Thursday, 15 October 2015

Every obnoxious item that can be imagined

For some reason, although I like to think I have a wide range of interests, most of the articles on Wikipedia that really get me are historical. Maybe history is particularly suited to in-depth but not over-complex summaries in encyclopaedic style, relative to other subjects. I remember loving my history teacher at primary school because he literally just treated every class as a storytelling session. It was amazing.

The best bits of historical stories - like all stories - are the bits that you can relate to. When you manage to understand at some deep level that the people who went through the things being described weren't a special breed of cultural alien but basically normal humans like you and me. My very favourite example of this is the utterly brilliant and remarkably moving Michael Wood documentary bluntly titled the Story of England. All of history told through the archaeological and other records of a single town in Leicestershire.

The above is a preamble to today's Wikipedia article: Smithfield, London. I don't know about you, but I hardly ever go to Smithfield. It's a bit too close to the City to be something I'm ever likely to stumble across. And I have all my (non-existent) meat requirements met by Tesco Express. So in the spirit of inquiry, I ventured down there after reading the Wikipedia article and had a look. It was weird but strangely thrilling to find myself a tourist in my own city. I felt suddenly furtive, like I was trespassing and someone was sure to unmask me.

The first thing it says in the Smithfield article is that the name is derived from "Smooth Field". Given that this naming ostensibly occurred over a thousand years ago, many centuries before modern English existed, I find such a derivation somewhat suspect, and there is a pleasing lack of citations. The article itself even uses an image from the 16th century where the site is clearly marked "Schmyt Fyeld".

In any event, it is clear that fields were involved and that London was once incredibly - hilariously - tiny. I take an immense amount of pleasure in the mindblowing-ness of this idea: that a locality which today might as well mark the epicentre of one of the planet's largest and densest urban sprawls was once a grassy field populated by a few intermittent cows.

Basically, in the old days, Britain's capital was about the size of a shopping mall, surrounded on all sides by featureless pastures.

Because Smithfield happened to be the pasture that was closest to the city walls, that's where everyone brought their animals when it was time for them to be eaten. In Wikipedia's blasé phrasing: "Smithfield established itself as London's livestock market, remaining so for almost 1,000 years." Yeah. That's the next mindblowing thing about Smithfield. This place has been a slaughterhouse for a full goddamn millennium.

Empires have risen and fallen. Kings have come and gone. God himself has been killed. Humanity has progressed in countless ways. And a great big bloody metropolis has slowly grown around it, but in all that time - every single day, more or less - Smithfield has facilitated the purchase of freshly culled animal flesh.

The Market itself is the subject of the latter half of the (fairly long) Wikipedia article, such is its fascination. There is this enigmatic quote from 1178, describing Smithfield as, once again:
"a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be traded, and in another quarter are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk."
Now, is that a typo for "pheasant"? If not, surely it should be followed by a colon, not a comma, unless the aristocracy of the time really was as joyously evil/cannibalistic as we like to think.

The maintenance of a meat market for a thousand years despite epic changes in urban development and culture was, as you might imagine, no easy task. By the Victorian era, 220 thousand cows and 1.5 million sheep per year were "violently forced into an area of five acres, in the very heart of London, through its narrowest and most crowded thoroughfares". Wikipedia rates the "hygienic conditions" as "extremely poor", and notes that they "started to raise major concerns".

Despite our authors' mild tone, these concerns were not taken lightly by people at the time, as well can be believed for those living in a city through which vast numbers of filthy beasts daily trudged towards a grisly fate. There's a delightfully Brooker-esque quote from a contemporary book that appears to have been titled by a Wikipedia editor, Suggestions for the Improvement of Our Towns and Houses:
"Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed, there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights, and every obnoxious item that can be imagined; and this abomination is suffered to continue year after year, from generation to generation, in the very heart of the most Christian and most polished city in the world."
I always like a good use of "horrid".

By the second half of the 19th century, Parliament finally got involved, putting the city out of its misery and banishing the cattle market to distant, rural Islington. Smithfield was rebuilt as a new market where animals were typically deceased before arrival. Hence the overly grandiose, wrought iron affair you see today. The construction of the new Smithfield coincided with that of one of London's earliest underground railway lines, allowing faster transit of meats to the cold stores.

One such subterranean store was used for the experiments of a real life mad scientist during WWII (an attempt to create a brand new material for floating oceanic airstrips), in another snapshot of Smithfield's interaction with major events in British history.

Considering its primary commercial purpose in life, Smithfield as a London landmark has had an extraordinary number of these interactions. Wikipedia divides its more general history into "Religious" and "Civil" subsections.

Turns out, something about the stench of dying animals is attractive to God after all, as Smithfield appears to be the centre of London's religious life - at least from a casual reading of Wikipedia. The most famous institution here is of course St Bartholomew's, now better known as a hospital*, but still also at least two Smithfield churches.

The oldest of them was founded in the gloriously Fibonaccian year of 1123, as a favour from Henry I to a priest who had apparently saved his life. It must have been a lovely proposition: a nice little priory in a great big field right on the edge of town. Now you can barely see it as it's sandwiched between a wall built by a later King Henry and a massive modern hospital, but if you walk purposefully past the security guards, as I found the other night, it's still there and still being used at 8pm on a weekday. Although not everything about the church has survived: you ever heard of the Bartholomew Fair? Me neither. It was just a major London event for SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS until it was deemed indecent by the bloody Victorians.

Other religious institutions at Smithfield include the Carthusian Charterhouse - founded in 1371, although the infamous boarding school part moved to Surrey in 1872. In the 1500s, it was monks from Charterhouse who attempted to reason with the famously phlegmatic Thomas Cromwell when he first persuaded Henry VIII to enact sweeping religious renovations that decimated most of the Smithfield churches. Wikipedia tells it straight as ever:
This resulted in their being flung into the Tower of London, and on 4 May 1535, they were taken to Tyburn and hanged — becoming the first Catholic martyrs of the Reformation.
Such fun. Speaking of which, my favourite part of the whole Wikipedia article is the section on civil history. Again, its open position on outskirts of town made Smithfield an ideal site for all kinds of amazing public spectacles. But mostly, it "has borne witness to many bloody executions of heretics and political rebels over the centuries" as the article states at the outset. I like to think of it as the place you'd go, as a bored peasant, for something like the opening scene of the John Landis film Burke and Hare:

Smithfield "bore witness" to some of the real greats: William Wallace's fictional cry of "FREEDOM!" would have been heard there, far from his bonnie home, while the leader of the momentous 14th century Peasant's Revolt, Wat Tyler, also met his demise on the field at the hands of the Lord Mayor, in the spirit of Boris-like mucking-in. Tyler hadn't in fact come for an execution but a parlay, which went badly south when he started saying rude things about King Richard.

It wasn't just gruesome capital punishment that you could find at Smithfield back in the day (if William Wallace's intestines weren't bed enough, Queen Mary also hosted some of her well-known bonfires at Smithfield, while "swindlers and coin forgers" were apparently boiled to death in oil. It all went downhill when we started getting soft on petty crime, I'm telling you.) There were also proper chivalric tournaments. One particularly extravagant joust in 1390 was commanded by Richard II, not long after dealing with the revolting peasants, and was supervised by one Geoffrey Chaucer in his lesser known day job as an event organiser (actually he was a clerk to the King, which I also didn't know).

So Smithfield has seen it all. But think of all those who've seen Smithfield. All those ordinary Londoners over all those centuries, who've trod those cobbles/open grassland, smelled the blood and shit and religious incense, heard the dying cries of man and beast alike, and witnessed almost every major event to have befallen this magnificent, godforsaken city.

The article ends by noting the Museum of London's planned move to the part of the market that is currently unoccupied. It's a strange idea, but if any London landmark deserves recognition for its historical adventures, surely this is it.

*The hospital is in fact equally ancient - although in the 14th century a large part of it was used, even more hygienically than the livestock slaughter, as a mass grave for plague victims.

Never go into teaching

Today we consider the glorious wikipedia page Hypatia. Hypatia is quite a nice name, but surprisingly, according to the disambiguation, there has only been one other famous person called Hypatia in history - a pornographic actor - and even then it was a stage name. The name is derived from the Greek for "highest" or "supreme", which to me makes it sound even more awesome, but perhaps parents have avoided it for reasons of hubris.

Hypatia was a badass philosopher chick from Alexandria in the 5th century AD. By "philosopher", I of course mean "general academic", best known for her mathematics. In Roman times everyone was a renaissance man, although I suppose it would be more accurate to call them simply naissance.

What's incredible about the wikipedia page for Hypatia is its sense of proportion. Her life and work are of apparently trivial consequence compared to the authors' all-consuming obsession with one particular event: her death.

Don't believe me? Here is the section on the Hypatia page called "Life":

And here is the section called "Death":

Actually this is only part of it. Yeah, it's so long that even at maximum zoom-out, I still couldn't screenshot the whole thing. It's even got an illustration.

As a lifelong fan of morbidity, you can see why this page appealed. Sod the fact that Hypatia managed to become a female director of a major academic institution of the hypermasculine classical world (the Platonist school of Alexandria), as well as the leading lecturer, thinker and possibly political advisor in the city. As one of the first women in history to be recognised for her academic greatness, we should be completely in awe of her gumption and strength of character, not just her scholarly prowess.

Unfortunately, this seems to have passed most historians - and writers of crowdsourced encyclopaedias - by. While we have several detailed sources documenting her demise, it feels like nobody has wanted to talk about her actual life: a patriarchal conspiracy of epic proportions. If she'd been a dude, we'd know what she liked to eat for breakfast, but as a woman we don't even have a clue when she was born. Wikipedia gives a 20-year window for her DOB. 20 years! Not a single one of Hypatia's writings, which by all accounts were extensive, has survived. To be fair, she did have the bad luck to live in a city famous for routinely having its libraries destroyed, but even so, one can't help but feel that archivists, and history in general, have had it out for her.

The one contemporary source that Wikipedia does quote about Hypatia's life is amazingly endearing, as well as effusive, describing her as *the* leading thinker of her time, a teacher to whom acolytes from around the world would flock. Further:
"On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more."

So the one person who actually knew Hypatia makes her out to be a feminist trailblazer on a magnificent scale. Still, even this dude, who went by the incredibly humble name of Socrates Scholasticus, only deigns to give Hypatia a paragraph, and if there was anyone else writing about her, wikipedia doesn't bother to mention them.

Contrast this to the attention lavished on her death. Suddenly wikipedia turns into a paragon of historiographical inquiry, comparing and contrasting the multiple sources that tell us about how Hypatia met her grisly end - with no clothes on!

I won't dignify this episode with a major summary, suffice to say she was murdered by Christian fanatics who had been riled by the city's political/religious machinations du jour, and happened to seize on her as a scapegoat. Depending on the account, she was either stripped naked, torn to pieces, and set on fire, or she was stripped naked, dragged through the streets until she died, and set on fire. The important thing is that she was naked when it happened. And then she was brutalised and burned.

This last detail has led some historians to describe her as effectively the first witch, which is kind of cool. The thinking goes: she was pagan, she worked with ancient knowledge that confused and scared contemporary laypeople, and she was burned by an enraged/illiterate Christian mob. She probably weighed the same as a duck too.

After "Death", the next longest section of Hypatia's wikipedia page concerns her legacy. History has fought over this woman for centuries, despite the complete lack of information about her. Some have wanted to show her as a noble and virtuous practitioner of science and reason, while others have tried to portray a scheming pagan who literally possessed, in the cliche of a 7th century biographer, "Satanic wiles". Unsurprisingly, the issue of her virginity has vexed many commentators. In any event, she has cropped up in literature and research much more regularly than might have been expected for someone about whose actual life and work history has cared so little. All the poor woman probably wanted was to get on with her research and lecturing. Those lesson plans don't write themselves.

Mighty Citations

Welcome to round two of Wikiedit, in which I explore extremely random Wikipedia articles for my own amusement. Last time it was powerful Eastern European hordes and their extraordinary migrations. This time we lake a look at a slightly less consequential article, some might say, but it features equally incredible movements and acts of strength by Eastern Europeans. And isn't "inconsequential" the whole point of Wikipedia?! I think so.

Yes folks, roll up for Joe Greenstein, aka The Mighty Atom, an article about a tiny Jewish guy that makes phenomenal use of Wikipedia's greatest comedic asset: the "citation needed" tag. More on that in a moment.

Born in 1893, Joe was a sickly Polish kid. The thing to bear in mind as you learn more about him, is that even when full grown, he never measured more than 5'4". Doctors predicted death by tuberculosis. But after training with a Russian strongman named - apparently in all seriousness - "Champion Volanko," he seems to have conquered his physical limitations and transformed into something great and terrible.

Joe immigrated to America before WWI, initially setting up shop in Texas. This is where Wikipedia uses the first of several mouth-dropping sentences.
In 1914, a local Texas man who was obsessed with Greenstein's wife shot him between the eyebrows from a distance of 30 feet. Amazingly, Greenstein left the hospital on the same day - the bullet did not enter his skull, but was flattened by the impact.
It's the specificity here that I like. They could have written "shot him in the head", but no. You can see the bullet literally sticking between his eyebrows as he goes cross eyed for a second and topples over, with everyone in the room gawping in mute astonishment. This sentence is also one of two in the whole article that mention Joe's wife. The other one tells us her name was Leah. So much for her.

Anyway, at this point, Wikipedia gives up trying to string coherent sentences together about this guy and resorts to simply listing the feats he preformed to prove that he was a superhuman of Luke Cage proportions. (Wikipedia hints that he was actually the inspiration for DC's reasonably major hero, the Atom). These include hammering nails with his bare hands, supporting the weight of 14 men while lying on a bed of nails, and bending a horseshoe with his teeth.

Despite the fact that only one of these achievements is supported by any kind of reference, the good editors of Wikipedia have left most of them unchallenged. Except for three of them:
  • Bending half-inch steel bars with his hair[citation needed].
  • Biting nails in half with his teeth (he could perform this feat with a 25-cent coin)[citation needed].
  • Resisting the pull of an airplane with his hair[citation needed].
I mean, the horseshoe thing is reasonable. But when you're talking about bending steel with your hair, you need a goddam citation, am I right? How would that even work? Can he make his hair move of its own accord?

By the way, this is the Mighty Atom, if you want a mental reference for that superhair.

I can bite your coins in half. So what?
But the best is still to come. In 1939 - it doesn't say whether the war had actually started yet - the Mighty Atom single-handedly beat 18 Nazis to a pulp with a baseball bat. This event, which surpasses even Tarantino's most fevered Jewish revenge fantasies, led to his arrest on charges of "mass mayhem", surely the coolest misdemeanour to have on your record. And he didn't have a scratch on him when the dust settled, even telling the judge, "It wasn't a fight, your honour. It was a pleasure".

During WWII itself, Greenstein travelled the country like Captain freaking America, impressing crowds with his skillz in order to sell government bonds for the war effort. And he also personally taught jujitsu to the NYPD even though:
It was many years before the technique was known to most Americans[citation needed].
Well. I mean, if Wikipedia tells us that most Americans now know jujitsu, then it must be true. But it would be quite nice to have a citation for that, I agree.

Joe continued his performances into his eighties, as the article states casually, when he was finally brought down by cancer. In later life he also sold "elixirs", while he "traveled in an old Model A truck with panels that opened to show his extensive collection of newsclippings and citations from civic leaders and organizations."

Well at least someone's got some citations around here. Still, it's a somewhat sad closing image. The great hero who's time in the spotlight has faded, reduced to living in a car with his glory days scrapbook.

And yet, like the master storyteller, Wikipedia has been setting us up, pulling our heartstrings in just the right way, before hitting us with an image of life reborn, of hope for the Mighty Atom in the new world of the present day, like Captain America pulled from the ice. This is the article's last sentence:
Joe's son Mike Greenstein appeared as a 93-year-old on America's Got Talent in 2014 and successfully pulled a 3500 pound car with his teeth.[6]
Finally, a citation for some closure. Beautiful.

PS: If you've read Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (highly recommended) you may understand how I discovered this article.