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A week ago my husband and I attended the 2017 Worldcon, this year held in Helsinki, Finland. It’s taken me a few days to write up my thoughts, but better late than never.

Every year the Worldcon – the World Science Fiction Convention (also covers fantasy, horror etc.) – is held in a different location. Often it’s in North America, so it’s quite exciting if it’s elsewhere. I was last at the Worldcon in London a few years ago, and was determined to go again if it came back to Europe. Two years ago I was a site selection voter for Helsinki, and delighted to be able to go there.

The venue this year was the Helsinki Convention Centre – the Messukeskus. As a Finnish convention the programme of talks had a substantial Nordic content, including some talks in the Finnish language. And it had a massive turnout from Finnish members. Normally a Worldcon held in a non English speaking location gets around 3000 attendees through the doors over the five days. This one had over 7000, including a vast number of local memberships sold in the weeks before the con. This caused problems for overcrowding in a venue which had been picked based on the smaller numbers. Rooms were over full, queues too long, corridors jam packed. But the con organisers took drastic action, and limited new members after the first day. I can’t remember this being done at a Worldcon before, but think it was a good decision, and it was effective in reducing the problem.

However even in such a huge event with thousands of attendees it did feel remarkably intimate. Even though we’re not active participants in the fandom scene we did keep running into the same people over and over again, including fellow Scots. It actually reminded me of being an undergraduate student at St Andrews in Scotland, where you could rarely walk into the town without running into someone you know … On that subject I met an online UK friend at the con – we hadn’t arranged anything in advance, but he saw one of my tweets saying which talk I was going to next, and was able to come and find me, and we had a great chat. I also had a very memorable breakfast chat with a US fan from Illinois.

As well as taking drastic action to cope with the overcrowding issues the con, as is usual for Worldcons, was highly organised around making it accessible. For example at registration on the Wednesday we – including me in manual wheelchair – were able to go straight to the special access desk, thus avoiding the longer and winding main queue. But there were still some problems. Lifts were probably too few for the numbers needed, and often busy, both in the main hotel building (which shared part of the convention complex) and elsewhere in the convention centre. Particularly problematic for us was a huge ramp in the main convention centre, which we had to get past to get to the main trade and exhibit halls. I could never have wheeled myself up there. And there were frequent problems with people walking along looking at smartphones, and threatening to walk into wheelchairs which could not just step easily to the side to avoid them. Very much a modern malaise of course.

Because of my neurological illness, similar to multiple sclerosis, I had to alternate days of total rest with days at the con. So allowing for flights there and back I could only attend the con on Wednesday and Friday, with total sleep days between. Luckily the hotel was quiet – because of my wheelchair and mobility issues we were allocated a room in the on-site Holiday Inn. This let me come back to the room and rest between panels, and manage as much as possible.

Before the con I studied the programme – released online some weeks in advance – to see likely things I might hope to get to. There were hundreds of talks to choose from, in ten or so parallel streams over five days. I tend to prefer panels with multiple members over individual speakers, unless I’m confident the one speaker will be good. And I always hope to have a variety of subjects covered in the panels I attend. My plan was to attend on the Wednesday and Friday, but also marked up Thursday and Saturday possible events, in case I was stronger on those days. We were flying home on Sunday afternoon, so after checking out from the hotel were going to head straight to the airport.

The first panel I attended was “Uses of Fantasy” in the Academic track, a 90-minute academic panel looking at research into audience responses to the Hobbit trilogy of films, especially in Finland. This was a fascinating start to the con for me, an academic historian who researched historic reading habits for my PhD. But I also increasingly dabble in cultural history, including in the modern era. The speakers were a mix of prof, post doc and PhD student, all interesting. All very different in presentation styles, but well linked. There was much amusement among the audience about Finnish attitudes to Hobbit films: essentially huge disappointment! And there was a lively Q&A session at end. I asked my first question of the con, and another questioner was also a Scottish lady.

My second panel looked at the processes behind the Helsinki Worldcon bid, from original idea through to the con of now. This had three speakers, somewhat variable in quality, indeed one I wish had spoken less, and given the others more space. But it was an interesting insight. I was also greatly amused by the tartan tammie wearing Finn on the panel with a Scottish twinge to his accent – turned out he’d done his language residency in Edinburgh, and clearly still felt close to the country. Nice!

I had hoped to attend more panels on the first day, but in the end couldn’t keep going for so long. So my next panel was on the Friday, looking at Caribbean SF. This was in a large room on the ground floor, and I was pleased to see that the chaotic queuing of the first day had improved. Again because of the wheelchair I got a seat at the very front. Originally this panel was intended to be three Caribbean authors including chair, but a 4th author was added. This was very very good – a rich insight into the language, culture and society of the islands, and what makes Caribbean Sci-Fi and Fantasy writing unique. Each of the writers – including luminaries Karen Lord and Nalo Hopkinson – talked about their own writing approaches. And, yet again, there was a lively Q&A at the end. I asked for tips re starting points for new readers of Caribbean SF, and got many useful suggestions.

Because of the still somewhat busy talks and corridors – even after steps had been taken – we didn’t try to attend a panel more often than every two hours. This gave time to get from the previous panel to the new location, ready to queue again. As a wheelchair user I was usually seated first, but it was still sensible to get there before things got too hectic. Both my husband and I had “Access” ribbons on our Worldcon membership badges – him as my assistant – to give us priority access through crowds etc.

My second Friday panel looked at the James Webb Space Telescope, one of many astronomy talks at this year’s Worldcon. The speaker in this case was NASA public affairs officer Jenny Knott. So not a scientist, but I think she coped pretty well with questions. It was rather unfortunate that this talk was scheduled directly against another astronomy one about Mars, but both my husband – whose day job is in space technology research for the European Space Agency etc. – and me preferred to try for the telescope one. Much of the talk was a pre prepared video explaining the science behind the telescope and the plans for its launch and deployment. The rest of the time was a lively Q&A. Many people, including me (on my 4th question in successive panels), asked about the risky aspects of the mission, and about testing etc. It’s using a lot of new technology; if things go wrong it will be very hard to fix long distance. The speaker couldn’t answer everything, but again I think she did pretty well, and offered to put people interested in knowing more in touch with NASA scientists who can help more.

I had intended to go to a panel on Finnish steampunk, but went for lunch instead, and another look around the trade hall. So after that I looked in the programme book to see what else that might be on imminently that could appeal, and ended up in a panel on “Writing for Video Games”. This had five writers for video games, including three writing for interactive fiction company Choice of Games. I’m writing interactive fiction games myself at the moment, and have been interested in them for 35+ years; so am always hoping for inspiration re my own writing, which made this panel ideal. It was an interesting discussion, well balanced among the panel, and touched on lots of issues, including the role of the writer, developing a character, and agency. Again it wrapped up with a lively Q&A. I was trying not to ask a question for a 5th panel in row, but gave up after 5 mins. I asked the panel for their thoughts on how easy it was for amateurs to get into this field, based partly on the long tradition of amateur writers in interactive fiction in particular. This led to further questions, where audience members were asking for more details of free / open source systems like Inform 7, Choice Script etc.

Note: both of the last two panels mentioned above can be viewed on YouTube. Because both were in room 208 they were some of the few recorded and streamed on the Internet for viewers long distance.

I should also comment on other aspects of the con. I’ve already mentioned how easy registration was for us. In a large part this was because of the access desk, but looking across to the main registration queue it seems to have been remarkably efficient for people in general too.

The Trade Hall is always a Worldcon highlight for me, and I was there on both days. The Trade Hall was quite small this year in the number of traders, I think. There were many Finnish language books on sale, which was nice to see, even if I couldn’t buy them to read myself! Also there were several sellers of steampunk items. I could easily have bought an amazing watch and some goggles …

The Exhibits Hall was rather sparsely filled, certainly in comparison with London. There were lots of posters, but for me from my wheelchair position they weren’t always easy to read. We did like some of the displays though, including Discworld figures, and a huge Discworld Great A’Tuin turtle.

All attendees get a registration pack, including a souvenir book and various bits and bobs. I was particularly pleased to see that the souvenir book – a large format paperback – includes good articles about the history of Finnish SF and F. And as a real bonus we got a specially published collection of Finnish weird fiction in paperback form in our registration pack. This would be good enough for me in itself, but it also had the bonus of having lists at the back of it of Finnish SF and F – both short stories and longer novels etc. – available in translation in various languages worldwide. More for me to read!

Overall I’m delighted with our time at the con. I could only be there on two proper days, though my husband managed four days. We both had a fantastic time, very rewarding, which in particular has left me with a legacy of much new fiction and non fiction for me that I now want to read. We got to visit a fantastic city – the Finnish people were extremely welcoming – and had a wonderful break. I hope it’s not too long before the Worldcon comes back to the Nordic countries, but this was a wonderful experience. Thank you.

Oh and for a glimpse of Helsinki, rather more so than the Worldcon itself, my husband has uploaded quite a lot of photos from his wanders, especially on the days before the con started.

Some of my friends have been posting their lists for this, so I thought I’d post mine.

It’s for Doctors numbers 1-12 plus War. And re that last one, he may just have had one TV episode (though he has audio and book adventures too), but that one TV episode is so superb it threatened to steal my favourite place for Doctor 11 too. So it’s going in the list.

All the episodes below are from TV, apart from Doctors 6 and 8. I think the TV Movie is poor, but Paul McGann has had a wonderful run of Doctor Who audio adventures thanks to Big Finish. And my choice for him from that, The Chimes of Midnight, is quite sublime. Likewise Colin Baker suffered from an often poor characterisation and scripts on the TV in the 1980s, but many of his Big Finish audio stories are superb. And my favourite, despite being by far the silliest, has to be The One Doctor.

It’s interesting to note that my choice from David Tennant’s stories is the Doctor-lite Blink, where he hardly appears. This is despite him being my favourite TV Doctor, and I am a huge fan of many of his TV stories. But Blink, well it’s one of my favourite Who TV stories ever, and has to go in this list.

This list could easily change if I do it again in a few years time. I might, for example, add more non-TV stories to my choices. Or if I get to see more Patrick Troughton or Jon Pertwee stories my favourites for those Doctors might change too. I also struggle in some cases to choose between two stories, hence other options given in brackets below. But I think this is a fair list of my favourites, at the moment anyway.

  • 1 – The Time Meddler
  • 2 – The Web of Fear
  • 3 – The Sea Devils
  • 4 – City of Death
  • 5 – Mawdryn Undead
  • 6 – The One Doctor
  • 7 – The Curse of Fenric
  • 8 – The Chimes of Midnight
  • War – The Day of the Doctor
  • 9 – The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances
  • 10 – Blink
  • 11 – The Snowmen (or The Angels Take Manhattan)
  • 12 – Listen (or Face the Raven)

My favourite Dickens book is Our Mutual Friend. I love the 1998 BBC TV version, but recently had a chance to watch the 1958 BBC TV version. It was on sale at the BBC Store selling digital versions of programmes. That has in the last few days announced its closure. Luckily I bought this programme before they stopped more sales, and I’ve been able to watch it before my account is finally closed and I lose access to my programmes (yeah, great business model that one!). Like other customers of the BBC Store I have been offered a full refund of my purchases. And this 1958 version is also coming out soon on DVD, from Simply Media.

The 1958 version is 12 half hour episodes. Black and white obviously, limited in location work, though they do some interesting things with water that had me wondering quite how they filmed it back then! Our Mutual Friend is set largely on and around the River Thames, and concerns boatmen and their families.

In many ways this version is very authentic to the original novel. The biggest change they made is to reveal the big mystery right at the start, whereas the original novel, and also the 1998 TV version, take half the book to do this. I prefer the latter approach, but the former does work too, albeit to a lesser extent. Another change is that the 1958 version – unlike the 1998 version – seems to lose a lot of Dickens’ more nuanced dialogue in certain scenes. Since both TV versions are the same total length (1998 = 4 x 90 minute episodes) I don’t think this was necessary, and it is a shame, especially in key scenes.

The acting is variable in the 1958 version, unlike 1998 where it is uniformly of a very high quality. The four leads in 1958 are strong though: Paul Daneman, Zena Walker, David McCallum and Rachel Roberts. Indeed I would pick out the performances of the first and last of these as particular highlights. Also notable in acting terms are Helena Hughes as Jenny Wren, Fay Compton as Betty Higden, and a young Melvyn Hayes as Charley Hexam. However against those strong characters acting-wise are a number of very weak performances, for me anyway, particularly the actors playing Rogue Riderhood and Mrs Wilfer. I’m also far from convinced by Alex Scott in the key role of Bradley Headstone, a huge difference from the impression that David Morrissey makes in the 1998 version.

Despite these quibbles I found it a compelling programme to watch, although no doubt due in part to my love of the original Dickens source material. I rattled through all 12 episodes and 6 hours of viewing in just a few days. It definitely lent itself to binge viewing for me.

I would recommend this version to fans of Dickens and TV versions of classic novels. But I do think that the 1998 version is stronger. It has a much better sense of place with wonderful location filming, sets and design, is more true to the original novel in structure and dialogue, and has a higher quality of acting throughout. But the 1958 version, if you get a chance, is worth watching too.

Of course now I need to see the 1976 BBC version for further comparisons. DVD ordered …

I’ve not seen many plays in my life, and it’s many decades since I did any English literature study at school. But my husband and I recently went to see the National Theatre Live cinema broadcast – broadcast live as the play was performed – of the latest West End production of Tom Stoppard’s play inspired by Hamlet. The play was staged at the Old Vic Theatre in London, and starred Joshua McGuire, Daniel Radcliffe, and David Haig. The play is a retelling of sorts of Hamlet, turning things around to give the perspective of two minor characters in that play.

Now I reckon how people respond to this play will vary, largely depending on their knowledge of the Shakespeare original. Some will know Hamlet well. I know it very barely. Thirty years ago I went to see a touring Royal Shakespeare Company production, in Carlisle. My class at school, who were going with other classes, hadn’t read this play, or studied it. So it was a bit “Whoah! What’s going on here?” Though still enjoyable, and surprisingly comprehensible. But that was a long time ago, and I’ve never read the play, before or since. I couldn’t even remember much about the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, beyond their names, not even their final fate. But at least I could vaguely remember what was going on with the Danish court, and so was not completely confused.

My husband, by contrast, doesn’t know Hamlet at all. And, as he put it, he was baffled by all the comings and goings in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and didn’t know who anyone was. But he still enjoyed it! Which is rather a good measure of how well the play can still work even for audience members unfamiliar with the Shakespeare original. And of course not knowing what on Earth is going on is exactly the same state the central characters are in, so it’s not a bad mood to capture. We both liked the fast and witty wordplay, and the humour running throughout. I particularly liked the Player character, who had most of the best lines IMHO. I loved the idea of players within plays, which was repeated over and over again, in so many ways. We also admired the staging of this play. Even as newcomers to it, we could appreciate the detailed thought that had gone into elements such as the overall design, costumes, and the music.

Watching a National Theatre Live performance of a play in a cinema is fun, but certainly different. You do almost feel as though you’re there, with background noise from the theatre audience beforehand, and a sense of occasion. And we probably had better views of the actors than many people sitting in the theatre in London. We cinema viewers could benefit from multiple camera angles, and close ups. And you still feel as though you’re watching a live performance. We’d seen one other NT Live performance before in the cinema – Frankenstein, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller – but that was a recorded encore repeat, so didn’t have quite the same sense of liveness about it.

I don’t usually read a play script after watching a play, but I enjoyed this one so much that I ordered the book. In particular I wanted to note all my favourite lines somewhere properly. I read through the play with glee, and stuck in many dozens of post-it notes, then typed up my favourite bits at the end. So many. And then, to try to better understand the play, I went on to read a critical guide to it. That’s helping, but I’m still puzzling over certain things. But puzzling in a happy way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another NT Live play in the next year. It’s a fantastic way to see superb productions, but still locally. And we are going to go see an amateur dramatics version of a Terry Pratchett book soon. That’ll be different again, but hopefully entertaining in its own way.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead play books

When I did my history PhD at Dundee University (“Reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820”) I was plugging a big gap in the research. All PhD research should make a contribution, but it’s rare for a subject to be quite so little studied before as this one. Scottish reading habits and book history more generally had been little researched since Paul Kaufman in the 1960s. Some PhDs had been completed, but usually by librarians, without their own graduate students to inspire. And so, although Scotland has a mass of useful sources (library borrowing records, evidence of book ownership etc.), its reading and book history was largely little researched when I started my PhD in 2003.

Of course the downside of having a big gap is that there’s always a chance someone else will come along and fill it. During my PhD there was a panic moment, when I learned of another PhD student, Mark Towsey at neighbouring St Andrews, looking at many of the same sources, with a very similar PhD topic. We met up, and established our respective approaches. We still had overlaps, but not enough to jeopardise getting our PhDs. And we both completed successfully.

That was some years ago, but more recently reading history has become more popular among Scottish researchers, almost fashionable to an extent. And in the last few years I’ve watched with interest new PhD students starting to work on Scottish reading habits, for example Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell looking at childhood reading in 18th century Scotland, and Jill Dye studying Innerpeffray Library and its borrowers. It’s a slightly strange feeling seeing the field come alive like this, but in a rather wonderful way. And it’s always exciting to see new researchers approach things differently, in terms of their theoretical framework and methodologies, and in terms of the core research questions that they explore.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the results of these and other upcoming Scottish PhD projects in the next few years. It’s exciting to see these developments, if still rather strange at the same time!

Floundering

Very insightful piece into what archival research is like for academic historians. Often boring, but sometimes you turn up a real gem – usually quite unexpected.

Will Pooley

I sometimes wonder what outsiders think archival research is like.

The message blasting from mass culture is not reassuring. From the ‘archaeologist’ Indiana Jones to Dan Brown’s ‘symbologist’ Robert Langdon, audiences are told that archive work is exciting, and dangerous, that it’s ok to lie and steal to get the information, and that men always do it with female sidekicks. If you want to see perhaps the most shockingly outdated embodiment of this, I dare you to look for the recent McDonald’s advert which features a caricatured elderly male professor along with his young female researcher having an eureka moment. Do not watch it unless you are prepared to be angry.


But – and here’s the kicker – archival research is fundamentally quite boring most of the time. In fact, that boredom is part of what makes it exciting. I wonder how many other historians were keen on fishing in their…

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I’ve been spending much time in the last week in the 17th century, transcribing a lengthy poem about a corrupt court judge at Melrose in the 1680s. Doing that reminded me of the talk I gave in September 2013, at the conference of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland, held in Inverness. I thought it would be nice if I put the PowerPoint slides from that online, so have done that – link here. It was a 20-minute talk, as is usual for academic conferences, so I was limited in how much I could say. But I covered a lot in the time allowed.

My talk was titled “Glimpses into a time of turmoil: examining the regality court records of Melrose, Roxburghshire, 1657-1706”, and was based on the dissertation for my taught MPhil degree at Dundee. I studied the voluminous local court records for Melrose regality, and had a fantastic time. I have ancestral connections in Melrose, going back to this period, and lived there myself for part of my childhood. And as a disabled student it was a perfect project: the records are largely transcribed already, so I could work on them at home, as able to.

In the process of the research I built up a gigantic database of court cases, pursuers and defenders. The index of people’s names recorded is online already, as part of my Melrose one-place study. There were probably only about 2500 people living within the court’s jurisdiction at this time, making the vast numbers of people recorded as using the court quite astonishing.

The slides don’t record everything I said in the Inverness talk though. For example there’s a detailed slide of the many debts murder accused John Halliwall weaver in Gattonside left in 1673 after escaping prison before his trial. I explained more about Halliwall’s story verbally on the day, not on the slides. He escaped on horseback, after a court officer let him out of jail to help him sell ale!

I’ve also spoken about the 17th century court records to the local historical society in Melrose, many years ago, in a well attended talk in the town.

There are so many other stories I want to share about the Melrose community from these records. For example a g… uncle of mine was judge of the court from 1657 to 1665. Well he was, until he was charged with “striking and hurteing of Robert Mott, servitor to John Bowar, portioner of Eildoune”. His own court fined him £10, and he lost his job. But that, and more, is for another day!