Murdoch’s access to British prime minister shows media power still in hands of the few

This article was written by Dr Justin Schlosberg from Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and Professor Des Freedman from Goldsmiths, University of London. It was originally published on The Conversation

In 1996, when the web was in its infancy, the American technology writer Nicholas Negroponte predicted that the coming digital revolution would facilitate a “cottage industry of information and entertainment providers”. Twenty years on and the story of “fake news”, which had wide currency during the US election, and was found emanating from basements, cafes and computer labs in the small Macedonian city of Veles would appear to prove Negroponte correct.

Except that we are living in an era when vast sections of our media, both “old” and “new”, are controlled by a tiny number of giant corporations, most of which dominate their particular sectors and face minimal competition.

Take the local news sector which only recently argued that an arbitration system as proposed by Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act would undermine plucky community-based titles and weaken local democracy. The problem is that five conglomerates account for 80% of all local newspaper titles while the remaining 58 publishers account for just 20% of titles.

Or take the UK’s supposedly competitive national newspaper market where five companies – largely presided over by tax exiles and media moguls – control 90% of daily circulation. If you take online readership into account, which bumps the Guardian up the rankings, then six companies fall into this category.

The situation is even more dire when it comes to the increasingly profitable digital world. Yes, it’s possible to argue that there is a cottage industry of, for example, app and video game developers. But distribution – the means by which content actually becomes available to consumers – is subject to serious bottlenecks because of the grip exerted by dominant companies.

So while there may be thousands of digital start-ups, they have to face the fact that Apple and Spotify alone account for 63% of the global streaming market and that Facebook is fast becoming the most popular digital platform for news. Meanwhile Google has some 90% of global desktop search and Google and Facebook together account for around two-thirds of all digital advertising in the US. According to the Financial Times, 85 cents of every dollar spent on digital advertising in America went to those two companies in the first quarter of last year – evidence of “a concentration of market power in two companies that not only own the playing field but are able to set the rules of the game as well”.

Setting the agenda

One of the great misconceptions, however, is that the bewildering market power wielded by the likes of Google and Facebook has come at the expense of the mainstream press and broadcasters. Established, reputable, professional news organisations and the “real news” that they produce, are apparently losing the ever evolving struggle for eyeballs.

It is a misconception because it conflates decline in the traditional market for news with a weakening of gate-keeping and the influence of editorial agendas. Although commercialism and agenda have always been closely intertwined, they have never been the same thing. Ironically, the power vacuum left by evaporating profits and retreating corporate investors in news publishers has put many newsrooms back in the hands of extremely wealthy individuals, from local oligarchs in Eastern Europe like Lajos Simicska in Hungary to dot.com billionaires such as Jeff Bezos.

Mainstream press dominated by six big companies who control 85% of uk circulation. Lenscap Photography

The missing piece of the puzzle is the complex ways in which Google, Facebook and Twitter are, if anything, reinforcing the agenda-setting power of the mainstream news brands. Google’s news algorithm, for instance, gives priority weighting to news providers with scale, volume and those who cover topics that are widely covered elsewhere.

The problem with fakery is not so much the cottage news industry, but dominant algorithms and ideologically polarised audiences that are supposedly enabling it to flourish. It is, after all, nothing new: the tabloid press will certainly not be remembered for being champions of truth-telling. The problem is more to do with the failure of those very news brands that Google considers “reliable sources” to offer a meaningful corrective to fakery – and, worse, their tendency to amplify it.

trump

As for the post-truth politics of Trump, it wasn’t his provocative and offensive “tweets” that enabled him to burst on to the mainstream political scene, but the way in which mainstream news networks were, from the outset, hanging on his every word. The more offensive, provocative, outlandish the comment – the bigger the lie – the more newsworthy it became. Twitter gave him a platform, but mainstream news provided the microphone, and it is amplification – the ability to be heard – that is the major currency of agenda power.

Media elite

We are, therefore, witnessing not the demise of concentrated “voice”, but its resurgence in more subtle ways.

murdoch

What can be done about this? We can hardly rely on our elected governments when they seem more comfortable to bow down to digital giants and media barons than to challenge them. For example, the latest research carried out by the Media Reform Coalition and the campaign group 38 Degrees shows that there has been an increase in the number of private meetings between representatives of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and government ministers ahead of Murdoch’s bid to take full control of Sky, the UK’s largest broadcaster.

In September 2016 alone, News Corp’s chief executive, Robert Thompson, had back-to-back meetings with the prime minister, Theresa May, the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, and the culture secretary, Karen Bradley. May even found time to meet with Murdoch that month during a one night trip to New York.

The major problem facing our democracy isn’t the subterranean digital activities of Macedonian teenagers corrupting a supposedly pure news environment. Instead, it’s the fact that we have a media culture that is dominated by billionaire proprietors and elite insiders and a political culture that is too fearful of this media power ever to challenge it. “Fake news” may be grabbing the headlines but we shouldn’t forget about the concentrated market power that has allowed it to thrive.The Conversation

 

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Bringing life to the Brontës

This post was contributed by Dr Siv Jansson, Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. She was Literary Advisor on To Walk Invisible (written and directed by Sally Wainwright: BBC).

The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored

The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored

A drama about the Brontes was something which Sally and I had talked about over a number of years, and I knew it was a topic she had long wanted to do. In 2014  it was green-lit by the BBC, and by the end of that year the process of producing the script began.

Sally did a tremendous amount of research and had clear ideas concerning the approach she wanted to take, and it was my job to support that. There is no clear ‘job description’ for the role of literary advisor; it depends upon the people you are working with and the nature of the project. The literary advisor is there to do just that, advise: the decisions rest with the writer/director and producer. Sally and I had many, many lengthy discussions, and I read the drafts of the script bit by bit as she wrote them. I’d comment or suggest, but it was always Sally’s script. She made the decision to focus on the period 1845-8, and I agreed with this; even though the BBC gave us an extra 30 minutes – making it a120-minute instead of a 90-minute film – to try to fit all the Brontes’ lives – and deaths – into two hours would have been an impossible task. 1845-8 is the period when the writing emerged into the public domain so it made sense to concentrate on that.

A major part of my role was research; for example, I found the newspaper story which Charlotte is reading to her father in one of the early scenes. It’s from the Leeds Intelligencer: Sally wanted something which would have been in the news at that time and of interest to Patrick (it was a story about Irish politics). I also re-read all the biographical material available and anything Sally didn’t have time to look at, looked up details – for example what information was available at that time on delirium tremens – put together a compendium of descriptions of the Brontes and the various images which are or have been claimed to be them, and also investigated some of the most well-known but possibly unfounded Bronte myths. As Juliet Barker has pointed out, Branwell not only didn’t go to London, but was never intended to do so – there is a letter from Patrick which talks about sending him the following year. Following up on this, I spent an afternoon in the British Library looking at coaching timetables and journeys to establish that he actually could not have made the journey he is supposed to have made on the dates or times he is thought to have made it, and that the planned trip to London was, indeed, a myth. We considered whether to excise the flashback scene where Branwell is describing to his father and aunt that he had been robbed in London (while Emily observes from the doorway), but decided that it did important work in terms of establishing character and Emily and Branwell’s relationship, and that it should stay for these reasons. These kinds of decisions are part of the business of producing a drama.

We were very lucky to have rehearsal time with the cast who were playing the family, and they spent a week in Haworth with Sally, where I joined them for a couple of days. It was an opportunity for them to see the Parsonage and spend time with the staff, work with Sally, benefit from the expertise of people like Ann Dinsdale (Principal Curator at the Parsonage), Juliet Barker (historian and author of The Brontes)  and Patsy Stoneman (Bronte scholar), and to bond in a way which I firmly believe contributed a great deal to the success of the film and the strength of their performances.

There has, of course, been some coverage in the press over Branwell’s use of the word ‘fuck’. I understand that some people have been troubled by this as being inappropriate or too contemporary but Branwell would have been mixing with quite a range of individuals as his drinking and opium habit developed and I think it perfectly credible that he would have sworn at all of the family as his life deteriorated. We referred this to Ann Dinsdale who concurred with us. I also think that there remains an assumption that great writers, or even those associated with them, must talk in some kind of ‘elevated’ way rather than like ordinary human beings. Anyone who knows Sally’s work will be aware of the sheer believability with which she imbues her characters and her dialogue. One of our key principles in developing the script was that the Brontes should behave and interact as much like a real, ordinary family as possible; there was to be no mystic wafting on the moors or notions that people born and bred in Yorkshire would talk as if they had just left elocution school. It is also essential, from a commercial point of view, to create characters who will have some resonance with contemporary viewers who may not be Bronte experts, or even fans.

Getting details right was a commitment made by everyone involved, and when I saw the recreation of the Parsonage rooms at the studios in Manchester, I was, quite frankly, amazed; without the benefit of any contemporary images from which to work, Grant, our designer, and his team came up with brilliant representations. Equally, the reconstructed parsonage on the moors was astonishing; seeing it built (and seeing what it looked like before it was finished!) gave me a real appreciation of the levels of skill involved in making something like this happen.

As anyone who works with biography will know, it is a slippery art form. Biographies are shaped by their cultural moment and the direction pursued by the biographer, whether on paper or screen. Bronte biography is particularly problematic because it is so dogged by myth-making , as Lucasta Miller has so aptly observed, and also because it is so patchy and erratic. We know a reasonable amount about Charlotte, though there are significant gaps; less about Anne and Branwell; relatively little about Emily. This is both a gift and a curse; it leaves wonderful imaginative spaces but at the same time means that speculation is inevitable. All any biographer or dramatist can do is provide their interpretation of the information we have. Dramatising the Brontes brings with it additional demands because they carry such a mystique with the public and their readers, and I think we were all aware that whatever we did, there would be some who would not like it.

Do I like it? I love it. The film does exactly what I wanted it to do when Sally and I first discussed it; it resists the myths, it shows a real – and sometimes dysfunctional – family, and it portrays the significance and development of the writing. I am somewhat baffled by those who complained that it didn’t show enough of this – I could itemise so many scenes which showed, or talked about, the poetry, or the novels, or the juvenilia. It even revealed Branwell as a writer, though clearly nowhere near the stature of his sisters. Writing is not a dramatic act: it is necessarily static and largely internal as a creative process. To show repeated scenes of people writing at tables – or even walking round them – would have been utterly tedious; nor do I think it was imperative to keep reminding the audience that the Brontes wrote. Yes, I have favourite scenes: Emily and Branwell’s nocturnal exchange sitting on the gate, the opening with the children, Emily speaking ‘No Coward Soul’ to Anne, the scene in Smith, Elder & Co. in London, the discovery of Emily’s poetry (and her reaction), the visit of William Allison to Branwell in the Black Bull, and the bailiffs’ scene.

What advice would I give to anyone taking up the job of literary advisor on a similar project? Be flexible and open to ideas, be thorough, respond speedily to queries and requests, love the topic (but) keep the genre of TV and its demands in mind, don’t expect drama to operate as a documentary, accept that your suggestions or advice won’t always be taken, and realise that the writer, director  and producer have the final say.  I had never worked on a project like this before and it was a (sometimes steep) learning curve; but I loved the experience, was delighted with the response, and am very proud of what we achieved.

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Farewell to John Berger


Framegrab from A Song for Politics, the third essay in The Seasons in Quincy

On 2 January 2017, John Berger died. Below we offer a reflection on John from The Seasons in Quincy director and producer Colin Maccabe. This article was originally published on the Derek Jarman Lab website

John Berger was an extraordinary individual, extraordinary in the range of his creation and his criticism. But also extraordinary as a presence. He had the least sense of hierarchy of anyone I have ever known. And he was uniquely interested in the present moment. So whoever he was with, young or old, rich or poor, famous or unknown, man or woman, had his complete attention. This was in its way unnerving: you had to think about what you were saying because you were being listened to with quite unusual concentration. And you had to listen with real intensity because what was being said was being said for you and, it felt, for you alone. But if it was unnerving it was also immensely invigorating. You became more intelligent and more consequent, more insightful and more amusing. And what John said stayed with you and you felt transformed by it.

This may all sound quite pious. John could well have been an actor and there was something of the ham in his performances. He was also a seducer and you were seduced. But neither of these facts detract from the wonderful pleasure of his company, indeed they were an essential part of it.

He was the best and most reliable of friends – always willing to lend a hand, to encourage, to enthuse, and, very important, to criticise when it was necessary. His range was extraordinary: major art critic, great novelist, gifted film-maker. He even with his close friend Jean Mohr invented a genre: the committed use of photography and prose to render invisible elements of the social visible. They started with A Fortunate Man in 1967 but developed further with A Seventh Man (1975) which John thought his best book. It is 40 years since A Seventh Man was composed but the analysis of the crucial role of migrant labour in contemporary capitalism could have been written tomorrow.

It is foolish to predict reputation into the future, but I hope that people go on reading and watching John, because he joined the demand for social justice to the recognition of the centrality of desire and the importance of form. His death brought to me three quotes which touch on each of these emphases.

‘To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal.’

John Berger ‘The Museum of Desire’ (2001) published at latimes.com, p.1

‘The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.’

John Berger ‘Keeping a Rendezvous’ published in Linda Spalding and Michael Ondaatje eds. The Brick Reader Toronto: Coach House Press, 1991, p. 330.

‘What makes photography a strange invention – with unforeseeable consequences – is that its primary raw materials are light and time.’

John Berger and Jean Mohr Another Way of Telling New York: Pantheon, 1982, p. 85.

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Behind Birkbeck’s new visual identity

pocket-guides-etc-croppedIt’s an unusual position for an organisation to find itself in: on the brink of its third century and still no signature style. Imagine Apple without its elegant designs and simple use of space; or Google minus its primary-colours and clean white canvas.

So, just a few years shy of our 200th birthday, we thought it was time such a unique and vibrant university had the coherent and contemporary look it deserved.

What we wanted was a clear, well-considered look and feel that stands for Birkbeck, which is fortunate to possess two rare things: a real Unique Selling Point (as the UK’s only evening university) and a heritage to die for (a core mission which has remained unchanged for 200 years, of educating working Londoners).

So, where to start? We had a 20 year-old ‘lockup’ – a logotype and crest, always seen together on a burgundy panel; and a blue theme inherited from a decade-old advertising campaign. We didn’t want to change the lockup (the burgundy has been darkened and the crest reversed to give greater contrast). But the older and newer looks didn’t always sit together favourably and the visual identity void led to a variety of styles that were not always recognisably ‘Birkbeck’.

new-pop-up-exampleThe challenge, then, was to create an identity – typefaces, colour palette, ways of presenting information – that would live happily alongside the lockup and work across digital and printed channels and products for years to come.

Importantly, the identity needed to be easy for people across the university to put in to practice. We have a small central design team, but many others across the organisation have some responsibility for design, stationery or leaflets, for instance.

We hired Pentagram, the world’s largest independent design consultancy, after a competitive process during which we were wowed by their careful understanding of Birkbeck, creative problem-solving and knowledge of the Higher Education sector having worked with the University of the Arts and the University of Sussex.

A cross-university steering group of academics and professional staff were convened to discuss Birkbeck’s personality and how it might be portrayed visually. This group became essential arbiters throughout the process, helping to define and refine ideas and schemes.

And together we came up with a visual identity that is both beautiful and practical that reflects Birkbeck’s ‘attitude not age’ approach to higher education for all – inclusive, vibrant and world-class.

Domenic Lippa, partner at Pentagram, said: “We wanted to create a visual identity that used the heritage of the existing logo.  To do this, we anchored all information off of the logo, thus creating a strong hierarchy. Once we established this, the ‘heart’ of the identity, we started to introduce new typefaces, colours and imagery to support and counter-point that heritage.”

social-mock-up-croppedThere is enough flexibility to give people across the university room to ‘play’ with the identity, for instance by an unrestricted colourful palette and playful new ways of using our crest’s iconic owl – signifying our evening study. But brief, user-friendly guidelines gently help people stay within a ‘safe space’, ensuring Birkbeck always looks the part.

Needless to say the list of products queuing up for an identity make-over is long – from signage and stationery to websites – so the process of switching our look will take some time. We’ll take it gradually. We wanted to share the design with staff and students first, of course and there will be face-to-face briefings for people who work with design and on-going support from the central design team.

Externally, the new look will be debuted by our new marketing campaign which launches after Christmas with advertisements across the London underground and buses. Our annual magazine BBK will be sent to our alumni and friends shortly afterwards, sporting the new identity. And thereafter, as we proceed throughout 2017, e-newsletters, stationery, Open Evening livery, the 2018-19 prospectus, a new website design and many other products will follow on.

Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, said: “I am delighted that Birkbeck is getting its first ever visual identity. As we move towards our third century this colourful, modern look helps communicate with the vitality, passion and professionalism of our world-class university.”

–  Julia Day, Head of Communications at Birkbeck

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All the World’s a Stage: Musings of a Globe Theatre intern

This post was contributed by Eva-Maria Lauenstein graduate MA Renaissance Studies student at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. As part of her programme, Eva-Maria carried out an internship with the education team at The Globe Theatre on London’s south bank. Here she describes the experience

Peter Maes after Heinrich Aldegrever, The Labours of Hercules, 1577, engraving, 94 × 67 mm, British Museum, London - Copy

Peter Maes after Heinrich Aldegrever, The Labours of Hercules, 1577, engraving, 94 × 67 mm, British Museum, London – Copy

The ‘Theatre of the World’, writes Frances Yates, ‘is the “Idea” of the Globe Theatre.’[i] Epitomised in its emblem of Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders, to this day the Globe typifies this view of the multivalence of theatre according to its motto, totus mundus agit histrionem; ‘All the world’s a stage’. This maxim doesn’t merely encapsulate the side of the theatre that visitors experience on a daily basis, but equally the vibrant atmosphere of the world behind the stage.

Working for five months with the education team at the Globe as a research intern has been illuminating, not least because of the moments of wonder passing the boxes and racks of props, and observing the electrifying enthusiasm of the actors as they pour in and out of rehearsals and performances. From writing synopses for almost forgotten plays for the Globe’s Read not Dead performances, to the challenge of unearthing how, precisely, a shepherd of the early modern period passed his day, the internship was a journey of fascinating discoveries that was a pleasure for a theatre lover, but also entailed many opportunities to gain a plethora of new research skills and methods.

 

Henry Singleton - Ariel on a Bat's Back - Google Art Project

Ariel on a Bat’s Back, c. 1819, oil on canvas, 1003 x 1257 mm, Tate Collection, Henry Singleton

Tackling Shakespeare’s more divisive plays

With artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s final season coming to an end, the winter season’s performances equally mirrored the end of an era by taking on some of Shakespeare’s last plays. The internship allowed me to be part of the encounter with plays that have often baffled and divided critics, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Cymbeline and The Tempest. Tracing the romantic air of the pastoral elements of The Winter’s Tale, I particularly enjoyed discovering the role of women in rural communities and how the utopian and romanticised image of the country maid of the stage compared to the harsh and difficult life of poorly regulated wage labour. Equally fascinating was the compilation of a research document on the way in which The Tempest’s Ariel was understood by contemporary viewers as a larger part of a community of the spirit world, delving deeply into the magic, the occult and the otherworldly.

A great way to hone research skills, the internship allows for experimentation with different sources, especially through its invaluable on-site archive and library. The variety of tasks meant that every week posed new challenges and the working to often tight deadlines a good way to pace and structure the work.

John Massey Wright's painting of The Winter’s Tale, c. 1810-1866, watercolour on paper, 19 x 16 cm, Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon

John Massey Wright, The Winter’s Tale, c. 1810-1866, watercolour on paper, 19 x 16 cm, Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon

While research into the nature of the plays dominated most of the work, there was equally ample opportunity to build on research skill sets by compiling press reviews and contributing to the collation of material for the website. While some tasks may have seemed daunting at first, the team was always friendly and helpful and fostered an environment of teamwork.

Finally, some of the most fun moments came with a much-needed refresher on the invigorating oddity that was part and parcel of early modern theatre. Assisting in the writing of a blog entry on The Winter’s Tale’s now notorious Exit Pursued by a Bear stage direction, I rediscovered the way in which Shakespeare, to this day, contains unexpected twists and turns that still manage to baffle, frighten and allow audiences to guffaw in an explosion of slapstick-induced comedy. Just so, this research internship has given me unexpected and insightful moments that will continue to inspire my research

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[i] As quoted in Kent T. Van den Berg, Playhouse and Cosmos: Shakespearean Theatre as Metaphor (London: Associated University Presses, 1985), p. 45.

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Notes from an intern at the Guildhall Art Gallery

This post was contributed by Fiona Ratcliffe, who is currently studying for an MA Victorian Studies at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Here Fiona writes about her internship experience at the Guildhall art Gallery from January to March 2016.

The internship was carried out as a module on the MA programme – a popular element of the course in which successful students have the opportunity to spend a term working with one of London’s Victorian cultural institutions, gaining first-hand experience of working in the cultural sector and using their host institution’s archives to develop a unique research project. Previous interns have worked with the Dickens House Museum, and the Salvation Army Heritage Centre and Archive.

Guildhall Small Size-4Day One

Having cleared Security (a permanent fixture at galleries today), I meet the small, industrious team behind the scenes at the Guildhall Art Gallery – Katty (Curator), Andrew (responsible for the Roman Amphitheatre) and Jeremy who, as General Manager, handles the practical running of the Gallery.

Katty warns that finding desk (and computer) space is a constant challenge and I will inevitably have a variety of work-places, including perched in a corner of the small shop, gaining an insight into that essential income-generator for museums.

My first task is to familiarise myself with the preparations for the forthcoming exhibition, Victorians Decoded, opening in September. This exhibition will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the successful Transatlantic telegraphic cable-laying, demonstrating how artists subsequently re-imagined time and space, responding to their changing world.

In addition to artworks from the Gallery’s collection, five loans have been requested from other institutions. So far, the Royal Holloway Picture Gallery has confirmed the loan of Edward Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes with the stipulation of a T-Crate for transportation – leading to challenges of storing the crate, space being at a premium here.

Early Weeks

Switching tasks (a constant theme ensuring plenty of variety), I am asked to prepare visitor-friendly information on the ‘Fire Judges’ for a Museum of London exhibition on the Great Fire. This involves circumnavigating the archives – a tiny cupboard space – to research the portraits of the judges who processed property and boundary claims prior to rebuilding the City.

Guildhall Art Gallery

Guildhall Art Gallery

The Gallery is delightfully intimate and peaceful but being within the City’s municipal building, the Corporation’s civic presence is constantly apparent – particularly when the whole building goes into ‘total shut down’ (a security measure) while The Sun hosts The Millies, an awards ceremony commending military bravery, and I realise I may not be able to leave or return at lunchtime. In my haste to get a sandwich, I bump into Rod Stewart, Jeremy Clarkson and Boris Johnson – as a friend asked later, “What sort of gallery is this?”

It’s time for the de-installation of the exhibition “No Colour Bar”. Paintings are shrink-wrapped and swiftly taken through a side-exit by a specialist removal firm – with Katty’s eyes on every move whilst the door is temporarily de-alarmed.

Katty explains that loaned artworks are covered by ‘Nail to Nail’ insurance with the borrowing gallery insuring the painting for loss or damage for the duration. Surprisingly, the borrower also funds and organises any requisite conservation or frame refurbishment.

Exhibitions have astonishingly lengthy lead-times and London galleries are currently collaborating on exhibitions up to 2023 – including a London-themed one for which I am asked to source suitable artworks from the collection database. The remit is not just Victorian art, which is refreshing, but does lead to ‘St. Paul’s overload’.

In Week 3, Sonia (the Principal Curator) departs on maternity leave and we join the Conservation team for her farewell tea-party. Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata aloofly surveys us tucking into cake, and I notice just how exposed a painting appears without its frame. Excitingly up close to the brushstrokes, I am shown various tears and some ‘tenting’ where it has lifted from the canvas.

Middle Weeks

A memorable day! I join the planning meeting for Victorians Decoded and am asked to help with research in preparation for exhibit captions – a steep lesson in brevity. I’m struck during the meeting how much events-planning and budget control predominates – along with the logistics underpinning the positioning of cables and procurement of objects such as a telegraph machine. We didn’t discuss the art at all!

Heading towards spring, the gallery is becoming busier, visited by schools, interest-groups and individuals, many joining the in-house talks. One of the guides tells me that she’s a retired City financial journalist and had looked for voluntary work but could only find weeding in Epping Forest, so just called in at the gallery and was welcomed as a guide. Her groups are usually small and it often turns into a two-way exchange so she’s continually learning too.

In five years, footfall has increased from 30,000 to 100,000, reflecting a widening demographic – younger, international with rising tourism in the City, and also more Londoners increasingly culture-seeking in their own city. Exhibitions are vital – a way for a lesser-known gallery to achieve publicity, although a recurring tension between free access and charging for exhibitions persists.

It’s Friday afternoon and we’re surveying the new Robin Reynolds’ 2016 artwork of London commissioned by the Gallery to hang next to Visscher’s 1616 cityscape. As a commemoration of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, Reynolds has incorporated references to all 37 plays but we’re not here trying to identify them. Unfortunately, the canvas is ‘bulking’ where the artist has tried to fix a central rip, at eye level. The conservators arrive, armed with various canisters, but are unable to do a quick fix –it will have to be dismantled, repaired and re-framed as quickly as possible by this time-pressed team.

Final Week

Inside Guildhall Art Gallery

Inside Guildhall Art Gallery

Another exhibition, Martin Parr – Unseen City, begins and there is a flurry of media activity. Katty’s role requires multiple skills – preparing speeches for opening nights, coordinating hanging and lighting, and dealing with both the press and the local authority the Gallery belongs to, who approve the exhibitions but may still express criticisms with the outcome.

Preparations are escalating for Victorians Decoded, with the room layout established six months ahead. A balancing-act is required to ensure the technical aspects of telegraphy are comprehensible, whilst providing substance for visitors specialising in art and science. A subsequent challenge will be to fill the spaces in the permanent collection where paintings have moved to the exhibition. Katty describes it as a four-dimensional puzzle: satisfying the aesthetic, chronological & contextual, scale & size, and overall fit.

On my last day, Katty gives visiting VIPs a private viewing of two Pre-Raphaelite artworks held in store – Millais’ sketch of Lorenzo and Isabella (being watercolour the picture can’t be regularly exposed to UV for long periods of time, which precludes it from being on permanent display) and charcoal drawings from Holman Hunt’s sketchbook. Both the guests and I feel utter wonder at having access to these hidden gems – a true privilege of working behind the scenes in this very special gallery.

The internship has altered my perception of artworks and I’m now far more aware of their vulnerability. Visiting an exhibition will never be the same again, having witnessed the in-depth forward-planning and bustle behind the scenes. Ultimately, however, the experience has opened up new avenues and inspired me to pursue research opportunities with galleries after graduation.

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Off the agenda: Why press silence speaks volumes about the dangers of concentrated media

This post was contributed by Dr Justin Schlosberg, lecturer in journalism and media. This post first appeared on Open Democracy on Wednesday 13 April

canary-wharf-1145616_1920Real press power resides in the the ability to suppress a scandal, at least as much as the ability to produce one. This is the lesson we learn repeatedly when journalists, facing the combined pressures of austerity, failing business models and an increasingly cautious and interventionist management decide enough is enough.

The latest in this new cadres of whistleblowers from inside the fourth estate is Jim Cusick, former political correspondent for the Independent. Like his former counterpart at the Telegraph Peter Oborne, who resigned amidst the appalling silence of his paper in the face of the tax scandal embroiling HSBC (coincidentally, a major advertising account holder), Cusick has pointed the finger at senior management – and an enduring Fleet Street cabal – for strangling journalism at the Indie.

The merits of the suppressed story itself – which centres on the alleged relationship between the culture secretary, John Whittingdale, and a woman thought to be a sex worker and fetishist – are certainly questionable. But not by Fleet Street standards. And this is the crux of the matter for Cusick who suggests that the story wound its way through successive newspapers with each title deciding against publication not because they thought the allegations were baseless or not much of a story.

On the contrary, it was precisely because of the perceived ‘value’ of the story, that editors and owners decided against publication. This provided the blackmail stick that supposedly made Whittingdale an ‘asset’ for a newspaper lobby hell-bent on destroying the BBC and the new system of press self-regulation recommended by Lord Justice Leveson (and enshrined in Royal Charter and law).

To be clear, Cusick offers little to substantiate this cover up, save a published email from his editor at the Indie calling off the story for reasons undeclared. But his piece does alert us to the wider question of what gets routinely left out of the mainstream media agenda – including stories that are much less ambiguously in the public interest than the not so lurid details of a politician’s private life. From Google’s immersion within the surveillance state to allegations of rampant corruption and criminality within British American Tobacco – real scandals are often very far from the front pages of major newspapers or the headlines of broadcasters.

Stories which play to elite interests

Of course, sometimes a scandal becomes too big for Fleet Street to ignore – even when it does not suit the interests of powerful owners and editors, as when the Guardian revealed in 2011 that murdered school girl Milly Dowler was among the victims of phone hacking by journalists at the former News of the World. It is also true that when the political climate is right, newspapers can go on the front foot in exposing abuses of power at the heart of the political establishment. The backdrop of a deep fracture in the conservative elite caused by the impending EU referendum has certainly provided ripe conditions for the unprecedented onslaught on David Cameron’s personal tax affairs by the right wing press.

But we should also remain vigilant to the way in which the story can be subtly told or retold in ways that ultimately play to elite interests. So, for instance, when the Guardian and other newspapers partnered with Wikileaks in 2010 to publish a series of secret US diplomatic cables, the headlines quickly became dominated by the alleged sexual misdemeanours of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, rather than communiqués that suggested Britain’s long-running and controversial Iraq War Inquiry had been systematically undermined by government officials from the outset; or that legal loopholes had been cynically exploited by British and American governments in order to maintain a stockpile of US cluster bomb munitions on British territory; or that British military personnel were involved in the training of a Bangladeshi paramilitary group dubbed a ‘death squad’ by human rights groups.

Optimists argue that none of this stuff matters anymore because in the digital environment, one way or another, everything gets published all of the time. But it is precisely because of such information noise that amplification – the ability to be heard­ – has become the major currency of communicative power, and that power is still very much vested in the owners of major news brands. And those who think their agenda or gatekeeping power has been diminished by the rise of digital intermediaries should take one look at Google’s most recent news algorithm patent update, which reveals the degree to which it favours dominant, western media brands like “the BBC and CNN”.

The BBC’s dominance

Others argue that if there is any problem with media concentration in Britain today, then it resides in the BBC’s dominance of news consumption across broadcasting and digital platforms. From this perspective, the mere existence of a national press, however partisan and ideologically driven in its selection of news scandals, is a much needed check on the near monopoly status enjoyed by the BBC. Rather than worrying about the agenda influence of mainstream media in general, commercial media lobbyists argue that we should be concerned exclusively with the overarching reach and influence of the BBC.

But how far does the BBC’s own news selection decisions reflect or align with that of the commercial press? When scholars at Cardiff University set out to investigate this question during the 2015 UK general election, they found a very different picture to that often conjured by critics in the right wing press. Rather than harbouring a liberal or left wing metropolitan bias, the BBC appeared to follow their story priorities which in turn synched with the Conservative Party campaign agenda. Just like the national newspapers, the BBC’s coverage systematically marginalised stories relating to both the NHS and immigration in favour of stories relating to the economy and the threat of Labour-SNP coalition, two issues at the forefront of the Conservative Party campaign. The extent of this agenda alignment was corroborated by other research conducted at Loughborough University and by the Media Standards Trust.

Media ownership

Read the original blog on Open Democracy

Read the original blog on Open Democracy

At a time when many public service broadcasters around the world – including the BBC – are facing varying degrees of existential crises, public debate is all too often reduced to a choice between preservation or market-based reforms; with the latter usually amounting to cutbacks or closures. What’s left off the policy agenda is the possibility of radical democratic reform aimed at reconstituting the independence, accountability and internal plurality of public service media.

This is also an issue that is intimately tied to questions of media ownership. The idea that a substantive section of any democratic media system needs to be in public hands is one that retains a great deal of force, in spite of the digital transition and corresponding end of channel scarcity (which underlined the original rationale for public service media). But the way in which public service broadcasters are structured, regulated and governed can have profound implications for independence in relation to both the state and market.

As for concentration in the wider media – and especially the national and local press – the evidence suggests that ownership still matters, in some ways more than ever. Far from justifying inaction or inattention to media ownership, the complexities, uncertainties and obscurities surrounding concentrated power in a converged media environment make progressive media ownership rules more necessary and more urgent. The rise of grassroots channels of resistance to mainstream media agendas has produced a limited sea-change but not a reason to refrain from tackling the problem – more a basis for doing so.

The need for reform of media plurality rules has been a much talked about issue for some time now, and in many parts of the world. But as digital news markets reach maturity and the political long grass continues to grow, we need a groundswell of pressure from below, along with politicians that have the courage to champion and act on policies that will promote a genuine redistribution of voice and communicative power.

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Tightening the Grip: Why the web is no haven of media plurality

This post was contributed by Dr Justin Schlosberg, lecturer in Journalism and Media at Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies. This was originally posted on Media Reform Coalition blog on Monday, 15 February 2016.

GoogleLast week a digital market research company reported that “the top 10 publishers make up a huge chunk of the U.K. media market and own more than half of the entire industry”. The statement was based on data that SimilarWeb collected over 2015, specifically the number of page visits to the top 300 news websites. They found that 65 percent of this traffic was concentrated in the websites of the top 10 news publishers, and the top five alone attracted more than half of all traffic across the sample.

Optimists might consider that the mere existence of 300 news websites (which is itself far from an exhaustive sample of all news on the net), reflects the plurality of the online news sphere, at least compared to conventional platforms like television or print. On closer examination, however, the picture revealed is in fact one of heightened concentration, with not much more than a handful of major publishers able to reach across fragmented audiences, and thus play a potentially defining role in setting the wider news agenda. Previous studies have shown that such concentration can have a cascading or domino effect, with smaller outlets taking agenda cues from the big players. As one scholar put it, “in the age of information plenty, what most consumers get is more of the same”.

Blind Spots

To glimpse this reality we have to peel away a number of veils that make the gatekeeping and agenda setting power of mainstream news organisations not less significant, but rather less visible in the digital environment. Let’s start with the numbers. The lowest ranked news website – Pink News – still attracted some 16 million page views. Which sounds like a lot. But if we compare page views to unique visitors (as measured by the National Readership Survey among others), the average ratio works out to around 250:1. So 16 million page views over the course of the year will probably amount to an audience reach of around 60,000.

That’s still not a tiny amount given that we are at the bottom of the pile here. But it’s important to consider that the list includes many websites that are not really what we would generally think of as news providers. They are much closer to the equivalent of special interest magazines in the print world, focusing on music/film/sport/entertainment etc.

At the heart of plurality concerns is a conviction that healthy democracies depend on the circulation and intersection of diverse voices and perspectives. From this standpoint, it would seem odd to consider the plurality contribution of popularmechanics.com or cylclingweekly.co.uk as equivalent to a daily news provider, especially one that covers political news and current affairs.

One idea that captures the supposed plurality renaissance of the information age is the so-called long tail theory. According to this theory, the ‘personalising’ and tailored recommendations of search, social media and retail algorithms ensure that niche providers flourish and the ‘head’ (representing mainstream culture) dissipates over time. But if we plot Similarweb’s data into such a graph we find the opposite: the curve produces a highly defined ‘head’ followed by a very flat tail…

graph-768x449

A decade after the long tail effect was first explained and predicted, not much seems to be changing. If anything, we may be experiencing a regression back to the kind of mass culture that revolves around superstars, best-sellers and mainstream headlines.

Another problem with the SimilarWeb data is that it does not capture news consumption via aggregators like Yahoo and social media sites like Facebook. Most of this content is produced by mainstream news brands which would make the head look even more concentrated if we were to attribute those page views to the original news sources.

OFCOM – the UK’s media regulator – repeatedly makes the opposite mistake by including these sorts of sites in survey data alongside what it calls ‘content originators’ like the BBC, Sky, Daily Mail, Guardian, etc. This again overestimates plurality by counting aggregators (sites that predominantly host content of other news providers) and intermediaries (sites that predominantly serve as gateways to third party news sites) as news sources in their own right.

Gateway Power

Uncover these blind spots and what we are left with, by any measure, is a highly concentrated picture of media power in Britain today. How has this happened? Given that so much of the traffic to news websites is ‘referred’ by intermediaries, the intricacies of Google’s news algorithm is a good place to start in addressing this question.

For some time now, Google has been weighting and ranking news providers according to a broad spectrum of what it considers to be the most reliable indicators of news quality. But it turns out machines are not much better at assessing news ‘quality’ than human beings. They may be free of subjective bias in one sense, but this means they rely (paradoxically) on quantitative measures of quality, which produces its own bias in favour of large scale and incumbent providers. One look at Google’s most recent patent filing for its news algorithm reveals just how much size matters in the world of digital news: the size of the audience, the size of the newsroom, and the volume of output.

Perhaps the most contentious metric is one that purports to measure what Google calls ‘importance’ by comparing the volume of a site’s output on any given topic to the total output on that topic across the web. In a single measure, this promotes both concentration at the level of provider (by favouring organisations with volume and scale), as well as concentration at the level of output (by favouring organisations that produce more on topics that are widely covered elsewhere). In other words, it is a measure that single-handedly reinforces both an aggregate news ‘agenda’, as well as the agenda setting power of a relatively small number of publishers.

Google engineers may well argue that the variety of volume metrics imbedded in the algorithm ensures that concentration effects are counterbalanced by pluralising effects, and that there is no more legitimate or authoritative way of measuring news quality than relying on a full spectrum of quantitative indicators. Rightly or wrongly, Google believes that ‘real news’ providers are those that can produce the most amounts of original, breaking and general news on a wide range of topics and on a consistent basis.

News plurality reconsidered

At face value, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. In a world saturated with hype, rumour and gossip, it’s not surprising that most people are attracted to news brands that signal a degree of professionalism. Part of Google’s corporate and professed social mission is to match users to the content they value most, and if most people prefer the mainstream, then that’s where the traffic will flow.

But there is no getting around the fact that Google favours dominant and incumbent news organisations. The company made its view clear when it stated in its patent filing that “CNN and BBC are widely regarded as high quality sources of accuracy of reporting, professionalism in writing, etc., while local news sources, such as hometown news sources, may be of lower quality”. But when the ‘mainstream’ is held as the ultimate benchmark of good quality news, we start to run into real problems for the future (and present) of media plurality.

Read the original article on Media Reform Coalition

Read the original article on Media Reform Coalition

For one thing, algorithms used by Google, Facebook and (to a lesser extent) Twitter actively discriminate against both prospective new entrants into the news market, as well as those that focus on topics, issues and stories beyond or on the fringes of the mainstream agenda. Yet these are precisely the kind of providers that need to be supported if we want to redress the symptoms of concentrated media power. In the post phone-hacking world, such symptoms continue to manifest in systematic ideological bias, as well as the enduring back door that links Whitehall to the Murdoch media empire.

As print newspapers start to fall by the wayside, news concentration online is of even greater concern. Policymakers, meanwhile, are distracted by dominant narratives that suggest the gatekeeping and agenda power once attributed to media owners has dispersed among ‘the crowd’, or transferred into the hands of intermediaries like Google and Facebook, or that the only plurality ‘problem’ today concerns the so-called filter bubble or echo chamber effects of personalised news.

There is truth in all of these claims but the unseen or overlooked reality is that the gatekeeping power of Google and Facebook works in tandem with that of mainstream news providers, mutually reinforcing each other around what is considered real, legitimate and authoritative news. As Des Freedman urges in his most recent book, “far from diminishing the importance of media moguls and tech giants, announcing the death of gatekeepers or lauding the autonomy of the public, we should be investigating the ways in which their power is being reconstituted inside a digital landscape”.

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Dickensian delight: Our ‘serial’ fascination with the afterlife of Charles’s characters

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, digital publications officer at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Winyard has been a co-organiser of Birkbeck’s Dickens Day event since 2005, and is one of the organisers behind the current Dickens reading project at the College

BBC drama Dickensian (image copyright Premier)

BBC drama Dickensian (image copyright Premier)

Is there a word for that familiar feeling of sadness or melancholia that accompanies finishing a novel? Perhaps there is a ferociously lengthy compound noun in German, or an elegant Japanese word with multiple, elusive meanings that can’t be fully encompassed by a solitary English word. A quick, unscientific search on Google reveals fascinating discussions on sites such as reddit about this emotional state and the various words that might describe it: sadness, ennui, nostalgia, regret, catharsis, homesickness, mourning, separation anxiety, and the delightful but somewhat toxic sounding ‘book hangover’.

Another suggestion is the term ‘limerance’, used in psychoanalytic theory to describe an invasive sexual and emotional obsession with a person or object – an infatuation or crush, in more demotic idiom. This feels a little too histrionic for such a quiet, fleeting but pervasive feeling. Imagining a curiously powerful parental bond, Dickens described David Copperfield as his ‘favourite child’, which suggests the intense feelings of attachment readers (and writers) can develop for fictional creations.

Do Dickens’s books deliver more noxious ‘book hangovers’? After all, Dickens was keen throughout his writing career to evoke feeling in his readers, meaning that his forceful use of sentimentality and melodrama, to induce laughter and tears in rapid succession (what Dickens described as his ‘streaky bacon’ approach), might be regarded as a particularly heady and intoxicating form of emotional pummelling. Dickens’s work provokes powerful feelings and his readers are famous for their attachment to the author and to his works. Dickens’s sentimental mode entices, coaxes and even coerces us to be affected by its depictions; it is a form of aesthetic and imaginative self-projection. Indeed, the shared, collective experience of feeling is what often brings us together as a community of Dickens enthusiasts.

It is also worth remembering that Dickens’s original readers would have encountered multiple hiatuses, as they read the novels serially in weekly or monthly instalments, which may have provoked feelings of frustration, anticipation, excitement and longing. A novel’s plot may be thrillingly propulsive, providing a forward momentum that, when halted, generates an exasperated thirst to traverse the ‘empty’ space in-between as quickly as possible. These manifold mini or false endings – which sometimes took the form of cliffhangers, but were more often simply breaks in the narrative – are similar to the final ending of the novel, in that they represent spaces that evoke fantasy and speculation. Just as the serialised instalments represent only temporary cessations that are potentially bridged by longing-filled fantasy, the end of a Dickens novel may similarly rouse imaginative speculation and fancy about the afterlives of the characters.

A scene from BBC drama Dickensian, featuring Stephen Rea in the role of Inspector Bucket (image copyright Premier)

A scene from BBC drama Dickensian, featuring Stephen Rea in the role of Inspector Bucket (image copyright Premier)

Adaptation, reimagining, pastiche and outright bootlegging

Dickens was himself no stranger to this phenomenon. The exceptional success of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, serialised in 1836–37, stimulated a veritable industry of adaptations, pastiches, rip-offs and continuations. One of the most famous was Pickwick Abroad; or, The Tour in France (1837–38) by George W. M. Reynolds, a hugely successful radical journalist Dickens intensely disliked. In this decidedly rough and ready sequel, the Pickwick Club ventures into France, where crass national stereotypes and risqué adventures abound. In an era before copyright law – for which he campaigned vociferously – Dickens witnessed the multiple imaginative afterlives of his stories and characters on stage and in unlicensed prequels and sequels.

There was also a bustling trade in Dickensian souvenirs featuring his characters, including illustrations, porcelain figures, china plates, Toby jugs, keepsake boxes, and miscellaneous other household items and collectibles. Interestingly, in his short-lived journal Master Humphrey’s Clock, which he wrote and edited alone between 1840 and 1841, Dickens acknowledged and indulged readers’ desire for afterlives and new adventures for their favourite characters by reintroducing the hugely popular Mr Pickwick and Samuel Weller. We can also sense in Dickens himself the irresistible urge to resurrect characters he evidently longed to spend time with again – just as many of his readers did.

A digital Dickens afterlife

More recently, Birkbeck’s inventive and successful Twitter retelling of Our Mutual Friend, which saw dozens of people tweet as characters in this multitudinous novel, provided an outlet for Dickens readers to reengage with, and extend the afterlives of, their favourite characters. Many tweeters were unafraid to present their characters in decidedly modern, updated terms, which meant that, while the novel’s plot remained essentially the same, many characters took on new aspects, had new adventures and relationships, and occupied more imaginative space than in the original work.

At the most recent Dickens Day (October 2015), Professor Holly Furneaux, an alumna of Birkbeck who is now based at the University of Cardiff, delivered a fascinating paper on Dickensian fan fiction online, which is forging communities and providing avenues for original, and even erotic, (re)engagements with popular Dickensian characters. Furneaux demonstrated the particular popularity of the triangular relationship between Mortimer Lightwood, Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend, which many online Dickens fan fiction writers reimagined more capaciously, with space within Eugene and Lizzie’s marriage for Mortimer.

Dickensian ­– Goading the stuffy old gatekeepers

Given the powerful attachment of Dickens’s readers to his works and the long history of adaptation, reimagining, pastiche and outright bootlegging of Dickens’s work, Tony Jordan’s Dickensian feels less of an oddity or a provocation than it may first appear. In this twenty-part TV serial, we enter a fantasy Victorian world, in which many of Dickens’s characters, from several of the novels, coexist. Thus, Inspector Bucket (Bleak House, 1852–53) is investigating the demise of Jacob Marley (A Christmas Carol, 1843), with the forensic assistance of Mr Venus (Our Mutual Friend, 1864–65). Accompanying these fantastic mash-ups is Jordan’s reimagining of backstories and subplots in the novels; thus, Honoria Barbary is embarking upon a relationship with Captain James Hawdon that readers of Bleak House know is doomed. And in a delightful nod to the queer affiliations that Professor Furneaux has observed in online fan fiction and other literary and non-literary sources, Arthur Havisham is hopelessly in love with Meriwether Compeyson, the dastardly seducer he has appointed to marry and defraud his sister, Amelia (who will become the bitter, decrepit Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, 1860–61). The first episode of Dickensian thus presented a delightful, uncanny guessing game, as Dickens fan scrambled to identify all of the characters and connect them to their extant stories within the novels.

Jordan himself is keen to present his work as goading the stuffy old gatekeepers of Dickens’s legacy, irreverently insisting in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that ‘he knew the changes risked “p––ing off the Dickens community”’. In actuality, Jordan’s work taps into a rich seam of readerly fantasy about Dickens imaginative worlds that has been amply mined by authors, playwrights, filmmakers and TV executives. Furthermore, the intense relationship between Dickens and his readers, and the love and affection readers have felt, and continue to feel, for Dickens, his fictional world and the people who inhabit it, have all been objects of intense scholarly scrutiny and analysis.

Dickens Gurney head

Charles Dickens – By Jeremiah Gurney (Heritage Auction Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is a truism that all Dickens fans and scholars inevitably encounter that, ‘Were Dickens alive today, he would write for a soap opera’. Jordan, who famously wrote for Eastenders (and less famously, for the slated, 90s camp classic Eldorado), has been keen to emphasise that Dickens’s serialised fiction prefigured the episodic melodrama of the contemporary soap opera. In a recent interview with The Big Issue, Jordan observes that,

“People can be far too reverential. We mustn’t forget that Dickens was a populist writer who wrote for the masses. He wrote episodically, trying to flog magazines every month. He was sensationalist and did cliffhangers way before soap operas. He and Wilkie Collins said their secret was to make them cry, make them laugh and make them wait. That is everything I did in my EastEnders career. It is that deferment of gratification.”

The originality of Dickensian lies in its audacious bringing together of numerous characters at once, but one of the impulses that has powered this – the desire to make characters live again and to imagine them into new aspects, new stories and new worlds – accompanied Dickens’s fiction from its earliest moments. In the spaces in-between and after instalments, we find that readers’ emotional engagement births alternative and new stories, trajectories and lives that all demonstrate the enduring power of Dickens’s fiction.

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Four forgotten medieval books at Birkbeck College

This post was contributed by Prof Anthony Bale, who teaches on the MA Medieval Literature and Culture at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. This article was originally posted on the Material Texts Network on October 30 2015

When is a book not a book? The destruction of a book – through burning, through recycling, through iconoclasm, for instance – places great emphasis on its materiality, its power as a physical object that must be destroyed. Conversely, when nobody knows about a book’s existence, it simply disappears – both the physical book and the textual lives inside it. When a book is unknown and hidden away it is perhaps reduced to the bare facts of its existence: a piece of matter unread, unloved, unvalued, uncatalogued.

Books disappear easily when they are not catalogued; it is through catalogues and finding aids that medievalists find their sources. When I joined Birkbeck College as a lecturer in 2002, I was excited to find that the College owned one manuscript, which I knew about from Neil R. Ker’s magisterial four-volume catalogue, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries. But time passed, I became diverted by other projects, and I never got round to looking at the manuscript. And then I more or less forgot about it.

This year I have been teaching a class on ‘Medieval Material Texts’ for students on Birkbeck’s MA in Medieval Literature & Culture. It struck me that it would be so much easier to talk about medieval books if one had one to show to the students – to talk about the binding, the physical construction of a book, the stains and the damage, the signs of a book’s lived life, as well as the text, the decoration, the illustration. So, somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered Ker’s description of one manuscript, and looked it up, and sent an email off to my subject-librarian at Birkbeck’s library.

It was as much as a surprise to the College as it was to me to image3discover that Birkbeck houses a small collection of not one but four medieval books (three manuscripts and one incunabulum). I quickly arranged to view the books, three of which have not been catalogued and do not seem to have been viewed since around 1991. The books comprise a sort of ‘capsule collection’: they represent several important developments in European religious culture, in book history, and in literary tastes.

The books are:

Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost (fol. 105r)
Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost (fol. 105r)

The Birkbeck Hours (sine numero): a beautiful small book of hours, from northern France, dated to c. 1400.

MS L.I: the rules and customs of the Capitoli della Compagnia di S. Girolamo of Siena, dated to the early fifteenth century.

MS 108.C: a manuscript of the Sententaie Sapientiae, attributed to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Seneca, and which once belonged to the Monastery of St Zeno, Verona; dated to c. 1450.

Dictys Cretensis & Dares Phrygius (sine numero): a skin-bound volume, a much-read history of the Trojan War, printed at Venice, 1499.

Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)
Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)

One of the manuscripts, the Birkbeck Hours, was given to the College in 1977 by the widow of Dr Charles Fox (1897-1977), a lecturer at Birkbeck who later became a distinguished mathematician at Concordia University in Montreal. How the other three manuscripts reached Birkbeck is not known at present, although we do know that MS L.I was purchased by the College in the 1950s, probably to be used as a teaching aid. Ownership inscriptions in MS 108.C show that, in the nineteenth century, it belonged to a Peter John Bruff and, later, the Victorian scholar and antiquarian R. A. H. Bickford-Smith (1859-1916).

The books open a window onto readers and writers from hundreds of years ago; by coming back into public view, they can delight and instruct again. A more detailed examination of the books will, in time, yield much more about the lives these fascinating books have lived, and continue to live.

NB: The books are not currently available for public view, but it is hoped that a digitisation project will make them available online in due course.

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