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Research is usually great fun. I am simply an ultra-curious detective, poking about all sorts of messy evidence until I stumble across something that I can add to my store of narratives, rather like a jackdaw pouncing on something shiny to weave into its nest. But occasionally i come across something that I desperately want to identify but can’t, and here’s an example.

In 1939, C Gardel wrote an article in the French journal Folklore, in which he described the cries of street traders of Bize during the nineteenth century. Here’s what he wrote about the “sellers of  beautiful saints”:

Le marchand de statuettes de Saints de plâtre, vêtu d’une longue blouse blanche, étalait ses modèles sur un éventaire à rebords bien équilibré sur sa tête. Le petit Saint-Jean, la Vierge, la Sainte-Famile, etc., s’alignaient à côté des tirelires «dinhèirolos» à couleurs vives : tomates, pommes, des jouets naïfs:canaris, petits lapins blancs à collier pointillé de rouge, dans lequel balançait la tête.

“Santi belli, belli !” annonçait sa voix trainante, et, en un clin d’oeil, un essaim de jeunes mamans, bébé sur le bras, s’empressait autour du modeleur italien. Et ce n’étaient que cris de joie et petits bras tendus vers ces fragiles merveilles, jouets d’un jour, dont les mamans, aïeules aujourd’hui, n’ont pas perdu le souvenir.

I’ve managed to apply my schoolboy French combined with Google Translate and have made sense of all of this except for the word dinhèirolos, which has so far defeated the entire Internet! That doesn’t happen very often these days. Was it cod-Italian? Bad Portuguese? I’m horribly frustrated, not knowing what these brightly-coloured objects were! Some sort of piggy-bank? Grrr!

Carrying out research is hard work, but occasionally I stumble across something that makes me laugh. In my searching through newspapers for stories concerning figurine (“image”) sellers I found this wonderful 1832 story:


At the Mansion-house, on Saturday, M. Pierre De Bois, a French gentleman, who resides in Chambers in Leadenhall-street, was summoned before the Lord Mayor for beating Rafoel Spaglietti, an image-seller, and breaking a very fine bust of Napoleon Buonaparte. It appeared that the Italian went up stairs to the defendant’s room door, at the top of which there was glass; he raised up the head of the image, which was made of pale clay, to the glass, and said softly, “buy my ghost of Napoleon.” M. De Bois, who had known the Emperor, thought he saw his ghost, and exclaiming, “Oh, Christ, save us!” fell on the floor in a fit. The Italian, seeing no chance of a sale that day, went away, and returned the next. M. De Bois, in the meantime, having recovered from his fit, and hearing how his terror had been excited, felt so indignant, the the moment he saw Spaglietti at his door the next day he flew at him, and tumbled him and the Emperor down stairs together. It happened that a confectioner’s man was at that moment coming up stairs with a giblet pie, to a Mr. Wilson, who resided in the Chambers, and the Emperor and Italian, in their descent, alighted on his tray, which broke their fall, and saved the Italian’s head, but could not save Napoleon’s, which was totally destroyed: the giblet pie also suffered so much from the collision, that Mr. Wilson refused to have anything to do with it. After a good deal of explanation amongst the parties, and a good deal of laughter amongst the auditors, M. De Bois agreed to pay for the pie, and Mr. Wilson generously paid for the loss of the Emperor.

[The Morning Chronicle, Monday January 16th 1832]

My next few entries are going to focus on a group of itinerant hawkers who originated in the Lucca commune in Italy. I’m going to begin with a taster, a poem written by someone identified only as “Upton” and published in The Universal Songster or Museum of Mirth Volume III, London, 1826:

O, YE who can feel for the offspring of grief,
Give ear to an alien, that sues for relief,
From the cravings of hunger and outcast defend,
Bereft of a parent, relation or friend:
Pity, pity a stranger, debarred of all joy,
A destitute, wandering Italian Boy.

Seduced from a land to the sciences dear,
A poor distressed foreigner crawls about here;
His hope and dependence for lodging and bread,
The image, “fine image,” he bears on his head:
Pity, pity a stranger, debarred of all joy,
A destitute, wandering Italian Boy.

“What matters,” he cries, “all the grandeur I see?
The world is a desart and winter to me;
To scorn and reproach, I am doomed to appear,
No shield, no protector to succour me here.
Pity, pity a stranger, debarred of all joy,
A destitute, wandering Italian Boy.”

Ye Britons, with freedom for ages renowned,
With beauty and unrivalled, and valour-deeds crowned,
Give ear to a foreigner’s sorrowful strain,
And snatch him from misery, insult, and pain.
Pity, pity a stranger, debarred of all joy,
A destitute, wandering Italian Boy.

The Italian Boys sold “fine images”, figurines, miniatures, which they carried on planks of wood, balanced on their heads, hence my excitement!

So far I’ve not found anything about the writer, Upton, but the Italian Boys were apparently familiar enough not to need much explanation.

More follows…


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!