‘Sunburn’ – a new historical project.

Eleonore_Noll-Hasenclever,_etwa_1910How do historians think up their next project? For some, this is a political question, a desire to contribute to contemporary debates and policy; for others it is borne of a deepening intellectual engagement with their existing work, a more fundamental question to ask of the same topics and for some (and there is nothing wrong with this) it’s an accident of research or chance meeting that decides a future trajectory.

I’m sure that there are more,
but those three summarise the path I have trodden since it became apparent that I wanted to move away from histories of outdoor leisure. I knew that I wanted to contribute to debates about humans and the environment of which they are a part, and that I wanted to do so in ways that brought together a cultural history of human behaviour and its meanings with those of science and environmental understanding. Yet it still took a story to jump out at me and point to a direction.  This is that story.

Sometime around 1900, Eleanore Noll, a young German woman studying at a private girl’s school in Lausanne, Switzerland, got a visit from her mother. Noll was not there, but friends at the school told her mother to go to the famous Swiss Alpine village of Zermatt. There, on the train station platform, the two met – Eleanore, according to the story, was stood there, dressed in men’s trousers, smoking a cigarre, her face tanned brown. As explanation all she could offer was the answer – ‘Mother – I’ve become a mountaineer!’.

The story goes that Eleanore could not be persuaded to quit – and her mother instead convinced her to stop smoking in return for funding basic equipment. Within a few years, Eleanor Noll became an expert mountaineer, and as the image tells us, not afraid to challenge the gendered norms of the period in clothing or marriage. In 1909 we find her walking up to a difficult ridge traverse after taking the Montenvers train up the hillside from Chamonix. On the way her own group – composed of her male mountaineering friends – met another. ‘French women’ she later wrote, ‘wrapped in flowing veils, balanced along the narrow path carved in the rock on high white stillettos. And what for all the squealing! The poor guides were full of panic. And the way in which they looked down on us – black-burnt people, whose clothes told much from struggles with wind and weather, with rock and ice. And then we heard one exclaim in French “my god, it’s a woman!”, the other “But no, it’s an Englishman with his three guides”. There we were up there, my climbing partners as mountain guides, and me as an Englishman.’

For the women Noll met – un-emancipated from their clothes, assumptions and, implicitly at least, from marriage (think about the veil…) – it was unimaginable that a woman in the Alps could be tanned – the colour of Noll’s skin was at least as important a gender marker as her clothes. For Noll, however, her brown face was a symbol of her mountaineering expertise; evidence for long periods in the high mountains, without the protection of a veil.

What I think Noll recorded here was the cusp of a significant social and cultural change in attitudes to the skin’s reaction to ultraviolet light, a change which had profound consequences – good and bad – for tourism, coastal environments, medicine, health and even environmentalism. Where in the Victorian era even seaside goers covered themselves in clothes and shade from umbrellas in order to preserve a pale complexion, just one decade after Noll began mountaineering, sunbathing became an integral part of a seaside holiday across Europe.

This history has normally been interpreted as a cultural change associated with skin aesthetics and new cultures of the body in the early-twentieth century. Yet it was also a change in the ways in which a large group of humans (mainly in America and Europe) chose to interact with the environments in which they lived. At the same time as these new cultures of sunlight were emerging in the Alps (the first popular sun-cream, Gletschersalbe, or ‘glacier-cream’, was for mountaineers rather than sunbathers), ‘photogenic’ or ‘chemical’ light had been rapidly put in medical applications that recognised its sterilising impact. ‘Sunshine cures’, developing out of ‘fresh air’ and spa health resorts, emerged in the Alps after 1903, and in 1900, the London Hospital had a ‘light department’, treating bacterial infections and the rashes that often accompany Lupus through the use of treated sunlight and artificial ultraviolet. In the emerging ‘biopolitics’ of the interwar period, such health cures were rapidly picked up by a whole variety of life-reform movements, especially in England and Germany.  Sunbathing took on a spiritual element most famously visualised in the Lichtgebet, or sun-worship image produced by Fidus – the adopted name of the painter Hugo Höppener – which was reproduced by the million and became a central symbol of the 1920s German youth movement. Given the prevalence of rickets in almost all European populations in the early-twentieth century, associations of sunlight with youthfulness and strength had some basis in lived experience – those exposed to sunlight genuinely had stronger bones.

The meanings of ultraviolet in these movements were, as these images suggest, twofold. On the one hand, the practices and results of ultraviolet exposure were experienced as forms of emancipation – naked bathing, popular in Germany in the 1920s, in particular, held meanings of freedom we can detect in the quote from Noll – from conservative dress codes, from the sexual politics that covering genitals was thought to entail, and of youthful strength and beauty. Brown skin – and a full body tan – could thus be appreciated as a symbol of freedom. Yet exposure to ultraviolet also held meanings of purification and cleanliness that were easily adopted and reinterpreted by racially motivated movements – the ability of ultraviolet to purify and sanitise bodies, as well as make them strong, was an integral part of campaign by both the ‘beauty of labour’ and ‘strength through joy’ organisations to racially and physically cleanse Germany’s manual workers; how similar cultures played out, for instance, on America’s segregated beaches remains to be seen.

But a history of ultraviolet opens up so many other issues, too: significant roles in popular culture from alternative dance to an imagination of forensic investigation, in medicine from vitamin D production to skin cancer and (limited) sterilization, and from the banality of plastic deterioration to ozone fears and ultraviolet diplomacy, this most visible of the electromagnetic spectrum’s invisible frequencies has operated at the join between ‘culture’ and ‘environment’ since the late nineteenth century and deserves a history.



The Nepal Earthquake, Class, and Mountaineering.

The recent earthquake in Nepal, the most severe in living memory, is unfolding as verein katholischer bergfuehrer
a tragic event that has, and still will, cause many thousands of deaths amongst some of the poorest in the Nepali population. Amongst those needing to be rescued in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, however, were around 200 mountaineers trapped high on Everest, partly wealthy patrons of the Everest tourist industry, but also mountain guides (Sherpas) from amongst the local community who guide, lead and sometimes organise these expeditions – often with far less pay than their Western counterparts. Some mountaineers have questioned the wisdom of diverting helicopters to this rescue mission which might have been better used to help communities elsewhere in Nepal, and while it is difficult to provide any judgement about decisions like this without experiencing the situation on the ground, it can only be right to focus attention on Nepal’s suffering population. The decision taken by the Nepali government to continue with the expedition season, despite many Sherpas mourning for friends and loved ones on Everest and in their home villages, seems particularly problematic. Before you read the rest of this article, please consider donating to the relief effort: http://www.dec.org.uk/appeals/nepal-earthquake-appeal .

Class relations at a global level are distilled in these mountaineering relationships and the business of mountain tourism in Nepal. It is difficult to think of another situation in which the world’s business and corporate elite come into such close contact with people from poor communities. While Sherpas are relatively well paid [though nowhere near European guides on Everest], life in their home communities is hard – in contrast, climbing Everest costs upwards of $41,000 per person (most of this is fees, equipment and other support staff). The earthquake is not the only recent event to highlight the class antagonism in these relationships. At a similar time last year (2014), an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas at Base Camp (18 mountaineers were killed in the earthquake avalanche this year), and the resultant strike and international attention focussed a long overdue discussion on the pay, compensation, insurance and working conditions for those who actually fix and create the vast sequence of ladders and ropes that allow Everest’s mountaineers to cross some of the most dangerous terrain on earth in relative safety. The previous year to that, in April 2013, a group of Sherpas attacked two elite European climbers who crossed their ropes as these lines were being fixed. Many European climbers failed to understand such aggression, since crossing ropes is common practice in the Alps. But for Sherpas, multiple days spent fixing lines increase the risks to their own lives, and for those on whom families, and even whole village communities rely for an income, any additional risk caused by Europeans is unacceptable – see blog post above. That class tensions contributed to these incidents received ready confirmation from Sherpas’ comments about ‘luxury adventurers’ in the aftermath.

The Sherpas are right to be angry, they are right to organize, and they would not be the first mountain guides to do so. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, when local mountain guides were still relatively poor locals to the Alps, Guides’ organisations routinely operated as militant Trade Unions, organising strikes, campaigning for maintenance of their religious rights to observe Sunday mass, and bargaining with Alpine authorities over pay and conditions. Examples included the Verein Katholischer Bergführer Sölden or the Kalser Führerverein, both representing guides in small valleys in the Eastern Alps regularly visited by German mountaineers.[1] By the 1890s, many guides were challenging the deference and social expectations of wealthy urban mountaineers by refusing to simply adopt their assigned role as representatives of an idyllic and peaceful ‘mountain people’, and instead treating their clients on the basis of social equality. In fact, it is apparent that for the most part the German and Austrian Alpine Club (Alpenverein), which managed the registration and training of guides, could do little to combat these claims to equality, and as Kerwin Lee Klein has noted, guides were one group in the Eastern Alps for whom Socialism could be attractive in the years before WW1.[2] Guides were, it is clear, able to benefit from continuously increasing pay for their highly-skilled and dangerous labour, health and injury insurance schemes which were amongst the first in Europe, extensive training programs, and control over what, exactly, they would be asked to do.[3] Unsurprisingly, these decisions made by the Alpenverein in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries make few references to the militancy of Alpine Guides, and instead represent such generosity as the patronising benevolence of early mountaineers – but it seems difficult not to conclude that guides’ ability to organise and willingness to take collective action contributed to the improvement in working conditions of many guides in the Eastern Alps by 1914. The antagonisms we see on Everest today, then, echo a longer history of mountaineering stretching back over a century.

The tragedy of this week’s earthquake is not separate from the issues of social inequality that are highlighted so flagrantly by mountaineers and guides on Everest, but which are also at the root of Nepal’s relative difficulty in coping with the disaster. Nepal’s economy is not going to be fixed by thinking again about how mountaineering can improve people’s lives in the country, and no improvement in working conditions could have prevented the avalanche that decimated Base Camp. But if Sherpas were paid the same as their European partners (and this is not to deny the strides that have been made in recent years), it is possible that some of the devastation in their home villages might have been prevented and suffering alleviated more rapidly. Perhaps now we might understand why Sherpas have responded with such militancy to their wealthy employers and customers in recent years.

[1] Ötztal Heimatmuseum, exhibition material, summer 2013; Anneliese Gidl, Alpenverein: Die Städter entdecken die Alpen (Böhlau, 2007), pp. 182-3.

[2] Kerwin Lee Klein, ‘A vertical world: the Eastern Alps and modern mountaineering’, The Journal of Historical Sociology, 24 (4), pp. 519-548, p. 520.

[3] Gidl, Alpenverein, pp. 164-177, esp. p. 177; A Hofmann, ‘Der Bergführer-Lehrcurs in Loeben’, MDOeA XI(XXI): (1895), 79-81; Peter Hansen, ‘Modern mountains: The performative consciousness of modernity in Britain, 1870-1940’, in Martin Daunton and Bernhard Rieger, Meanings of Modernity: Britain from the Late-Victorian Era to World War II (Oxford, 2001), pp. 185-202k; Martin Scharfe, Berg-sucht: Eine Kulturgeschichte des Frühen Alpinismus (Böhlau, 2007), pp. 196-224.

The ‘Respectable’ Reaction – The Manchester Ramblers’ Federation and the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, 1932.

What was the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass Sign 1905Trespass?

 Until the late-twentieth century, walkers and climbers in places like the Peak District and Scotland had to put up with being excluded from vast areas of mountains and moorlands, which were ‘protected’ by landowners in the interests of game shooting. A long-running campaign emerged in the mid-nineteenth century to create a principle of free access to these areas for working people, but nothing was achieved for many decades. In 1932, a small group of ramblers, led by the communist British Workers Sports Federation organized a ‘mass trespass’ up the highest moor in the Peak – Kinder Scout. About 400 people took part, and after a resulting fight on the moors, several were arrested. The extremely harsh sentences they received over the coming months provided the access campaign with a new narrative, and almost certainly helped push through the (still very limited) legislation of the late-1930s. But the trespass did not represent the majority of ramblers, and the ‘respectable’ rambling groups who were involved in negotiations over National Parks and access bills disowned the militancy of the BWSF. You can find out more here. What was the reaction of these ‘respectable’ ramblers and how did it shape countryside leisure?

The Manchester Ramblers’ Federation and the Mass Tresspass.

‘A period of more than the usual froth and bubble’ was how Edwin Royce, president of the Manchester Ramblers’ Federation, responded to the mass trespasses and the British Workers’ Sports Federation’s radicalizing presence at the 1932 Winnats Pass demonstration. ‘The year 1932’, he hopefully, but inaccurately predicted, ‘will not be remembered as a red letter year for the rambler’.[1] For the respectable, middle-aged and middle-class men who had installed themselves as the leaders of Manchester’s organized rambling community, the militancy of the mass trespasses were an unconscionable challenge to their authority over campaigns for access and national parks –campaigns which already attracted several thousand people to the annual protest in Derbyshire.

It is easy to dismiss the MRF as representative of a wealthy middle-class rambler, content to submit to the will of game-keepers and able to seek permissions from landowners. Yet the clubs who subscribed to the Federation numbered well over 100, and included not just the clerks and school-teachers who predominated in the Holidays Fellowship and Co-operative Holidays Association. It also represented long-established workers’ rambling clubs, and many women ramblers, though the voices of both were notably excluded from publications. Implicit references in their Handbook and personal letters also suggest that they condoned trespass without explicitly encouraging such activities.[2] They sought compromises with landowners and game-keepers, but from the late 1920s, had become increasingly frustrated by this approach. Instead, their strategy was to force the landowners to the table through legislation, not just in the form of the Access to Mountains Act, but with a new system of National Parks as well. Hence the increasing emphasis on the Winnats Pass demonstrations – planned to be expanded into a ‘Rambler’s Sunday’ of joint protests in 1933.[3]

Their objection to the mass trespass was not due to a disapproval of its aims, or even the supposed illegality of its actions. Rather, Royce and his friends feared that the militant tactics of the mass trespass were representative of a contemporary ‘rambling craze’ which was, at the time, threatening to unseat the organized rambling community. The new ‘hikers’, as the MRF described them, were younger, working men and women who visited the countryside in ways that the male, middle-class leadership of the MRF found intolerable. ‘Hiking’, for the MRF, formed an illegitimate conduct in the outdoors to be contrasted to ‘rambling’ – the two words formed a running controversy in the Manchester Guardian through 1931 and 1932 over the use of the ‘Americanism’ ‘hiking’ to describe a homegrown conduct of ‘rambling’. Beginning around 1928, reports from the MRF Handbook increasingly focused on the supposed transgressions and delinquencies of this group. Harold E. Wild, for example, commented on the ‘misuse’ of ‘one’s freedom over the Derbyshire Hills’ which resulted from ‘noisy young folk “letting off steam”’ – elsewhere, this same group were described as ‘troubadours’ and ‘jazz-band larrikins’, and as ‘hanging in ape-like festoons’ while singing music hall songs and wearing suggestive clothing such as shorts with no shirt.[4]

The concerns of ‘respectable’ ramblers like Royce and Wild were effectively two-fold. On the one hand, they feared that the actions of the new groups in the outdoors, if not regulated, would harm the campaign for access by rendering the activity of rambling illegitimate. On the other, they worried that these new activities would irrevocably alter walking in the outdoors so that it would no longer be the practice in self-development and ‘social re-adjustment’ that they advocated. Thus the actions of the ‘hikers’ and mass-trespassers needed to be distanced from the MRF, and brought under control – and from around 1933, the MRF did indeed manage a set of ‘warden-guides’ in the Peak who were supposed to manage and watch the behavior of walkers over the moors.

These attempts to regulate countryside behavior by the the Manchester Ramblers’ Federation and other organisations such as the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE), represent the beginnings of the regulated forms of countryside conduct that are familiar to us today. Numerous ‘volunteer warden’ schemes were set up in the early 1930s – including, apparently, 8000 recruits in Derbyshire – the first attempts were made (by the CPRE – the Manchester Ramblers’ Federation actually refused to take part) to create a ‘Code of Courtesy for the Countryside’ between 1933 and 1935, and all this from the same groups who were most closely involved in advocating for the Peak District as the first national park.[5] While the Kinder Scout mass-trespass presaged a period of genuine progress on the issues of access to the outdoors, it also served to encourage existing rambling organisations to think more about regulating conduct than promoting freedom, and to establish some of the closely-defined behaviors that characterize so much of outdoors leisure today.

[1] Edwin Royce, ‘Federation Notes’, Manchester Ramblers’ Federation Handbook 1933, p. 85.

[2] See, for example, Wanderbird, ‘The Albatross’, MRF Handbook 1929, pp. 62-63; A. W. Hewitt, ‘The Ramblers’ Federation Manchester and District – Delegates Report, National Council of Ramblers’ Federations Conference (draft)’, London Metropolitan Archives 4287/02/498.

[3] Meeting of the National Council of Rambling Federations 01.10.1932, NCRF Minute book, LMA/4287/02/498.

[4] Harold E. Wild, ‘The Unobtrusive Rambler’, in MRF Handbook 1928, p. 13; Edwin Royce, ‘Federation Notes: This Hiking’, MRF Handbook 1932, p. 10; T. E. Bean, ‘The Complete Rambler’, MRF Handbook 1931, pp. 22-3; Clarion Rambler, ‘The Lost Lands of Derbyshire’, MRF Handbook 1931, p. 25. For more on this, see B. Anderson, ‘A Liberal Countryside? The Manchester Ramblers’ Federation and the “Social Readjustment” of Urban Citizens’, Urban History 38:1 (2011), pp. 84-102.

[5] Letter to CPRE from National Council of Ramblers’ Federations, 01.1935, LMA/4287/02/498; Hewitt, ‘Delegates Report’, p. 2; Turton, ‘Ramblers’ Rights Movement’, LMA/4287/02/498.

Second World Congress of Environmental History, Guimarães, Portugal, 8-12 July 2014

GuimaraesIt is one of the real benefits of this line of employment that we can discover astonishing places that we would never otherwise have dreamed of visiting. My recent visit to the Second World Congress in Environmental History in Guimarães in Portugal definitely fits into that category. Recent urban redevelopment has transformed the city over the last few years, making it greener in both aesthetic and environmental senses, and turning the ‘birthplace’ of Portugal into a tourist hub, replete with the wonderful Santuário da Penha in a boulder-field overlooking the town. Appropriately enough, the conference itself was held in an old tannery reclaimed from pollution by the University of Minho.

Environmental history can be an eclectic topic, and panels ranged from retrospectives on George Perkins Marsh (his book, Man and Nature, celebrated its 150th anniversary this year), to economic analyses of the role of small countries in colonial resource extraction, and visitor flows in Alpine tourist ‘hubs’. Three papers on urban environments and environmentalism caught my attention on Thursday. Anastasia Day’s analysis of American ‘Victory Gardens’ during and after the Second World War revealed a refreshingly optimistic aspect of often-reviled US environmental culture. Christopher Miller demonstrated the environmental impact of abandoned plans, by examining the role of unintentional landlords in slow environmental despoliation, and Alexandro Solorzano examined the forest ‘islands’ of Rio de Janeiro as a ‘novel ecosystem’ – an ecosystem that develops when once-exploited land is simply left to its own devices. While the mystery disappearance of a fourth paper on Berlin was a little disappointing, it was a great panel that spoke of new forms of complexity in urban culture/nature relations.

Later the same day came my own panel. Paul Readman kicked off with a close analysis of the well-known mountaineer and mountain access campaigner James Bryce. He pointed to the intrinsic importance of Bryce’s mountaineering both to his politics and to his public persona. While Bryce might appear as a classic example of the sort of imperial manliness highlighted by Hansen so long ago, Paul argued that Bryce’s enthusiasm for mountain environments derived instead from close inspection and contemplation. Combined with a classically liberal sense that such auto-didactic experience could improve the population, this explained Bryce’s long-standing campaign for access to moorlands and mountains in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Then it was my turn to present a paper on the development of a little-known form of environmentalism known as Ödlandschutz – protection of the wasteland. Amongst a select group of male German mountaineers, mountains became a challenging terrain through which to move; the emphasis in mountaineering, for them, was a kinetic engagement with the terrain, rather than a visual engagement with the view. Consequently, they sought to ‘protect’ the terrain from ‘development’ – which in effect meant not building overly-comfortable huts and paths in the Alps. Yet, as my paper went on to discuss, these elite mountaineers could not escape the economic and cultural systems that had built up around hut and path construction in the late-nineteenth century, and, within a decade, they were manoeuvred into building a large, commercial hut of their own by a combination of local elites, national politics in Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the economics of tourist development.

All in all, an excellent conference – I for one cannot wait for the European Society for Environmental History Conference in Versailles next year!