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Photo of the CD boxset of Big FInish's audio version of the Box of Delights

I’ve been a fan of John Masefield’s magical festive story The Box of Delights since first seeing the BBC TV version in 1984, which led me on to the original book and its prequel The Midnight Folk. More recently rewatching the TV version every year in the run up to Christmas has become a festive tradition in my household.

So it was with great interest to me when Big Finish announced that they were coming out with a full cast audio version of the story. I’ve enjoyed their Doctor Who and other audio dramas for many years, admiring the good stories and listening experience. So it was a no brainer to buy this, especially with the cast.

The audio version of the story runs for 5 hours and has an hour of additional extra interviews on top. The 5 hours of the main story are split into 10 half hour episodes, each with the classic Hely-Hutchinson Carol Symphony music that has become so associated with the tale. The director is Barnaby Edwards, and the story was adapted by Christopher William Hill.

The cast is strong. Cole Hawlings is played by Derek Jacobi. Young actor Mack Keith-Roach takes on the pivotal part of Kay Harker. The chief baddie Abner Brown is played by Mark Gatiss. And other parts are played by a large cast, including acting stalwarts like Annette Badland, Louise Jameson and David Warner.

The story is set in the 1930s, when a young boy returning home for the holidays finds himself unexpectedly in a festive tale of a magic box and its mysterious owner, good versus bad, old versus new magic, and so much more besides.

To get to the point I very much enjoyed listening to the audio. It was refreshing to hear a different version of the story, albeit one that shares much in common with the TV version that I adore. In many cases the audio version was closer to the original book, but significantly it made a number of important changes.

First among these is the role of the character Peter, who is sidelined for much of the original book and TV versions. Here this does not happen, and he plays an important role throughout, alongside Kay. This is an astute choice on the part of the adapter, given the audio medium, and allowing the two boys to describe what they are seeing, and thinking and doing, in a way that isn’t necessary in either the book or TV versions, but that helps audio listeners immensely.

Another wise choice by the adapter was to increase the role and agency of a number of the supporting characters, especially the maid Ellen and the mysterious White Lady. The “Bloodhound of the Law” was also given welcome extra scenes.

I also approved of tweaks to the sleigh ride scene, and a marvellous parting scene at the very end of the story, which was extremely emotional and very effective, and not in either book or TV. Also marvellously acted. Thank you.

Less successfully a number of the scenes needed a more radical adaptation, being difficult to visualise on audio. I’m particularly thinking of the early wolves at the camp scene, which was chaotic to listen to, even for someone who knows the original well. Likewise the later Wolf Guard scene is also tricky to visualise, as to an extent is the action in the cellars underneath Chesters. Though the Wild Wood and ancient Greece/Turkey sections are well handled in audio form.

Of the cast I would particularly praise the Kay and Abner actors, both of which were extremely strong. I enjoyed Derek Jacobi’s performance, and he did sound twinkly, but the very extended running time (5 hours versus TV version 3 hours) meant that it was painfully aware how absent Cole is from much of the story.

The extras at the end are interesting, but feel somewhat indulgent in length. However it was interesting to hear how the story adaptation was approached, and I especially enjoyed the input of the young Kay actor talking about his part.

In terms of cost the audio box is expensive. Currently £44.99 for CD+download version, or £39.99 for download version only. The download is in e.g. MP3 you can download to your computer or play via the Big Finish app. It was lower cost on first release, and the price direct from Big Finish is occasionally lower in special offers. However for something that you can enjoy listening to potentially multiple times in future it is probably not too unfair a price. Certainly being a full cast audio with a very large cast and an extremely long run time would increase the cost, and the CD boxset version is a particularly nice item, perhaps to gift to a friend or relative. Note the 6-disc CD version can be bought elsewhere, e.g. from other online etc. retailers, or ordered via independent booksellers. The download (with or without CD) is exclusive to Big Finish.

I would recommend this audio to existing Box fans as well as to fans of good audios and festive dramas in general. For the former though do go into it knowing that it’s different from the TV and book versions, and enjoy it for what it is. To read more about the audio release see the Big Finish product page for it.

15 years ago in 2006 my first academic journal paper as a historian was published. Sole authored, it looked at the borrowing records between 1732 and 1816 of Gray Library in Haddington, East Lothian, an unusual example of an early free town library. The paper examined these borrowing records to see what they told us about the town’s reading habits at this time.

I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective blog about this journal paper. The paper was published in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, and the full published PDF version is available on my website, in green Open Access form on my publications web page. Note I had earlier co-authored publications from my computer science days, but this was the first academic journal paper I wrote fully myself, and my first history piece after retraining as a historian, picking up BA, taught MPhil and PhD history degrees.

The paper was written fairly early on in my part-time history PhD at Dundee University, investigating Scottish reading habits circa 1750-1820 (my full PhD thesis is also available freely online). I decided to write the paper to give me a push to write up this good case study, but it was also creating good analysis I could use in my PhD thesis.

I submitted the paper too late for that year’s competition by the journal for postgraduate students. I remember Callum Brown, the then JSHS editor and at the time a professor of history at Dundee University, asking me if I wanted him to hold my paper back for the next year’s competition. But my health then was so precarious with my neurological disease resisting treatment, so I asked him to just consider it for normal publication as soon as possible. So he did.

It’s common for academics looking back at their early published writing to find it naive or flawed in other ways. I’m actually really proud of this paper, and its breadth and depth of analysis. Admittedly I would struggle to write it now, as my neurological disease has progressed more. But I still think irrespective of that aspect that it stands up well to the test of time.

I was blessed with rich library borrowing records, though I had to transcribe these all myself, working on a microfilm copy of the manuscript originals at home (yes I have my own microfilm reader!). That and the subsequent checking took many months, but gave me over 5000 borrowings to analyse.

Using my genealogical skills and research, especially in the then National Archives of Scotland, I researched the library borrowers extensively, allowing me to identify hundreds of them confidently, and note their gender, occupation, birth and death dates, and address if more specific than (or different from) Haddington. Adding these genealogical details allowed me to examine the borrowers and their borrowings in myriad different ways and groupings, and was a very powerful tool.

Such analysis was only practically possible because I built a linked relational database of the library borrowing records and its readers. This is something that at that time was groundbreaking in a Scottish book history context, but even today would be unusual. The three linked relational tables of borrowers, borrowings and books were then loaded into a MySQL relational database system, where I could run SQL queries to search for the borrowings of specific groups of borrowers that I was interested in. For example the following query counts the most popular books among teenage boy borrowers:

SELECT LinkToTitle, Count(LinkToTitle) FROM
(SELECT *
FROM borrowings, readers
WHERE ((borrowings.LinkToBorrower=readers.ReaderID
OR borrowings.LinkToOtherReader=readers.ReaderID)) AND readers.AgeOfBorrower=”teenage” AND readers.Gender=”male”) AS tmptable GROUP by LinkToTitle
ORDER by Count(LinkToTitle) DESC

Comparing male and female borrowings at the library was very important, and allowed me to engage using this substantial data with academic theories and contemporary opinions about differing reading habits by gender. I also relished the way this system allowed me to examine other groups in detail. For example I was able to pull out the borrowings of teenage users of the library, both boys and girls, which led to a particularly satisfying section of my paper.

One branch of my family tree traces back to Haddington, and it was a delight to see ancestors pop up among the library’s borrowers. Two of them sneaked into my published journal paper: my 5xg-granny Jean Veitch (later Mrs Somner) and her father William Veitch, a watchmaker in the town.

My Haddington library records and database have recently been gifted to the Books and Borrowing project based at the University of Stirling. This means that other researchers can build on my work, indeed a number of them already are, which has been fascinating to see. And ultimately the Haddington borrowings I recorded will be available to view freely online.

The findings in the paper were numerous, ranging across changing reading habits, variation by gender and occupation, demonstrating the use of books to educate young minds, and different ways of fitting in the library into your working week. However I think its main contribution was as a proof of concept. Both for the power of relational databases to analyse library borrowing records in a myriad of ways, but also for the potential of enhancing the library borrowings by other genealogical and historical research to better contextualise the borrowers and their borrowings. However on a personal level it was also a proof of concept for me, re my ability to write and publish academic journal papers. Even if with it sailing through peer review with no revisions required prior to publication it perhaps gave me an overly optimistic and unrealistic view of the tribulations that might ensue in that process!

Again my journal paper about the Haddington library borrowers is freely available to download and read on my website, as a PDF linked on the publications page.

Photo of the book "Index, A History of the" being reviewed

I recently read this new book, exploring the history of book indexes over time. This obviously appealed to me as a book historian and bibliophile. But especially so because a couple of decades ago I retrained as a book indexer, qualifying with the Society of Indexers in the UK. I hoped that it would be work I could manage alongside my progressive neurological illness. Sadly after qualifying I found I was already too ill to work reliably as an indexer. But I maintain a great interest in and appreciation for the form.

The book ranges broadly and deeply over what is very much an abstract concept, often difficult to grasp in some of its more theoretical elements. Yet the book explains these well. I particularly enjoyed the early sections on the medieval origins of the index, and the different approaches of the distinctiones (more subject based indexes) and concordances (more like modern web search indexes), and how these ultimately merged in a way to create the modern book index.

As a book historian the discussion of the transition into the printed book era was fascinating, including the establishment of page numbers. I hadn’t known of the practical difficulties early printers faced trying to print these. The book here included helpful illustrations to show how early books were printed and numbered. Indeed the whole book was illustrated well throughout, often showing example indexes from printed books.

Another highlight section for me was the chapter looking at the especially eighteenth century phenomenon of mock book indexes. Despite in my academic historian guise being an eighteenth-century specialist as well as an historian of reading I was quite unaware of these published works. I appreciated how soundly the discussion of the battles conducted to and fro through published indexes was grounded in the world of eighteenth-century publishing.

Moving closer to the present day the book looks at the establishment of indexing societies in the nineteenth century and some of their loftier goals. Surprisingly comparable to a modern Google-type search index, but rather something that was aimed to be built through the medium of traditional subject indexes. Indeed the role of printed book indexes alongside Internet-type search engines in the present day is a topic that the book returned to time and again.

I was most pleased to see the final chapter of the book cover in depth the working methods of modern professional book indexers. So often people assume that this work can now be done automatically by computer. But to produce a good and effective subject index still requires a human book indexer. This was further demonstrated by the book including part of an index to itself that had been generated by automated computer software. The limitations of the resulting index were clear, especially when viewed alongside the also included subject index compiled by a modern professional – and human! – book historian.

Overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable work, and an example of exemplary scholarship. Recommended of course to any bibliophile or book historian, or indeed to anyone who has found a book index helpful in the past and wants to know more. Thank you Dennis Duncan.

Photo of part of Dundee University campus including an Oor Wullie statue

Autumn 2021 will mark exactly two decades since I started as a postgraduate history student at Dundee University. I thought it would be nice to reflect back on my experiences then. Not least because it was a life-changing step for me.

Originally I was a science student at St Andrews University, and started an EPSRC-funded computer science PhD in 1994. But at the same time I started to develop a progressive neurological disease, aged just 22, which would mean that I had to drop out of the science PhD.

After then I fought for proper diagnosis and treatment, which I got in 1997. The treatment which started then – and has continued – was for many years extremely gruelling chemotherapy, leaving me feeling nauseous and vomiting for much of the time. To take my mind off that I started studying part-time with the Open University. From 1998-2000 I studied history and classical studies, picking up a BA(Hons), helped by credit transfer from my first degree, letting me effectively jump straight into second year. But what to do next?

The Open University offered a taught postgraduate Masters, but one I couldn’t study more quickly than over three more years. Given my life-threatening disease I wanted to get on with things quicker. At the same time full-time study was totally out of the question, given how ill and increasingly disabled I was becoming. This ruled out postgraduate taught history study with St Andrews University, who in 2000 (and shockingly still in 2021) only offered full-time study options.

Fortunately Dundee University – another local university for me (we lived in Cupar at the time) – offered a part-time or full-time taught MPhil degree that could be studied part-time over two years. This course was timetabled to support part-time students, being based around Wednesday afternoon taught seminars for the first year, helpfully followed on the same day by the weekly departmental history research seminars attended by staff and postgraduate students. Over the summer months full-time Dundee history MPhil students would work on their research projects and dissertations, while part-timers were allowed the next year. The overall subject matter of the Dundee history MPhil was Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, using the idea of the city or town as a “laboratory” to explore cultural and other themes. A particular emphasis was placed on Dundee as an example, but other Scottish towns and cities were covered, as well as places in England, mainland Europe, and North America. Good stuff.

The course – and particularly its teaching lead Charles McKean – was a warm and welcoming experience. Also intellectually stimulating, introducing me to the field of urban history, which I found fascinating. For the assessed essays and mini projects I would often draw upon examples from my own family history or local history from the Scottish Borders, my home area. For my year-long dissertation I worked on 17th century Melrose local court records, which involved my ancestors, even a g..uncle judge. I worked from voluminous already transcribed records, building a huge computer database of thousands of court cases, and wrote an analysis of these for my dissertation.

Part way through my MPhil I started working – again very part-time – as a research assistant on Bob Harris’s new Scottish small towns project. My contract was for a year, doing the research locally in Angus and in Edinburgh for the pilot study. Sadly my neurological disease relapsed hugely just after that year, so I couldn’t continue working on the project in its main phase. But the experience deepened my appreciation for urban history, introduced me properly to the fascinating period of change 1750-1820, and also led me to the topic reading history I would research for a part-time history PhD, again at Dundee University.

I’ve blogged before about my experiences as a history PhD student, so won’t cover all the details again. Suffice to say the Dundee history department continued to be a nurturing and stimulating environment to conduct postgraduate research in. My supervisors Bob Harris and then Charles McKean were phenomenally supportive, and as a disabled student – indeed one who was becoming increasingly housebound and disabled as time went on – I felt the university was extremely helpful, making adjustments throughout my PhD and vital practical measures for the viva. Winning AHRC funding part way through my part-time history PhD also helped hugely. By the end I was studying for no more than 5 hours total a week, just way too ill. But I completed the PhD within the 6 years allowed part-time. No extensions were needed, and just a 5-month official medical break, which helped hugely when I was going through a major health crisis and couldn’t study at all for that period and needed total time out.

Although I couldn’t work in academia after my PhD – just way too ill and increasingly disabled – the Dundee history postgraduate study established me confidently as an independent academic. I’ve since had numerous published journal papers and book chapters, and continue working on new research projects. For practical reasons I focus very much on research and writing that I can work on at home, but the wide-ranging training I got at Dundee, and especially in the taught MPhil course, gave me the skills and confidence to continue to flourish as an academic, in both familiar and less so subject areas. I am also very grateful to have been awarded an Honorary Research Fellowship in History by Dundee University in the years since my PhD, which facilitates my academic research, especially in terms of publishing new papers.

My gratitude to Dundee University and particularly its history department is immense. Thank you so much for giving me a fresh chance.

Hand written version of this blog post, plus fountain pen, and laptop mid typing up

Some years ago I started using fountain pens for my handwriting. Not old vintage pens, but newly purchased models. At first I was fascinated by them as amazingly engineered beautiful pieces of art. But as I used them more and more I found that they helped me with my creative work, helping me to produce extended pieces of writing far more effectively than typing straight into a computer.

Of course you don’t need to be using a fountain pen to produce good handwritten work. But I find them to be the easiest and most comfortable writing experience I’ve ever used, far easier and more effortless to write with than e.g. a Biro. I also find them more comfortable with my neurological illness hands, needing much less physical effort to write with. Also on environmental grounds they can be a very good option if you write a lot, especially if they can be filled directly from bottled ink, which is the type of fountain pen I prefer to use.

I used to write extended text typing straight into Microsoft Word on the computer, especially for more scientific type reports. But now I am very prone to just staring at the blank screen, or editing the text too much as I type, when I should be getting the core words down.

I do find that distraction free writing apps like Ulysses help me to an extent. But by far the best solution I’ve found is to hand write first drafts. Again I start with a blank page before me, typically a ruled A5 notepad, but that doesn’t stop me this time. Even with just a rough initial idea of where I’m going I quickly write loads of words, including writing on aspects of the topic that I hadn’t anticipated writing about beforehand.

I use this method for longer academic paper writing as well as smaller pieces such as blog posts. For example I can hand write a 1000 word blog post in 10 minutes or less. It just takes me a few minutes then to type it up, editing quickly as I go, and I’m done.

Now this technique won’t suit everyone. I’m not even sure why it works so well for me. Yes I like the experience of writing with good pens, but I think it’s more that hand writing like this puts me into a very relaxed but still focused frame of mind. And that is highly conducive for generating good word content.

I definitely wouldn’t suggest that everyone rushes out to buy a fountain pen. But maybe some might benefit from turning away from the computer screen and its temptations – social media, web surfing, and extensive editing options in Microsoft Word – and trying a more traditional approach of generating words.

If after reading this you do want to try out fountain pens there are many options, ranging from extremely low cost to very expensive. Cartridge filled ones can be a good entry level option, but piston filled ones that use bottled ink can be greenest. My neurological illness hands cope very well with piston fillers, including filling from bottled ink. My top favourite fountain pens are currently two Italian ones, made by Visconti and Leonardo, and then in 3rd place my trusty Lamy 2000, a German design that has been in production ever since 1966, and still looks futuristic, as well as being a thoroughly reliable and comfortable writer.

Fountain pens benefit from thicker paper than standard printer/copy paper. I tend to use refillable Atoma-style journals, hand writing each draft, then taking out the pages (Atoma pages can be removed and reinserted as much as you want), typing it up, then discarding the original hand written version.

In the UK good online retailers of fountain pens include Cult Pens and Pure Pens. In North America Goulet Pens is a very reliable firm to deal with.

This year I’ve been an online attendee of the Edinburgh Book Festival. I thought it might be helpful to blog some thoughts about this, and in particular how it compared for me to being there in person in the past.

I’ve been going to the Edinburgh Book Festival many times since the late 1990s. In the early visits I would travel down by train. More recently, as my neurological disease progressed, my husband and I had to switch to driving down with my wheelchair and staying a couple of nights in a hotel. Much more costly and time consuming, but giving me much valued experiences and memories.

This year the festival is being held in a new venue, and is offering a hybrid in-person/online attendance option. It would not have been safe for me to go there in person this time, being immunosuppressed during a Covid pandemic. The vaccine has fortunately given me antibodies – yay! – but at an extremely low level. So I am still at great risk, and being ultra cautious. But the availability of online tickets for most of the book festival’s events this year allowed me to attend in a different way.

The highlight of the festival for me has always been the author talks. I’ve written here before about attending some of these in person, e.g. in 2013, 2015 and 2018. Usually because I have to travel from a distance I can only see one or at the very most two author talks, depending on the timing options, and what I can get tickets for. But online attendance allows me to potentially attend more events more events spread over more days, even at a distance.

This year I bought online tickets for three events: Helena Attlee talking about the tale of a violin through time (I am a long lapsed violin player), James Robertson talking about his new ghostly novel set in the Angus glens (I live in Angus), and Denise Mina talking about her new novella retelling of the Rizzio murder. I watched the first and third of these live, and the second on catchup in the middle of a neurologically disturbed night. All were watched from bed in my pyjamas, on my iPad with Bluetooth headphones. Definitely a form of access I haven’t enjoyed attending the festival before!

With each event I was able to watch video footage of the author talks, with good camera shots of the authors, interviewers and audience in the room (a very spaced out and masked up audience). The audio was clear, and the experience of watching reassuringly close to being there in person.

In addition to the live video stream online attendees have access to online text chat rooms, where we can share comments, and ask questions to be posed to the speakers. I didn’t ask a question myself, but participated actively in the chats. I was pleased to see the online questions asked by the interviewers on behalf of the online audience members. This was integrated well alongside questions from the audience in the room in Edinburgh.

So yes, positive impressions from watching author talks online. On the downside online participants do miss out on face to face signing events, though some of the author talks had prebookable (days in advance) online signing options. I was more concerned though at how online members could miss out on the festival bookshop. Visiting the festival bookshops – adult and children’s – was always a major highlight for me of attending in person. With a huge range of books on offer, including from publishers I would never normally encounter, I would always come away with unexpected gems.

Yet the bookshop is not promoted effectively in the festival website. Yes on individual events pages there is a link to order book(s) associated with the event. And clicking on that takes you to the bookshop website. But otherwise the online bookshop is not linked as far as I can see from the festival website. Even if you know it exists it can be very hard to find. Google is often the best option! Which is ridiculous. Because when you get there it is possible to browse the shelves well, and find gems. Ok not the same as physically in person, but worth some minutes of your time for many online attendees.

So yes some downsides, but overall I’m really happy I could attend in person. Very grateful in fact. Looking ahead it may be safer for me to attend in future years, but my neurological disease is progressing, and that might simply not be practical. But I’m encouraged that the festival organisers have said that they value the online attendance, and intend to continue to make it part of the festivals in future years. So hopefully I can attend in that way in future years. And maybe the bookshop be better linked too?

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is currently hosting an exhibition about pioneering stop-motion special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, so famous for stop-motion animated monsters and other creatures in numerous classic films such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Clash of the Titans (1981). For those who can visit the exhibition in person in Edinburgh it looks to be a fantastic show, where you can see hundreds of artefacts and exhibits associated with his life and work in cinema.

Alongside the in-person exhibition the National Galleries of Scotland are offering a £10 virtual exhibition experience, allowing people who can’t go to the exhibition in person to experience a version of it from home. I took advantage of this offer, and thought it might be helpful to share my thoughts after viewing.

The virtual exhibition is focused around five specially created films that take the viewer through Ray’s life story and works chronologically and thematically. The five films are King Kong and the Early Years, Imagination to Life, Dynamation, Creatures of Legend and A Life in Objects. Each film is a visual treat, full of information, with insightful contributions throughout, including from Ray’s daughter Vanessa.

Through watching the films the viewer gets a good overview of how Ray Harryhausen worked. Frequent examples discuss specific animation features in detail, and there are good views throughout of his creatures, original designs and other artefacts. Panning shots of the exhibition space also give the viewer a sense of the physical exhibition in Edinburgh, though you have no option to view any given exhibit up close, if there is something you want personally to see more of at any given time. Many of the exhibits are shown well as part of the films though.

The total running time of the five special exclusive films is about one hour. The films don’t all need to be watched at once, and your virtual exhibition ticket remains valid until the Edinburgh exhibition closes in February 2022. The films and other resources available through the virtual visitor ticket are viewed and accessed through a password locked webpage.

Note there is additional material in addition to the core films. Virtual experience goers can view short videos of some 3D models relating to Ray’s work. They can also view an hour long special in conversation chat with Vanessa Harryhausen, the first of multiple planned virtual events for the virtual exhibition. This combined with the five core films gives already a solid two hours of extremely rewarding viewing for any fan of Ray’s work, film history or special effects.

Although I regret that I cannot go to the exhibition in Edinburgh I do feel that the virtual experience is a worthy alternative. In many ways it has probably given me a fuller understanding of Ray’s life than I might have picked up on the spot, especially if time was limited in Edinburgh. Though I would like to have been in the same room -as some of his more famous creature creations, which would have left me appropriately awestruck.

I do feel that the virtual experience would be worthwhile accompanying viewing for anyone going to the in-person exhibition. Indeed the National Galleries of Scotland offers a combined ticket option for in-person + virtual for this event.

I am very glad I saw this anyway. Thanks to the virtual experience I now have a deeper understanding of and greater appreciation for Ray Harryhausen’s work.

Another alternative to the face to face exhibition is the exhibition book, which is available from the exhibition shop, in person or online, along with other commemorative exhibition items.

I recently started reading this novel by Scottish writer Andrew Greig. Set in late 16th century Scotland, it is written in the words of William Fowler, student, poet, and later secretary to Anne of Denmark, Queen of King James VI and I. William Fowler also happens to be my 12xg-grandfather, and someone whose family history I have researched extensively, beyond that published to date.

Reading a good Scottish historical fiction book is always exciting for me. Reading one supposedly written in the words of my ancestor is a step beyond! Early on in the book Fowler starts as a young undergraduate student at St Andrews University, something I would do myself over 400 years later.

Fowler’s family history in the book is problematic for me, with an invented older sister, as well as elimination of at least two surviving Fowler brothers. I have to cut the author some slack though. He is after all writing a work of fiction, and needs to make sensible choices for the story he is telling.

I also have some doubts re the St Andrews sections. A memorable early scene in the book sees young Fowler buying a fluffy red student gown. Historians know St Andrews students were wearing gowns then. But the colour red may have been introduced later. Of course it is the modern colour, that of my own fluffy St Andrews gown, and my husband’s (we met as undergraduates at St Andrews).

However the late 16th century setting is gripping, the characterisations and descriptions strong, and I am finding the book a briskly written real page turner. Even if I do need to switch off my genealogist side a bit! I am looking forward to reading the rest of it over the coming weeks.

This week I attended the online SHARP 2021 book history conference. SHARP is the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, and holds annual academic conferences for book historians. Usually these are held face to face, and I have attended many of them in the past. But this year, because of the Covid pandemic, it was a fully online conference, hosted by the University of Muenster. The conference ran over five days, from Monday 26th July 2021 to Friday 30th July 2021, with often very packed days of parallel sessions, up to 12 hours or so each day.

I was particularly grateful for the conference being online because due to my progressive neurological disease it is now increasingly difficult for me to attend face to face conferences, even those held relatively nearby to me. It may also not be feasible for me to travel to attend any more international ones, given how knocked out I am from my brain disease, the logistics of getting there and extra costs/difficulties of attending with a helper, and problems re wheelchair access.

Even so I could only attend a small fraction of the time available to attendees, being knocked out sleeping for up to 18 hours a day due to my brain disease. Luckily I could attend from bed, in my pyjamas, with my iPad and headphones. Hence my not turning my camera on at any point when asking questions!

The conference programme was full of variety and interest, as well as some experimentation in the format of panels. There were quite a lot of 5-1-5 panels where 5 speakers would each speak for 5 minutes about a single slide per speaker before a Q&A. I must admit that I was initially rather baffled at the start of the week by what 5-1-5 meant, and ended up going back to the conference’s original call for papers for clarification! Generally though I tuned in for 60 minute panels with 2 speakers (the conference’s 60 minute variant on the more traditional 90 minute panels with 3 speakers), where each would speak for 20 minutes, before usually a lively Q&A with the audience. All handled by a chair – always very effectively in my experience at SHARP 2021. I must also praise the speakers for running admirably to time, allowing lots of time for audience participation.

The conference’s primary online delivery method was Zoom, with up to 4 rooms used simultaneously for individual sessions. Generally this worked well for me, tuning in on my iPad. Though I had some hiccups on day 2 getting into the relevant room, with initial passcode errors. So I missed the first 25 minutes of that panel, but fortunately caught most of a talk I was particularly keen to see. Online conferencing can sometimes seem very impersonal, but I found it very effective for following speakers and their slides, and for good Q&A sessions afterwards. There was also a lively text chat section available during each session, which was well utilised by audience members to make comments on points mentioned, share references and knowledge, and to ask questions. Other questions were asked live via webcam/microphone as appropriate.

The range of participants at SHARP conferences is always varied, and unusually welcoming to young scholars. But I felt this online version was particularly wide ranging in the people taking part. It was especially nice to see many questions being asked by PhD students, as well as PhD and Masters students presenting their work at the conference alongside more established academics. There was throughout a very strong sense of camaraderie and willingness to help and share information and knowledge, which was very much appreciated.

Most of the sessions were held live and not recorded, so had to be watched at the scheduled time or you’d have missed it. But a fair number were pre recorded, allowing conference attendees to watch when suitable, including throughout August. I even started watching two recorded panels on the Sunday before the conference officially started! This did not allow me to take part in live discussion with the presenters, but was an appreciated and welcome innovation. It probably also helped with some time zone and availability issues. Though it was very nice to see people attending from all around in the world, in multiple time zones. For example North Americans waking up to watch during the day in Europe while Antipodeans were staying up late to catch online panels live.

Over the week and my earlier pre-conference start I watched 9 panels. Topics covered were diverse, ranging over bookselling during a pandemic, biblioforensics and book biography, the early modern English book trade and copyright and stationer wills, dispersed libraries and library organisation (including Samuel Pepys!), the book trade in present day Mexico City and New Delhi, SHARP’s own journal Book History and its new paperback incarnation, new research into Scottish library borrowing registers (a project I’m involved with, having gifted some of my own transcripts of borrowing records from my many years ago PhD on historic Scottish reading habits), translating medieval/Renaissance books between English/Scots and Spanish and vice versa, and initiatives at the Bodleian library in Oxford re digitisation of material. All were fascinating for me, and again just a tiny fraction of the events on offer to attendees over the full 5 days of the conference.

For all the events I attended I was an avid viewer of the presentations. Often participating in the chat too, and asking questions in the panels, sometimes through the text chat, occasionally unmuting my microphone (but camera still off – pyjamas!) to discuss something more complex. Throughout I felt thoroughly engaged, inspired, and eager to do more research of my own, and learn more about some of the issues and topics I learned about during the conference.

A nice bonus is that attending the conference prompted me to rejoin SHARP. I have been a member for many years in the past, but drifted away in recent years, as my progressive disease was worsening quite dramatically. But I am still an active researcher of book history and reading history, and attending the conference inspired me to rejoin the society. The only question was whether I would rejoin with a Book History journal included. While attending the event discussing the new incarnation of the journal my mind was made up: get the new paperback journal! Plus I should add that the $38 reduced rate for students / independent scholars / retirees helped too!

Over the coming weeks – throughout August – I plan to watch more recorded panels and keynote sessions. I’m very much looking forward to this. Looking further ahead I hope that I can participate in SHARP conferences in future in some way, albeit remotely. I think it’s unlikely as I say that I can ever attend SHARP in person again. So I hope there will continue to be some online provision, even after most book historians have returned to a more normal way of working.

I also want to thank the organisers for an extremely well run event. I would particularly like to praise conference lead Corinna Norrick-Rühl, who valiantly helped me when I had connection problems. And she must have had so much else to deal with all week! I really appreciated the personal touch.

I recently read this book collection of interviews with early pioneers in the computing and video game industries. It’s derived from a series of YouTube interviews conducted by Neil Thomas of the RMC channel, but the book repackages the material, and adds additional details and content. It also includes some bonus interviews not available on YouTube.

The book is most likely to appeal to people interested in the home computing and video game industries of the 1980s and 1990s. There’s a high nostalgia element here, so anyone who grew up in the British home computing context then could find the book of interest. But it’s also a really interesting read from a more abstract historical viewpoint, charting changes during an era of innovation and creativity, especially in Britain, where a thriving 8-bit and late 16-bit home computer and games scene was powered largely by individual “bedroom coders”.

Most of those interviewed in the book are British, but there are also a good number of American interviewees. Many game developers and coders are interviewed, alongside artists, sound designers, and even a voice artist. Here is the full list:

• The Oliver Twins (British 8-bit pioneers)

• Al Lowe (Sierra, Video Game Developer)

• George ‘The Fat Man’ Sanger (Composer, Freelance/Lucas Arts)

• Bill Volk (Developer, Activision/Avalon Hill)

• Francois Lionet (Developer, STOS/AMOS)

• Stoo Cambridge (Artist, Sensible Software)

• Rob Hubbard (Composer, C64 Maestro/Electronic Arts)

• Mike Dailly (DMA, Grand Theft Auto/Lemmings)

• David Fox  (Developer, Lucas Arts)

• Jon St. John (Voice Over Artist, Duke Nukem 3D)

• Ken Silverman (Build engine)

• Chris Sawyer (Transport Tycoon, RollerCoaster Tycoon)

• Mark Ferrari (Artist, Lucasfilm Games, Zak McKracken)

• Richard ‘Lord British’ Garriott (Game Designer, Ultima series)

I jumped straight to the Rob Hubbard interview, as a huge fan of his Commodore 64 SID game music back in the 1980s, and then read the Mike Dailly interview about DMA Design and Lemmings (a Dundee story of course). But then I went back and read everything else in turn. All the interviews were interesting, including those about games and systems I was unfamiliar with. Good questions teased out interesting stories and memories, with additional text blocks and notes providing more details as appropriate. As a whole the book gives a rich insight into the computer games industry in the 1980s and 1990s in particular, and how it evolved.

I backed this book on Kickstarter, but it’s now available to buy directly from the RMC Store. The eBook version is a particular bargain at £4.99, including reflowable text eBooks for Kindle and ePub, as well as a PDF as printed file. Alternatively the hardback print copy is still available to buy from the RMC Store, and is a really nice comfortable sized book to hold and read (see the photo above showing the book beside a mug for scale), with high quality production values.

A thoroughly excellent read about a fascinating period of computer game history. Its subtitle is “Selected Interviews Vol. 1”. Hopefully more volumes will be forthcoming! In the meantime check out the associated YouTube channel.