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.


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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?


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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’.

Fake News from No Place

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It’s over a week now since our CMT/Southampton conference ‘Newes from No Place’, on the life and works of John Taylor, the Water-Poet (1578-1653). Held at Gonville and Caius College on 14-15 September, it featured thirteen speakers who offered many different perspectives on Taylor’s gargantuan oeuvre. We came together in the belief that Taylor, a self-professed amphibian who was at once a boatman on the river Thames (the equivalent of the London cab driver of today) and a hugely prolific writer, was an extraordinary figure in extraordinary times. Our aim was to set this incessant traveller in motion again, to see what he had to say to literary critics and cultural historians in the twenty-first century.

Proceedings were initiated by Bernard Capp, author of a magisterial survey of Taylor’s career, who reconsidered Taylor’s output during the Civil War years of the 1640s. Driven out of London for his Royalist sympathies, by 1643 Taylor found himself in Oxford, defending the King’s cause in pamphlets so numerous that the printing presses were unable to keep up with them. Analysing those pamphlets afresh, Capp concluded that they were not the kind of thing that might convince an adversary, but were intended to boost Royalist morale, at the same time as they settled scores with individual adversaries. One particularly resonant concern of Taylor’s was ‘fake news’; some of his pamphlets peddled their own spoof stories, while others attempted to set the record straight through first-hand reportage. After Capp had offered this wide-angle view, Abigail Shinn homed in on one pamphlet, The Conversion, Confession, Contrition, Coming to Himselfe, & Advice, of a Mis-led, Ill-bred, Rebellious Roundhead (1643). Drawing on Andrew McRae’s argument about the financial productivity of Taylor’s journeying, Shinn read this satire on a convert to puritanism as an attack on unproductive travel—spinning in circles around a ‘round head’. Parodying the puritan practice of ‘sermon-gadding’ to hear particular preachers, a staple element in spiritual life-writing of the period, Taylor’s Roundhead displays an inordinate movement linked with madness and vagrancy. Shinn showed us how that movement registers in Taylor’s style, which starts gadding wildly in imitation of its subject.

Ros King’s paper celebrated Taylor’s mobility, as a counterweight to any received picture of the early modern period as a time of stasis and social conservatism. In travelling, Taylor was finding out what it meant to be English (or British) in his day, but at the same time he was remaking social relations and experimenting with the more horizontal ties that could be created by urban life and the marketplace of print. His ability to celebrate the everyday and to overturn hierarchies (as when he got a pair of schoolboys, rather than aristocrats or men of letters, to supply the commendation for a book) points to a new vision of the social order. Challenging us to think counterfactually, King asked whether a more Taylorian Britain might not have had to endure the revolution of the 1640s. She was followed by Ariel Hessayon, who began by announcing that he was not going to give the paper he had intended to give, because he no longer believed that the work he had planned to discuss was written by Taylor. He went on to demonstrate that numerous works of the 1640s and 1650s have been ascribed to Taylor on the flimsiest foundations (by whom is not yet clear). Taylor’s authorship has been inferred from the most tenuous evidence: a reused woodblock, some promising-looking initials (‘J.T.’ or ‘T.J.’) on the title-page, or the presence of Taylorian tricks of style that could have been borrowed by any able satirist. Invoking the spectre of the Ranter debates of the 1980s, in which historians speculated that a well-known Civil War splinter group was no more than the ‘fake news’ whipped up by the conservatives of the day, Hessayon asked whether we would prefer a maximal Taylor, who encompasses everything that has been pinned on him, however dubiously, or a minimal Taylor, who might have written none of ‘his’ works? Finding the golden mean between these extremes is going to take some time.

The first day was rounded off by three papers, the first by Anthony Ossa-Richardson on Taylor’s learning. Drawing on Taylor’s early poetic credo in The Nipping and Snipping of Abuses (1614), Ossa-Richardson noted his opposition to mimicry; Taylor thought that the poet should be a creator-figure who produces something from nothing, and not a mere copyist or translator. He went on to analyse Taylor’s nonsense, showing how one batch of nonsense (in the 1651 Nonsence Upon Sence) creates its nonsensicality by cutting and pasting lines from an earlier, less nonsensical collection (the Mad verse, sad verse, glad verse and bad verse cut out, and slenderly sticht together of 1644). Taylor’s habits of plagiarism and self-plagiarism thus raise important questions about his aesthetic. Adam Smyth took up the baton with a consideration of Taylor and error, noting his playful way with errata lists and linking it with his wider ‘print-shop presence’, his determination to be there (‘an unsilenceable voice’) in every aspect of his books. The idea of error is also linked with wandering, and with Taylor’s identity as a traveller whose whole oeuvre is constitutively erroneous; Smyth drew attention to the strange miscellaneity of the 1630 folio All the Workes, its resistance to order or organization, and the sense that its binding together of so many miscellaneous pamphlets is also a form of scattering and dispersal. Finally in this session, Jason Scott-Warren proposed an ‘Exuvial Taylor’, drawing on the works of the anthropologist Alfred Gell to consider the writer in terms of the metaphorical ‘skins’ that he shed or re-inhabited during his lifetime. This led to a view of Taylor as a writer devoted to blazing or blazoning—the trumpeting of his own reputation and that of a range of bizarre things (geese, clean linen, twelve-pence, hemp-seed). But, Scott-Warren suggested, Taylor’s blazings are always ironic, and are thus symptomatic of a print marketplace that can put a celebrity author’s name into everyone’s mouth, but cannot ensure that they pay for his wares.

Day 2 struck out across Europe with Kirsty Rolfe’s paper on Taylor’s imagined geographies, setting his 1620 journey to Prague in the context of the news culture of the Thirty Years’ War. At this sticky political moment, when the appetite for news was at its height, James I issued a proclamation against the excess of licentious speech in matters of state—a classic case of an act of censorship that could not bring itself to say exactly what it wanted to censor. Unpicking Taylor’s satire on 1620s news culture, Rolfe suggested his sharp awareness of the intricacies of the circulation of information, and his disingenousness in claiming to stand outside it. Jemima Matthews brought us back to London and to Taylor’s Thames, including his involvement in the production of mayoral pageants, in which the river was converted into a fantastical space of performance. Such entertainments had a long tradition of broaching serious matters in the guise of theatre, and Taylor’s contribution to the genre, the 1634 Triumphs of Fame and Honour, was no exception, reminding the Mayor of his responsibilities to the river. Matthews set the pageant in relation to a variety of monopolistic schemes to exploit the river, showing how Taylor’s pamphlet contributed to the representation of the Thames as a space of financial opportunity.

Andrew McRae and Alice Hunt presented papers that took us to opposite ends of Taylor’s career. McRae took on the early works (meaning the 30-odd pamphlets that he published between 1612 and 1621), showing us how Taylor became the Water-Poet, a writer who rather than effacing his origins and his occupation chose to flaunt them. Taylor began as a surprisingly well-connected writer, but in his print wars with Fenner and Coryate came increasingly to define himself by his exclusion from elite literary circles. He was also relentlessly experimental, trying out numerous genres until he began to find his metier around 1620—at which time he also learnt to equate poetry with labour, in verse that represented a reinvention of georgic. Alice Hunt explored the Taylor of the 1650s, who was (after his ejection from London) no longer a Water-Poet, but a land-traveller undertaking a kind of existential journeying in search of the identity of the new, kingless Britain. Hunt noted the weariness of the late pamphlets, Taylor ‘limping through the English countryside on a knackered nag’. But he had not lost his eye for the evocative detail, and his writing was subtle in its probing of political allegiances. Exploring Taylor’s evocation of the headless kingdom allows us to see that his royalism was not, and perhaps never had been, particularly reverend.

Will May’s paper addressed itself to Taylor’s place in the history of whimsy, via a long-term history of nonsense. Drawing on Michael Dobson’s suggestion that the history of English nonsense might be the history of works that use the word ‘Basingstoke’ for comic effect, May led us into a history of whimsy as a kind of fever of the brain—a fever that might be brought on by trying to trace the origins of the word ‘whimsy’ itself. Finally May set Taylor in a tradition of performative, public writer-eccentrics, including Thomas Hood and Marianne Moore. Altogether less whimsical was Johann Gregory’s paper, reporting back on his recent project to live-tweet John Taylor’s travels around Wales in 1652 (#WaterPoet2017). This digital journeying was an innovative form of research that allowed Gregory to see where Taylor had elided aspects of his travels, raising questions about the faithfulness of seemingly spontaneous eyewitness accounts. But it was principally a form of public engagement that echoed Taylor’s own projects, and suggested their ongoing vibrancy in the present day. Taylor has, we suspect, many travels left in him.