Saturday, April 29, 2023

Suggested reading: Will press lever for food

Cain by Henri Vidal

Cain having just murdered his brother Abel by Henri Vidal, 1896, Tuileries Garden, Paris. Photo credit: Alex E. Proimos; image source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0 (Attribution 2.0 Generic)

1. Gen Z

Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z, and whatever comes after: generational labeling has never been so prevalent. But do generational labels and their accompanying generalizations really tell us anything that's not obvious?

In "Gen Z and Me" [1], Joe Moran, professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, points out that some generational differences are real (though their significance is another matter). In communication styles and the use of technology, for example, (most) members of Gen Z differ from (most) members of previous generations. In general, Gen Z derides email (requires too much time to read or write) and has developed elaborate unwritten rules defining online etiquette. The political attitudes of (many) members of Gen Z on issues such as gender and sexual identity, privacy, racial justice and climate change can also differ from those of (at least some) members of previous generations. But Moran points to two recent books that draw contrasting conclusions about what these technological and attitudinal differences really mean.

In Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age (University of Chicago Press, 2021), a Stanford anthropologist (Roberta Katz), an Oxford linguist (Sarah Ogilvie), an Oxford historian (Jane Shaw) and a Lancaster University—now King's College London—sociologist (Linda Woodhead) use interviews with college students try to explain Gen Z to everyone else. Moran writes that, according to Gen Z Explained, the members of Gen Z have

created rich and hard-to-penetrate subcultures. What they mostly like to do, the book argues, is to collaborate in leaderless groups. They use digital tools to create shared documents, sync their calendars, write and read fan fiction, play games together. They use apps to organise lift-sharing, couch-surfing and political activism. The authors further 'explain' Generation Z by pointing to the intricate language and etiquette of their online lives. Post-millennials can quickly convey their pleasure or displeasure through memes. They use emojis as a 'social lubricant' and bracket words with asterisks and tildes for emphasis and irony. Whether they write 'k' or 'kk' to mean 'OK' is charged with meaning. The first is curt; the second is cheerful and casual, a way to temper the brusqueness of the single letter. These tonal shadings matter because post-millennials like to state their intentions clearly. Self-labelling, especially of fine-grained sexual and gendered identities, has become an 'imperative'. They think it important to be themselves, to admit their struggles and vulnerabilities, to say what they mean. In the iGen Corpus, a digital data bank compiled by Ogilvie of seventy million words used by post-millennials, terms such as real, true, honest and fake occur far more often than in general language use.

But being earnest, creating subcultures and language that are impenetrable to people your parents' age and using technology that befuddles them are all just part of being in your teens and early twenties. Earlier generations did the same things, while members of their parents' generation rolled their eyes, complained, or thought that it heralded the end of civilization:

  • Gen Zers spend too much of their time bent over their phones texting their friends? "Youth is the age when people are most devoted to their friends or relations or companions, as they are then extremely fond of social intercourse and have not yet learnt to judge their friends or indeed anything else by the rule of expediency."
  • The mocking memes and references Gen Zers exchange seem bizarre? "If the young commit a fault, it is always on the side of excess and exaggeration. . .they carry everything too far, whether it be their love or hatred or anything else. . .Finally, they are fond of laughter and consequently facetious, facetiousness being a more cultivated form of insolence."
  • They are far too ready to take offense? "They are passionate, irascible and apt to be carried away by their impulses."
  • Their self-righteousness is irritating? "They think they know everything and are absolutely sure in their assertions; this is in fact the reason of their carrying everything too far."
  • They seize on and abandon trends with bewildering rapidity? "They are changeable too and fickle in their desires, which are as transitory as they are vehement; for their wishes are keen without being permanent, like a sick man's fits of hunger and thirst."

As you may have suspected, the quotes above are taken from a source written a few generations back: they're from Aristotle's Rhetoric, written two and a half millennia ago in the 4th century BCE. [2] For a compendium of similarly parallel comments about Gen Y/Millennials and the youth of previous generations, see "People have always whinged about young adults. Here's proof." [3]

In The Generation Myth: Why When You're Born Matters Less Than You Think (Basic, 2021, published in the UK as Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are?), King's College London professor of public policy Bobby Duffy "argues that the discourse around generational difference is 'a mixture of fabricated battles and tiresome clichés'." In Duffy's view, most "generational difference" is a "lifecycle effect":

Sociologists give three explanations for the change in people’s attitudes and behaviours over time: period effects, lifecycle effects and cohort effects. Period effects describe change across all age groups: the result of sweeping societal shifts. Lifecycle effects describe change resulting from the ageing process or in response to key events such as leaving home, becoming a parent or retiring. Cohort effects describe change that results from shared generational experiences. Duffy, a professor of public policy, argues that the current discussion attributes too much to cohort effects and not enough to period and lifecycle effects.

In other words, many of what seem unbridgeable differences between older generations and Gen Z have to do with the phase of life, late adolescence and young adulthood, that Gen Z is passing through. Older people judge younger people not in comparison to the way they actually behaved when they were the same age, but in comparison to an idealized memory distorted by the way they are today: older, sadder, perhaps wiser, and probably further behind the technological curve.

One common complaint about (many) members of Gen Z is their sense of entitlement. Teachers complain that students seem to want infinitely flexible deadlines and to receive good grades no matter what their actual effort or achievement. This isn't because Gen Z members are uniquely lazy or incompetent, but because students have vastly more leverage now than in the past.

What grades really mean cartoon by Jorge Cham

"What grades really mean," by Jorge Cham, 2014. Image source: Piled Higher and Deeper (

2. "Liking" good grades

Grades have little to do with learning. They do not measure it, and if anything the emphasis placed on grades (a short-term goal based on punishment for failure) is actually counterproductive to expanding students' knowledge and capacities (a long-term and cumulative project based on engaging and rewarding curiosity).

There's another way in which grades are a meaningless measure: they shift over time so that similar levels of proficiency receive ever-higher levels of assessment. Grade inflation is real, but it is not the fault of either students or instructors. It is the inescapable result of our dysfunctional system of funding higher education. As Lorna Finlayson writes about the UK higher education system in "Everyone Hates Marking" [4]:

The proportion of firsts [first-class honours degrees] has more than doubled in the last ten years: it's simply not plausible that the overall standard of education has risen dramatically in this period. What has changed is the marketisation of universities, which introduced pressures that make so-called inflation inevitable, linking institutions' material fortunes to league table positions while financially incentivising the 'recruitment' of as many students as possible.

In both the US and Britain, state support of public higher education has plummeted. This has been a long-term trend over the past several decades, and its negative effects are now unavoidable. Colleges and universities are expected to make up the difference between lower levels of state support and ever-higher operating expenses by enrolling more students and charging higher tuition. In order to attract more students and charge them more, schools have to compete with each other in catering to their wants.

Of course, it's a Catch-22: more students require more dorms, more classrooms, more instructors, more support staff, and more library books, increasing costs further. And raising tuition is not only directly counter to the mission of public universities to provide an affordable education to every state resident who qualifies, it burdens students with ever-higher levels of debt.

Most of the additional instructors who are being hired to teach these larger undergraduate cohorts are part-time, non-tenure track adjunct lecturers. Since they generally have no research responsibilities, their continued employment from semester to semester is dependent almost entirely on good student evaluations of their teaching. However, student evaluations do not correlate with learning and have been shown to exhibit systematic gender, age, and racial bias. In addition, instructors who are perceived to be "tough graders" receive lower evaluations, particularly if they are women. [5]

Since it's so strongly in the economic interest of colleges and universities to enlarge enrollments, it's no mystery why grades for similar levels of proficiency keep moving up the scale: we have created a system in which, to remain employed, instructors must chase "likes" from their students. And students like good grades.

Will press lever for food cartoon by Craig Swanson

"Will press lever for food" by Craig Swanson. Image source: Perspicuity (

3. The Reaction Economy

This is an example of what William Davies terms "The Reaction Economy" [6]. He writes,

The behaviourist tradition that came to dominate American psychology in the 20th century, pioneered by John B. Watson after the First World War and later identified with B.F. Skinner, was established with the explicit aim of rendering human responses predictable and thereby controllable. Psychology would abandon any theory of mind in favour of data on observable behaviour. Behaviourists imagined a wholly conditioned, programmable person. . .

The behaviourist tradition has revealed a lot about how humans (and other animals) respond to different stimuli. . .But it tells us nothing about the vast amounts of time and labour that societies such as ours now invest in actively trying to generate and capture reactions of various kinds, not just in science laboratories or hospitals, but across the economy, public sphere and civil society.

On the contrary: far from telling us nothing about the reaction economy, behaviorism's explicit goal is "predictable and thereby controllable" responses; think of laboratory rats pressing levers for a reward. And the biggest behaviorist experiment in human history is currently underway. On social media, search engines and other commercial sites companies track your "engagement," clicks and "likes," and sell your attention to advertisers based on predictions of your behavior. Your responses to the ads you see become more data points in an endless feedback loop. This system has been memorably described by social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff as "surveillance capitalism." And the engine driving it is the technology sector centered in Northern California that since at least 1970 has been called Silicon Valley.

Apple new campus building in Cupertino, California

Cupertino, California: Aerial photo of Apple new campus building, April 13, 2017. Photo credit: Uladzik Kryhin. Image source: Shutterstock

4. Silicon Valley

The man who founded what became Silicon Valley was William Shockley. As a researcher at Bell Labs in New Jersey after World War II Shockley co-invented the transistor, for which he and his colleagues jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956. That same year he founded Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View, California, in what was then known as the Santa Clara Valley. A key reason for Shockley's choice of location: his mother lived in Palo Alto, home of Stanford University and the next town over as you headed north from Mountain View towards San Francisco.

Shockley had a good eye for talent, but as John Lanchester writes in "Putting the Silicon in Silicon Valley" [7], he was "an outstandingly horrible human being." He divorced his wife when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer, he actively promoted racist and eugenicist views, and few could stand to work with or for him. Just a year after the founding of Shockley Semiconductor eight of its leading researchers left to found a rival company, Fairchild Semiconductor. A decade later two of the eight, Robert Noyce (co-inventor of the integrated circuit) and Gordon Moore (formulator of Moore's Law) split off from Fairchild to form Intel. Along with Texas Instruments, Fairchild and Intel dominated microchip design for decades.

But manufacturing chips was expensive, even in the low-wage nonunion states to which these companies moved their production, and in 1968 to increase profits Texas Instruments built a chip fabrication plant in Taiwan. Lanchester writes, "The investment would also give the US a stake in defending Taiwan, at a time when America’s enthusiasm for Asian military adventures was at a low ebb. TI committed to build their Taiwan fab [fabrication plant] in 1968. In 1980 they shipped their billionth chip. A new strategy was in place."

A key figure in the strategic integration of Taiwan into the microchip supply chain and thus the US military perimeter was a man named Morris Chang. Born in mainland China in 1931, he emigrated to the US in 1949, and after getting bachelor's and master's degrees at MIT and a TI-sponsored PhD at Stanford, eventually became vice-president in charge of TI's microchip division.

After leaving TI, in 1987 Chang founded the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which for decades has produced many of the most advanced microchips. Advanced microchips are crucial to the development of new military technologies, including AI.


Risk 60th Anniversary Edition Board Game created by by Albert Lamorisse and produced by Hasbro. Image source: Best Buy

5. Meet the new strategy, same as the old strategy

A major driver of China's interest in absorbing Taiwan is that by seizing the world's most advanced microchip fabrication plants it would control the chip supply to the rest of the world—most especially the US—and gain a large technological and military advantage.

As Lanchester writes,

China has to import powerful microchips. The numbers involved are substantial. For most of this century, China has spent more money on importing microchips than it has on importing oil. . .China is acutely aware of its dependence on the West in this area.

In October 2022, the Biden administration instituted a ban on advanced microchip exports to China by US companies and any foreign companies that use US microchips—in practice, a global ban (although enforcing it is another question).

This has disturbing parallels with the events leading up to World War II in the Pacific. In July 1940 the US placed an aviation fuel and scrap iron embargo on an expansionist Japan that had already brutally invaded and occupied Manchuria and was in renewed conflict with China. In September 1940 Japan allied itself with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The US imposed a total oil embargo in August 1941; four months later on 7 December Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and a month after that invaded the Dutch East Indies, a major producer of rubber and oil. [8]

Lanchester concludes,

The chip ban has been described as a 'declaration of economic war'. And perhaps not only economic war. The assumption in military circles is that AI is going to be crucial to the next wave of innovation in warfare. The AI revolution will depend on new chip technology. The second Cold War is going to be a military-technological contest just like the first one, and once again semiconductors are going to be central. We are starting to get glimpses of what that might look like, with the first arrivals of drone swarms on battlefields. Coming soon: unmanned vehicles, fire-and-forget missiles, 'loitering munition systems' and facial recognition assassination drones. Advanced chips are as crucial to the process of designing new weapons systems as to the weapons themselves, because the majority of testing for these systems is done on computers. Fingers crossed that all this helps with avoiding World War Three.

Yeah—embargoes worked so well at heading off World War II.

Update 5 July 2023: An article in The Guardian today, "Chip Wars" by Amy Hawkins, reports that the Biden administration is considering expanding existing restrictions to include some less advanced chips, as well as some cloud services. The Netherlands, home of advanced-chip maker ASML, is also expected to increase its restrictions. On 30 June the Dutch government announced that export restrictions on photolithography equipment manufactured by ASML that is used to etch circuits onto microchips would go into effect on 1 September.

  1. London Review of Books, Vol. 45, No. 4, 16 February 2023:
  2. The Rhetoric of Aristotle, translated, with an analysis and critical notes, by J.E.C. Welldon. Macmillan, 1886, Book II, Section xii, pp. 164-166 (translation slightly altered).
  3. Amanda Ruggeri, "People have always whinged about young adults. Here's proof." BBC Worklife, 2 October 2017.
    See also: John Protzko and Jonathan W. Schooler, 2019, "Kids these days: Why the youth of today seem lacking," Science Advances, Vol. 5, No. 10:eaav5916.;
    Jessica Kitt, 2013, "Kids These Days: An Analysis of the Rhetoric against Youth across Five Generations,"
  4. London Review of Books, Vol. 45, No. 6, 16 March 2023.
  5. Heather E. Campbell, 2019, "JPAE at 25: Looking back and moving forward on teaching evaluations," Journal of Public Affairs Education, Vol. 25, Issue 1, pp. 23-29, DOI:
  6. London Review of Books, Vol. 45, No. 5, 2 March 2023.
  7. London Review of Books, Vol. 45, No. 6, 16 March 2023.
  8. See "The Revolutionary Pacifism of A.J. Muste: On the Backgrounds of the Pacific War," in Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins: Historical and Political Essays, Pantheon, 1969, pp. 159-220.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

"Ragged and dirty, and covered with vermin": The Mudlark

DVD cover of The Mudlark (1950). Image source:

The (modern) mudlarks

My partner follows on social media a loosely affiliated group of amateur (and sometimes professional) historians and archaeologists who call themselves mudlarks. Modern mudlarks comb the foreshore of the River Thames looking for artifacts from the past: Roman coins or mosaic fragments, medieval pilgrim badges, Tudor signet rings, Stuart pottery shards, Georgian clay pipes, Regency shoe buckles, Victorian pub tokens, and buttons, handmade pins, keys, bottles, and other objects from the everyday life of many eras. Below Teddington Lock (about halfway between Windsor and central London) the Thames is a tidal river, with a maximum difference of about 7.5 meters (nearly 25 feet) between high and low tides at London's Tower Bridge, according to the Port of London's 2023 Tide Tables. As a result of this powerful daily surge of millions of gallons of water, detritus from the river accumulates on the foreshore with every tide.

The modern mudlarks have formed an association (the Society of Thames Mudlarks) and submit any find that is sufficiently ancient or valuable to the Museum of London for review. While some metal-detectorists also work the foreshore, true mudlarks rely solely on keen eyesight (aided, perhaps, by headlamps in the dawn and evening hours) to discover their treasures.

The Mudlark DVD cover

Malcolm Russell, in Wellingtons, kneepads and headlamp, mudlarking on the north shore of the Thames River in the City of London near the Cannon Street Railway Bridge. Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis. Image source: Thames & Hudson

There are several fascinating books about mudlarking and how serendipitous finds of cast-off, lost or broken objects illuminate the social and cultural history of the metropolis. Among the many books on mudlarking my partner recommends:

Cover of Mudlark by Lara Maiklem

Image source: The New Yorker

  • Lara Maiklem: Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames, Liveright, 2021. From the jacket: "interweaving reflections from her own life with meditations on the art of wandering, Maiklem ultimately delivers. . .a timeless treatise on the objects we leave in our wake, and the stories they can reveal if only we take a moment to look."
Cover of Mudlarkd by Malcolm Russell

Image source: Princeton University Press

  • Malcolm Russell: Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories from the River Thames, Princeton University Press, 2022. Russell's profusely illustrated book tells "stories of forgotten people told through lost objects," covering enslaved people and immigrants; "mollies," "toms," courting couples and sex workers; artists and entertainers; criminals and addicts; street sellers, hawkers and quacks, among other urban subcultures.
Cover of Thames Mudlarking by Jason Sandy and Nick Stevens

Image source:

  • Jason Sandy and Nick Stevens: Thames Mudlarking: Searching for London's Lost Treasures, Shire, 2021. With Stevens' photographs on every page, this slim volume (under 100 pages) spans millennia, describing objects from prehistory to the (near-)present. It features chapters on megafauna, ritual offerings, medieval society, disasters, drinking culture, and World War II, among others.

(Left) A late-Victorian-era skirt lifter to keep the hems of women's dresses from getting soiled in the streets; (right) an 1899 halfpenny with "Votes for Women" stamped over Queen Victoria's profile. From Malcolm Russell: Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories from the River Thames. Image source: Thames & Hudson

The (Victorian) mudlarks

But 150 years ago mudlarking was something very different. In the 19th century the Thames was not only a working waterway packed with steamships, sailing vessels and coal barges, but also London's open sewer, where human and animal waste was dumped. What is now Farringdon Street/A201 was previously a canal known as Fleet Ditch, which ran from Hampstead through King's Cross, Clerkenwell and Holborn to the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. Until it was finally covered over in the 19th century, Fleet Ditch flowed past Smithfield Meat Market, whose offal would be swept into the Fleet and washed into the Thames with every rainstorm, as graphically described in Jonathan Swift's poem "A Description of a City Shower" (1710):

Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell. . .
Sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

As London's population increased from about 1 million in 1801 to over 6 million by the end of the 19th century, the pollution of the Thames grew ever worse. In June and July 1858 the city was subjected to the Great Stink, during which a choking, putrid stench from the river and its waste-covered foreshore spread over the city. In a Parliamentary debate on 15 July 1858, Benjamin Disraeli, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, noted that the Thames, "that noble river. . .has really become a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors."

The Mud-Lark, from a Daguerreotype by Beard. Illustration from Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, v. 2, "The Street-Folk," between pages 136 and 137. Image source: Internet Archive

Mudlarks worked on the reeking, contaminated river scavenging coal, wood, rope, metal, lumps of fat, and anything else saleable from the muck of the foreshore and shallows. In Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, vol. 4 ("Those That Will Not Work" [1], 1861), his co-author John Binny reported that mudlarks are "boys and girls, varying in age from eight to fourteen or fifteen; with some persons of more advanced years. For the most part they are ragged, and in a very filthy state. . .As soon as the tide is out they make their appearance, and remain till it comes in" (pp. 366-367). Binny provided a "Narrative of a Mudlark" whom he guessed to be about 13:

About two years ago I left school, and commenced to work as a mudlark on the river, in the neighbourhood of Millwall [on the Isle of Dogs], picking up pieces of coal, and iron, and copper, and bits of canvas on the bed of the river, or of wood floating on the surface. . .When the barge-men heave coals to be carried from their barge to the shore, pieces drop into the water among the mud, which we afterwards pick up. Sometimes we wade in the mud to the ancle, at other times to the knee. Sometimes pieces of coal do not sink, but remain on the surface of the mud; at other times we seek for them with our hands and feet. . .

Some of the mudlarks are orphan boys and have no home. In the summer time they often sleep in the barges or in sheds or stables or cow-houses, with their clothes on. Some of them have not a shirt, others have a tattered shirt which is never washed, as they have no father nor mother, nor friend to care for them. Some of these orphan lads. . .are ragged and dirty, and covered with vermin. (pp. 371-372)

The Mudlark (1950)

The title character of the 1950 film The Mudlark, which is set in the late Victorian era, is just such an orphan—a boy named Wheeler (Andrew Ray) who is about 10 years old. One night while searching the body of a drowned sailor that has washed up on the foreshore he finds a cameo of Queen Victoria. He doesn't recognize the image, but is told by a fence that the queen is "the mother of all England." When he learns that the queen lives at Windsor Castle the motherless boy decides to go there to see her. He manages to sneak past the guards into Windsor, and wanders in the vast halls in a daze until he discovers an empty banquet room.

Wheeler (Andrew Ray) exploring Windsor Castle in The Mudlark (1950). Image source: RareFilmFinder

A formal dinner is being held that night, and when an Irish maid, Kate Noonan (Constance Smith) enters the banquet room to complete the final preparations she discovers Wheeler. She doesn't sound the alarm, but can't smuggle him out of the castle until after the banquet. As the queen and her guests enter, Wheeler hides behind the curtains. Lying in the darkness he falls asleep, and his snoring leads to his discovery. Consternation among the residents of Windsor and a good scrub and delousing for Wheeler follow. John Brown (Finlay Currie), the queen's personal servant and confidant, takes the boy in hand and, once he realizes that he means no harm, gives him a tour of the castle; others surrounding the queen want the boy to be punished, and rumors start to fly that he is part of an Irish plot on the queen's life.

Queen Victoria (Irene Dunne) is still secluded in mourning for her husband Prince Albert, who died nearly 15 years earlier. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Alec Guinness) has tried to convince her to show herself to her subjects in support of his reform projects, to no avail.

Prime Minister Disraeli (Alec Guinness) and Queen Victoria (Irene Dunne) in The Mudlark. Image source:

But when the queen finally meets the mudlark—he hides away in Windsor Castle a second time—she realizes that the time has come for her to reconsider her isolation at Windsor and re-enter public life.

The Mudlark, written and produced by Nunnally Johnson, is based on the 1949 novel of the same title by San Francisco writer and editor Theodore Bonnet. The novel and film fictionalize and relocate in both time and place the real-life incursion of 14-year-old Edward Jones ("the boy Jones") into Buckingham Palace in December 1838. [2] The Mudlark's visit to Windsor to see the queen is set in 1875, around the time that Disraeli's government was proposing a series of reform bills in Parliament, including:

  • The Factories (Health of Women, &c.) Act, 1874, which raised the minimum age of factory employees to those who would turn 10 by 1876; limited the work of women and children in factories to a maximum of 10 hours, and the longest period of continuous work before an (unpaid) 1-hour meal break to 4.5 hours (meaning that women and children could be on site for a total of 12 hours, 10 of which were paid); established the earliest (6 am) and latest (8 pm) hours that women and children could be required to do factory work; and limited the factory work week to 6 days, with Saturdays a "half day" of 6 hours of manufacturing labor plus a half hour on additional tasks (such as cleaning). The Act did not apply to adult men, agricultural laborers, or miners;
  • The Artizans' and Labourers' Dwellings Improvement Act, 1875, which promoted slum clearance and the development of new housing for workers;
  • The Conspiracy, and Protection of Property Act, 1875, which excluded workers who were nonviolently striking and picketing from being charged with crimes of conspiracy;
  • The Employers and Workmen Act, 1875, which defined servants as employees under contract and enabled workers as well as employers to sue in the civil courts if the terms of those contracts were abrogated (though in practice the costs of bringing suits were generally prohibitive for workers);
  • The Public Health Act, 1875, which promoted the construction of municipal sewage systems and required new housing to include running water and sheltered privies, though earthclosets (latrines) were still permitted;
  • The Sale of Food and Drugs Act, 1875, which forbade the adulteration of food and drugs;
  • The Elementary Education Act, 1876, which required children to be educated to proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and restricted (but did not ban) the employment of children age 10 or younger.
Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, albumen cabinet card (detail) by Mayall, circa 1868. Image source: National Portrait Gallery NPG x46496

The Mudlark's writer-producer Johnson and director Jean Negulesco were Hollywood-based, but the bulk of the film's cast and crew were British. The only American actor is Irene Dunne, the star of Roberta (1935), The Awful Truth (1937), and My Favorite Wife (1940), among many other films, who was unrecognizable to me in her prosthetic padding and with her (credible) British accent. Alec Guinness also does not look very much like himself, but does bear a strong resemblance to the historical Disraeli—all the more remarkable given that in 1875 Disraeli would have been over 70, while at the time of filming Guinness was just turning 36. (The makeup was by David Aylott.)

Guinness's excellent performance as Disraeli is capped by a stirring speech in Parliament in defense of his proposed legislation for improving conditions for working-class children. Referring to Wheeler, he asks, "How did this child manage to escape us? How did he manage to reach the age of 10 in the face of all that we did to prevent it?" Astonishingly, this speech, which goes on for nearly 7 minutes of the film's 99-minute runtime, is shot in a single continuous take, and of course it wins the day for reform. In reality the end of child labor, along with the establishment of the 8-hour workday and the five-day workweek, would take many more years of working-class struggle to achieve in Britain, and in our century remain to be achieved for those who harvest our food, sew our clothes, and assemble our electronic devices. Despite its paternalistic picture of social change and its elision of Disraeli's mixed legacy as Prime Minister (including his support of British imperialism), The Mudlark is very much worth seeing for Guinness's performance and for its glimpse of mudlarking's grim past on the Thames.

  1. In addition to mudlarks, Mayhew classifies among "those who will not work" prostitutes, thieves, swindlers, and beggars, including "naval and military beggars," "shipwrecked mariners," "blown-up miners," "bodily afflicted beggars," "starved-out manufacturers" [i.e., factory workers], "unemployed agriculturalists" [i.e., farmworkers], and "hand-loom weavers, &c." who had been permanently replaced by machines. Mayhew had a curious sense of what constitutes an unwillingness to work. ^ Return
  2. Queen Victoria was not in the palace at the time, but at Windsor. Jones, who was spotted, chased, arrested and acquitted, entered Buckingham Palace twice more, in 1840 and 1841, and both times was arrested and sent to prison. Later he was arrested twice for loitering in the vicinity of the Palace, and finally "encouraged" to emigrate to Australia. Not quite the charming urchin of The Mudlark. During her long reign Victoria would survive eight assassination attempts. ^ Return