The Issue of Ageing

The Life and Age of Man

‘What Is Old Age’? Conference, Warwick University

On the 23 February 2013 I went to a multi-discipline conference organised by Emily Andrews at Warwick University, looking at the question of ‘What is Old Age?’ The conference saw speakers from a variety of background, including literary studies, anthropology and history, discussing their work and contributing their research towards an attempt to answer the central question of ‘what is old age?’

In addition to this being a very topical area of discussion, my interest in the subject comes from my PhD research into civil service and occupational pensions in the nineteenth century and found the variety of approaches and subject matters inspiring. Just two examples of these varied sessions were the anthropological research into the ageing workforce in the Trinidad garment industry and the challenges of writing fiction focused on a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Rebecca Prentice’s work in Trinidad was fascinating, a contemporary examination of the older workers’ relationships with their body, these women accepted that their eyesight would be damaged by their work but also saw this damage as having a wider influence is gaining support from family or the state. With the increasing neo-liberal leaning of the state it was also interesting that the workers were reconsidering their relationship with the state and deciding they should rely on their own resources to support themselves.

The written word is central to how our social science and humanities subjects communicate so it was refreshing to listen to a paper focused on the art of writing. Though it was focused on writing fiction the amount of consideration and planning was a reminder of the importance of how we communicate our meaning and that there are different ways to do this. This was exemplified in Naomi Kruger’s paper by looking at how you write in first person with the voice of someone with developing Alzheimer’s disease. This paper and other sessions such as Hannah Zeilig, who highlighted the range of techniques available for storytelling, has really made me consider taking a creative writing course to see if it would bring any benefits to writing for my PhD or in my museum day job.

In addition to methodology and theory some of these sessions pointed me towards sources I wouldn’t have looked at before, Helen Small’s opening key note discussed the importance of Susan Sontag’s The Double Standard of Aging written in 1972 to the social sciences, and Dr Zeilig emphasised the work of Samuel Beckett’s plays in portraying perceptions of age, important for not portraying age as the other. Benoît Majerus focused on the Leroque report published in 1962, though it was never implemented it has inserted old age into the political dialogue in France, but also set the pessimistic tone continued today.

In almost all sessions, regardless of discipline, the importance of the use of language was clear and this was underlined by Andrea Charise when looking at recent perceptions of the old age and the use of wet language. Journalist reports and even public health documents have been using phrases such as the ‘Grey Tsunami’ or the ‘rising tide’ when discussing the global issue of greater numbers of people living longer. Continually using this apocalyptic language it is inevitable that a pessimistic perception of this situation develops, exemplified in popular culture through work such as Never Let Me Go, which Charise used as an example of the negative sublime.

I found the historical sessions were very good at providing some context to challenge this contemporary pessimistic view that was being demonstrated by speakers in policy and culture. Pat Thane’s excellent key note clearly demonstrated that there was never a golden age to be old, and that many of the fears and worries we have today were felt by generations before us. People have been living to into their 60s, 80s and even 100s since ancient times and though the average life expectancy was 40 in the 18th century this would have been affected by the high child mortality rates. Lyn Botelho’s paper looking at aging in the 17th century had demonstrated that the idea of a ‘good’ old age had become to mean financial independence at this time, and Prof Thane showed through folk tales and patterns of migrationary work that the relationship between parents and their adult children could be a complicated on. Folk tales warned of manipulative and ungrateful children mistreating ageing parents and during times of limited communication networks, if someone left to find work they could easily never be seen or heard from again.

It was also important to see older people as givers, not just receivers within our society. Prof Thane pointed to the economic benefits provided through the intergenerational relationships of lending money and providing free child care. Emily Andrew’s paper looked at how nineteenth psychiatrists and psychologists saw old age, and the general perception is that of ‘second childhood’ seeing old age as degenerative, however people such as James Critchton-Browne argued that intellectual prime was only reached in years 55 to 65 and proved this himself by continuing to write into his 90s, dying at the age of 97.

Finally society’s conflicting relationship with age was also demonstrated in Susanne Stoddart’s paper looking at the representation of the new pensioners under the 1911 pensions Act. The papers often depicted sympathetic images of poor widows or disabled old men in queues to receive their first pensions. They also reported the crowds that gathered to show their support. However, as Soddart demonstrated these celebratory images cannot be taken as face value, many newspaper had political sympathises and wanted to help champion this new policy and persuade the general public this was worth supporting. Furthermore the suspicions of the poor still remained as some comments were passed regarding pensioners visiting public houses. So, it is not surprising that though the shame and stigma of the poor law was seen to have gone, some pensioners chose to collect their pension not from their local post office, but from a larger more anonymous central office.

The conflicting relationship with how we view older people and what relationship we expect them to have with society and society with them continues today. A report published on 14th March 2013 does thankfully acknowledge the large benefits of older people to society, but also warns that the country is unprepared for the increased numbers of people living longer. Through asking ‘What is Old Age?’ on 23 February I think we started a discussion that policy-makers could probably find a lot of value, and if I could share anything with them would be the removal of the sense of other and projection of a problem area. Communication and discussion is key and yes, financial aspects are central to this, but policy is more than just sums.



Ready for Ageing? – Select Committee report on Public Service and Demographic Change:

NewStatesman article ‘The Grey Tsunami’:

‘An Age Old Age Debate’, blog by Emily Andrews:

The History and Policy website have a few articles and policy engagement articles on pensions & social care:

Brief Historiography of Submarine Telegraphy

Charles Bright, 'Submarine Telegraphs - Their History, Construction, and Working', (London 1889),

I haven’t done a blog for a while, mainly as I’m still trying to get my head round such a huge topic that just seems to be growing and growing. Last week I put together a short paper look at where and was and thinking about where I’m going. As part of this I wrote a very brief historiography of the Submarine Telegraph and Submarine Telegraph cables. This is probably the section of that paper that made the most amount of sense so I thought I’d share it with you:


There are some key areas that work on submarine telegraphy tends to focus. These include the technical aspects of the cable which looks at the science behind the invention, application and development; this works spans from nineteenth century work up to more modern titles.[1] It is for these sorts of works that I believe the sections of submarine cables still held at museums have been predominantly used for; they are records of the materials and techniques used over the course of the submarine telegraph industry.

A more recent, but very popular, area of work looks at the political and imperial aspects of the cable i.e. how policy and empire was affected by the cables or vice versa.[2] Themes of empire and technology seem to have grown and developed of the years, and it is interesting that I have found one of the earliest examples of this sort of work, Kennedy’s ‘Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914’, one of the most informative of the relationship between the British Government and the submarine telegraph. Another strong body of work are the narrative histories of cables and biographies of dominate players; these histories tend to focus on the most famous cable, the Atlantic cable and have been written since the cable began to be laid in the latter half of the nineteen century.[3] In recent times the subject of the submarine telegraph cables has been revisited by other disciplines, appearing to become increasingly relevant to the modern world reliant on fiber-optic submarine cables for transmitting information around the world.[4]

Cultural aspects are touched on in some of the above works, but it on the whole the history of submarine telegraphy has been untouched by postmodernism. There are a couple of exceptions which includes Gillian Cookson’s paper given at the Science Museum in 2006 entitled ‘Submarine Cables: Novelty and Innovation, 1850-1870’ in which the theory is argued that by 1870 the submarine telegraph was no longer a novelty to the public or commerce. There have also been some interesting avenues of research in an overlapping area of study, the regular overland telegraphy. I. Rhys Morus’ ‘The Nervous System of Britain’: Space, Time and the Electric Telegraph in the Victorian Age’ looks at the imagery associated with the telegraph and consequential meaning, suggesting that the embodiment of the telegraph through nervous system metaphors underlines its intelligence and speed but also suggests a system of management and a network of surveillance and discipline.[5] R. Menke’s Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems takes an alternative route of looking at language by using Victorian fiction as the starting point. Menke uses the idea of Media Ecology, the concept ‘a culture’s range of technologies and codes of communication dramatically shape and are shaped by human experiences, thoughts and values’,[6] to suggest that the Victorian idea of networks stemmed from the natural structures and so was then translated to technical structures, also the increase in data available through the telegraph helped develop the idea of information instead of knowledge.[7] These are features that can be seen in Victorian fiction, though Menke also points out that though Victorian novelists, like Dickens, were interested in the technology it was only from the 1860s and 1870s people ‘begin to imagine the fictional possibilities of electric telegraphy’.[8] This appears to be a growing area of study as I noticed at a workshop held by the Commodities and Culture network on ‘Commodities in Motion’ in July 2010 Clare Pettitt gave a paper entitled ‘The Telegraphic imaginer: Scrambled Messages in the 1860s’, that explored the forms of address and authority constructed by the technologies of the telegraph and the realist novel in the 1860s and 1870s, considering ‘the ways in which both proclaim themselves as representative of an ultimately knowable world susceptible to infinitely connective network’.[9]

Clearly the themes of imagery, representation and metaphor with regards to submarine telegraphy have only begun to be explored by historians, and as I am mainly focusing on objects these areas are central to my work.

If you know of any other works that I’ve missed here, and I know I’ve missed many, please do let me know. It’s worth mentioning that the Atlantic Cable website has quite an extensive bibliography, this includes references to biographies and local histories that I haven’t quite got round to:

[1] C. Bright, Submarine Telegraphs, (London, 1898); V. T. Coates & B. Finn, A Retrospective Technology Assessment: Submarine Telegraphy. The Transatlantic Cable of 1866, (California, 1979); K. Haigh, Cable Ships and Submarine Cables, (London, 1968)

[2] B. Finn & D. Yang, ed., Communications under the Seas: The Evolving Cable Network and Its Implications, (Massachusetts, 2009); D. R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1981); D. R. Headrick, The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1945 (New York, 1991); B. Hunt, ‘Doing Science in a Global Empire: Cable Telegraphy and Electrical Physics in Victorian Britain’, in E. Lightman ed., Victorian Science in Context (Chicago, 1997); R. Kubicek, ‘British Expansion, Empire, and Technological Change’, in A. Porter ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Nineteen Century, Vol. 3 (Oxford, 1999); Y. Bektas, ‘The Sultan’s Messenger: Cultural Constructions of Ottoman Telegraphy, 1847-1880’ in Technology and Culture, vol. 41 (2000); and finally P. M. Kennedy, ‘Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914’ in The English Historical Review, vol. 86 (Oct. 1971)

[3] G. Cookson, The Cable: The Wire that Changed the World (Wiltshire, 2003); B. S. Finn, Submarine Telegraphy: The Grand Victorian Technology (Margate, 1973); J. Steele Gordon, A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (Bath, 2002); S. Carter, Cyrus Field, Man of Two Worlds, (New York, 1968); B. Dibner, The Atlantic Cable, (Norwalk, 1959).

[4] E. J. Malecki & H. Wei, ‘A Wired World: The Evolving Geography of Submarine Cables and the Shift to Asia’ in Annals of the Association of American Geographers vol. 99 (2009) and M. Sechrist, ‘Cyberspace in Deep Water: Protesting the Arteries of the Internet’, in Harvard Kennedy School Review, vol 10 (2009-2010) are good examples of articles written in the past two years looking at modern-day cables with reference to the Victorian invention.

[5] I. Rhys Morus, ‘The Nervous System of Britain’: Space, Time and the Electric Telegraph in the Victorian Age’ in The British Journal for the History of Science, vo. 33 (2000)

[6] R. Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems (Stanford, 2008) p. 12

[7] Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems p.18

[8] Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems p. 163

[9] Abstracts from papers presented at the workshop: (22 June 2011)

Exploring an Unruly City: ‘London in Fiction’ at the Bishopsgate Institute

Bishopsgate Institute,

Earlier in the week I went to a ‘London in Fiction’ event at the Bishopsgate Institute, first in a series that invites writers of varying genres to look at some of their favourite works of fiction based in London. The event was appropriately held in the Bishopsgate Library, a beautiful and atmospheric venue. Co-hosted by the website ‘London Fictions‘, and similar to the website the event was hosted by Andrew Whitehead and emphasised an inclusive atmosphere, encouraging an open discussion from the audience on their thoughts and feelings on the works.

Under the theme of ‘Unruly City’ the three works under discussion were Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, presented by historian and writer, Alex Butterworth, John Sommersfield’s May Day, presented by poet, Andy Croft, and Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners, presented by author, Jake Arnott.

With three different presenting styles and backgrounds the three presenters were excellent at contextualising their chosen work and highlighting the core themes without giving away too much of the plot. As much as this was an event for those who had read the books to celebrate them and discuss interesting points raised by the authors and events described, it was also an event to discover new works and explore litteraty avenues you may not have been down before.

The Greenwich Park explosion: siteseers near the scene of the fatality. From the Illustrated London New on the NMM website

Personally of the three titles being discussed I had only read The Secret Agent, a dark London thriller set within the conspiracies and plots of foreign embassies and anarchist in the 1880s. My interest in the book was sparked by my interest in nineteenth century London and also by the true story the book is based on; an intriguing story of a French man, an apparent anarchist, who blew himself up outside the Royal Observatory in 1894, the NMM has some information on the event here. (I also have it on good authority that the post-mortem photographs can be found in the Royal Observatory’s archives – gruesome!)

Through Alex Butterworth’s presentation I’ve become even more intrigued as I learnt that Conrad’s connections and networks were such that much of the novel could have been based on fact rather than his imagination. It also added Butterworth’s book, The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents, to my reading list.

I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of the second book, May Day, however it appeared that most of the audience had also not read John Sommerfield’s militant communist novel, and consequently Andy Croft made it his mission to sell it to us. His enthusiasm was enough to sell it to me, but for you who may not have been there, he pitched it as a revolutionary novel, written in the mid-1930s it is heavily influenced by cinematic techniques, establishing large networks amongst communities and people but also highlighting the alienation felt by some its 90 named characters. The plot is fairly simple focusing on three days leading up to May Day, and a dispute over when the labourers should celebrate May Day in Hyde Park, however it is the style and ideas behind the book that make it a cause for celebration. (There is a longer review of the book here, if I’ve wet your appetite.)

Absolute Beginners, London Fictions website

The last book I was ashamed to say I hadn’t read, especially as it is set in the area I grew up and currently live, North Kensington, and climaxes on the Notting Hill riots. Absolute Beginners is with out a doubt an iconic book, even making it on to the Guardian‘s list of the ten best books set in London. The narrator is a nameless photographer and, as well as celebrating the rise of the teenager in 1950s London with their strict tribal dress codes and slang, it also celebrates the multicultural nature of London. There is a great review on the London Fictions website, the only one of the three books featured on the site as yet.

Arnott argued that through Absolute Beginners MacInnes defined subculture long before any sociologist, demonstrating the different spheres of culture and cultural identity the Mod teenager was able to move through. A remarkable achievement, made even more remarkable when you realise the author was in his forties when he wrote the novel using the voice of an eighteen year old.

Overall the evening was enlightening, and gave me a chance to discover literature as a worthy microscope through which to examine historical themes. It also helped underline the presence of the author in a novel, but also the significance of place. London acts as a distinctive character in each of these works, and not only by the name check of London landmarks, but also by the atmosphere created, they could not be set anywhere else.

Well if you think this sounded interesting and what to go to any of the other events in the ‘London in Fiction’ series, the ‘London in Peril’ series, or any event at the Bishopsgate Institute, see their website here.

Also London Fictions website encourages readers to contribute reviews on any books you love set in London town. See here for more info.

Finally if you’re interested in anarchists you might be interested in my previous post regarding the Sidney Street Outrage, here.

Now excuse me, I have a lot of reading to catch up on….