Thursday, July 30, 2015

smith files no. 3: black smiths

Etymologically, Smith is the working class scion of several Northern European declensions: Old English, Old High German, Middle Dutch, etc. There's Swedish and Danish smed and Icelandic smiður, still used in the general sense we attribute as the original: craftsman or skilled worker in metal, wood or other materials. With the word blackmsith, denoting those who work with iron or steel, the black is thought to refer to the firescale, or firestain — the layer of oxides that forms on the surface of metal when heated.

And as for black Smiths, in the US anyway (where it is the third most common surname amongst black Americans, according to a 2000 census), it is widely understood that the appellation derives from that imposed by slave owning families. In a recently published historical novel, The Abduction of Smith and Smith, by Rashad Harrison:

Maybe it was the way she didn't take his new name, Freeman, and held onto her slave name, Smith. Titus said it was because of Jupiter, and he was right, partly. All the people she knew and loved were called Smith. Most of them she would never see again. Yes, she was no longer in bondage, but she did not want to see that chain to be broken. And she liked that when she thought of Smith work came to mind—work on a higher plane than the toils of slavery. Work that was respected: there was skill and craft, heat and hammer in it. She considered playing with the spelling: maybe a silent "e" at the end, something to distinguish her from all the other unrelated Smiths. For all of Titus' symbolic name changing, she thought it was tragically ironic that he would call himself Freeman in a country where he still was not truly free.

The historian Mary Thompson has countered that "it is a myth that most enslaved blacks bore the last name of their owner". This from an article in (I know) the Daily Mail, in which a black Washington, Jesse, examines why ninety percent of US residents bearing his surname are black (it topped the list in that same 2000 census category). Jesse Washington's claim is that his surname was frequently adopted as a synonym for freedom and emancipation, a version of history that is intriguing while its implications are discomforting. From Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington's autobiography:

From the time when I could remember anything, I had been called simply "Booker." Before going to school it had never occurred to me that it was needful or appropriate to have an additional name. When I heard the school-roll called, I noticed that all of the children had at least two names, and some of them indulged in what seemed to me the extravagance of having three. I was in deep perplexity, because I knew that the teacher would demand of me at least two names, and I had only one. By the time the occasion came for the enrolling of my name, an idea occurred to me which I thought would make me equal to the situation; and so, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him "Booker Washington," as if I had been called by that name all my life; and by that name I have since been known. Later in my life I found that my mother had given me the name of "Booker Taliaferro" soon after I was born, but in some way that part of my name seemed to disappear and for a long while was forgotten, but as soon as I found out about it I revived it, and made my full name "Booker Taliaferro Washington." I think there are not many men in our country who have had the privilege of naming themselves in the way that I have.

The black American theorist Molefi Kete Asanti was born Arthur Lee Smith, Jr. He changed it while visiting the University of Ghana in 1973. He was subsequently appointed the head of communications at SUNY Buffalo, at the age of 30. Asanti may be best known for popularising the term Afrocentricity, which he appropriated from the sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1980, Asanti published Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change. As he has explained in a recent interview with Yoshitake Miike:

"I chose the term Afrocentricity to emphasize the fact that African people had been moved off of terms for the past five hundred years. In other words, Africans were not simply removed from Africa to the Americas, but Africans were separated from philosophies, languages, religions, myths, and cultures. Separations are violent and are often accompanied with numerous changes in individuals and groups. Finding a way to relocate or to reorient our thinking was essential to the presentation of African cultural reality. In fact, without such a reorientation, Africans have nothing to bring to the table of humanity but the experiences of Europeans, those who initially moved Africans off of social, cultural, and psychological terms."

The year before Asanti changed his name, Apollo 17 launched from the Kennedy Space Center. In the VIP area was a centenarian called Charlie Smith, who claimed to be the oldest in the US though lots of probing into his records has proved this to be of dubious veracity. "Th' ain't nobody goin' t' no moon. Me, you, or anybody else", Smith cracked to the reporters. And, after the launch: "I see they goin' somewhere, but that don't mean nothin'." Smith, also known as Mitchell Watkins, claimed to have been born in 1842 in Liberia, and brought to the US at 12 where he was sold to a Texas rancher in New Orleans. In 1967, Time ran an article describing the "spry ex-slave" as running a small soda and candy shop, where he "thrives on raw sausages, crackers, 7UP, and telling people how old he is". Out of patriotism or uncertainty, according to Time, he celebrated his birthday on the 4th of July. In 1978, his highly embellished life story was told in a 90-minute episode of the PBS series 'Visions' entitled "Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree". In it, Smith arrives to America in 1854, following the promise of fritter trees. After being tricked into and escaping from slavery, he heads west, where he rides alongside Jesse James and chases Billy the Kid. Smith took his tall tale to the grave; in Barstow, Polk County, Florida, it is written in stone: 'America's Oldest Man'.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015


To endure fatigue is to be overcome by a particular weariness, one brought on by labour, toil, strife. Fatigue is a form of tiredness that hurts, and one that is earned. Its soreness can be a special kind of pleasure. In the army, a fatigue is a task of the most menial, least skilled type. To be on fatigue duty is a drudgery, perhaps a punishment; a group of soldiers burdened such are a fatigue-party. In plural, fatigues is an abbreviation for fatigue-dress, used since the 1800s to describe work clothes including boiler suits to cover and protect uniforms. From Dragoon Campaigns to the Rocky Mountains (1836): "We have not yet received our uniforms..but even in our ‘fatigues’, we make an imposing appearance when mounted." The term fatigues is now commonly used, particularly in America, to refer to combat uniforms themselves. Fatigues imply battledress, distinct from the formal military costume worn in parades and functions. The pared-down American OG-107 uniform, used from 1952 through the '80s, may come to mind. These are jungle fatigues, the clothing worn by both Vietnam veterans and conscientious objectors, in camouflage or greyish green (in fact, the OG-107 comes from 'Olive Green 107', a standardised army hue). Simple, button-front, patch pocket shirt, worn tucked or outside of straight leg trousers. Patrol cap. Bayonet. The 140th episode of Seinfeld is called 'The Fatigues'. In it, Elaine is intent on firing the company's negligent mailroom clerk, Eddie Sherman, until she meets him in person and is immediately intimidated by his way of dress. Motley tattoos poke out from his camouflage vest, which is ripped at the shoulder. He has a wild look in his eye and a gruff voice. The fatigues suggest that every day is a battle. "I'm so sorry," stutters Elaine, making select eye contact and looking like she could be sick, "but I'm afraid we're going to have to… promote you". Jump to a scene of decompression at the diner with Jerry. "Copywriter", Elaine reveals defensively. "Well, he can't be any worse than the pointless drivel we normally churn out." Later, in his first catalogue copy meeting, Eddie offers the following narrative text: "It's a hot night. The mind races. You think about your knife. The only friend who hasn't betrayed you. The only friend who won't be dead by sun-up. Sleep tight, mates, in your quilted chambray nightshirts." Eddie's bellicose deportment is reminiscent of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, from 1976, who wore a M-1965 field jacket with mohawk and aviator shades. But Woody Allen wore a field jacket, too, as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, released the following year. Alvy's battles are internal, or domestic — and then, engaged reluctantly, with an escaped lobster or an opinionated patron in a cinema queue. "In the event of war", says Alvy, "I'm a hostage." As for his style, Alvy is a nerd, perhaps with waspy aspirations, but his version of preppy often edges on the egalitarian, or at least the socialist professor: check shirts, corduroy, thick black specs, tweed, that field jacket. Alvy's idiosyncratic sensibilities are accentuated by the cloak of his common clothes. Enter 'fatigues' into Google Images and Prince Harry is the first model to appear. While Harry is also photographed in decorations and starched whites, it is fatigues that seem to suit him, and his image as the young royal with the common touch. He grins from under his fatigues. The royal press relations team has been nailing it for a decade now, it seems. The likeableness of Prince Harry is a triumph. He's been cast as a part time donkey. As Nietzsche put it, "You will never get the crowd to cry Hosanna until you ride into town on an ass". In material science, fatigue is structural damage to metals and other solid substances due to repeated, cyclical load bearing. A fatigue limit is a threshold of endurance. More recently, the word was specified, when used with a prefixed noun, to denote apathy with respect to a particular phenomenon: foreign aid fatigue (1964), mall fatigue (1991), 'Africa fatigue' (2000)… In French, of course, fatigué also means tired. A couple of years ago, Bertrand, a handsome young man visiting from Lyon, slumped against my door and told me he was exhausted and full from overeating. I assured him that he was indeed a fatty gay.

Top to bottom: According to, an iteration of the OG-107 uniform, still worn in 1984; Alvy Singer with Marshall McLuhan and pontifical moviegoer; material fatigue; cheval fatigué

Saturday, July 25, 2015

smith files no. 2: strata smith

William, not Will, but 'Strata' to some, Smith was born in 1769 to a respectable blacksmith called John. Beginning as an assistant to a Gloucestershire surveyor then working for the Somersetshire Coal Canal Company in one of their oldest mines, the Mearns Pit at High Littleton, William Smith would go on to create the first nationwide geological map. His cross-section renderings of the vertical extents of strata earned him his nickname. By 1799, charting the first large-scale geological map of the vicinity of Bath, he had developed the stratigraphical skill to display rock outcrops horizontally by using colour coding. Smith's relatively humble origins stunted him; his maps were plagiarised and undersold by the Geological Society of London. He even spent time in a debtor's prison in 1819, and it was a slow crawl to 1831, when the same organisation that aped his work bestowed him with a medal and the accolade 'the father of English geology'. Between 1824 and 1826, he was responsible for building the Rotunda, the geological museum in Yorkshire, now known as Rotunda - The William Smith Museum of Geology. A formative fossil collection of Smith's belongs to the British Museum. He died in 1839 in Northampton, where his grave now resides, its inscription severely weathered.

Friday, July 24, 2015

silence is like fertile soil / with my back to the world

It's satisfyingly disappointing weather, overcast. On certain evenings you can't decipher the sun setting, and everyone seems to have disappeared. No lights on in the other windows in my building, so that the pale walls match the pale lawn match the pale sky and it's as if, as Nina Simone sang, everyone's gone to the moon. In the morning I sit in the almost-light. A sheet is spread through the room drying, as though it is protecting furniture in an empty house, but it covers nothing. I hear the sound of rubbish collectors taking away bins full of stuff apparently thrown away by ghosts.

Settle into the overcast. It helps one feel solitary. The grey sky is a melancholic's blanket. Its rips threaten rain.

There may still be some time left to catch the last of these Arvo Pärt Composer of the Week episodes on Radio 3. Also, if you haven't yet, do read Olivia Laing's Guardian piece on Agnes Martin. Think about her drives through the dry, wide desert.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

about about

One of the things about going back to school is, you get asked what your work is about. The danger seems to be missing the point, straying from it, or not having one in the first place. I was asked about an admittedly confused piece, ostensibly regarding authenticity and electricity in West London: what (exasperation) is this ABOUT? I was warned that publishers and editors would want to know what proposed work was about. I can understand the concern but started getting paranoid that everyone was always waiting for a précis I couldn't give, as if they expected the leftovers I was heating up could be made into a reduction.

It's the kind of thing I'm prone to saying aloud: I'm just, like, heating up leftovers.

Aboutness is a common criteria. There's that plebian critique: well, I don't know what THAT was about. Children and criminals are greeted with a patronising chastisement, as if they can't fully cognate the purpose of their actions (or they're covering up): well, what's this all about?

But the word itself might be considered a contronym, or auto-antonym, that rarest of word types whose valences include its equal and opposite meaning. About can be used to indicate the precise matter at hand, but can also imply circling around (he's somewhere about); to be in proximity, but diffuse (they're scattered about); even to shift to the opposite tack (once used in the naval phrase about ship, and still that basic military command: about face).

This reminds me of another word, discursive, which is brandished frequently in academia, nearly always leaving me uncertain which sense the speaker intended (as, according to the Oxford English Dictionary):

- of reasoned argument; logical


- that passes from one subject to another; digressive

…or both. Which is possible, of course.

What was I talking about?

About can also mean near. I'm about to explode. Aboutness becomes a site of exhilarating frustration; in masturbation, it's called edging. But it's also a place of boredom, stagnation. Let's not hang about.

These, then, are the kinds of things I think when asked the question, the simple question: About? I think instead of transitions (as if sentences and paragraphs can flow like songs in a playlist). When I do articulate a subject, I am never satisfied with the word I've settled on, even as it appeases others. I hear myself saying all the time it's ostensibly about ____________, but… Another recurring answer: it's kind of all over the place, as if a written piece should be well-mannered and keep to one location, whereas mine requires an apology for its itinerant tendencies.

About? I could be a smartass and retort, in which sense do you mean? That would just be annoying for everyone. But, secretly true: I like the sense of the word that means nearness — it suggests potential. …about to take off, to go off the rails, about to take form, lose it, give birth, have kittens, be run over, about to explode, about to explain, about to start, about to expire.

Then at least, in this sense of potentiality, I could safely argue my piece was actually about something — always about to become something else.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015