Kept as they would dogs

Penguin Classics generator, https://nullk.github.io/penguin.html

‘Kings, ministers, aristocrats, the rich in general, kept the people in poverty and subjection; they kept them as they kept dogs, to fight and hunt for their service.’
— Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard

A statue has been pulled down in Bristol, my former hometown and, as is usually the case with events that capture news headlines, a number of narratives have been put forward to account for this symbolic act.

These narratives serve different agendas, many of them totally opposed, though some occupy a sort of No Man’s Land.

As I have a personal, even an emotional, investment in the city that witnessed this incident, I’d like to add my own narrative into the mix in the hopes that it may throw some light on the matter, but not add to the fuel.

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Scorn and pity

Entrance to The Oxford Arms Inn, Warwick Lane demolished in 1878. Image by Society for Photographing Relics of Old London’s record of threatened buildings (Museum of London)

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent. A Simple Tale
Penguin Modern Classics 1963 (1907)

“… perverse reason has its own logical processes.” — Author’s Note added 1920

Late Victorian London was a hotbed of political activity, especially in the 1880s when the Irish Republican Brotherhood instituted a bombing campaign that lasted a good five years. Few were killed but damage to several buildings — including Tube stations and, in 1884, Old Scotland Yard — ensured that terrorism was never far from the authorities’ concern.

One particular incident though had no clear motive, the apparent attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The bomb went off prematurely killing Frenchman Martial Bourdin, but why he was carrying it and what the proposed target was remains a mystery. It is this incident that Joseph Conrad, a Pole who would assume British citizenship in 1886, chose to fictionalise as the central event of his 1907 novel The Secret Agent, an extraordinary narrative that’s not at all easy (despite its subtitle) to summarise in a few short sentences.

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Knee-jerks and books

Fleet Street in London looking east towards St Paul’s Cathedral. Photograph by James Valentine, c.1890 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” — Ray Bradbury

In Europe in recent years we seem to have suffered a number of terrorist attacks without precedent, along with reports of covert interference in the internal politics of several nations by foreign powers. It’s easy, I’d imagine, to believe that things are worse than they have ever been but history shows that international espionage, anarchist acts (“the propaganda of the deed”), political assassinations and terrorist atrocities are nothing new.

In fact it’s not just history text books that reflect on attempts to upset the established order, benign or malign as it may be. So does fiction, and it’s interesting to look at novels that come out of a particular period, such as fin-de-siècle London and the years before the Great War, to see how past generations of writers reacted to acts of aggression in times of perceived peace.

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Congo odyssey

Congo trading steamer c 1890 [Public Domain]
Congo trading paddle steamer c 1890 [Public Domain]
Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
Introduction and Notes by Owen Knowles
Penguin Classics 2007 (1899)

The Dark Continent. Darkest Africa. How often do we still — more than a century later — hear these terms bandied about. Though it’s often assumed that the phrases have racist connotations the original intention seems to be that much of the heart of Africa was still unknown territory as far as Europeans were concerned. And why were they concerned? Because at the root of European imperialist dreams was the drive to expand and exploit, to extract the commercial potential of a region before your rivals. In a way nothing much has changed in the intervening years.

Heart of Darkness is set in the Belgian Congo (later Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century. But the tenebrosity of the title alludes more to the blackness of white men’s hearts than to the interior of Africa. The novella begins, unexpectedly,
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