Holiday specials 2021

In the Economist‘s holiday double issue (December 18th – 31st 2021), “an exuberance of articles about Middle Eastern railways, India’s touring cinemas, quadratic voting and much more”. A set of 18 special reports: long feature stories on cultural, political, and economic topics — some familiar subjects of interest (schemes for tallying votes, vegetarianism, cryptocurrencies, the history of restaurants), others more out of the way. It had never occurred to me to wonder about the history and cultural significance of corrugated iron, or what happened to the rural villages of Singapore (well, obviously, they were razed and replaced by skyscrapers, but how was that done?), or how Bollywood movies became so wildly popular all over India.

So: from these 18 I’ve picked 8 that especially fascinated me. These are my personal choices, clearly slanted towards sociocultural topics — note that my personal history includes fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and the Stanford Humanities Center — and others would make other picks (how could I possibly disregard “Why Vladimir Putin’s Russia cannot tolerate a free Ukraine”?).

(page numbers in the special section; no links, because all of this is behind a paywall)

p. 11 “The pleasures of the table: An economic history of how the restaurant came to be”.

p. 13 “Gimme shelter: The rise and rise of an unappreciated metal”, an appreciation of Adrian Mornement and Simon Holloway’s book Corrugated Iron: Building on the Frontier, about corrugated iron (especially as galvanized with zinc, when it was colloquially known as tin), an invention of the early 19th century that provided quickly constructed but strong and durable shelters of all kinds: houses, farm buildings, railway stations, churches, military buildings, and more.

p. 21 “The last holdout: Just one village resists the suburban monotony of Singapore”. The story of the last kampong — rural village — in mainland Singapore. Photo (by Rebecca Toh) from the story, showing Sng Mui Hong, owner of this last village, Kampong Lorong Buangkok:


In contrast, this photo of downtown Singapore from the New York Times:

(#2) Spectators gathered to photograph Apple’s Marina Bay Sands store in Singapore on its opening day in September 2020. (photo: Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg, via Getty Images)

p. 24 “He came, he saw, he lied: What can we learn from Julius Caesar’s travels through France?”, beginning:

Hemingway, Orwell, Joyce, Turgenev: many great foreign writers have found inspiration in France. But for lasting influence, one scribe stands above them all. He travelled around France for nine years, observing the local customs and recounting what he saw in lean and muscular prose. He also killed, by his own estimate, a million of the natives, conquered their territory and imposed on it a civilisation that has lasted, in one form or another, more than 2,000 years.

The way we see the Roman Empire of Caesar’s time is much colored by the version in the Astérix comics, but Caesar himself is (of course) a notably unreliable narrator, starting with the fact that he misunderstood some of what he saw and skewed his accounts of much of the rest. From the Economist piece, comics-style illustrations by R. Fresson illustrating Caesar’s first encounter with the Gallic chieftan Vercingetorix:



The sad story of Vercingetorix, from Wikipedia:

Vercingetorix was the son of Celtillus the Arvernian, leader of the Gallic tribes. Vercingetorix came to power after his formal designation as chieftain of the Arverni at the oppidum [‘fortified town’] Gergovia in 52 BC. He immediately established an alliance with other Gallic tribes, took command, combined all forces and led them in the Celts’ most significant revolt against Roman power. He won the Battle of Gergovia against Julius Caesar in which several thousand Romans and their allies were killed and the Roman legions withdrew.

Caesar had been able to exploit Gaulish internal divisions to easily subjugate the country, and Vercingetorix’s attempt to unite the Gauls against Roman invasion came too late. At the Battle of Alesia, also in 52 BC, the Romans besieged and defeated his forces; to save as many of his men as possible, he gave himself to the Romans. He was held prisoner for five years. In 46 BC, as part of Caesar’s triumph, he was paraded through the streets of Rome and then executed by garroting. Vercingetorix is primarily known through Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War). To this day, he is considered a folk hero in Auvergne, his native region.

p. 27 “Pocock’s penpals: An epistolary guide to Britain’s changing society”, about Sussex Univ. professor David Pocock’s work on the Mass Observation Project (a project begun in 1936, taken over by Pocock in 1981, and still continuing, after Pocock’s retirement in 1987 from Sussex and his death in 2007), in which ordinary people write about their experiences in daily life.

p. 40 “Murder of the Orient Express: Who killed off the Middle East’s railway lines?” On-line: “Railway lines once connected the Middle East: Now the tracks that joined continents lie in wreckage”, ruined in part by the advance of the automobile, but mostly by WW2, Israeli-Arab conflicts, and factional violence in the Arab world. An advertising poster from the age that inspired Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express:


p. 45 “The arrival of a truck: The death, and rebirth, of India’s touring cinemas”, which brought Bollywood to village fields all over India, showing films on portable screens to rapt audiences and so uniting an extraordinarily diverse country; and then when cellphones came to provide a constantly available alternative in almost everyone’s hands, a modern version of the trucks, in which they bring the set-ups for entire viewing rooms.

p. 48 “A world of two halves: Why do people look down on whoever lives south of them?”: the northerners are stereotypically competent, industrious, business-like, but emotionally cold, while the southerners are excitable, backward, lazy, but creative and loving. In the Netherlands; then again, just south of that, in Belgium; then, just south of that, in France; then, south of France, in Spain and in Italy. And then in Vietnam and in China.

The stereotypes clearly don’t actually have to do with latitude, but are thoroughly local and are spread with virtually no regard for the stereotypes of neighboring countries. (Or so it seems from informal collections of attitudes.)

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