Here is the second of my duo of Stephen Spender poems. I don’t know much about the background – it could have been written any time in the 1930s (“the failure of banks”) or the 1940s (“explode like a shell”). It shares with the last one, “The North”, the repeated reference to extreme cold. The snow here is perhaps only metaphorical though, unlike that in “The North”; it is a metaphor for the natural world – a world in which grief, pain and hunger treat all equally regardless of former privilege. These natural forces will obliterate and cleanse the mistakes of humankind and lead to renewed hope.
One of the set reading pieces for the MSc in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine that I am studying is a paper by Peter Galison entitled “Einstein’s Clocks: the Place of Time”. In it, Galison challenges the commonly-held view that Einstein’s “day job” in the Swiss patent office was irrelevant to his role as the originator of the revolutionary Special Theory of Relativity (SR). He points out that, at around the time Einstein was working on his new ideas of space and time, large numbers of public clocks were being electromagnetically synchronised – in his home town of Bern, Switzerland, as well as on some railway lines – and that this might have acted as a stimulus to his thoughts about simultaneity. Furthermore, Einstein had some specialist knowledge of electro-mechanical equipment through his father’s firm, Einstein & Cie, which made electricity meters; and in his job at the patent office he would have seen patent applications for all manner of clock synchronisation devices.
I have been waiting for a long time to post this poem. There are two reasons for the delay; for one, the subject matter made it inappropriate to post in the height of summer when I started the blog. The second is more interesting.
Here’s a real police notice. But it seems to have been designed by someone not terribly used to doing these things. Look at the random capitalisation and the Tolkienesque “Help us catch them all”. And what on earth is “total policing”? What a meaningless phrase! A line at the bottom of the poster informs us that this operation is called “Operation Withern”. What do we need to know that for?
Sadly, we will see more and more of this sort of thing as the design of public notices falls more and more to people with limited command of the language and little idea of how to communicate.
Next to the checkout at Sainsbury’s in Gower Street is a notice with the heading “Polite Customer Notice”.
Well, it’s a notice all right; and it’s certainly for customers; but why “polite”?
It occurs to me that the people who make these notices nowadays may be unaware that the practice of starting a notice with the words “POLITE NOTICE” in block capitals, was originally intended to make the hasty reader think it said “POLICE NOTICE” – since at one time there used to be genuine notices with such headings, although maybe not nowadays. Typically these were to be seen outside people’s houses telling drivers not to park there. The practice has been handed down, and its original purpose forgotten; nowadays people trot it out without thinking that, since one would not be likely to display an “IMPOLITE NOTICE”, the word is pretty well superfluous.
In his landmark “Two Cultures” lecture in 1959, C.P.Snow spoke of the mutual isolation of scientific culture and “traditional” (i.e. literary) culture, on the basis of his experience in the academic circles of Cambridge. During the war, he had had occasion to interview a large number of scientists and engineers, and found them in general to be poorly read. As further evidence of this schizm, he pondered whether there had been much talk at High Table about “the discovery at Columbia by Yang and Lee” … “one of the most astonishing discoveries in the whole history of science” which had occurred two years previously. “Was it? I wasn’t here: but I should like to ask the question” was his own answer, but he was clearly implying that it was unlikely to have been a hot topic outside the physics community.