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On Saturday, at the 2013 Manchester Metropolitan University Postgraduate Conference, my poster hung alongside 18 others, which were divided pretty equally into posters that were better than mine (some a lot better), and others that made the same mistakes as me, but more of them!

My self-criticism of my poster, which was echoed by some of my fellow students, is that I tried to fit too much text into a medium that people are only going to browse for…what…about five minutes at most.  As someone who tends towards the verbose anyway, attempting to say too much in too little space or too short a time is a major fault. I am accustomed to watching people’s eyes glaze over as I burble enthusiastically on, leaving my “elevator pitch” far behind. Next time I’m going to be a lot more disciplined in cutting the copy to the minimum required to get my message across.

I think those who did stop and peruse at least some of my text enjoyed what they read and saw, and the overall design wasn’t bad, if a little bottom-heavy and again rather crowded. And the poster initiated some great conversations with fellow researchers, which I guess is the real purpose behind such an activity.

So my instruction to myself whenever I create a poster in future  is: “Cut the crap!”

I have become a “maker,” or perhaps I should only claim to be a fledgling maker, taking my study of miniatures to a new level. I have a “work” in an exhibition in Manchester’s Paper Gallery, hidden away in Mirabel street, amongst the rusty overbridges leading to Manchester Victoria Station. Called “Interim,” the exhibition features a dozen researchers, most of whom enrolled at MIRIAD at the same time as me. So their creativity is represented as work in progress, the “artworks” communicating a thought and discovery process that is still developing. Nothing is “finished.” It is a unique opportunity to see research by practice in progress. (See the MIRIAD Matters blog)

I found myself, someone who after all could have carried out all his research without touching an actual object and who could have published his results in a simple, black-bound thesis (Times New Roman, 12 pt, double spaced) thinking in three dimensions, about how people might approach, handle and display everyday things, about what a mantelpiece might represent and be represented, and how I might encourage and facilitate interaction with my “work.”

So I created a fake fireplace, with a capacious mantelpiece (a mobile mantelpiece, Mills’ Mobile Mantelpiece) and supplied it with a goodly selection of the finest charity shop miniatures I could find in a couple of hours of hunting. I then invited the visiting public to arrange these objects on the mantelpiece as they wished, and if possible to take a photo with their phone or camera and email or text it to me.

My mantelpiece was fun to create and to populate. I spent a happy and strange Saturday in the exhibition, watching people peer, some perhaps uncomprehendingly, others amusedly, some with interest, others cursorily, at my work. I enjoyed talking with visitors, trying to get them to overcome their reluctance to touch.

So far I have only a handful of results, though they are all interesting and relevant. A number of visitors are unable to overcome their reservations and feel free to grab objects and play with them – perhaps it’s not something we are accustomed to doing in a gallery space. But I expect that by the end of the six day exhibition (six saturdays) I’ll have enough material to add another experience to the “Encounters” section of my research outcome.


My mantelpiece in a corner of the Interim exhibition

It was probably Ray Bradbury, and perhaps Kurt Vennogut either came up with the same idea, or echoed him, but someone famous advised that to be successful “You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down” (Bradbury) or “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down” (Vonnegut).


Those sounds of sawing, hammering and muffled cursing are me, frantically building wings. One of life’s lessons is that they don’t sell flat-pack wings at Ikea, nor can you pick up a ready-to-fly pair at Wilkinsons.

These reflections were inspired by my standing in a poky dungeon-like shop beneath Scarborough Market Hall, surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of contemporary miniatures, realising the enormity of the task I have set myself. A Bank Holiday weekend wasn’t the time to be carrying out detailed fieldwork, so, overwhelmed, I fled back into the holiday crowds, pouncing instead on a single specimen in a nearby charity shop – a fine example of frolicking frogs (0.99p).

frogs_1June is almost here, heralding the start of my crazy summer. My to-do list is frankly horrifying, but I’ll deal with that with the benefit of hindsight – it’s easier than setting unrealistic expectations for both myself and my supervisors (to whom, apologies, but I’m not going to be able to make our next scheduled meeting because I’m going to be presenting to my first-ever international conference, abroad, in foreign parts, to an audience of strangers, many of whom will speak languages other than English…terrifying)!

I’m not going to attempt to fix my wings yet (the glue isn’t quite dry), nor fly too close to the sun, but if I manage to flap hard enough I am going to have plenty of adventures to write about. Which brings me to another quote, this time from Benjamin Franklin:

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”

During yesterday’s very interesting iHSSR session, Doing things Differently: writing, academic journals and social media in the online world, the presenters from The Journal of Victorian Culture Online puzzled over why, when their online communications were so highly used, so few people commented on the articles. I’ve since been pondering this conundrum, and wonder if it is due to a combination of factors.

For me, the first would be simply fear. Fear of making a fool of myself. Fear of stepping outside my comfort zone. Fear of attracting ridicule. Fear of seeming to be a know-all (good old British modesty perhaps) or a nit-picker.

This web site is after all a scholarly environment, populated by academics, most of whom appear to know a significant amount about their topic. Who am I to question or elaborate on their writing? Or even add something that they might already know and just omitted to save space?

I suppose that I could comment anonymously, but even then I’m going to read the feedback that follows my display of ignorance.

Even posting a congratulatory comment would be risky, because then I might be seen as sycophantic, or if perhaps I might praise an author only to find that everyone else finds his article questionable.

Articles often cover a very narrow or specialised area, such as Queen Victoria’s left big toenail, which perhaps hardly anyone else knows anything about, or is particularly interested in. The author’s colleagues and friends will probably have already seen the article, and made their comments and suggestions. So unless there is a previously unknown expert on Victoria’s feet lurking somewhere in deepest Papua New Guinea, it is unlikely that there will be a rush of comments.

What did surprise me was the apparent reluctance of authors to use all the tools  of the web – images, videos, sound files, animations and hyperlinks. This results in online articles that essentially replicate pages from paper-based publications (yawn). Perhaps it is early days. I wonder if, when moveable type was introduced some 560-odd years ago (1000 years ago in China), readers bemoaned the fact that writers still used illuminated letters. Hey, we still often use drop caps (even on the web), which are presumably a distant descendent of illuminated capitals.

And so I remain too timid to try, at least until, in a hundred years or so, I feel that I know enough about some obscure element of nineteenth century culture to be unassailable!

It often seems that my entire life is focused on my PhD research. But in truth, other activities do occur, though perhaps rather overshadowed by my obsession with small things. I’ve decided to include a few here, just to demonstrate that I am a well-rounded person (well, since I’m trying to lose a few kg at the moment, a well-shaped person).

I’m in the middle of transcribing 40 or so letters from Nottingham Museum’s collection, written by elderly people in the 1970s, recounting their first experiences of work at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. They are fascinating and often moving. Here’s an example written by an ex-miner, H. Davies, who lived in Sneinton (original spelling and punctuation):

Some Happy Hours

For me life is always been full of problems – great and small, and as to the conditions of my early working-days, I can still vividly remember before leaving school to work in a coal mine, of the poverty problems of those days and how are used to rebel against myself whilst on errands to the Pawnshop, an intense feeling that burned the breath in my throat as it made my heart beat faster, as I would look around not wishing to be seen going in the Pawnshop with a bundle under my arm.

Yet I was always greeted by old Jac, the Clerk, a withered-faced fatherly man, with a lead pencil behind his ear, and glasses on the tip of his nose.

“What’s tha got this morning Jim?” he asked as I went up to the counter.

“Same old bundle Jac. Can I have five bob on it?”

Then wearing cut-down trousers and a cap too big for me, with a Tommy-Box tucked in my coat pocket and carrying my Tea-Jack in my hand, at quarter past five in the morning, to walk two miles to the pit for an eight hour shift – six days a week for ten shillings.

“Look after theeself Jim me lad,” mother said as she kissed me good morning. “Th’ Lord only knows if I could ‘ave managed wi’out, you wouldn’t ‘ave at to go down th’ pit. We’ve suffered too much for coal; but its got to be this way Jim.”

“I’ll do that Mam. Don’t be frightened for me. Good morning Mam.”

My father had been killed on the coal face a few years ago.

Not long after I was lined up with some mates I knew waiting in the queue to have our safety lamps tested by an old experienced miner whose beard was covered with lamp-oil, as he blew around the glass.

As I handed him my lap he looked at me and asked, “First time down, mi lad?”

“Aye.” I answered.

“God bless thee son. Keep thee chin-up”

To me he looked like Father Christmas dressed in Miners’ clothes with an oily beard.

Then from daylight to pitch darkness as the cage rapidly descended to the shaft-bottom, I could feel the comradeship of the miners.

Here I met my Butty – the collier I was to start working with – named Bert Harris, nicknamed the Fiddler, reputed to be a master in the art of playing the fiddle.

After a walk of a mile and a half we reached the coal face. I stood in awe on seeing for the first time a coal seam seven feet thick. In the dim light of my Safety-Lamp I wondered what it was going to be as I stood by the side of an empty dram waiting to be filled.

“Come on Jim lad, don’t stand theer wonderin. There are shovel for thee. Chuck in that side. Leave the big lumps from me. Six drams a day me lad. That’ll put a bit of jam on our bread and butter.”

Up and down, up and down, my arms working like pistons as I shovelled in the coal, the sweat oozing out of me. At the end of my first shift I felt as tired as a lazy bee.

“How’s it gone down Jim?” asked my Butty, as we got dressed ready for the off. “I remember yer Dad. He was a good collier.”

“Aye,” I answered tiredly, as we started our trial trail back to the pit-bottom and home.

Then like a bolt out of the pitch darkness to daylight as we ascended to step out of the cage. As I did the daylight plagued my eyes; but it soon passed off.

“Sleep tight Jim,” saifd my Butty as we parted at the Lamproom. “See thee in the morning.”

“So long Bert,” I said, as I thought tiredly to myself. “Not so bad. Better than the Pawnshop errands. Anything was better than that.”

Waiting at home as my mother. Her heart lightened as she saw me turning the street corner; but now my coaldusted face was as black as my African brothers.

After bathing in a tub in front of the fire I sat down to my dinner – tired out. I fell asleep and my mother woke me up. My first shift in the pit was over.

After a few paydays, my mother bought me a secondhand bike –  an old Boneshaker –  with solid rubber tyres. That was my week end, riding the countryside when the weather was right with my mates. After the darkness of the pit it was like a dream to me, seeing the glory of nature in the feeling of song.

I would sing as I watched the wildflowers of hedgerows welcoming the evening sun.

We were Sweethearts in the days of yore

Sweethearts then, Sweethearts now, Sweethearts evermore

Ever true dear as the years roll by,

My sweetheart is as good as any,

My sweetheart as good as any,

My sweetheart ‘til I die

And the Village Blacksmith.

Under the spreading chestnut tree

The village Smithy stands.

The Smith a mighty man is he

With large and sinewy hands

And muscles on his brawny arms

As strong as iron bands.

Those were some of the songs we sung; but our favourite was:

Don’t go down the mine Dad,

Dreams very often come true.

What would happen if anything

Happened to you.

Go and tell your dreams to mine

As true as the stars that shine

Something is going to happen today

Dear Daddy don’t go down the mine

That was always sung after football games, Cross country running. Handball, skipping, and other games, especially on Saturday afternoons, with the Harriers, over the mountains returning refreshed and tired but singing

On Saturday afternoon, when we were clean and tidy

When the clock to strike striking three

Up goes the Captain, the Harriers and me

Over the mountains and meadows

Back by the light of the moon

Making a noise, one of the boys

On Saturday afternoon.

The great changes since those working days can be seen everywhere, all for the common good after much suffering and hardship, yet songs were sung in the happy hours as I remember the daybreak peeping through the bedroom window, and the shout from downstairs “Come on Jim. Rise and shine or you’ll be too late for work. The time was five o’clock in the morning, and I quickly rubbed the sleep from my eyes and dashed down the stairs, ready for another shift down the pit, always awaiting the weekend to enjoy a little of our songs and dancing in the field when the weather was fine. The songs I like to dance to were:

There was a farmer had a dog

His name was Bobby Bingo

B.I.N.G.O. B.I.N.G.O B.I.N.G.O

His name was Bobby Bingo.

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do

I’m going crazy over the love of you

It won’t be a stylish marriage,

We can’t afford a carriage

But you’ll look neat upon a seat

Of a bicycle made for two.”

Over the last few weeks much of my time has been taken up by the minutiae of selling a house. That process having been concluded successfully,  my research student life is returning to a hectic normal.

My first task, to complete the spring edition of the MIRIAD newsletter. I took this on thinking that it was only a matter of laying out existing copy, only to find that most of that copy was raw and unedited, and pretty much unreadable.   So I had to edit, write and source illustrations, as well as dragging more copy from my fellow students. It seems strange to me, having spent much of my life communicating, and believing how important communication is in research (internal and external sharing of what I’m doing – that’s after all surely half the fun) how uninterested some (many?) researchers are in sharing their work and progress.  Perhaps they feel that other activities, such as conference papers, are sufficient. Perhaps they are afraid that someone will take advantage of their hard work and purloin their ideas. But I feel that informal media such as newsletters and social media reach different and often wider audiences and encourage the random but often beneficial phenomenon of serendipity. You never know who might stumble across your work, especially online, where every work is peered at by search bots. And coverage in any media is still worth a mention in a cv.  Anyway, the newsletter is almost finished. Another job jobbed…

I’ve begun using Scrivener as a medium in which to carry out my academic writing process. I’m still climbing its initial learning curve, but so far I’m impressed. It is going to be an invaluable tool for someone like me who has a butterfly brain and who flits from idea to idea and from resource to resource. My first output is the raw draft of a chapter on nineteenth century and present-day attitudes to bric-a-brac, due to be delivered to my supervisors in a day or two.  It feels good to have a few thousand words under my belt!

I’ve begun a collaboration with my fellow researcher Ela, who is working towards an MA by research, and just now I received an email confirming that we’ll be presenting a paper at the Creative Arts and Creative Industries: Collaboration in Practice conference at MMU in June. Ela is researching the Polish displaced families who spent a decade or so in an ex-US army camp in Staffordshire in the 1940s and 50s.  She’ll be using artefacts from their lives as inspiration for her artistic output. She’s discovered that some of the camp is still standing, so I’m going to work with her to research the remains from my archaeological point of view. It’s going to be fun and very useful for my research also. First of many tasks is to deal with the paperwork – the H&S  and ethics forms. Fortunately this is a low-hazard and ethically uncomplicated project, with the main danger probably being nettle stings and insect bites! And it would be nice to have to apply sun-block! The biggest challenge, time!

I’m also beginning a {Code Creatives} “residency” that’s also going to be both challenging and fun (I’ll continue to reside at my desk, but the residency provides support and a tiny budget). My goal is to create, by October, a digital “(anti-)museum.”  You will be able to read more (eventually) at the project blog: The (anti-)museum project. The results will be on show at the opening festivities of the new Art School building.  Busy times!

This afternoon I received the exciting news that I shall be spending a week in July on an Arvon Foundation writing course at Lumb Bank. The course forms the central element of The Designer as Writer/The Writer as Designer, part of the Designing Our Futures initiative organised by MIRIAD and PARC NorthWest. Can’t wait!

Midsummer madness! Yes, roll out all the old tropes.

June is going to be a crazy month for me. I am presenting papers at two symposia, Good Things and Bad Things, Nottingham Trent and Nottingham Contemporary (10th-11th) and Performative Mischief, Loughborough (18th). I’m going to the Collaboration in Practice conference, Manchester (21st-22nd) and am hoping to present something with my fellow researcher Ela (proposal due tomorrow!). 

To start the month with a bang, though, I’ve signed up for an intensive Spanish language class (3rd-7th).

And somewhere in there I have to tear off my clothes and dance around a bonfire or a megalith or a virgin or something similar to celebrate the midsummer solstice. Although it is my experience that English midsummer is a time of goosebumps rather than nudity. Anyway, a month to look forward to!

About 10 years ago I bought a battered 1919 Kodak vest pocket camera. It was a sentimental purchase, acquired to replace a similar (lost) camera given to me a long time ago by an elderly lady with whom I’d become friendly during an archaeological excavation in Dover, Kent (another story). I discovered that inside the camera was an exposed 127 film.

Ghost photographs!

I kept the firm, tightly spooled, in a desk drawer until a couple of weeks ago, when I finally took it to the MMU photo technicians and persuaded one of them to develop it for me. “Come back in a week,” I was told. I dutifully waited seven days, and presented myself at the photography desk. Yes, he’d developed the film, yes, it had a few usable images (of maritime scenes) on it and…it had disappeared.

My precious ghost photographs had been taken from the drying cabinet  by another student!

Perhaps the technician will manage to retrieve my negatives. Perhaps not! I’m devastated!


Twice in a couple of days I’ve tripped up over my fallible note-taking. 

I use a piece of Mac software called, logically, “Notebook.” Amongst other features, Notebook helpfully indexes every word of every note I add, making looking up information much easier than leafing through a paper-based notebook, or through a pile of index cards. However the quality of that information depends on the original note, and it’s here that I’ve slipped up.

My first crisis occurred when I was asked to provide the reference and a page number for a quotation I’d included in a book chapter. “Easy,” I thought, “I’ll just look it up in my notes.” Except that I hadn’t recorded the publication, only the page number! “No problem,” I again thought, “I’ll just carry out an online search.” Hmmm. This resulted in my finding two almost-the-same paragraphs from two other papers the same author had written, the page numbers of which didn’t match my notes and which were just different enough to prevent my using them to replace my original quotation. I never did find the original, and in the end I had to adjust my text slightly  to avoid a misquotation.

And I’ve just come across another note, this time from an excellent, thought-provoking blog, where, although I recorded the author, I failed to note when the words I want to quote actually appeared. Again, an online search didn’t help.

There were two incidental benefits from this cock-up. I had discovered two additional papers by  and author very relevant to my research. And secondly, I got to read more of the blog, and downloaded what looks to be a very interesting thesis by the blogger. Ah serendipity!


Note to self: “Can do better!”