907, they found that baseball had been invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York, 1839. This has pretty much been proven to be a creation myth, but thanks to Spalding favouring commissioners who promoted the Doubleday story, the myth took hold.

This early attempt at cultural imperialism ran into a problem in the UK – football. While baseball had enjoyed a flurry of popularity in the 1890s, it was football that was really taking hold. Derby County FC is a good example of this – founded in 1884, they’d started to share the Baseball Ground when they couldn’t use the local racecourse, moving there permanently in 1895. This showed how the wind was blowing – the baseball club was slowly dying, and the ground was adapted to make it more suitable for football’s growing popularity – all it cost was £500 and a gypsy curse preventing the Rams from ever winning the FA Cup.

The Baseball Ground finally passed into the possession of the football club in 1924, remaining the team’s home until its move to Pride Park in 1997. The Baseball Ground was demolished and replaced by housing in 2003. By that time, football had been established as the national game for well over a hundred years – baseball was simply something Americans did.

And so Derby County Baseball Club was at the forefront of a struggle for the identity of two nations and the emergence of organised, professionalised working class sport in the UK. And that’s why Derby County’s home used to be called the Baseball Ground, and why I’ve written a longer post on sport than I ever thought I was capable of.

Other posts in this series:

Buffalo Bill Comes to Town

St. Alkmund’s Well

The Days of the Plague

Matt’s Derby Explorations #3: The Days of the Plague

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The Headless Cross at Friar Gate, Derby

There were signs and portents in the heavens when the plague came to Derby; two comets hung in the sky and an eclipse swallowed the sun, and people looked into the sky and wondered what calamity was on its way. Preachers and prophets walked the land, interpreting the political and social strife of the previous decades as harbingers of the End of the World, especially as the year 1666 was on the horizon, the Number of the Beast making its presence felt in the calendar itself.

Plague arrived in London early in 1665, probably brought over from the Netherlands in bales of cotton. Within a few months it had started to decimate the population, with the city’s inhabitants either falling prey to the sickness or fleeing for their lives. It’s gone down in history as the Great Plague of London, although it wasn’t limited to the capital; York was affected, for instance, as was Derbyshire.

The area’s most famous story of the Plague is of the village of Eyam, whose inhabitants isolated themselves to prevent the contagion spreading to neighbouring towns and villages. It’s a haunting tale, and perhaps rightfully the county’s greatest story of tragedy and heroism. But I’ve never been to Eyam; I have, however, been to a chiropractor, and just around the corner from my chiropractor is the Headless Cross.

Trade used to take place at the local markets, but the Plague meant that the usual routines of everyday life were suspended; instead the Headless Cross was erected at the boundary of the city, on Friar Gate. Merchants left goods there, reducing their risk of exposure; in exchange, their customers left money in a trough of vinegar at the top of the stone – it was believed that this disinfected the coins and stopped the transmission of the Plague. This wasn’t true, of course, nor was the belief that smoking tobacco, which had only been introduced in England a hundred years earlier, prevented the disease. Modern medicine was still a while away, although change was in the air; this was also the age of Newton and Halley and the Royal Society. Those comets that burnt in the sky were astronomical phenomena following predictable laws, rather than omens reflecting the Wrath of God on London and Derby.

1666 saw the epidemic burn itself out, ending the last major outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the UK. Yet the Plague still haunts the city – street names such as Dead Man’s Lane and Blagreaves (‘Black Graves’) Lane mark old burial grounds, and the Headless Cross still stands, testament to dark days in Derby…

Other posts in this series:

Buffalo Bill Comes to Town

St. Alkmund’s Well

Yuri’s Night 2013

For as long as I’ve walked on this planet, space has worn humanity’s footprints – satellites, Voyager, the bits and pieces left behind on the Moon by the Apollo missions. Neil Armstrong taking that small step has always existed in grainy black and white footage and we’ve always been a space-faring species, even if we’ve not quite passed the garden gate. It’s always been this way, at least for my generation and the generations since.

And so today it’s good that there are some many commemorations of Yuri Gagarin and his flight 52 years ago, a flight that lasted under two hours but which changed everything, opening up a whole new horizon as he became the first human being to go into space, the first to orbit the Earth.

It was a massive achievement – I think it’s been overshadowed by the moon landings, and certainly I remember mutterings that the series Enterprise, with its opening montage of historic moments in spaceflight, had somehow managed to omit Gagarin. Oversight? Probably, but it just goes to show how easily we forget.

(Back in the day though, the news was huge. One thing I didn’t know, and that came as a bit of a surprise, was that Gagarin visited Manchester on a post-orbit world tour. Thousands lined the streets in the rain, Gagarin insisting on riding with the top down so that he could wave to the crowds. It seems like the sort of thing that doesn’t happen any more, certainly not for those who still travel into space. Eventually the final frontier starts to feel like a trip to the shops. Heck, now we can film it and put it on Youtube – check out the fantastic First Orbit, which recreates Gagarin’s journey.)

Maybe that’s because it was a different world back then, two superpowers eyeing each other warily, everyone else seemingly stuck in the middle, nuclear spectres stalking history and secrets and fears spinning the globe. Everything’s changed now, and the space race now just feels like history, a bygone age of spies and empires, one of which is now dead, the other hanging on as everything changes around it.

But I’m having a bit of a personal response to this particular anniversary – I hadn’t realised how young Gagarin was when he flew into orbit. 27 is nothing, heck, nowadays it’s almost still adolesence. And yet there he was, changing the world in his mid-twenties. Seven years later he’d be dead, killed in a plane crash at 34, almost the same age I am now. It’s stupid I know, but it makes me look at my accomplishments, or lack of them. 34 still seems young to me, but by that age some people had already changed the world.

But that’s maudlin, and if you let it the idea of space exploration can do that to you, reminding you of your smallness and your fragility and your transitory nature. Instead I like to think of it was something liberating and empowering. Yes, the universe is big, but we can still look up and step out into it, sailing towards another destination, flinging peole out there and letting them poke around.

(Incidentally, that’s why you can send all the robots you want to Mars, you’re not going to really capture the public imagination until there are people heading there.)

So raise a glass to Yuri Gagarin, because 52 years ago he heralded the world in which we live. And look to the stars for they’re in reach, even when we tell ourselves they’re just too far away.