The Redcoats Were Coming – A Review of Up in the Aether Steampunk Convention

Good evening, gentle readers.

I do hope that you have been enjoying the slow stroll into summer. It does seem that some days are warm and sunny while others are chill and grey, but such is the wont of Mother Nature particularly in Canada.

I simply must, and need, to let you know of an event that I attended recently that has reset the bar for all Steampunk fetes. I have attended many many conventions over the last three plus decades and DJed nearly countless events in about the same amount of time but Up in the Aether [UitA] has created new expectations and hopes for all such Steampunk Conventions [and I do need to attend more to see if they are ALL so incredible]. Both as a guest and as an attendee I found this convention to be incredible.

The weekend after our Victoria Day, accompanied by my noble and trustworthy soundman and fellow DJ, Danr, I traveled over the world’s longest undefended border to the city of Detroit to attend and DJ at Up in the Aether. I had recently relocated cities and so found the trip would now take a further four to five hours and, combined with my temporary financial situation due to moving cities and seeking common employ, I initially turned down the offer of being a guest. Mr. Wiggins, however, was very insistent and did a fantastic job of convincing me to set out on this adventure, and I am glad that he was so persuasive. And so we journeyed off to this four day happening as it was the weekend our Southron neighbours call Memorial Day Weekend.

There were occasional issues throughout the convention and I am sure others discovered challenges which I did not but it was how the convention folk dealt with these small things that made all the difference.

After a rather lengthy trip, with gratitude to our road construction workers and all those other drivers who felt a need to be on the road with no knowledge of how to drive properly in order to keep traffic flowing well, we arrived on the Friday evening at the Double Tree hotel in Dearborn, Michigan. Our room keys were presented promptly though, being guests, it took a touch of walking about and asking after various people to ensure we were properly tagged and badged and ready to enjoy the weekend.

They had wisely booked all of the DJs and bands together at one end of a hallway that we could make as much noise as we desired and so Saturday night we hosted a three-room room party with the Steampunk Mixologist and a reasonable bar [which shall grow next year] as well as music and conversation throughout the rooms and hallway.

It is estimated that between seven hundred and one thousand attendees accompanied us though due to the layout of the hotel and the large selection of panels, workshops, concerts and other attractions it never truly felt crowded: my own guess was that perhaps four hundred or so had strolled through the door.

There were, methinks, about a half dozen or more tracks of panels and workshops including writing and publishing [with readings by several authors], clothing and fashion [of course], food and alcohol and tobacco [with sampling], a well supplied makers’ room with ongoing discussions and teachings, Steampunk socials, a Port Party, a room dedicated to Self Defence particularly as regards sky pirates, and many, many more. There was constantly something interesting happening. Outside in a spacious tent was a near constant line up of incredible musicians, bands and DJs including Voltaire, Eli August, and many others ranging from Steampunk duets to a Steampunk Heavy Metal band.

The dealers’ room simply must be mentioned: it was a reasonable size to not take an entire afternoon to explore, was never so crowded that one could not walk comfortably and was filled with such high quality fare end to end that I boggled. The offerings were varied and diverse and of exquisite craftsmanship. Incredibly desirable. I believe I spent my entire month’s pay-cheque seven times over, fortunately only in my thoughts but next year I shall attend with a large amount of coin of the realm.

There was a kaleidoscope of clothing from the simple day-wear to intricate evening fare. There were uniforms [it was VERY pleasing to find three others sporting the Queen’s Scarlet besides myself and my companion], work clothing and sporting-wear, brass and steel bits, and a very wide range of appearances.

If you desire then you can find the pictures here:
[And do note that though ’tis my Facebook all pictures are set to public access so everyone can enjoy them! I would also like to state that I am not a photographer but I do try]

The DJing was extremely fun particularly when all four guest DJs faced off on the Sunday night at Midnight to provide hours of dancefloor energy. It was an honour, a privilege and a definite pleasure to work with gorgeous and talented DJ Psycubus, the genial and skilled Doctor Q and the intense, brilliant, and accomplished Vorteque. I have played with, for and beside many great DJs in North America but these folk, these incredible, artistic people, in a modern vernacular, bring it!

If you are interested in knowing what songs I, personally, played throughout the weekend then you can find them here:

Those who spent time in the Music Tent enjoyed the offerings muchly, particularly Voltaire on Saturday night and the “Steampunk Rave” on Sunday night. The dancefloor was wonderfully delicious.

The staff: the organizers, the wranglers, the helpers, the committee; were to a single person the most incredible group I have ever had the joy of working both for and with. Nothing was impossible. We were treated like royalty, truly. The Guest Wrangling Matron, an exquisite lady I knew only as “V”, had a team who were beyond awesome in being informative and helpful. Any issue, anything requested, any question or need was met by V’s motto: “I Have This.” She owned her department and every situation that came her way. Her staff would stop, in passing in the hallway, even as they were arms-loaded with items to ask if there was anything we needed or any way they could assist. I am oft treated very well but V and her people offered a level of service that was beyond stunning. And throughout the convention I saw this style and level of service provided to guests and attendees at every level and in every capacity.

We left tired and sore from watching the sun rise each and every morning, from dancing like fools and maniacs to many bands and DJs, from learning at panels and watching incredible low budget/high production independent movies and from the high energy socializing. We left leaving behind friends and new family. We left knowing that in a year’s time we will return and nothing can stop us from doing so.

I do not know that I have enough positive and glowing adjectives to properly convey how amazing this convention was.

Next year, good reader, when you are planning your convention schedule and wondering where you should visit and what you should commit to pen in your daytimer I must insist that you give Up in the Aether your strongest and most serious consideration. Do come find us and I shall happily hoist a glass with you at the most amazing event of the year.

H.A. Higgins-Keith


One Must Always Watch One’s Words

Good evening, mesdames et monsieurs.

I do thank you for your patience. Life, once again, has gotten away from me. But enough prattle and whine…

Recently I attended a Comic Con held in my new city of residence. It was well attended, boasted quite a few excellent guests, offered an expansive dealers’ room and some very interesting panels. Among the superheroes, the stormtroopers, the apes and daleks and robots and graphic novel characters there were some extremely wonderful steampunk folk.

I ensured that I made it to two of the panels on steampunk: Steampunk 101 and Steampunk Clothing.

I have a slight issue with Steampunk 101 classes having been involved with such for six years and counting at this point. Where are the following courses? Where is Steampunk 201 [So You’re Steampunk, Now What?], Steampunk 301 [The Devil IS in the Details] and the advanced Steampunk 401 [Etiquette Both Personal and Social as Embedded in the Steampunk Subculture] as well as the off shoots into the -02. -03 and onwards? Steampunk has been embraced by the media and the mainstream, something oft heard complained about, and most everyone knows what it is at the basic level: that which is taught in the 101 courses.

I was very pleased with some of this particular course as it did wander through the geo-centricity and temporal focus of the subculture and kicked those doors wide. But there were two points that niggled.

The smallest of the pair, which bothers me only a little, is when people talk about the ‘punk’ in Steampunk without experience or proper knowledge of the punk period and movement. Having lived through it, in it, and around it myself, I must admit that it rankles when Steampunks offer their ‘expert opinion’ on the ‘punk’ facet without actually having a solid grounding in what they are speaking of. But this part of the 101 was easily passed through and over.

The large, and by large I mean elephantine, shock was a statement made by one of the presenters; a gentleman from Montreal. He said, and I paraphrase but it is very close to his exact wording as I remember “The only way to do Steampunk wrong, I tell people, is to buy the box of prefab Steampunk outfit made by the big mainstream corporation with the Steampunk label stamped across the box.”

And to this I must say: Nonsense! Piffling nonsense. Nonsense from both sides and the middle. And unfortunately some people new to Steampunk may have listened to him and will now have the wrong approach.

It is indeed possible to “do” Steampunk incorrectly without buying in bulk. I often tell people who wish to experiment that they should try things and see how others respond. If it is met with frowns and whispers then hie thee back to the drawing board. If it is greeted with smiles and applause then it is successful.

And those boxes sold in chain stores, filled with plastic and cheap fabric bits, with the brazen “Steampunk” stamp boldly printed across the cover? Yes indeed, do feel free to purchase one of those if ’tis your first foray into the community.

It is apparent to me that the gentleman I have paraphrased has never heard the term ‘gateway’.

The goth/industrial subculture was little known and less understood until Trent Reznor’s “Closer” and Marilyn Manson’s stage theatrics and marketing creation. While both are pooh-poohed by most members of the g/i community it did introduce new blood to the clubs and the coffee shops, it brought new folk to the music and the fashion, it continued to inject life into the genre and the aesthetic.

The most common reason I hear for why someone has not made a steampunk gather is that they do not have an outfit. If buying a prefabricated outfit in a box allows them to make that first step into the community, if it allows them to walk into their first gather then I say huzzah to the retailer who supplies them this needed item. From that first step in the new entrant can THEN be offered advice, can learn of sources and styles, can begin developing their own aesthetic and build their own wardrobe. But without that first step, without the gateway then the new blood will not be maximized.

The speaker obviously did not consider access, income and creativity which is not offered equally to all people. He, perhaps unwittingly, has set up a group of steampunks for ridicule: those ‘poor’ folk who start with a box kit. He has pretty much said “you, you ‘real’ steampunks, may look down your nose at those people who purchase it as a boxed set, as they are doing it wrong.”

Can one do Steampunk wrong? I think yes, though I would more use the term ‘incorrectly’ than to say wrongly. Is what is wrong to be found in a box in a large retail location? I do not think it is that easy.

And again I say stuff and nonsense.

H.A. Higgins-Keith

Perceiving A Book By Its Cover

Good morning, gentle readers.

I do trust that your winter, where-ever this season should find you, has begun in fun and adventure. And for those of you what celebrate Yule I hope ’tis a joyous one and promises you the next year will be one of wonderful things.

While I have been, at times, serious in my tone and my content I have also attempted to keep things light and friendly. I find humour is an excellent thing to keep the conversation enjoyable and the occasional chuckle makes discussion more vibrant. Today, though, I am going to write on a topic that has been making me increasingly angry. It is a topic I have touched upon before [please reference “Around the World in 80 Minutes” from September of 2011] and I’m afraid that this time I am going to be firm.

Please keep your misperceived white-guilt political correctness out of my Steampunk. Oh, dear reader, I shall freely admit to being strongly opinionated in many things but there is a certain oft presented point that truly stokes the furnaces of my ire. There are enough gender arguments, heated discussions of the socio-political Victorian influences in Steampunk, and other poorly stated comments to truly make a person wonder, at times, just why they may ever do more than just show up in appropriate dress, sit quietly with a tea in a corner, and go home after the poetry reading without ever speaking to another. And yes, things I’ve heard uttered in sincerity such as “Steampunk is where goth discovered brown” and “Steampunk is… well, have you seen ‘Wild Wild West’?” both get my dander up but this one topic truly makes me wonder.

It is something I have heard fair frequently and tonight it began with a gentleman stating: “It’s been my experience that us whites only understand cultural appropriation and could never grasp multiculturalism. (joking.. kinda)”

I call complete and utter PC bullshit on this, pardon my language, ladies.

Much like many of the other subcultures in North America and Europe the Steampunk community is, in the majority, Caucasian. I know a handful of folk from different ethnic backgrounds but it is, indeed, a group that is primarily what is called “White” [though in all honesty I am still sometimes confused by the term “White” and muchly prefer Caucasian, thank you very much]. This is true of the goth/industrial as it was and still is of the punk subcultures. It is true of the science fiction/fantasy fen and convention goers. Strangely, though perhaps not, I also find it true of the North American anime/manga subcultures though here my experience is only truly from a handful of cities and a couple of conventions. This is likely a geographically influenced occurrence as I have no doubt that the various subcultures in Japan, for example, are primarily populated by Asians.

So let us speak of cultural appropriation, shall we? And, as this deals with Steampunk, let us look at the Victorian era.

As has been pointed out to me by a very intelligent and learned young lady during my earlier writing there was a fascination among the Caucasians of this period with those things that belonged to other cultures. The Victorian era saw world travel and exploration as it had never been before. Dark areas on map were being explored and opened up. Adventure was available for those who could afford the time and money and it was written about to be shared with everyone who could read [or be read to]. It was a time of excitement. Archaeology was truly established during the reign of Queen Victoria and the fascination with history and past cultures was equaled by the fascination with current cultures that were not “our own.” And it was a two way street, ladies and gentlemen.

Trade flowed around the world and thus trinkets, keep-sakes, artwork, fabrics and materials danced between countries. Indian silk, Chinese fans, African carvings, Egyptian antiques, paintings of Indians [in talking with several who I count among my many friends I’ve discovered lately that most do not like the term “Native Americans” though I’ve yet to discuss the why of it] and many other interesting ‘foreign items’ poured into the heart of the British Empire through her vast trade networks. And things British flowed out.

The visiting Briton appeared often to the members of other countries as a very successful creature. He had tools of metal, clothing of strange fabrics and intricacies, amazing medicines, machines that performed astounding feats and created amazing things.

Take a few minutes and, rather than just relying on my words, do some research. Google is a good place to start though your local library is possibly better for it. Look for pictures from the Victorian era and focus on those photographed or painted in and from other countries. You will see many non-Caucasian peoples sporting top hats, waistcoats, morning coats, tailcoats and carrying walking sticks and parasols. They did this in imitation and in respect to the “powerful people of the mighty British Empire.” The thought was, and it is still true today, that to dress like a successful man was to become a successful man or to, at least, gain respect from other successful men. The British, during this period, were seen as the most successful, particularly by those who had less. The British Empire was powerful so it is not a surprise that others desired to be a part of that, to gain some of that power for themselves and to do so they imitated what they saw.

And yet by our own definition this was and is “cultural appropriation.”

Oh, indeed you will see pictures of British military wearing turbans and other ‘native’ headwear of different ethnicities, or sporting a very non-British outfit. In many cultures trading was a sign of friendship, of welcoming, with personal gifts being exchanged. The British caught on to this and headwear was oft traded with natives of other countries.

Who could resist a few mementos to bring home after a long military or trading tour? In our modern world it is often photographs or post-cards or little tourist-junk that is brought home from vacation as a reminder of the fun, the adventure. At the least during the Victorian era what was brought home wasn’t made in some factory by underpaid labourers.

Besides the exchange there were two other reasons for Caucasians of that period to ‘appropriate’ the ‘native appearance.’

The first was simple geography and, resulting from that, climate. Standard British wear during this period tended to be multiple layers and those layers were mostly either linen, cotton or, more popularly, wool. I have worn a British uniform on the kind of hot day one may experience in India, in southern Spain, in the middle Americas and it is not at all comfortable. The native fabrics and clothing styles took climate into account, naturally. I have worn a Victorian gentleman’s attire in 90 degree heat and it was not pleasant, and I found myself longing for the flowing, cooling robes of an Arabian.

The second was called “going native.” Again, I would recommend doing a little bit of Google research and you will find that though this is now perceived as not being common, it happened frequently enough to be, at times, a concern. While particularly an occurrence in North America it also happened in many other countries of the world including Russia, India, Egypt, Africa, and most of Asia. Going native was often voluntary in the case of adventurers or military who became either enamoured of the culture in which they were placed or who “deserted” their company for one reason or another. It also happened that, through some tragedy, a young Caucasian would be raised by native parents in some country and thus would grow up acclimated to that culture.

Is a Caucasian who joins a culture therefore guilty of appropriating the trappings of that culture?

It was more cultural exchange and less appropriation.

Let us see. Appropriation – ap·pro·pri·a·tion [/əˌprōprēˈāSHən/] Noun: The action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.

And if permission is tacitly given or understood through action? Who gives permission for an entire culture? With historic precedence set is there a need for permission?

As a closing note I have spoken with several people of non-Caucasian culture and ethnicity and they see nothing wrong with a Caucasian steampunk dressing up in a non-British period outfit or adding non-British touches as long as it is done tastefully and with respect. It seems an almost purely Caucasian thing to call someone out on “cultural appropriation” and it is, I feel, not our place to do so.

Finally, I am going to quote myself from that September writing: “However, I would note that if you do decide to add in some item or style belonging to another culture that you are aware of what it is you are wearing, the why of it, and how to explain it respectfully. There are those who get upset with past issues [even though there are enough current issues that they do not seem to care for so much] that in public one MAY be approached and called on the borrowed bits.
There is nothing wrong with exploring other options than the most often seen British/American characterizations from the Victorian period in your Steampunk wardrobe and presentation. Just remember it is to be both fun and respectful.”

Be well, good readers, and I hope that you enjoy a wonderful holiday season, a joyful Yule, a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a fantastic solstice or whatever it is that you celebrate at this time of year.

H.A. Higgins-Keith

Every Inch.

Good evening, dear readers, and thank you for your patience with my inconsistent writing schedule. I am oft away from the keys on some adventure or another but when I have time, as I do know, then I shall continue to scribble out my small thoughts as I may in hopes that you enjoy them.

I have noted recently that much of my writing is advice on what to wear or how to comport one’s self or perhaps how to set a room in your house. In this I am offering advice, to be taken or left as you wish, in how to appear to be a gentleman. This is also, I have learned, called being a “surface gentleman.” I wish to correct this disservice tonight and look at what it is to be a gentleman beyond merely the surface.

There are many in today’s modern North American society both walking the streets and within the various subcultural groups [though my focus is generally on the Steampunk folk] who are surface gentlemen. What man would ever admit to being rude or uncaring, without empathy or sympathy, that he swears or spits, or that he may ever treat another person improperly or without respect? None would ever say that they are like this and yet the world is full of examples of just such behaviour. Men misrepresent themselves as gentlemen often to colleagues and friends in an attempt to gain standing and respect and even more often to women in order to allure and intrigue. Many are the ladies I hear who bemoan the lack of gentlemen and whom seek one of their own. So I shall look at commonly accepted characteristics and behaviours of gentlemen to see if I can shed a little light on what it is that makes a male so.

Much like the etiquette of hat wearing there is quite a bit written both on and off the internet on being a gentleman and there appears to be no hard and fast rule to “what is a gentleman?” But there are frequently agreed upon characteristics. It is not all, nor merely, the holding of doors or chairs. There are several traits which seem agreed on by nearly all and a fair bit of disagreement. Of course what follows here are my own personal thoughts and opinions.

“A guy is a boy by birth, a man by age, but a gentleman by choice.” [Anonymous]

Historically a gentleman was a title offered to those of a certain class or standing, usually financial. They were those men a step down from those in positions of nobility. It was a title generally offered to those men who were wealthy enough not to need to work but were not, themselves, nobles. A gentleman possessed a coat of arms and carried a sword. This began to slowly change even in the pre-Victorian eras to encompass a man’s manners and presentation, a change which the industrialization of the world and the evolution of politics increased in speed. The most well known period of ‘gentlemen and ladies’ is indeed the Victorian period. Many people, in looking for what defines a gentleman, look back to the 19th and early 20th centuries as a guide. In this modern period the lack of gentlemen is evidenced by the general lack of good taste and etiquette even considering the changing societal standards and behaviours. It is within groups like the Steampunk subculture where one will find the attributes of the gentleman being learned once more and being expressed into the world.

So what IS a gentleman, then? It is somewhat of a shopping list of characteristics but through this large handful of traits one may garner more than a few clues.

I shall begin with: a gentleman is not a gentle man, but one who is genteel. If you delve beneath the velvet surface of a gentleman you will find a core of solid steel. Do not mistake a gentle man for a gentleman in all cases for though a gentleman knows when to be gentle he also knows when to be strong. Never mistake his gentleness for timidity nor hesitation but know that he thinks before he acts and should you misjudge him you will see the fire and mettle within him.

“Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.” [Theodore Roosevelt]

The first and most visible part of being a gentleman is, of course, etiquette. A gentleman is polite and proper in action. Always. He does not curse nor swear for that is an indication that he does not have the vocabulary of a gentleman. In our modern age I may disagree with this as invective has become necessary for emphasis at times but one can be creative and need not scatter a speech with frequent and constant unnecessary swearing. I am still pondering this though I may fall on the side of agreeing. A gentleman does not lose his temper nor speak loudly. A gentleman Does not interrupt no matter how brilliant his response, always allowing others to complete their own statements. A gentleman understands etiquette whether it be with respect to the wearing of his hat, or when to properly sit and stand, or when to hold open a door or offer a seat, or when to help someone with their coat. He is civilized and well mannered at all times. He does not insult others nor their ideas. He is elegant, mannered, cultured and does try to have good taste; he is refined. That is a lot of “thou shalt nots” with a few “thou shalts” but there will be more of a balance as I progress.

“A real gentleman is as polite to a little girl as to a woman.” [Louisa May Alcott]

A gentleman is respectful not just to his elders but to all people. He is attentive to all, particularly those he is immediately dealing with and is aware of their needs. He does not inflict pain nor hurt. He is sensitive to himself, to others, and to the world around him. He is a patient man who does not judge quickly but does judge finally, even though he knows that a leopard can, in rare circumstance, change his spots. He does not laugh at the mistakes of others as a gentleman knows that mistakes are the best lessons in life, though he will offer assistance and correction as he is able. He does, however laugh. Often. And at himself as much as at life. He finds humour and beauty in many things.

“A gentleman has his eyes on all those present; he is tender toward the bashful, gentle toward the distant, and merciful toward the absent.” [Lawrence G. Lovasik]

The gentleman understands the balance of benefit between himself and others. He is not selfless nor selfish but walks that fine line between to ensure that all find what they need. One characteristic that I am still pondering is that a gentleman both forgives and forgets, though I believe that there are situations that warrant neither of these in rare cases when the insult or difficulty is constant, consistent and occurs repeatedly even when he works to correct it. One can only take the high road so often before looking for a road away to somewhere else. It does not benefit a gentleman to remain in a situation or place where he is discomfited. He does not cause stress and worry and does not accept it without thought towards its settling. While a gentleman should not seek social praise he does know how to accept a compliment when genuine and ensures that all of his are sincere. This is also true of apologies though it is my belief that a gentleman does not oft find himself in a position to apologize but rather addresses the issue, corrects the source of friction, the mistake, the error and moves onwards.

“The final test of a gentleman is his respect for those who can be of no possible service to him.” [William Lyon Phelps]

I believe that the true mark of a gentleman is acting so not only when others can see but also when no one is watching. He is a gentleman in formal social occasions as well as with close friends. He is a man who knows he could do better and actually does. He knows who and what he is and is comfortable with himself even as he strives to be and do better. This, in particular, is a very difficult thing to do as our modern age assaults us through media and society to believe that we are not whole and require assistance, therapy and serious amounts of support. A gentleman accepts support and help when he needs to, recognizing those times, and offers it without expectation, reluctance or resentment. He is modest but not overly so and contrary to what one may expect he does care what others think of him even though he does not define himself through or by the opinions of any one but only by his own.

“I find it sad that by not talking about who I sleep with, that makes me mysterious. There was a time when I would have been called a gentleman.” [Kevin Spacey]

A gentleman is discrete even when he is with his closest male friends. He does not rumour and he does not slander and he does not accept either from another. He does not talk solely of himself and he not only hears what others say, he also listens. He is not resentful nor suspicious nor depressing but rather focuses on ease and comfort both of himself and moreso that of others. A gentleman treats a lady as he would expect all men to treat a lady. He offers his arm and knows which side of the sidewalk to walk along when escorting a lady. He helps a lady with her seat, with doors, and with her coat. He will buy her flowers or a small gift, will offer her a small gesture with no expectation and for no obligatory reason though he will not try to purchase her attention or her affections.

“A gentleman would be ashamed should his deeds not match his words.” [Kong Fu Zi]

A gentleman is honest and lives a life of principle and integrity. As my grandfather used to say “A man comes into this world and leaves this world with only one thing: his word. Lose that and you have nothing.” A gentleman is trusting but not foolishly so. He works to live a life that is ‘good’ for both himself and for others. He is truthful but not in a mean nor hurtful manner. He is educated and does not attempt to pass himself as more than he is, knowing more than he knows, or as anything he is not. He is both honourable and chivalrous.

“The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.” [Robert E. Lee]

A gentleman utilizes his authority or any power that he has inoffensively. He often forebears or even abstains using any power he has. He does not use his education, his position, his knowledge, his strength nor even his common sense as a weapon. He never takes unfair advantage of power or weakness.

Well, dear readers, that is rather a long and somewhat complicated grocery list, is it not? But it is not something to be written down and checked off, rather it is meant to inspire you to thought and consideration, to reflect on your own approach, presentation, mindset and life and to consider the value of being a gentleman.

Am I a gentleman? I would like to think so yet during all of this research I have determined that there are indeed areas I need to look at again and behaviours I will need to consider, correct or restructure.

To end this lengthy bit of writing [I do know that I am quite wordy, a fault I do need to work on: simplification of expression] I shall leave you with two more quotes:

“From everything I have seen, felt, and observed, being a gentleman is a deep, unspoken, unrewarded commitment to genuine service and to to “thine own self” in search of “thine own truth” cohabiting in the same self respecting individual’s mind. It is unquenchable thirst for knowledge and growth, and it is commitment to the well being of one’s fellow creatures. It is being one with the music, the dance, the fight, the moment, or silence. But what it is, more than these, is the individual that thirsts for and emerges from these experiences – someone who seeks to understand their particular shard of what it means to be human, in full awareness of how little we will ever know, and in subdued delight for the opportunity to do the simplest of things. It is bravery in accepting the challenge of being something more than what you were, and it is the gradual realization that we are no less than our fathers, and that our sons are already our equals.
“Surely more important than what a gentleman has, is what he is, and more significant than what he is, must be what he truly aspires to become. It is a “voyage of self discovery” in the words of the great cosmologist and free-thinker, Carl Sagan. The courage to embark towards the unknown in any field is what makes a rugged gentleman worthy of knowing, in any century past or in any age to come. That is the very essence of what forms the bond between souls such as these – mutual respect for another who asks the questions that arise from within, and dares to see with eyes unclouded. Society’s definitions of what constitutes “cultured”, “adventure seeking”, “intellectual”, “romantic”, “considerate”, “tactful”, “rugged”, and yes – “a gentleman” have and will continue to evolve at a disturbingly rapid pace. But let the voyage of self discovery as a human being never cease, and defined as it may be in one’s own heart, let it continue to be something that every man has the courage to journey toward within himself, where the truest frontiers will always exist.” [Vincent Charles Nance.]

And my favourite quote, by far:

“My duty as a gentleman has never interfered with my pleasures in the smallest degree.” [Oscar Wilde]

H.A. Higgins-Keith

Class In Session

Good morning, mesdames et messieurs. I do hope that this night finds you well and, at this time, likely asleep.

An interesting thought that has been bouncing around within my skull of late has been one of classism: then and now. Everyone acknowledges the Victorian period one in which classism was rampant, strong, the way of life. There are occasional comments that in this modern world classism has nearly been defeated or destroyed or some-such but I find that this is not so, and others agree very loudly. With this in mind let us take a comparative look, shall we?

Yes indeed, the Victorian period was one of societal and economic classes. There were the lower, the middle and the upper classes. Additionally one could be in a ‘class’ based on employment particularly if it was familial/generational in nature. The rules were rigid but were also fairly well defined and this is an advantage that we do not currently enjoy. I did indeed say ‘enjoy’ and if you read the rest of this examination then you may see the sense of it, or I may just be misguided and in need of further education.

To get this particular burr out of the way being a woman was nearly as much a class as it was a gender. The Victorian period still saw women as person within the family unit who ran the home, raised the children and handled many of the social and economic responsibilities of the family. Within the upper class the role of women was somewhat broader. During this period more women were accepted into the working population but only in certain areas of employ.

Within nearly every class most jobs were almost perceived as hereditary. If your father was a clerk or a smith, a merchant or a machinist, a carriage painter or a mason it was oft expected that the son [usually the firstborn but often more than one] would enter the same or a related field. Apprenticeship, sometimes within the family, was often a way of life and on the passing of one’s father the son could and often did inherit the family business. The expectation was to have a life slightly better, slightly more comfortable than one’s parents. A member of the lower class would expect to remain in that class, working as a chimney sweep or a household servant as did his father before him. There was some movement among employments but there was nearly as much progression in a generational manner.

There were two or three easy ways to shift to a couple of positions that were both within the class system and outside of it: the military, the priesthood or through higher education.

Within the military there were two classes: those with commissions [the officers, usually drawn from the gentry] and the non-commissioned [your fighting man or soldier, and certain low levels of officers]. The allure of the military, particularly for the lower classes, was that it offered consistent access to food and a roof of some sort over one’s head as well as a possible pension if one lived out his term.

The priesthood did not have a recognizable class structure but advancement and access to perks was based as much on politics and social connections as the movement within any other class. During the Victorian period, however, it was not the sole source of education.

Universities grew remarkably during this time period and were taken advantage of by certain peoples which both created new members of the middle and upper classes as well as allowing people who knew how the system worked to shift their own position upwards; one very excellent example is the explosion of Scottish engineers during the Victorian age.

And knowing the system? Ah, here we come to the advantage. When there is a set of established and acknowledged rules then there are those who can find the little ways and means to skip around the system using these very rules and the loop holes that they do not completely cover or hide. There are many stories from the Victorian period of those of both genders who rose up in the ranks through fame or fortune, through the military or through education, or by learning the ‘rules’ and utilizing them. Of course it took risk and intelligence to even try and thus many did not, accepting their futures as their parents had before them.

And while everything I have said so far is true of periods preceding the Victorian it was during this particular age that the greatest movement happened, though even that was more an exception than a rule.

The Steampunk world truly takes this system and its advantages and spreads it wider and larger, introducing women adventurers and mechanics, spies and pilots and quite a number of ‘folk of humble means’ who became heroes.

Now let us examine the modern age. The classes still exist though in most parts of the world and very truly in North America the middle class has been nibbled away at until it is a slender portion of the population with a greater segment being defined as the upper class, to one extent or another, and a very large group now firmly ensconced in the lower class. Movement among the classes does still happen but it is more risky, more chaotic and a single person can rise and fall several times in their own life in a fairly easy manner, particularly in the falling.

The problem as I see it, and this is merely this writer’s own opinion, is that during the Victorian period each of the classes had their own rules, knew the rules of the other classes, and even if they were not written out [though in some cases some small publications did address these rules] they were there, they were accepted, and they were rather rigid. In our modern world it is really only the upper class that accepts that there are rules with the middle and lower classes rebelling through ignorance or denial. The rules are amorphous and poorly defined, subject to change usually at the whim of the upper class, and difficult to understand. Thus one can climb and claw upwards only to find that the cliff face has suddenly changed to a treacherous sheet of ice mid-scramble. It has become more of who you know and less of who you are, which is extremely evident when one compares the relative proportion of written contracts versus verbal/hand-shake agreements during the two periods and the pervasiveness of those employed in the legal fields in our current age versus those in Victorian times. Acceptance and trust have both lessened greatly though it’s a big of a ‘chicken and egg’ issue as to which came first, honestly. I think they’ve fed off each the other.

Like many other socio-political/economic topics that are focused on by various people and groups in the Steampunk community, such as gender roles [which I will touch on another day when my skin is thicker as I will no doubt be shouted loudly at], colonialism, imperialism, industrial advancements and other hot-button topics it must be noted that people do like to focus on the negative to the exclusion of the positive and I feel, myself and personally, that while the opportunities of the Victorian class system were not often nor well used there were some very strong advantages over the class system of today.

That and, given the nature of man, a truly classless system is a utopian ideal which will never work nor occur. But that is a topic which is part of a greater discussion and best left for another time.

H.A. Higgins-Keith

The Politics of the Thing

Good evening, my dear readers.

And again I find that I must apologize for weeks between my scribblings. My life out in the world of weather and people keeps me far too busy but do know I think of you few frequently and wonder what shall I write of next. Today’s topic comes from a discussion I have watched avidly on Facebook, and one that I have seen dance through conversations often in the last few years.

It began with this video: Abney Park’s new “Steampunk Revolution”
And a question about a “Steampunk Revolution.” Does politics belong in the Steampunk culture? Do we need focus on the socio-political or economic?

Let us begin by looking initially at the history of political involvement of some related subcultures as mentioned by some folk in the Facebook discussion thread.

Very few “movements” or groups have focused on political discussion, change and action particularly through music while becoming an acknowledged and lasting self-identified subculture until the 20th century. Previous to this political movements did indeed begin small scale but they peaked swiftly and after the change was effected they generally disappeared into the new mainstream culture.

The first and most obvious was the Hippie movement of the 1960s. With an identifiable message, a fashion and aesthetic and even involving and heavily focused on music as the world changed so too did the members of the hippie culture until now, in our current ‘age’, many Hippies are now working for ‘the man’ if not having become ‘the man’ themselves. While the music [and you will notice I return to this particular area often] did receive some airplay it was primarily presented through live shows and concerts and never made it into the clubs of that period.

A more aggressive movement was the Punk scene of the 1970s which Steampunk is often compared to because of the misfortune of the label, even though both groups do share some similarities: primarily the DIY nature of the scenes, the individuality of the fashion aesthetic and the rejection of the modern world and romanticizing of an alternate way of living. Punk music did indeed make it into the clubs though at that time it was, again, primarily through live shows. Punk has changed with the metamorphosis of the socio-political world and what is Punk now is not what was Punk then. Punks main focus for change was extremely anarchistic and an anarchy-based system will not work in the real world.

Closer to Steampunk and somewhat of a gap-bridge between that and Punk is the Goth movement. Goth began in the 80s from a literary origin [something I find that many do not remember or know] in a small group setting reminiscent of the salons of the Victorian/Edwardian periods [and before] and moved slowly as a snowball rolling downhill gathering speed and size. While never PRIMARILY a socio-political movement there always has been a large amount of discussion about current world events and situations, though in the last decade that has dropped off in favour of dressing appropriately and clubbing relentlessly. The music of the Goth subculture has indeed moved into the clubs as well as, in some instances, mainstream radio, television and film, and it has become more a part of the mainstream culture than any similar preceding group.

There are, however, differences in the four I am looking at in this bit of writing. The Hippie and Punk movements WERE movements more so than any other form of social grouping with a strong political message and an expiry date. Goth has become a subculture with all the facets and factions this involves. Steampunk is an aesthetic, primarily, and while there are subcultural elements it has yet to reach that stage. Also remember that Steampunk, as a building force, is relatively young compared to those social groups that have come before.

Now, to approach this from another angle: that of the Victorian age itself. Many wonder why Steampunk is focused on Great Britain during this period. First, may I remind people, that the entire age WAS named after the Queen of this small island country. And while England was not alone in the empire building game, she was joined by Germany, Holland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Russia which are all countries primarily populated by Caucasians. Many forget about the expansion and empire building that was happening in Asia during this period but we in North America and Western Europe aren’t taught much of this during our history lessons in school. It is only natural, after all, that countries focus on their own demesne during the schooling of their young denizens. There was also a lot of change in all areas of life during the Victorian period: industry, politics, gender relations, race relations, religions, science, medicine, quality of life and on and on and on. And this change mostly revolved around Great Britain and Western Europe. The British Empire was the dominating force of the time, about where the United States of today is trying to be. Remember that the “Sun never set on the British Empire” and her influence spanned the entire globe.

For people of this area of the world, at this time, everything else WAS strange and exotic. Africa and South America still had unexplored vastness hidden in their core. The Asians had separated themselves from the non-Asians for centuries save small trade contact and thus they too were mysterious. Archaeology really gained steam during the Victorian era and so digging back into the past, exploring the unknown of the Middle East was also exotic and enticing. Ways of thought and lifestyle, approach to the world, this was all different from the Europeans and thus amazing and mystifying. And it still is today: most Asian cultures nurture an extremely different mindset and approach than does the Caucasian cultures. So why is this not still exotic now? Familiarity. During the 19th Century news traveled slowly and people even more so while in the present thanks to modern media and the internet information, ideas, pictures and huge chunks of life can flash around the world in parts of a second.

Socio-political discussion and movement, such as it is, has been tacked on to Steampunk by those who want it. Again, Steampunk is an aesthetic: it is an appearance, a feeling, a way of looking and creating. Yes, it can include a set of manners and mannerisms appropriate to the time period being romanticized. Indeed, it can involve a modern awareness of one’s personal approach to Steampunk. Surely, it can and does require a long and ongoing discussion as to what IS Steampunk which encompasses all the parts of our world including music and art, transportation and media, fashion and appearance and yes, also socio-political and economic discussion.

Does it need to? No more and likely less so than did Hippie and Punk and Goth. The wonder of Steampunk is that you can bring to it what you wish and take from it what you desire and if that includes discussion of a past and now gone social movement or similarities with today’s political milieu or how little our economic environment has changed then that is your bailiwick.

Personally, I read and enjoy the stories both historic and modern, I wear the clothing and admire the makers, I enjoy the toys and the entertainments but I have the mind and the approach of a modern gentleman, thank you, and wish for everyone to dance on a level dancefloor [and in my own small ways do what I am able to, to level out that dancefloor a tiny bit at a time]. Yes, I shall continue to point out parts of history that others seem to enjoy ignoring or glossing over and I do enjoy a rousing discussion but my only advice is this: find in Steampunk what you enjoy and enjoy it and if it’s not for you then do find a hobby or movement that stirs your passions.

Is there a Steampunk revolution? Do we need one? Well, all I can say is that I am grabbing my tophat and off to sit with friends over a drink and see where the discussion goes [which is ALWAYS to interesting lands no matter what the topic].

And as a little addendum I must note that I have known of very, very few non-Caucasian members of the Punk or Goth subcultures in North America. There are a few, but they are in a very tiny minority.

H.A. Higgins-Keith

Six of One and a Half Dozen of the Other

Good evening, dear readers.

Tonight I thought I would discuss a difference that I was asked about recently, and in doing a little updating research have found that the difference is slowly growing smaller and smaller. What I am considering and pondering is the difference between NeoVictorian and Steampunk.

When “The Difference Engine” was originally published in 1990 it was branded SF NeoVictorianism rather than with a Steampunk label, even though this book is now upheld as one of the seminal Steampunk novels.

It is my own opinion that while Steampunk is an aesthetic, a movement, a subculture, a genre and many more things in a great melange of creativity NeoVictorianism is simply an aesthetic. It is Steampunk without the toys or accessories.

The NeoVictorian style has been with us much longer than has Steampunk. Goths sported tophats and morning coats, wielded walking sticks and small-lens spectacles, and often comported themselves as did their literary heroes and heroines both fictional and authorial. Though the goth subculture has, in the last few decades, changed into a cyberpunk, dystopian and post-apocalyptic appearance primarily through the increased influence of electronic and industrial music as well as changes in the favoured literature and cinematic offerings there has been a resurgence of the NeoVictorian due to the recent growth of Steampunk.

My own response to this question, as to the difference, being asked was that “NeoVictorian is Steampunk without the toys” and this is somewhat, but only somewhat true. While there are accessories utilized in common among the two groups the NeoVictorian does not carry a brassed up pistol, wear goggles [unless appropriate] nor use the cog design to such an extent. NeoVictorian is more focused on the appearance, the outfit, the behaviour and the manners. The NeoVictorian, in romanticizing the Victorian period [as the SCA romanticizes an ever growing slice of the middle ages] is almost solely representing the gentry, the noble and wealthier class of gentleman and lady and does not present the greasemonkey, the adventurer [save as a worldly and world-traveling gentleman or lady], the soldier or scientist. The modern NeoVictorian truly only populates the ballrooms and drawing rooms of the Steampunk world.

The greatest difference that I perceive is that the NeoVictorian looks to the past and draws its best forward to the present while the Steampunker incorporates strong elements of retro-futurism.

It was mentioned to me that NeoVictorianism also must embrace the politics and beliefs of the Victorian era but I would disagree. While popular among the social and cultural conservatives, particularly with respect to morality and behaviour [politeness/respect-displays in particular], it should be noted that the actual cultural social attitudes and conventions of the Victorian era can be disputed and many, if not most, NeoVictorians blend the aesthetic with modern principles and technologies. This is most noticeable in the largest subculture to have embraced the NeoVictorian aesthetic before the Steampunkers: the goths. The goth subculture, having spawned out of the punk, new romantic and glam subcultures, tends to have always attracted more liberal and progressive minded persons, particularly during its early period [1979 – 1990].

Currently the term ‘NeoVictorian’ is being appropriated by the Steampunkers as possibly a more gentile, familiar or comfortable label and so the lines blur even more strongly.

As much as I love the Steampunk folk, the aesthetic and the music, the gatherings and the discussions, I shall forever at heart merely be a NeoVictorian.

H.A. Higgins-Keith