Climate, Sedans, and Bottled Water

17 December 2015

I spent a few days in Beijing last week, the first time since 2005.  I expected to find changes, but I was nonetheless surprised.  Instead of vendors hawking fake Prada bags on the street (they would follow me chanting “Gucci-Prada”), there are now lavish malls selling the real thing.  Christmas trees and Santa Claus are everywhere, and “Jingle Bells” blares along  2015-12-11 23.47.44Wangfujing Street, a pedestrian mall that could be in any American or European city.

To me, the biggest change had to do with cars. From being a city dominated by the bicycle, Beijing has become a city of cars.  I saw very few bicycles, and those were mainly being ridden by older people who were also, judging by their dress and the loads they were carrying, quite poor.

Many have commented on the explosion in the number of cars in Beijing;


in 2012 it passed the 5 million mark, vs. 2.6 million in 2005.  Massive traffic jams are a daily occurrence; it’s as if every freeway is the 405 at rush hour, all the time (Angelenos will get that reference).  But what really struck me were the kinds of cars.  I got off the plane last Wednesday night at the tail end of the latest killer smog, and the acrid air caught at my throat as I walked out of the terminal.

control tower smog
Beijing Airport in the smog

The parking lots were full of Volkswagens and other German cars.  And these were not the Golfs and Polos I saw in Berlin last year, but Jettas and Passats, BMWs and Audis.  We were picked up at the airport by a very nice Audi, and driven back on Sunday in an even nicer Mercedes.  In between I got driven around in a late-model Passat.

This was not a fluke occasioned by our extremely generous hosts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  Most of the cars I saw during my four days in Beijing were German, and they were not small.  China must be one of Volkswagen’s biggest markets (and indeed it sold over 3.5 million cars there last year).  I saw few diesels, but I also saw no hybrids.  Although China is said to be making major efforts in developing electric cars in order to deal with the smog problem, I did not see any.  I did see several Buicks and an extremely large and elaborate Cadillac. I saw one Honda Fit.  The ubiquitous yellow and green cabs are all Hyundai Elantras.

Admittedly this is a far from scientific survey, but my impression is that the new wealth in China is being spent on mid-size sedans and bottled water.  At the conference I attended, everyone was provided with evian-bottle4unlimited 500 ml bottles of Evian.  Several of us sneaked some back to our hotel rooms, where, of course, the water coming out of the tap is not drinkable.  Bemused, we pondered a world where bottles of French water were flown thousands of miles for visiting Europeans and Americans to drink.  I don’t think the bottles were recycled.

The smog came back on Saturday afternoon.  Unlike on Wednesday, it smelled strongly of coal, a smell that brought me back to my first trips to Britain in the 1970s.  Christine Corton’s recent book on London’s fogs reminds us that its last “killer fog” took place in 1962 – several years after the enactment of a Clean Air Act.  Owing to the number of cars, London’s air is again unhealthful, mainly owing to diesel combustion.  Despite a certain optimism after the successful conclusion of the Paris Climate Summit, we still have a long way to go.

The Moving Skeleton

Here’s the full version of the Slate blog post:

British Library
British Library

I’ve been reading Charles Burney’s collection of newspapers for close to two decades:  first turning fragile pages in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library, then dipping periodically into the many boxes of microfilm there, and now online, unfortunately behind the Gale paywall.   Charles Burney (1757-1817) was an English clergyman (his sister was the novelist Fanny Burney) who systematically collected old English newspapers, that most ephemeral and perishable variety of print.  His collection dates from the early seventeenth century, but its real strength is in the period after 1695, when the expiration of the Licensing Act allowed a sudden rank growth of newspapers, especially in London — dailies, weeklies, biweeklies, fortnightlies.  Some historians look at the news stories, since each newspaper had its own political slant. I go for the classified ads.  There are ads for lost servants, houses to let, dozens of patent medicines, books, plays, and evening auctions (“For SALE  by the CANDLE”)  as well as dog fights and bear-baiting.  The lady who lost her purse one Friday night in 1720 may apply to a certain Jonathan Wild for its return. Wild, the notorious “thief-taker general,” ran a ring of pickpockets and then demanded a ransom for the return of the goods.  He was hanged in 1725, his career documented by Henry Fielding and his body dissected by the London surgeons.  His skeleton still hangs in Surgeons’ Hall  (more soon on that skeleton).

Hogarth, Southwark Fair, 1733

Another set of bones occupied the ads in the Daily Courant for about 15 months in 1716-17.  The “Moving Skeleton” announced its first appearance “To all Gentlemen, Ladies, and others, who are Lovers of Curiosities” in September 1716, during the Southwark Fair, “at the Perfumer’s next to the Half-Moon Inn.”  The fair was suppressed in 1762 for attracting the wrong kind of crowd.  By a “Mechanical Projection,” the skeleton emerged from an upright case with a spring-loaded door.  A curtain then slowly rose to reveal a full human skeleton, holding an hourglass in one hand and a dart in the other.  When the hourglass ran out, the hand with the dart plunged through the air three times.  The skeleton then emitted a groan “like a Dying Person.”  Its jaw bone struck a bell to tell the time.  When the hands lowered, the operator stuck a pipe into the jaw, and the skeleton lit it and smoked the pipe “as naturally as if Alive.”  It also blew out a candle. To end the performance, the operator poked the skeleton with a stick, and the jaw dropped open, allowing the pipe to be removed.  Then “the Curtain falls down in its Place, and all is over.”

Old Hungerford Market, 1805

This mechanical marvel made the rounds of London for the following year.  In December 1716 it turned up “at the First House on the Left-Hand in Charles-Court in the Strand, near Hungerford Market.”  Hungerford Market stood at the site of the present Charing Cross Station.  But “the Moving Skeleton, or the Skeleton of a Man” played second fiddle to “the wonderful Machine,” “Pinchbeck’s most surprising Astronomical and Musical Clock.”   Visitors to the Clock paid from 2 shillings down to sixpence for the sight; no price is listed for the Moving Skeleton, which was shown  separately.  However, by the next week the skeleton had earned its own description, and the two sights alternated ads for the next several weeks.  Both were on display from 10 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night.  While the skeleton attracted lovers of curiosities, the clock addressed “all Lovers of Art.”

Shortly  after Christmas 1716, the Moving Skeleton retreated into its case once more, only to re-emerge several months later in a new location, without the Clock.  At the end of April 1717, Lovers of Curiosities could once more see this sight “At the next House to Sir John Old-Castle’s, in the Field between Gray’s-Inn lane and New River-Road.” (Sir John Oldcastle, a leader of the Lollards, had been executed for heresy in 1417).  No price is mentioned, and the skeleton could be seen “without hinderance of Time.”   It is advertised again two weeks later and then vanishes once more.

The Moving Skeleton made a final appearance at the end of November 1717, in another newspaper, the Original Weekly Journal.  It is for sale.

Bishopsgate, ca. 1650
Bishopsgate, ca. 1650

The ad describes its performance in detail, which “of late had given so Universal a Satisfaction to those that have seen it.”  If it was the “Artificial Skeleton” described in the Weekly Journal  or British Gazetteer the previous October as having been “shew’d up and down the Country Fairs in England,” it may have lost  some of its novelty at this point, and the 10 shillings a year  it cost in maintenance may have become onerous.  The owner, who remained anonymous, offered to meet prospective buyers at Poole’s Coffee House outside of Bishopsgate.

But we hear no more of the Moving Skeleton.

The Skeleton Trade: Life, Death, and Commerce in Early Modern Europe

Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition

Anita Guerrini, Horning Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Oregon State University, discusses the fascinating research which she presented atObjects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.

Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol before 1500, the articulated skeleton does not seem to have come into its own as an object – scientific and artistic as well as symbolic – until the time of Vesalius. Curiously ubiquitous, since everyone has one, but yet largely invisible, anatomists revealed the skeleton to view. The well-known illustrations of Vesalius were plagiarized over and over for two centuries after their publication in 1543.

Vesalius, "De humani corporis fabrica", 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Vesalius, “De humani corporis fabrica”, 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Vesalius was the first to give detailed instructions on how to make a skeleton, for although it was a natural object, it was also a crafted object whose construction entailed a lot of work…

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