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I’ve various academic history research projects on the go, and one of these, still in the early stages, is to look at 18th century Scottish shop tax records. My taught postgraduate Masters degree at Dundee was in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, and I also worked as a Research Assistant on a pilot study of small towns in Scotland circa 1750-1820. So to study shops and their development in this period is perfect given my background.

Fortunately for me these records have been digitised at ScotlandsPlaces.gov.uk, and so are conveniently accessible. As a disabled academic, with a severely disabling neurological illness, this access is particularly important, meaning I can work on these records at home. You used to have to go to Edinburgh to look at these records in manuscript form, which I certainly can’t do any more.

The shop tax records that survive for Scotland only cover years 1785-1789, but cover many towns across the country, large and small. The amount of detail varies. Sometimes you just get names and no details of shops. At other times you can see what the shops were. For example the image below shows part of the 1787 Haddington shop tax list, including my 6xg-grandfathers Dr Richard Somner (surgeon and apothecary, shop type not specified in the tax records) and William Veitch (watchmaker, recorded in the tax record).

Such a high degree of variation means that the shop tax records aren’t all suitable for study. Indeed a core question is how much of these records are detailed enough for adequate analysis. But more interesting, I think, is to see if we can use these records to explore how developed the shopping hierarchy was in urban Scotland by the 1780s, including how shops varied between different towns. This ties into the work of my PhD supervisors Professors Bob Harris and Charles McKean, whose Saltire prize winning book on Scottish towns addresses this to an extent, and especially so re the provision of luxury goods.

At the moment I’m still in the early stages of this research project, currently part way through looking through the records systematically, to see which towns have detailed shop tax records at specific dates.

Then I want to consider which types of towns can be analysed, e.g. large cities like Edinburgh or Glasgow, versus manufacturing centres like Paisley, Hawick etc., or elite centres like Dumfries or Montrose. Towns in Scotland fell into many types, and it’s important to consider what type each town was when analysing its records.

Thinking along these lines will give me a target list of towns, whose shop tax records I can then transcribe and start to analyse. I will need to formalise my list of research questions more fully, but such questions ought to come partly out of the records themselves, and partly out of the academic literature.

Anyway it should be fun! I would aim to publish the results, but also aim to report back here on progress and findings, as well as any final results.

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Academic goals for 2018

Looking ahead to the New Year I thought I’d jot down things that I’d like to tackle in this area in the next 12 months.

I’ve already blogged about my writing goals for 2018, which are very much still applicable, and I hope to blog more about progress as it is made in these areas.

I also have a number of academic research projects on the go, especially concerning book history and urban history, sometimes both together. I will work away at these quietly in the background, but again they would be a good source for blogs, reporting on progress.

I have quite a large number of peer-reviewed history publications now, and it might be nice to blog more looking back at some of these in particular. Some of the papers are open access and can be read fully and freely online. But even for those published in a more restricted way I could usefully blog reflections about them here, sharing the information more widely.

My piles of academic books to read are terrifying in their scale! But maybe I could set myself the goal of reading some of the books, and blogging brief reviews here after. It would encourage me to read them, and might also help other scholars.

Likewise it would be nice to do more methodological blog posts re working with specific sources, applying techniques such as digital humanities etc. Definitely food for thought.

Many ideas anyway. Looking forward to it!

As we near the end of 2017 I thought I’d reflect on the books I’ve been reading over the last year. Note this is the books I’ve been reading for fun, usually on my Kindle. I have a to-read pile for academic books of quite scary proportions – well several piles! Academic books are trickier for me to read, due to my brain damage, because I usually can’t adjust the font etc. I also tend not to get on well with PDF-based ebooks. But I read ebooks avidly for fun, and got through a fair number this year. 89 finished so far, and there may be more yet.

My list of books completed in 2017 is online at Goodreads. I set myself, just for fun, the goal of completing 50 books this year, and have surpassed it. Particularly good again given my MS-like illness, which wipes me out for much of the time, and makes reading extremely difficult.

Looking through the list of books completed in 2017 a number of trends jump out. For example I really like fantasy and horror books. I’m not a big scifi fan, preferring fantasy, sword and sorcery, magic etc. So, for example, I’ve been continuing my read through (and reread in many cases) of all the 41 Terry Pratchett Discworld novels. I completed six more Discworld books this year, numbers 32-37 in the sequence, interspersing them with other reading material. I started reading book #38 last night.

Another series that I’ve been reading throughout the year, and will carry on doing so into 2018, is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of comics / graphic novels. I’ve read these before, and love them, and am rereading them on my iPad in Comixology’s guided panel view. There are 10 collected graphic novel volumes in the main Sandman series, and I read numbers 1-6 this year, and am part way through number 7. Again enjoying immensely.

Other comics that I read this year included those shortlisted for the Hugo scifi awards. As a member of the 2017 Worldcon (actually attending it, in Helsinki) I got a voter’s packet of many of the Hugo shortlisted works. And that included the comics up for the award. So I read loads of these. Many of the works, such as Saga, were parts of ongoing series, but I enjoyed them nevertheless, and have thus found more comics that I want to read in future. I also read most of the Hugo-shortlisted novelettes and novellas.

The Worldcon in Helsinki was held in August 2017, and not long after that I read several horror books in the run-up to Halloween. The first was Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker-shortlisted His Bloody Project, more crime than horror, but could easily fit into the latter genre too. I followed this with an annual favourite reread: Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October. I recommend this book to any fans of horror, weird fiction etc. Especially in the days before Halloween. It is rather designed to be read daily throughout October, though I always gobble it up more quickly. Other horror works read in October include Robin Jarvis’s The Whitby Witches, and Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. October was definitely a good month of reading for me.

Although as noted above I’m not a big fan of scifi I did read several Doctor Who books throughout the year. For me Doctor Who is less a scifi series than a storytelling engine with time travelling aspects. I also read famed scifi writer Michael Moorcock’s The Jewel in the Skull, though this is very much a fantasy novel of his, rather than the scifi that some may associate him more with.

Something new for me this year was reading a number of play scripts. I haven’t done this since I was at school, wading through Shakespeare etc. Thanks to attending a nationwide cinema screening of a live performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead I read the script of this play afterwards. To my surprise, finding play scripts vastly easier to read than most print books – lots of space on the page, not too much crammed text to wade through – this was followed by Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off, which I saw on stage in St Andrews in the 1990s, and Rona Munro’s trilogy The James Plays about Scottish Stewart kings James I, II and III. I have my eye on David Greig’s Dunsinane play next – definitely getting a theme here for historical Scottish ones!

Quite a few of the books I read this year were bought for me as birthday or Christmas presents, usually in ebook form for my Kindle, where I read with a gigantic font and huge line spacing – more in appearance like a Ladybird book for a 5 year old child. Such present titles read included The Moon Stallion, which I saw on the television long, long ago, and Frost Hollow Hall, another Young Adult book with a historical bent and several supernatural elements to it.

I’d like to mention the books that were my favourites this year, all of which I rated as 5-star in Goodreads. In reading order they are as follows:

  • A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
  • The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, the first in her Merlin trilogy
  • The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
  • The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown
  • Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, a love-letter to small town America and childhood in the 1920s
  • Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off by Liz Lochhead
  • Ms Marvel vol 5 “Super Famous” graphic novel
  • Saga vol 6 graphic novel
  • Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson – read in the run-up to our trip to Finland
  • Peril at End House by Agatha Christie – one of my favourite Hercule Poirot stories
  • Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott
  • Tommy v Cancer: One man’s battle against the Big C by Tommy Donbavand
  • The Moon Stallion by Brian Hayles
  • The James Plays by Rona Munro
  • The Fellowship of the Ring (Lord of the Rings part 1) by JRR Tolkien
  • A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny
  • The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
  • Doctor Who Yearbook 1993
  • The Express Diaries by Nick Marsh
  • Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll

To be fair many of these top-rated titles were rereads for me, including my absolute favourite Lord of the Rings. But I also found some new favourites to reread in the future, including the already-mentioned The Moon Stallion and Frost Hollow Hall, and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.

So that’s my look back at a year of reading. It’s been fun! I look forward to reading more in 2018.

Just blogged some thoughts about autosomal (all branches) DNA testing, and how those results have compared with my conventional paper-based research. Very much genealogical focused, but interesting from a wider perspective, viewed through the lens of general historical research, which frequently has to piece together stories from incomplete paper records, but can’t usually fall back on science to confirm things 100%.

Viv's Ancestry Blog

Some months ago I blogged about a major DNA breakthrough, confirming that I’d traced my Irish great granny properly. DNA testing was needed to be sure of the line, because we lack certain conventional key paperwork, and so it was enormously difficult to trace back.

That testing was with FamilyTreeDNA, using their FamilyFinder test, which finds chunks of DNA from all branches of the ancestral tree. This is called autosomal DNA testing.

I’ve since tested with AncestryDNA as well, which is a purely autosomal test, and have found that very useful too. It’s confirmed numerous ancestral lines, that I traced the conventional way through paperwork. So I thought it might be worth reflecting on that.

My ancestry is 1/2 Scottish (mainly Scottish Borders), 3/8 English (West Yorkshire and West Midlands) and 1/8 Irish (Dublin and County Cork). And I trace every single line, and have been doing so for 35…

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Mainly as a prompt for myself, to encourage me to get it all done, I thought I’d blog about some writing projects I want to finish off in the next year.

First up is a rewrite of a conference talk, which I want to submit in print to a new academic journal. It’s almost finished. I just need to tidy up the last few bits. And some sections are time, or more pertinently date, critical. So I need to get on with it. That should be done soon.

Secondly I have a brand new journal paper combining urban history and book history, the topics of my PG Masters and PhD. It needs more work, but I’m really pleased with it as it stands. I think it’s one of the strongest pieces I’ve written, and it’s a topic that probably only I could do, given my combined background. The trickiest bits are sorting out illustrations for two case studies. For the first, a town, I can probably work from a published town plan, if I can pick a suitable one, and get permission to use it. The other case study, a regional case study, is possibly going to need a new map. I’m not good at drawing maps! So I’m still pondering what to do re that. It definitely needs some kind of cartographic illustration, to explain unfamiliar geography to the reader. But if I can crack the mapping issues I ought to be able to submit this journal paper in the first quarter of 2018.

Slightly more straightforward is developing an already accepted manuscript publishing proposal for the Scottish History Society. This concerns a poem from the 17th century, which I have transcribed, and will be published in annotated form. The key work to do is to add numerous annotations and expand the introductory essay. Annotations will be added for people’s names, places, events, anything else needing explaining. This should be largely straightforward, but will be somewhat time consuming, and may hit tricky patches. The introductory essay needs more on the possible provenance of the poem and its mystery writer. I may need to consult an academic specialist on poetry of this period for that. I expect that I can finish this by summer 2018, but have a much longer deadline option available if need be.

I also have a short journal paper in progress, concerning a 16th century poet ancestor of mine, a royal courtier, whose family history as published eg in DNB is very wrong. I thought I might write a note putting on record a corrected version, based on my research. This is in progress, in Scrivener on my iPad, but isn’t urgent to finish. It can wait until all the more important and heftier items are out of the way. So while it might be nice to submit it in 2018, in practice it may be done later. Not least because of how ill I am, with a severely disabling MS-like illness.

I have other academic writing projects in the air, but for most I need to do more research in primary source materials, i.e. documents, first.

As well as the academic writing projects I have two fun recreational things that I hope to submit in 2018. I am writing a number of interactive fiction (IF) or text adventure games in Inform 7. And I may be ready to submit two of them to IF competitions in 2018. One of my games, a 15th century set game about the Border Reivers, is about 80% finished at the moment. I need to add further refinements, and improve interactivity, and it still needs thoroughly playtesting. But that could easily be completed well in advance of the 2018 IFComp, the main annual competition for interactive fiction games that takes place each autumn. The other historical game I’m writing, about mathematician John Napier and a treasure hunt he was employed on for my ancestor Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig, around 1590 or so, is much earlier in development. But I expect I should be able to get an opening portion ready to submit for IntroComp, for the opening sections of games, if that competition runs again in 2018, most likely in the summer.

So those are my writing goals. Submit two journal papers, complete another already accepted publishing piece, and submit two interactive fiction games to competitions in 2018, all going well. Let’s see what happens!

This year the annual Interactive Fiction competition has been running again, now into its 23rd year. I’ve played and judged the games in every year, and this year was no exception.

A major challenge this year was the sheer number of entries. 79 different games to play. Fortunately judges don’t have to play them all! Just 5 need to be rated for your scores to count towards the final ratings, and there is a month and a half to do this in. I aimed for more, and ultimately managed to judge 40 of the games, so just over half the entrants.

The games are a mix of more traditional parser-based text adventures (like Infocom etc. in the past) and web-based clickable interactive stories. The latter is a fairly recent addition to the interactive fiction scene, but growing in popularity, and fun to play. But parser games are still being written, and were present in sizeable numbers this year.

A wide variety of genres of game were present, ranging from ones set in the real world, through fantasy, sci-fi, horror and even more. There’s a particularly entertaining classification scheme online, which I recommend reading.

The games are also widely varied in terms of length. Some were very short, less than 15 minutes or so. But many were an hour or two, posing challenges for how to pick which games to play in the time available.

Fortunately the IF Comp website provided some help, generating an individual randomised list for each judge, as well as full random each time, and alphabetical. I used my personal random list to start working through the games. I started with the shorter games, quickly playing a dozen or so of these. Then I moved to longer ones. I played a mix of parser and clicky, and generally alternated between these. Over the nearly seven weeks of judging I probably put in about 30 hours of play. But it was spread over many weeks, and many play sessions. The key thing for me was to keep nibbling at the task, week after week.

The scoring scheme we are asked to use is to score between 1 and 10, but each judge can devise their own criteria. My ratings are grouped in pairs, e.g. rubbish; poor, some merit; good; promising; excellent. And for each of those I have 2 votes to choose from e.g. 7 or 8 for promising etc. Each judge uses their own scoring system, all entered as 1-10 in the site.

My votes in this year's IF Comp

My votes in this year’s IF Comp

My spread of votes from 1-10

My spread of votes from 1-10

My overall impressions of the competition this year, based on 40 out of 79 games that I played, are generally positive. There was a wide variety of games to play, to suit all tastes, and a lot of creative works, in terms of writing, experiments with user interface, and implementation. Generally the games worked well. Though as a tablet user I found the Quest ones (a mix of parser and clicky interface) lost lots of the vital user interface on my iPad, in particular directions and object listings. But that wasn’t a fault of the entrants, and I worked around it.

I noticed a number of trends this year. There were several stat-based computer role playing games, especially fantasy ones, with randomised combat. Actually there were a lot of fantasy games generally, in particular involving magic. There seemed to be fewer sci-fi games than usual, but that may just be based on those I played. And there was nothing particularly Lovecraftian this year [correction: Measureless to Man, that I didn’t play during the judging period, is Lovecraftian]. Though Chandler Groover’s Eat Me was a dark Gormenghastian horror.

Four games particularly stood out for me, that I want to discuss in some detail. I expect that they will all do well in the final rankings when they are announced in a few days time.

Firstly Buster Hudson’s The Wizard Sniffer. This was a real hoot, a Monty Python esque parser game, with some of the most memorable characters I can remember seeing in IF for a long time (e.g. the clown!). Superb writing throughout combined with complex but flawless coding. Also a game that is very newbie friendly, in terms of a well-implemented in-game hints system. And just ridiculously good fun. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

As a complete contrast in terms of user interface the only other game I scored 10 was Stephen Granade’s Will Not Let Me Go. This was a Twine-based web game, where you clicked on links to move things forward and make choices. The central character has dementia, and it was a devastatingly well-observed piece. One sequence in particular stood out for me, but I won’t say more here, for risk of spoilers. Interestingly the author is a long-time parser IF writer, and former organiser of IF Comp. I don’t know if this is the first Twine game he’s written, trying a very different form of IF. But it is superbly done.

Another web-based game I particularly liked was Liza Daly’s Harmonia. In this one you are a teaching assistant at a university, and uncover strange goings on. It is a gorgeous design: presented as if you uncover scraps of information, and are scribbling your own notes on the text. The illustrations are also great. My one quibble, and it was a big one, is that it didn’t feel quite interactive enough for me. In particular I didn’t feel as though I had as much agency as a player as I need to feel properly invested in an interactive experience, and always use as one of my essential judging criteria in IF Comp. But in every other respect it was superb.

The fourth game that I want to highlight is Victor Ojuel’s 1958: Dancing With Fear. Another parser game, this was a heady mix of 50s Caribbean setting, plots and intrigue, and, yes, dancing! I loved the writing here, written in an episodic way, and thoroughly immersive. However there were areas where it needed more polish, or slips that should be picked up on before release. A little more time developing may have made the difference for me between scoring 9 and 10. But another strong game from an author who is now a regular IF Comp participant.

Against these good examples there were some bad things that stood out. I’m not going to name specific games here, but do want to comment on recurring issues that I encountered.

I’ve already mentioned the key issue of interactivity. A small number of the web-based clicky games were too much like “next”, “next” etc. without me making any significant choices. I also didn’t like games that were under implemented, e.g. those with objects mentioned in room descriptions not coded, or too sparse a sense of world building. This leads to a poor experience for the player. More playtesting should have helped correct these issues. I really did feel that quite a lot of games were under tested. More playtesting would also have identified the large number of typos that slipped through in some games. I certainly felt that some games were overly rushed, and a little bit more time, and particularly in testing, would have been beneficial.

But generally it was a good crop of games that I enjoyed playing. I’m also keen to play others that I didn’t get to, like The Owl Consults – I expect from other reviews that it will rate highly in the final rankings announced in a few days.

Playing the competition games was also inspiring for me as someone writing my own Inform 7 games. There were obviously lessons for what to avoid e.g. implement scenery properly, make sure you test enough, and prioritise player agency. But the competition also gave me more positive ideas, in particular ways to incorporate non player characters more, and how a limited set of locations can be used very effectively. I was also encouraged by games successfully employing a number of separate scenes, because that’s the approach I’m taking in a couple of the games I’m writing now. And as someone who may enter a game into a future competition it’s great to see what a dynamic context the IF Comp is again, with a real buzz on social media and the intfiction forum.

In closing, IF Comp is great, yet again! Huge thanks to all the authors, playtesters, judges, and not least the organisers. I very much enjoyed taking part as a judge. Having more games than usual is a good thing, even if most people can’t play them all. And I’m still hugely impressed by the variety of games present, e.g. in genre, user interface and length. Thank you!

20 years ago I was undergoing a battery of tests to try to establish which neurological disease I had. I’d fallen ill 3 years earlier, aged just 22, and was initially misdiagnosed with ME. My symptoms changed over the next few years, and looked increasingly like MS. A MRI brain scan showed multiple lesions, suggesting some form of inflammatory disease process. More tests were needed to find out what.

I had those tests on November 5th 1997, 20 years ago this weekend coming up. Scans of organs of the body, visual evoked potential test, a lumbar puncture, and many blood tests. I remember driving home to the sound and smell of fireworks. The new diagnosis came a few weeks later: cerebral vasculitis, inflammation of blood vessels of the brain, cutting off the oxygen, causing brain damage, and symptoms similar to MS.

For a long time the future looked bleak, especially after a relapse in 2004. Vasculitis is an incurable disease, but with luck – and appropriate treatment – it can go into remission. Treatment is often lifelong steroids and immunosuppression, to reduce the inflammation in the blood vessels. I’ve had a very tough time over the years, though have been more stable since I demanded high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital throughout summer 2012. Those turned things around.

So I’m now managing on a lower cocktail of daily immunosuppression drugs. But I’m still getting worse. I recently renewed my Blue Badge and my mobility was significantly worse than when I’d last renewed 3 years ago. And I’m very disabled in other ways, including sleeping up to 18 hours a day due to the brain inflammation. I can’t work with this, and am very lucky to be alive.

But I’m happy! And still here. So thankful for that. But it’s frustrating having this condition, that I will never be rid of. It’s also difficult for people to understand what’s wrong. Even though I use mobility aids – usually 2 sticks, if not my wheelchair – most of my problems are inside, invisible.

For more on my vasculitis story see my page on the Vasculitis UK charity website.