London’s Leading Newspaper (7, 8)

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Hackles were raised yesterday about journalistic independence, as it was reported that London’s Evening Standard newspaper–now given away for free to commuters, and found in multiple discarded copies in every railway carriage leaving the city–was accepting money from private companies in exchange for favourable news stories. The Standard has denied that any such backroom deals have been done.

Discussing the issue on Newsnight, Emily Maitliss asked whether this wasn’t standard practice for newspapers, who were always linking content with their advertising. Her interviewee, Les Hinton, thought that such connections would become more common as circulation figures continue to decline and advertisers gain ever greater power.

It will be interesting to see whether newspapers start to be sites of product placement, with odd little puffs popping up in the obituaries–‘in her declining years she gained great pleasure from weekly visits to Staples’–or the crosswords–as in ‘refreshing fizzy drink (4,4)’.

Packaging the DPRK

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A unique collection of material texts currently on display at London’s House of Illustration gives a fascinating glimpse into everyday life in one of the most secretive modern states. Made in North Korea brings together posters, badges, food packaging, and comic book covers from the personal collection of Nicholas Bonner, who has led tours to the country for the last 25 years.

The artists who produce the posters, which promote the DPRK’s agricultural industries – ‘For a bumper crop, let’s send more chemical fertiliser to the countryside!’ and its political ideals – ‘With the full heart of a mother, let’s become good caretakers of the People’s lives!’ – are trained at state art colleges to paint in a particular style, using a distinctive palette of colours. The exhibition mixes posters from as early as the 1970s with much more recent ones from the last few years, and it is striking how little the style and conventions of these posters have changed over time.

The comic book covers are similarly unified, with titles such as ‘Woman Sniper’, ‘The Orders Must be Absolutely Fulfilled Until The End’, and ‘The Never-Ending Confrontation’ signalling their ideological purpose. Seeing what we usually think of as ephemeral material texts – labels for tinned fish and meat, sweet wrappers, and postage stamps – displayed alongside these explicit pieces of propaganda is a starkly colourful reminder of how even the disposable material texts of everyday life can be political.

Archetype

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Thanks to Stewart J. Brookes for coming to talk to us last night about Archetype, a dazzlingly rich and flexible tool for image-comparison, designed for palaeographers attempting to substantiate their claims about the dating and development of hands, but now being used to analyse (among other things) the making of the Bayeux Tapestry. The software can be freely downloaded and applied to any set of images you may happen to be grappling with.

We will be able to answer big questions with this. Personally, I’m still trying to answer a very small research question: who in the sixteenth/seventeenth century in England wrote ‘g’s like this?

strong-minded

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The centenary of a milestone in the history of women’s voting rights yesterday coincided with my graduate student Molly Yarn handing in the latest instalment of her PhD on female editors of Shakespeare in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the women whose history she has been unearthing is Agnes Russell Weekes, who produced editions of As You Like It, The Tempest and Cymbeline for the University Tutorial Series. Weekes had a degree from University College, London; she worked as a tutor and co-wrote novels with her sister, with whom she lived at 9 Queen Anne Terrace in Cambridge. In 1911, Agnes (aged 30) and Rose (aged 36) filled in their census form. In the ‘INFIRMITY’ column, which invited you to note whether anyone included on the form was ‘lunatic’, ‘imbecile’, or ‘feeble-minded’, they wrote ‘unenfranchised’.

Agnes and Rose Weekes were among the thousands of suffragists who either boycotted the census or who used their forms to write messages of protest, such as Dorothy Bowker’s ‘No Vote – No Census. I am Dumb politically. Blind to the Census. Deaf to Enumerators. Being classed with criminals lunatics & paupers I prefer to give no further particulars’. It’s nice to have this opportunity to celebrate the courage of their protests.

 

fat news

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Catching up with an article in last Saturday’s Guardian magazine, about whether the YouTube algorithm (the behind-the-scenes formula that directs you to new material) is biased towards particular kinds of content. Did it, in the last election, direct people to Trump-friendly videos, whilst drowning Clinton in wild conspiracy theories? Along the way there’s a quotation that takes me back to our conference on ‘Eating Words‘ (shortly to appear from Routledge as an essay collection):

‘This is a bit like an autopilot cafeteria in a school that has figured out children have sweet teeth, and also like fatty and salty foods … So you make a line offering such food, automatically loading the next plate as soon as the bag of chips or candy in front of the young person has been consumed’.

It’s not a subtle connection–anyone who has ever engaged in ‘binge-viewing’ will be attuned to the connection between visual content and food. The troubling idea here is automation, and the idea that humans might absent themselves entirely from the process of deciding what consumers get to see/eat. Still, I’m looking forward to the day when news comes with warning labels about its fat and salt content.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

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Twenty years after the publication of the first of J.K. Rowling’s books about the boy who went to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the British Library is celebrating with a major exhibition which brings together an impressive array of objects and texts to explore some of the folklore, traditions, and magical histories in the world of Harry Potter.

There are mandrakes and bezoar stones, dragon eggs, mermaids, and mirrors. From the British Library’s own chamber of secrets, treasures brought out for the exhibition include a seventeenth-century manuscript that once belonged to Gabriel Harvey, which outlines ‘Howe experyments to be invysible must bee preparedd’. There is also the thirteenth-century Liber Medicinalis, containing the first documented use of ‘Abracadabra’, with an explanation of how to write the word repeatedly on successive lines, omitting one more letter each time, to create a cone-shaped amulet that could be worn around the neck to drive out fever. Readers of the Potter series will recall that magical books in Hogwarts are often emphatically material – perhaps furry, or noisy, or even violent things which might leak ink, require stroking, or at least must be handled with care. They would not be out of place alongside these intriguing testaments to ancient magical traditions chosen from the British Library’s collections.

But in some ways the most absorbing exhibits are the personal contributions from J.K. Rowling herself. There are handwritten drafts of chapters in biro on very ordinary A4 paper; typed pages of drafts with revisions by Rowling and her editor; and incredibly detailed charts that were part of her planning, showing how she managed the challenging task of weaving together very complex plots over seven books. There is a first edition paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone annotated by Rowling, again in biro pen, with a mixture of charming illustrations and reflections on her experience of writing and rewriting. After Hermione’s encounter with a troll, for example, Rowling fills the blank space at the end of the chapter with a picture of some scissors and an unfurling ribbon, commenting: ‘This was the cut I refused to make – my editor wanted to lose the whole troll-fighting scene. I’m glad I resisted’. These material traces offer a magical glimpse into the processes involved in one of the biggest publication successes of the twentieth century.

Merry Christmas!

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skin-to-skin contact

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A snap from the second of David Pearson’s masterclasses on early modern bookbindings, held last week in the Cambridge University Library. The classes were a reminder that a rare books library is an extraordinary collection of dead animal skins, a mausoleum for the thousands of pigs, sheep, cows and goats that gave their lives in part to make words on paper more durable. The sessions were also an encounter with the mystery of design, as they traced the changing decorative fashions that allow a trained eye to date a binding quite precisely to a particular period.

Somewhere inside me I still have a logocentric self that thinks bindings don’t matter–they are just there to serve the words. Perhaps that is reinforced by the fact that the vast majority of bindings are distinctly plain and functional, turning the book into something sturdy and everyday. But to face up to the scale of the premodern binding trade, and of the extraordinary price-differentiation of the products that it produced, is to realise that books were once choice objects, things to flash around as evidence of wealth, taste and social status. Our thanks to David for making this sometimes arcane world accessible once more.

An ebay rarity

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I’ve just written a blog-post for the Cambridge University Library rare books site, on an extraordinary seventeenth-century book that was the library’s first purchase from ebay. You can read it here:

A chance discovery: Guest post by Jason Scott-Warren

ripping reads

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Fascinating article by Huang Yuan in the latest London Review of Books about the tightening of censorship regimes in China. ‘The Economist often receives phone calls from Chinese subscribers to the print edition complaining about missing issues (especially when the cover shows a panicky Xi Jinping astride a stumbling dragon). And it’s not uncommon for pages with critical reports about China to be torn from the magazine before subscribers get it (we have no shortage of manpower for this labour-intensive task). The New York Review of Books–always critical of China, and sharing many contributors with the New York Times–has so far dodged the censor, most likely because the number of subscribers is too low for the censors to condescend to’.