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“Wealth and beggary, vice and virtue”: Dickens and London at the Museum of London

March 11, 2012

Dickens and London was always going to be a challenge for the Museum of London. Should they focus on Dickens’ work, the London he lived in or the connection between the two? And should they assume their visitors know his works intimately or not?

The exhibition team have made a laudable effort, with the end result including a number of potential show-stopping objects and experiences. Overall, though, I feel the exhibition betrays some of these tensions about the nature of the subject being presented. It is also – dare I say it – a little wordy.

First the good stuff… If you’re a Dickens geek you won’t be disappointed. You can see the chair and desk where he wrote Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, along with his quill and inkwell. The case containing the latter, along with letters and a cheque written in Dickens’ own hand was surrounded by eager visitors all the time I was there. Sensibly, the exhibition designers have spread the manuscripts of various Dickens novels (which are on loan from the V&A Museum) around the entire space, making it much easier to spend time scrutinising them. As a publisher, I was particularly interested to see copies of corrected proofs alongside the hand-written manuscripts. They had hardly a change on them, only the odd comma or semi-colon inserted here and there. Either the typesetters of the day were brilliant at their craft (and it can’t have been an easy task to understand Dickens’ tiny and oft-corrected scrawl), or the author was well aware of the likely cost of more major changes.

Manuscript for The Personal History and Experience of David Copperfield, 1849-50. Donated by John Forster. Museum no. Forster MS 161. © V&A Images

For someone who knew very little about Dickens the man, I learned a smattering of interesting facts. He had, I was surprised to discover, originally wanted to become an actor, and visited the theatre every single night between the ages of 14 and 17. All his life, we’re told, “he remained an actor at heart”. Despite being inspired by “the variety and complexity of the city” and keenly listening to sounds and conversations, he “found distractions, such as church bells and street musicians, particularly annoying”. He was also, like many men of his time, somewhat of a philanthropist, setting up a home for destitute young women in West London, among other charitable endeavours. Despite this public concern for the poor, Dickens kept his own blacking-factory childhood secret, only to be discovered after his death.

The exhibition really focuses not on the man, however, but on London, otherwise described as Dickens’ “muse”. And this is where I feel the kinks start to show. In some cases it works well. For example, an impressive self-supporting door from Newgate Prison is linked to a passage from Barnaby Rudge and a child’s shroud cap is related to Little Dorrit. I haven’t read either book, but I understood why these objects were on display, and they brought the world that Dickens wrote about into sharp focus for me.

Door from Newgate Prison 1780. Copyright: Museum of London

At other times, the connection seems more tenuous. Having discovered Dickens’ penchant for the theatre, we then encounter a sign from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, a toy theatre model (which is, admittedly, very handsome) and a clown outfit. Similarly, since Dickens was the “first author to describe the railway’s impact on society, the city and countryside” we are shown an 1848 Bradshaw’s railway companion and a receipt from a stage coach. In each case, these items seem extraneous to the main thrust of the exhibition, or to Dickens’ work. What’s more, they seem to be given more space and attention than many other interesting – and relevant – pieces. The amazing London scenes captured by nineteenth-century photographers like Henry Dixon and Henry Flather are all consigned to small screens squeezed around the gallery. I felt these deserved as much space and time as the specially-commissioned immersive film at the start of the exhibition, which was projected on to three separate walls in the first zone of the gallery.

Henry Flather's 1867 photograph of the construction of Bayswayer Station. Copyright: Museum of London.

My other main concern is the writing style employed in the captions. Perhaps in keeping with Dickens’ style, it seems overly wordy for the context. An early panel tells us:

“Dickens’s creations step off the page and take on a life of their own. Even their names are evocative. Who is not intrigued by Uriah Heep, Quilp, Magwith or Pecksniff? There is sometimes a grizzly, even perverted, humour in Dickens’s choice of name. What does someone called Smallweed, Chevy Slime or Tulkinghorn suggest? And is Mr Mould a suitable name for an undertaker?”

This probably reads OK on a blog post (and would certainly work in a book), but for a museum exhibition it is far too long, especially since this is only a third of the entire label. We could have gleaned the point from a fraction of the words, or drawn our own conclusions from a more engaging display of the names.

The exhibition ends, however, with an excellent piece of communication that links not only Dickens the man with London, but also the time of his writing with our present lives. In a cramped dark space we watch current London night happenings, voiced over by Dickens’ text. In an effort to cure insomnia, Dickens walked through London in the small hours, writing about his discoveries of ‘houselessness’, drunkeness and violence. The scenes he described can easily be found today – often in exactly the same locations. To get a feel for the piece, watch this trailer:

The impact on my fellow viewers was clear. “It’s all a bit dreary,” one said; another was surpised to see that people were “still out” at three o’clock in the morning. Overhearing these snatches of conversations beautifully illustrated the longevity of Dickens work – and the constant ability of the “wealth and beggary, vice and virtue”* of the city of London to shock.

*(as described in Master Humphrey’s Clock in 1841)


Mild-mannered accountant was the ‘victim’ in Milgram’s electrocution experiment

December 8, 2011

I write about a lot of different things. Some things that I know about already. Some that I don’t. In both instances, writing forces you to get under the skin of the facts and find the nuggets of interest which might most grab your reader.

Although I’d read about the shocking experiments of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram before, I hadn’t picked up on one ‘interesting’ point until I was writing about them for my new e-learning course on Professionalism and Ethics for Accountants. Milgram put volunteers in a situation where they were requested to administer electric shocks to a stranger, based on his performance when answering a number of questions. Although he never actually received the shocks, the experiment participants thought they had been given – and even heard the screams that they had supposedly caused. What’s worse, the ‘victim’ in this scenario had been specially selected due to his likeable nature. So who would you choose if you wanted an approachable, smiley, friendly and harmless person to sit in the victim’s spot?

I bet most people wouldn’t have plumped for an accountant, but that’s who Milgram picked: James McDonough, the Head Payroll auditor of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.

To find out what the world learnt from McDonough and Milgram’s efforts, read my recent blogpost about obedience and authority for Nelson Croom. Alternatively, you can watch the 2009 recreation of the original experiment by the BBC below. Bizarrely, the approachable, smiley, friendly and harmless person playing the victim’s role in the updated version is one of my old university friends – another fact I didn’t know until I was researching for my writing…

Why Martini is the tipple of choice for publishers of the future

December 8, 2011

Publishers are known for their penchant for the odd tipple, but after a day in a room full of them at Monday’s Futurebook conference, the only drink for me is a Martini. Not the classic cocktail, but the Martini & Rosso vermouth, as promoted in this 80s ad:

It may look startlingly retro, but it’s actually the future. Because publishing and bookselling in the future will be all about getting content to consumers any time, any place, anywhere – just like the Martini ad. If you want to know more, read my full musings on the conference at the Kingston Publishing Blog.

Saul Bass on the presses: design, printing and social media

October 31, 2011

I’m a huge Saul Bass fan, and a bit of a book production geek. So this video hits all my buttons.

Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design from Laurence King Publishing on Vimeo.

Even better, it’s a great example of a publisher using social media to promote a new title: I spotted the video when the Design Museum (of whom I’m a fan on Facebook) linked to it, and now I’ve added the book to my Christmas wishlist, am blogging about it, and will also share the news on Twitter. Great stuff!

If you want to find out more about using social media for marketing, check out my review of Jon Reed’s Get Up to Speed with Online Marketing book a while back.

Generous Jon Reed is at it again: The Publishing Talk Guide to Twitter

July 7, 2011

I’ve blogged before about Jon Reed’s writing, citing him as a social media savvy chap, who generously shares his expertise – and what’s more he does it with style. Jon’s latest (e)book, The Publishing Talk Guide to Twitter, reaffirms those sentiments. In around 100 pages, Jon crams in multiple Twitter success stories and practical tips – all focused on helping aspiring writers, published authors or publishers achieve their goals. Whether you’re looking for your first job in publishing, touting your manuscript around agents and publishers or trying to create the biggest buzz for your author’s latest book, you’ll find something useful inside. And what’s more, this is no glorified Word doc of an ebook – it’s visually inviting, easy to read and as stylish as you’d expect.

If you’re yet to be convinced about the power of Twitter, the book starts with an awe-inspiring example: author Sarah Salway (@sarahsalway)’s six year old book, Something beginning with shot from nowhere to the top 250 in the Kindle charts within a week. Why? You guessed it… Twitter. How? A serendipitous mention by author Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself), who just happens to have 1.5 million or so followers, and another by William Gibson (@greatdismal). Of course you can’t plan for that kind of luck. But being on Twitter makes it a possibility.

The book is dotted with these publishing ‘Twitter success stories’, themselves testament to the power of the platform, since Jon asked for contributions by sending out a tweet. And while many of these examples highlight happenstance outcomes, some successes are more directly trackable. Take Rose Ippolito (@IndexerRose01), who gained her first business contract directly from following a recommended list of 20 influential publishing folk on Twitter.

While there’s no doubt Twitter can help you advance your career or sell more of something, these aren’t the only aspects Jon focuses on. In a book that keeps publishing at its core, he suggests authors could use Twitter to research their books or to ask for help or insight – just as he did. He even talks about the possibility of tweeting your entire novel, like Nick Belardes (@NickBelardes), or the thoughts of an individual character. It might sound gimmicky, but that’s how @MrsStephenFry got a book deal with Hodder & Stoughton.

Whatever your aims in using Twitter, it’s essential to be clear on your goals – and Jon takes time to help you work out what you want to achieve, and how you’ll get there, before getting into all the technical detail. Once you’re ready to leap into the Twittersphere, he then guides you through setting up an account, deciphering Twitter jargon, using hashtags, identifying who to follow, deciding what to say and knowing the key dos and don’ts. Everything, in fact, that usually scares Twitter novices off. You’ll even learn about ‘new Twitter’ – putting you a step ahead of many old hands who haven’t got their heads around the updated system yet.

Finally, Jon shows you how to link your real and virtual networks, by using Twitter to host a Q&A session or organize a Twitter meet-up. He also takes some of the hard work out of setting your network up in the first place – by listing 50 influential publishing tweeps (that’s Twitter people, or Twitter ‘peeps’, for those of you who haven’t learnt the jargon yet) – and helps scope out your Twitter action plan. For a man who makes his living selling social media workshops to publishers, Jon’s giving a helluva lot of information away for little more than the price of a good bottle of wine. Generous to the core once again…

The Publishing Talk Guide to Twitter is available now from Publishing Talk and, if you’re willing to pay with a tweet, you can also download a sample chapter for free.

My own elearning course on Social Media for Professionals is available from

Pirates! On the quest for the ‘true story’ of Captain Kidd

July 6, 2011

The Museum of London Docklands’ Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story exhibition has all the essential ingredients of a good museum experience: calling in the services of an engaging character and narrative, providing opportunities for visitors to experience past lives, linking history to contemporary popular culture, letting visitors leave their mark on the exhibition and posing a closing dilemma or question. In addition, visitors are set a starting quest, the interpretation is clear, unfussy and effective and there’s plenty of interesting pirate ‘facts’.

Meet an engaging character

The content is structured around the story of Captain Kidd, privateer, buccaneer and sometime pirate, ultimately hung at nearby Wapping in 1701 (Image below from NMM).

Experience the life

You can sit in a ropey old ships galley, dress up as a pirate and hear and smell the sounds of 17th century ships and taverns.

Link to pop culture

Find a Vivienne Westwood pirate outfit, shelves of pirate books and clips of many a pirate film – including Maureen O Hara in Against All Flags and a cheesy Captain Kidd-themed Cheerios ad.

Against All Flags promo image:

Cheerios ad:

Leave your mark

Why not draw your own pirate flag and clip it to the rigging? Here’s mine:

Answer a question

Finally, the exhibition poses a closing question and asks visitors to answer it: was Captain Kidd guilty as charged? I have to admit I think the evidence was rather stacked to support one view – but the visitors’ responses (on view for everyone to see) didn’t seem to match up to it.

The starting quest

At the very start, visitors encounter a Hollywood style scene-setting trailer, complete with rousing soundtrack and suitably gravel-voiced narration. The phrases are imperative and challenging. Who was the real Captain Kidd? Who did he sail with? Who did he sail for? Find the real evidence? Was he guilty? Trace his last steps… Hear his last words…


Throughout, the text is easy to read, and presented with the aplomb of a theatrical experience –  using titles like ‘A dubious scheme’ and ‘The Syndicate’ (Captain Kidd’s backers). For pirate novices, terms like ‘buccaneer’ and ‘plunder’ are defined at the foot of relevant captions, and this approach even extends to words like ‘investors’ and ‘myth’ – though I was surprised to see ‘censure’ presented without definition.

As well as this ongoing glossary, another neat trick helps you understand and interpret the captions effectively: near the start of the exhibition a wall-sized exhibit encourages you to find common pirate locations on an old chart of the world, while reading a little about each spot. When these locations crop up in later captions, those who had explored the map have a deeper understanding of the places and events later described.

Additional child-friendly pointers prompt you to find things in paintings, or consider how you would feel in certain situations. And a range of ‘what would you do’ tasks are scattered throughout, demonstrating some of the tough decisions pirates – and those who sought to catch them – faced.

Intriguing facts

Although a relatively object-light exhibition, there are still plenty of interesting facts and stories sneaked in. A rather bizarre exhibit lets you discover how much a pirate would have been paid for losing an eye, limb or other bodily function. As I type this with a fractured finger, I was delighted to discover I’d be due 800 pieces of eight from my shipmates for losing a digit (equivalent to around £3,200). This exhibit has a serious message though – that pirates operated in organised fashion and looked after each other rather than simply wreaking havoc on the high seas.

We also meet female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read (though I would have liked to learn more about them) and find out plenty about Wapping and other London pirate haunts in the 17th century.

Mary Read (image from NMM):

Anne Bonny (image from NMM):

As a long-term Wapping-dweller, I know most of our local history, but hadn’t previously heard that, from the 1670s, some of the most important charts were made by a group of cartographers in wapping. This handsome piece was drawn by William Hack, son of an Innkeeper, who signed many of his maps ‘At the signe of Great Britain and Ireland near new stairs in Wapping’ (from NMM).

If you had any doubt that Wapping-dwellers are a different bred, then a 1776 quote from Sir John Fielding clears things up:”

When one goes into Rotherhithe and Wapping, which places are chiefly inhabited by sailors. but hat somewhat of the same language is spoken, a man would be apt to suspect himself in another country. Their manner of living, speaking, acting, dressing and behaving are so peculiar to themselves.

The verdict

So is the exhibition guilty of delivering a fun experience? I’d certainly recommend it – for both kids and (big kid) adults. However, the initial quest feels like an add-on, shown in the exhibition without being linked to the actual visitor experience. Armed with all the imperative questions, I set off around the exhibition on a quest to answer them. Yes, the answers are all provided, but I – like, I expect, most visitors – wanted some confirmation at the end of the experience that I had successfully completed the quest.

I was also – as I usually am at the Docklands outpost of the Museum of London – disappointed by the shop. I’d like to have had the opportunity to purchase books about some of the characters and stories. I might even have bought a DVD or two of some camp old pirate movies. None were available. That’s not to say, though, that kids won’t be delighted by the various dressing up accessories on offer, complete with an impresssive hook – though this rather spoils one of the key messages about the exhibition (that real pirates aren’t like the ones we see in films).

All in though, if you chart a course towards West India Quay, you won’t be disappointed. Pirates is a treasure of an exhibition – for kids and adults alike.

Nosy Crow’s Aliens vs MAD Scientists Mega Mash-up

May 22, 2011

New independent publisher on the block Nosy Crow have recently launched their Mega Mash-up series aimed at boys of 7+. The look and feel of the books mirrors other short series publications like Astrosaurs or Spy Dog. What’s new is the ‘draw your own adventure’ aspect and the brazen repeated combination of everyone’s fave character types. You like Roman gladiators and dinosaurs? Here they are in the same book. You like robots and gorillas? That’s book two. And the latest book in the series? That harks back to 50s B-movie heaven: aliens, mad scientists and an undersea location. What more could a young boy want?

Even before you open Aliens v MAD Scientists under the ocean, you know this is a book not just for you – but by you, with an invitation to add your own name to that of the author and illustrator on the cover. Look inside and every page is packed with opportunities to participate in your own ‘sketching adventure’.

Moving on from the sticker book genre, this is a well-structured and supportive environment to boost kids’ creativity.In particular:

  • It’s a great setting, with lots of opportunities to create scenes and creatures under the sea.
  • The paper is high enough quality that it should survive even the thickest of felt tips.
  • The existing drawings look child-like enough that you feel welcome to add your own.
  • There’s useful advice at the start about choosing your drawing tools and producing textured patterns.
  • There’s a good mix of directed instructions (“he looks well shocked” pointing to a small blank face) and more open-ended tasks (“what else is lurking in the murky depths?” next to plenty of white space for you to fill with fantastical sea creatures).
  • A picture glossary at the back of the book includes sample drawings you might like to copy. I have to admit, in true sticker book mentality, I had a strong urge to cut these pics out and stick them on to some of the pages. Sadly they are printed back to back so you would need to copy them to do this.

The story itself is simple enough for kids to read themselves, though phrases like “rebalanced the quantum flux on the magnetizer” or “are they genetically modified?” might cause some confusion. And you can also read it without drawing any of your own pics. However, since all good picture books tell some of the story through images, if you take part you can actually shape what happens (within some specified parameters of course). With this in mind I was slightly surprised not to find an entirely open spread at the end of the book – I personally wanted to draw the final scene or epilogue, a bit like the feasts that take place at the end of every Asterix book… This approach would also give the reader full power to resolve and complete the story.

The series is supported by a website where you can access more glossary images, find out about the books and also share your own drawings, thereby providing an output for all that creative genius. This is nine-year old Alfie’s drawing from book two:

Overall, this is a great innovative series which shows the publisher’s forward-thinking approach to this age range. Having met Nosy Crow MD, Kate Wilson when she gave a masterclass at Kingston University last year, that’s no surprise. Kate talked then about a company philosophy built around the concepts of curation, connection and creativity, with three simple rules:

  • Communicate with consumers in a language they like,
  • Allow them to connect with you, and
  • Create content from scratch.

The Mega Mash-up series certainly fulfills each of these and I’d recommend the books to any 7+ boys (or girls!) I know.

My one criticism is that, despite use of contemporary terms like ‘mash-ups’ and ‘genetic modification’, the content of the book is firmly stuck back in the world of that 50s B movie. The scientists are all, as is clear from the title, ‘MAD’ – with names like ‘Batty’, ‘Nerdy’, ‘Egghead’, ‘Crackers’ and ‘Daft’. They all wear white coats, and glasses of some incarnation. And they’re all male – or at least I think they are. I know this is probably the language and imagery the reader expects and likes (going back to Kate’s first rule above) but it seems sadly stereotypical from such a contemporary and forward-thinking team. So next time you feature science, Nosy Crow, please take a more modern perspective!

Mega Mash-up: Aliens v MAD Scientists under the ocean by Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson is out on June 16th. The next book in the series, Pirates v Ancient Egpytians in a haunted museum publishes in September.