I’ve escaped my study and the corridors of academe for a few days, and have joined in an archaeological excavation beside the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at Ty Coch, near Cwmbran. It has been great to wield a mattock and have a trowel in my hand again after too long an absence from the trenches.

The site is beside Shop Lock, the top of a flight of three locks, and was discovered when a team of volunteers carrying out restoration discovered masonry just below the surface they were clearing. They called in an archaeologist and a local history group, and I heard about it also and couldn’t resist the temptation to abandon my studies and head to Wales.

The short project appears to have uncovered a saw pit and associated structures:

pit_1

The pit and the building around it appears to have been contemporary with the construction of the canal (1790s) but to have been subsequently altered and repaired. At some point the building was demolished and the pit filled with rubble that contained material as varied as nineteenth century ceramics and a 1981 crisp packet. The location of a saw pit close to a series of locks is understandable given the need to fabricate, repair and replace lock gates.

For me it’s been great fun. For one thing it’s been good not to be the oldest person on site! Good also to train a few volunteers in the finer skills of excavation and recording. It’s also a rare project these days that is almost completely volunteer-run. I’ve enjoyed finding a scatter of interesting nineteenth century material, and meeting some keen amateurs willing to brave the wind and rain of this miserable early summer!

 

For another project I was recently asked to write something that in a way would introduce me to people I hadn’t previously met. Having sweated over the keyboard for a while, and having produced the following garbled copy just in time to meet the deadline, I’ve decided to squeeze as much use out of it as I can and so am reproducing it here!

“The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

R.L. Stevenson

I dislike writing about myself. Handicapped as I am by my rugged good looks, my many talents, my incredible record of successes, my 20-page-long curriculum vitae and my glittering intelligence, I always risk unwittingly displaying an off-putting level of immodesty, so I tend to hide the light of these collective encumbrances beneath the bushel of shy reticence. Rather than producing a tedious biography, I shall instead share an episode from my distant past that might shine a light on who I am today.

I was once a member of a Red Indian tribe. Not the Cherokee, or the Apache, or the Cree, but an even more formidable group, The I SPY Tribe of youthful redskins. Indeed, not only was I a member, but I was second-in-command to Big Chief I SPY himself, and my job title was “Hawkeye.”

The Big Chief was one Arnold Cawthrow, an extravagantly camp bon-viveur in his sixties, who combined the taxing role of leading a tribe of about a million youngsters, writing I SPY Books and a daily column in the Daily Mail (an organ he hated with a vengeance) with running an antique shop in London’s Camden Passage. Arnold moved in the impossibly glamorous (to me) “dahling” world of film and theatre, and I would occasionally get to meet someone then-famous but since forgotten, who, I have to say, would usually be much less god- or goddess-like in the flesh.

Arnold chain-smoked absent-mindedly, lighting each cigarette from its predecessor, then forgetting it, leaving it smouldering in an ashtray, or he would smoke while leaning over your shoulder, the cigarette dangling between his languorous fingers burning forgotten until its column of ash fell into the typewriter or onto the artwork or photograph you were working on, to be brushed aside with an “oh fuck!” The walls of his office, the nucleus of “The Wigwam By The Green” (a nondescript two-storey office block in Paddington that looked out on the bustle of Church Street market) were decorated with various battered “ethnic” objects he presumably couldn’t sell in his shop. There were some blunt spears, a few worn-out bows and arrows, a faded shield or two, a couple of clubs, all of them African, most of them probably fakes. There was also a small menagerie of badly-stuffed animals, many of which were leaking their sawdusty contents. All these objects were regularly taken to publicity events, where we would erect a tepee and embellish it with a mixture of artefacts that no North American indigenous person would recognise. This of course was before the advent of our present sensitivity towards other cultures, a time when Red Indians were still either the stuff of comic strips or were those impassive folk who appeared on the horizon in western movies before attacking wagon trains and abducting cowgirls.

Though his vocabulary of expletives matched his youthful career in the navy (later he became, of all things, a social worker) Arnold’s favourite exclamation on hearing or seeing anything out of the ordinary, was a long-drawn-out “chaarming!” accompanied by archly raised eyebrows, a wave of his cigarette and another shower of ash. He drove his dented blue Renault (registration SPY 999) with utter disregard for every other road user. Apart from a few actresses, Arnold didn’t get on comfortably with women (I won’t insert his expletives). He didn’t like baptists or Scotsmen either (more expletives) which was difficult because our Managing Director was a baptist and the Daily Mail seemed to be staffed entirely by men from north of the border. I’m not sure that he liked children all that much, which added another level of irritation to his working life.

Hawkeye’s job was to communicate with tribe members in ISPY code, to fact-check, update and edit the I SPY books, to make sure that accurate copy was supplied to the Daily Mail (this entailed a weekly trip to Fleet Street, and handing our sheaf of text and illustrations to a Scots sub editor in a vast room filled with smoke and chip paper in a building that was shaken by the great rumbling printing presses in the basement). I also had to source photographs, which in those pre-Internet days involved many hours spent in badly-catalogued photo libraries, either peering at 35mm slides or tugging dog-eared prints from dusty manila envelopes. I once even used the Izvestia photo library. I drew a few graphics and answered the enquiries of adults – who we defined as “palefaces” and who were usually calling or writing to resolve bets on which was the longest river in England, or the coldest day ever, or how to spell Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. I often cheated by in turn phoning up one of the quality newspapers, which in those days had know-all libraries, and spent much happy time in the Science Museum and Commonwealth Institute libraries, pulling books from the shelves at random.

I would also on occasion have to put on an Indian feathered headdress to help staff the I SPY tepee at shows. As a prematurely balding, freckled, red-bearded Englishman I presented an unconvincing brave, but the little redskins didn’t seem to mind.

The best part of my job, however, was simply being curious, being free to look at the world of places and things, of castles and canals, of streets and seashores, through the gaze of Hawkeye, spotting stuff that I could draw to the attention of the I SPY tribe: coal hole covers, mounting blocks, mileposts, crinkum crankum fences, ha has, voles, Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate, tadpoles, cruck cottages, transporter bridges, lichens, coracles, garderobes, Victorian pillar boxes, thrips, semaphore signals, follies, pargetting, steam engines, dolls houses, Devil’s Toenails and flint axes. All of them worth 10 points or so to an I SPY redskin, but to me, adding rich detail and fascination to daily life.

Today I still read the lettering on manhole covers, still spot fire insurance plaques, still peer into garderobes, still look underneath stones, still follow long-abandoned tramways, still take photographs of toadstools, still smile at ha has and crinkum crankum fences, still explore green lanes and hollow ways, still enthuse over liverworts, still jump on trig points.

Except that I’ve never since worn a red indian headdress, I guess I’ve never stopped being Hawkeye.

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).

Whoever.

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!