Beware the nightwalkers: the dangers of nighttime throughout history

51sNm3MeRMLI’m currently reading A. Roger Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime. The author uses a vast number of quotes and facts and figures from throughout the past thousand years or so to describe “a social history of the nighttime in the pre-Industrial era.”

Some of Ekirch’s revelations aren’t exactly shocking – that crimes were far more frequent under cover of darkness, and that we have long been afraid of things that go bump in the night (or screech, or clunk or…). But it’s the very tangible nature of these fears that brings them home.

We’re programmed to fear the same things we feared 500 or a thousand years ago. Thieves lurking in shadows, or wild animals roaming around us. Undulations in unlit terrain as traps waiting to snare us. And the natural rhythm we generally settle into, performing our daily duties in hours of daylight, before retreating to the safety of our homes for the hours of darkness.

The book is a kind of spiritual cousin to Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, one of my absolute favourite history books. Mortimer’s writing is a bit more entertaining and at times tongue-in-cheek, but Ekirch’s book remains thoroughly readable as it makes such good use of primary source material.

In fact, the tone of Ekirch’s book is often a little surprising. Some passages deal with crimes such as burglary or theft at knifepoint. These crimes are, of course, hideous and terrifying, but they can be read with a pinch of salt when lacking the grisly details. On the other hand, his lengthy description of thief’s candles, superstitious items created from human flesh, or the fingers of the dead – or worse – are quite startlingly grim:

The most notorious charm, the “thief’s candle,” found ready acceptance in most parts of Europe.  The candle was fashioned from either an amputated finger or the fat of a human corpse, leading to the frequent mutilation of executed criminals.  Favoured, too, were fingers severed from the remains of stillborn infants.  Because they had not been baptised, their magical properties were considered more powerful.  To enhance the candle’s potency, the hands of dead criminals, known as Hands of Glory, were sometimes employed as candlesticks.

Wow. That’s a passage that’s going to stay with me. I’m only a short way into this fascinating book. Naturally, it’s a great thing to read at bedtime(!).

It’s good timing, then, that an interesting local history blog flagged up yesterday two sets of newspaper cuttings describing crimes in the 18th century in and around what is now Milton Keynes. In his book, Ekirch describes highway robbery, being careful not to make light of what were often terrible crimes. Indeed, the Wolverton Past blog makes similar vivid references to such crimes:

Northampton Mercury October 1st 1774

On Thursday last, about six in the Morning, was found in the High Road between Shenly and Stony Stratford by two Men going to Work, the Body of one James Wills, a poor industrious Man, most barbarously murdered. He belongs to Woolverton, near Stony Stratford, and had been to a Statute held near Fenny Stratford selling Nuts and Cakes. His head was so terribly beat and bruised by a Slate of a Stake Rail, that on moving him his Brains dropp’d out. He has left a Wife and seven children. Diligent Search is making after the Murderers.

Gosh. Don’t have nightmares.

“Not a travel guide but an elegy” – Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock.

I recently finished reading Edward Abbey‘s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, First published in 1968, it’s a memoir of his time spent working as a ranger in Arches National Park, Utah, in the 1950s and ’60s.

By all accounts, Abbey had a bone to pick with the development of public land in the United States, and the annual onslaught of the American public on its own National Parks.

In Desert Solitaire, he describes, in a series of enjoyably lengthy vignettes, the kinds of work he undertook as a park ranger, what life was like in that vast wilderness, and describes with masterful prose several excursions he underwent while living in this remarkable place.

Photo: National Park Service
Photo: National Park Service

We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there.

His writing includes many rants, for example about America’s beautiful scenery being wrecked by those who wish to ‘experience’ it while never leaving their gas-guzzling cars.

But he will just as quickly turn his pen to describing the subtle majesty of the world around him with a beautiful elegance I’ve rarely found in other writing. Whole paragraphs float past you like Country Diary entries from the Guardian, bordering on romantic poetry.

But while Abbey’s words could be read as romantic, he is very much a realist; his words merely do justice to the unique environment they portray.

I’ve loved reading Desert Solitaire. I’ve spent the past six months or so dipping in and out of it: I caught up with old crotchety Edward as he cleared up after another wave of irresponsible tourists; headed into the big, alien city with him to stock up on food; or trotted off with him on a multi-day hike through unnamed canyons with only pinyon nuts and raisins in our pockets.

The tourists have gone home. Most of them. A few still rumble in and ramble around in their sand-pitted dust-choked iron dinosaurs but the great majority, answering a mystical summons, have returned to the smoky jungles and swamps of what we call, in wistful hope, American civilization. I can see them now in all their millions jamming the freeways, glutting the streets, horns bellowing like wounded steers, hunting for a place to park. They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place. (Sunset and moonrise, moaning winds and stillness, cloud transformations, the metamorphosis of sunlight, yellowing leaf and the indolent, soaring vulture.…)

Desert Solitaire is rather like Thoreau‘s Walden in many ways. But one of the more palpable themes of the book is a sense of change. The scenery Abbey describes is of an America coming to terms with easier access to its beautiful National Parks and the perceived need to exploit the same natural features that make them so unique. He writes about exploring Glen Canyon before the dam, and everywhere his writing is littered with a subtle sense of foreboding, of great change, just around the corner.

But at the same time, his descriptions are of an America set in stone, where change takes millennia to be affected by the elements, and eventually understood and valued by its inhabitants. And that’s what makes the ever-present threat of change so heartbreaking. But Abbey can only explore, observe, reflect, and report.

Everything is packed, all my camping gear stored away, even my whiskers shaved off. Bald-faced as a bank clerk, I stood in front of a mirror this morning and tried on my only white shirt, recently starched. Like putting on chain mail. I even knotted a tie around my neck and tightened it in the proper style—adjusting the garrote for fit. A grim business, returning to civilization. But duty calls.

Further memoirs and autobiographical writing of Abbey’s seem hard to come by, so I’m branching out into his more prolific fiction work. The Monkey Wrench Gang opens with a rather wonderful depiction of the sabotage of a new bridge being ceremonially opened over Glen Canyon…

Below is a list of my out-of-context, largely useless Kindle highlights from Desert Solitaire. They’re mostly passages that left me tingling, filled with wanderlust, laughing, daydreaming or mournful. If nothing else, they ought to give you a flavour of some of Abbey’s best turns of phrase.


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The opening of Palmerston North’s new railway station in 1963

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Still from Pictorial Parade No. 145 (1963) – Archives New Zealand

Listening to the latest episode of Radio New Zealand show Sounds Historical,1 I was fascinated to hear a snippet from the opening of Palmerston North’s new railway station in 1963.

I don’t know a great deal about Palmerston North, but I’ve passed through it several times on the main trunk line that runs north and south along the spine of the North Island.

I say ‘passed through’, but clearly I mean ‘around’, as Sounds Historical’s Jim Sullivan2 explained.

It turns out that the new 1963 railway station was also part of the Milson Deviation3 – a new bypass which took the line to the northwest of the city.

Prior to this deviation, the mainline used to run directly through the centre of the city, with trains going over something like thirty level crossings in the process – many of them open, as seen below. Staggering.

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Still from Pictorial Parade No. 145 (1963) – Archives New Zealand

I don’t know how frequent NZ mainline services were back in the first half of the 20th century, or how many deaths and injuries Palmerston North’s peculiar setup gave rise to – but by all accounts, there were many.

Level crossings – where a railway line crosses an existing footpath, track or road – are inherently dangerous, and inevitably lead to injuries and deaths for a multitude of reasons. There are more than 6,000 level crossings across the British railway network, and Network Rail, which owns and operates Britain’s railway infrastructure, aims to close them where it’s at all possible. They reached a landmark of 750 level crossing closures earlier this year.

Anyway, the recording of the opening of Palmerston North’s new railway station in 1963 can be heard in the first part of last Sunday’s Sounds Historical. The speeches are interesting, particularly Railways Minister John McAlpine’s reference to Britain spending £1.5bn on railways as proof that railways were far from outdated in the 1960s.

You can also view a rather lovely newsreel clip, Pictorial Parade, on YouTube, which goes into more detail and has some lovely shots of the opening. Thanks, Archives NZ.

  1. Look, it’s a radio show about New Zealand history, and it’s available in a convenient podcast. If you’re surprised that this is required listening in my household, you clearly don’t know me very well.
  2. Another couple of things Jim Sullivan said that amused or interested me lately include:
    - His use of the term ‘munted‘ in reference to post-earthquake Christchurch. I love this word, despite its ugly definition, and I love how widespread its use has become in New Zealand English.
    - In recalling the anniversary of the murder of Honora Parker, he never once mentioned the rather brilliant 1994 Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures, which depicts the event.
  3. Which sounds like a euphemism for something else entirely.

Microadventures – Alastair Humphreys’ new book

Writer, explorer and adventurer Alastair Humphreys has written a new book called Microadventures, and it’s out today.

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Alastair’s concept of microadventures – “a tiny little adventure that’s close to home and easy on your pocket” – pushed me last year to see how far my bike could carry me and all I would need for an overnight stay somewhere. Although the overnight bit isn’t essential to a microadventure, it certainly adds to the feeling of getting away from it all.

I had had the urge to get out and do that kind of thing for a while – I’ve long been a fan of walking, camping and, more recently, cycling. But it was reading Alastair’s blog posts and seeing his photographs that really showed me that it wouldn’t take much to take the next step and really have a tiny little adventure of my own.

It’s probably pretty clear how much of an inspiration Alastair has been on me and my outdoor activities over the past twelve months!

I wrote about some of my own microadventures last year:

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…and I’m planning on more this year. I quite like how the term microadventrue can be tweaked to fit whatever you can manage and afford. It could just be taking a different route home or exploring that place on the map you’ve been intrigued about for a while. Or it could be something slightly more zany, like Al’s walk round the M25 in winter

Meanwhile, I’m really looking forward to Alastair’s book thudding onto my doormat. I’m a big fan of his words and his pictures, and it was about time he collected his thoughts and put them all into the definitive microadventure book.

If you’re looking for that extra kick to get out and do something extraordinary, check out Alastair’s website for tips and details of adventures he’s been on, or better yet, grab a copy of his book. If you’re quick, he’s also offering an extra free book or DVD to people who purchase his book from Amazon – see his blog post for details.

Los Angeles

Santa Monica Freeway (Interstate 10) and Harbor Freeway (Interstate 110) Interchange, downtown Los Angeles, construction completed 1959. Photograph by Dave Packwood, 1962, 10 x 8 1/8 in. (25.4 x 20.6 cm). Automobile Club of Southern California Archives
Santa Monica Freeway (Interstate 10) and Harbor Freeway (Interstate 110) Interchange, downtown Los Angeles, construction completed 1959. Photograph by Dave Packwood, 1962, 10 x 8 1/8 in. (25.4 x 20.6 cm). Automobile Club of Southern California Archives

I think about California, and about Los Angeles, quite a lot.

It’s not such a weirdly niche topic that I should be surprised by the way it keeps coming up, but I find myself thinking about, reading about, or listening to details of life there throughout its history all the time.

LA seems to me to be quite an ugly, dirty city. But as I find myself slowly learning more and more about what the metropolis contains – and what it has created – I find myself more and more fascinated by it in all its murk and seemingly uninhabitable gloom.

Despite my preconceptions, I’m often intrigued by depictions of life in the city, including this one by Louis Theroux, and insights into life there from Mike Ambs and others.

My only first-hand experience of the city is of flying low over its grid systems, freeways and swimming pools, and a handful of hours here and there spent in the air-conditioned areas of LAX. Even then, the only memories I have are of being scrutinised by gun-toting officials or stepping just outside for a glimpse of the spidery-looking Theme Building bathed in oppressive heat.

The latest references to pop up include an old episode of Radio 4′s wonderful In Our Time, which is my current sleepy-time podcast of choice. In the second of a two-part discussion of ‘the city‘, the panel explains how LA’s use of the car exploded in the early to mid-20th century, leading to the decline and decay of its public transport networks, and the building of the city’s freeways, as shown above.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, which was also made into a rather great film starring Colin Firth. Isherwood describes 1960s LA through the eyes of George, an English lecturer working in the city:

No sooner have you turned off the freeway on to San Tomas Avenue than you are back in the tacky sleepy slowpoke Los Angeles of the thirties, still convalescent from the depression, with no money to spare for fresh coats of paint. And how charming it is!

And later:

The air has a tang of smog; called eye-irritation in blandese. The mountains of the San Gabriel Range – which still give San Tomas State something of the glamour of a college high on a plateau of the Andes, on the few days you can see them properly – are hidden today as usual in the sick yellow fumes which arise from the metropolitan mess below.

Finally, one of my favourite insights into the bits of LA architecture that often go unseen comes via this photo blog from Moby (yes, that Moby), which is well worth a look: http://mobylosangelesarchitecture.com/