The Treasure Trove that is the National Library of Wales

This blog post is tremendously overdue (as in, the draft tells me it was saved two months ago). But then, that is what moving city (hi Liverpool!) and job will do to a person, or to me at any rate. Still, waxing lyrical about the National Library of Wales and their archives was always going to happen at some future point, for how could it not?! If you haven’t been, then head for Aber(ystwyth). I promise you it won’t disappoint (there’s curry with half and half for £6.50 for a start – take that, British Library!).

I went to the NLW to look at their holdings on particular mutual improvement and literary societies. Unsurprisingly, they are extensive, and this could be but an initial reconnaissance mission.

Beyond its incredible collections, what should recommend the NLW to you? Well, it’s beautiful, for starters. The building is – as all good libraries should be – a physical manifestation of respect for knowledge. Inside there are lots of deep-pile red carpets and bookcases with glass windows and brass fittings, but I wasn’t sure about photographing indoors/got distracted by books and manuscripts very quickly.

The NLW from the front, as face-on as I could manage. The sky refused to brighten upon request.

A further quick two points to attract all library users to the NLW: the registration process is quick, easy and provides you with a handsome membership card; the staff are incredibly friendly. The library is a bilingual institution and the staff’s ability to switch between English and Cymraeg on a patron-to-patron basis really impressive. I’m learning Welsh (badly, and at the pace of an early 2000s Peugeot 206) so it was great to sit amid the language and pick out the few words and phrases I could.

Right, to the manuscripts! I’ve split them into the separate societies for clarity, but also to give a sense of how widespread and popular the mutual improvement movement was. If you’ve already read this blog then you’ll know my interest in mutual improvement and literary societies in C19th Wales: think local people gathering together on a weekly basis, in the evening, after work, voluntarily, all for the purpose of increased knowledge on a   v a r i e t y   of topics. Yes, that breadth of variety.

That moment when…you match the crockery by mistake (in Aber Arts Centre)


Kerry Mutual Improvement Association

You might think, as I did, that ‘Kerry’ sounds more Irish than Welsh. Well, the village of Kerry (or Ceri) in Powys is certainly smaller than County Kerry, but it’s a thriving community today as much as it appears to have been in the late C19th. Also, based on photographic evidence, it’s beautiful.

The NLW holds the Kerry MIA Minute Book 1898-1906, but the Association clearly predated 1898 since the first entry mentions asking ‘all old members to join’. This dedicated society met up almost every week, to hear papers and participate in debates on all sorts of topics. One thing which Kerry MIA demonstrates is how responsive mutual improvement and literary societies were to the political events of their time: on 14th November 1899, a paper was given on ‘The War in Transvaal’, referring to the beginning of what we know as the Second Boer War (fought between the British Empire and two Boer states, one of which was the Republic of Transvaal). Impressively, the MIA of a village in Powys, Wales, are hearing about and discussing a war which was less than a month old (war broke out on 11th October).

There is a marvellous mixture of the historically specific and the timeless in the topics the Association discuss. The MIA certainly responds to the advent of new technologies: on 17th December 1902 they ask ‘Should Motor Cars superseed [sic] Horse Carriages[?]’, having tackled ‘The possibilities of Electricity’ two weeks earlier. Meanwhile, other debates continue today: ‘Should Vaccination be made Compulsary [sic]’ they asked in February 1902, and while we might no longer sing about vaccination (cue a link to my friend’s podcast about anti-vax songs from and a discussion of the C19th Anti-Vaccination Movement), only last month were we offered expert advice on how to talk to vaccine sceptics. Kerry MIA also reflects the continued concerns of a small community: there’s a poignancy to the fact that the paper on 18th December 1900 considered ‘why the young people flock to the large towns from Rural Districts’.

The Kerry MIA also provided me with some new favourite phrasing: to ‘get up’ a topic or subject. The number of times that the minute book reports the speaker ‘got up’ their paper or lecture well took me by surprise. I wonder if students would like essay feedback on how well they ‘got up’ the given topic – it has a nice sense of pride but straightforwardly expressed, and recognises the physical structuring that goes into leading an audience through an argument.

Like the impromptu speaking Treforest Mutual Improvement Society had (of which I wrote in a previous blog post) Kerry MIA also subjected members to ‘impromptu speeches’ with topics quite literally pulled from a hat. While I’ve no doubt that this technique improves one’s public speaking no end, I have to admit that the breadth of subject-matter – from ‘Should Butter Making be more adopted in this county?’ all the way to ‘Should England put pressure on the Sultan of Turkey to stop the massacres of Christians in Macedonia?’ – makes me wholly grateful I myself have not faced the challenge…


Beautiful bus stop tree overhead while awaiting public transport from the library


Inaugural Address to Catherine [sic] Street Literary Society (1886)

Other records are not entire books, or sheaves of letters, but one lecture text. This is true of this beauty. CathArine Street, Liverpool, is one I know well, but this particular record is in the NLW as part of the Calvinistic Methodist archive. Rev. Griffith Ellis, who delivered the lecture, was born in Wales, educated in Oxford, and ultimately became a pastor at a chapel in Bootle, North Liverpool, hence the ease with which he could address a Liverpool-based society. In neatly-written hand across the pages of an exercise book is the full text of the inaugural address Griffith Ellis offered to members on 9th October 1886.

His topic was ‘Literary or Debating Societies as Means of Culture’, precisely one of the queries that haunts my research. As Laura and I were at pains to point out in Episode 3 of LitSciPod, ‘How Many Cultures?’, Ellis warns that ‘This word “Culture” has forbidding associations’. You’re telling me, mate! Much as with the Boer War paper of Kerry MIA, what interests me most about this is how big national debates are filtering down to the (street) level of regional societies, because – and the word ‘culture’ may have already given it away – Ellis is discussing Matthew Arnold’s ‘Culture and Anarchy’ (the 1875 book version). However, while Arnold’s text remains studied and debated today, Ellis uses another contemporary theory of culture to criticise “the pretentious theory of Mr. M. Arnold” – Principal Shairp’s Culture and Religion.

Now it’s probably my failing that I hadn’t previously heard of John Campbell Shairp, but his writings on culture didn’t get quite the same foothold as Arnold’s. Shairp was Oxford’s Professor of Poetry a mere decade after Arnold retired from the title! (Yes, I’m feeling increasingly embarrassed by my ignorance). Ellis quotes Shairp at length, arguing that religion and culture are intrinsically linked (and that you can’t have the latter without the former). Through Shairp, Ellis criticises both the “scientific theory” of culture (represented by Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog and Arnold’s adversary in any literature or science debate) and the “literary theory of culture” (represented by Arnold). Now perhaps you’ll say it’s unsurprising that a C19th pastor should aver

 “I think it will be admitted by all of us here that the truest culture cannot be attained apart from religion and without giving to religion the first place. And the existence of this Society is in some way a recognition of this truth. This is a Literary Society in connection with a Christian Church.”

But what I find fascinating is the use of an inaugural address to debate what culture might mean; to seek to explicate three contemporary views of ‘culture’ from men of great standing; and to do this all at so local a level. Having thought deeply about the society, Ellis sums up what the mutual improvement or literary society of the C19th offered its members:

“The information gained on any subject will be of value in life. But in addition to the knowledge acquaired [sic] there is the training to be obtained in public speaking. And there is in addition to both the advantage of contact with our fellows, the formation of a bond of sympathy with these who are our neighbours.”

The most crushing thing (and any writer will feel this pang) is that at the very top of the first page, after penning the entire lecture – and presumably delivering it – Griffith Ellis has written ‘A Mistake It was a Temperance Address that was wanted’. So this astonishing piece of work was felt to be ‘A Mistake’, though I receive it as anything but.


A fair prospect and no mistake


Portmadoc Literary and Debating Society

The NLW has the Minute and General Account Book of the Portmadoc Literary & Debating Society (and yes they do spell it like that), with an initial date of ‘Nov. 25th 1878’. Now this society has attracted more attention than some because a certain Mr Lloyd George (yes, that Lloyd George) was not only a member but – as is evident from consulting the registers – a regularly attending member and sometime debate participant!

While the Society settled on the title of ‘Literary & Debating Society’, the account of its formation notes that ‘A few gentlemen met at the British school on the 13th of November […] to consider whether a Debating or a Mutual Improvement Society could be formed’. This is why it’s impossible to study the mutual improvement movement without close consideration of those like-minded societies who used titles not bearing either word!

Much like other societies I’ve written about, Portmadoc debates not only subjects of national contemporary relevance (such as on 25th April 1881 when they debated “That Transvaal war and the terms of peace. Were they honorable to England[?]”, and the First Boer War had only ended on 23rd March), but topics of particular concern for Wales as a nation in its own right. “Ought the Welsh to be preserved as a spoken language?” ran a debate of February 1879, with minutes making it clear that “On Division, there were 22 for the affirmative, 6 for the negative and 1 neutral.” March 1880 saw them asking “Has the Eisteddfod benefitted Wales?”. Again, the affirmatives carry it, but interestingly there are loose papers with notes from the same question being debated in 1886 when one member comments ‘why take it to Liverpool or London – ought to be kept to Wales’ (the Eisteddfod was held in Liverpool in 1884, and was set for London in 1887) and Robinson apparently ‘suggested introduction of games so as to render this more like the Olympic games’! I’m now imagining athletic poetry readings…

Of interest for the Piston, Pen & Press project, the Minute and General Account Book not only records attendance and year-on-year membership figures, but the members’ professions (often by dint of not providing a personal address). While the society starts when ‘a few gentlemen’ meet, and the early lists include a fair few solicitors and bankers, by the third and fourth sessions we see members from ‘Steam Flour Mills’, ‘Steam Saw Mills’, ‘Festg Rway Station’ ‘Cambrian Rway (goods dept)’ or simply ‘Builder’, ‘Timber Merchant’. The societies allowed different orders of society to intermingle and, of most interest for me, for the working classes to reach upwards through self-improvement.


The most amazing window in the library – the ‘Matilda window’ as I think of it.
An explanation of how the window was made


Myllin Literary and Debating Society

Finally, I had *that archival moment* when you hold what you’ve been looking for, and it is genuinely hard to hold back the tears. Thanks to Dr Lauren Weiss’s incredible doctoral research, I knew that some societies created handwritten magazines, autograph manuscripts which were passed by hand member to member. I spoke at the 2019 RSVP Conference about these magazines this summer, and I’m having to hold myself back from waxing too lyrical about these astonishing artefacts…

The first issue is from February 1898, and by ‘issue’, I mean exercise book into which someone has transcribed all of the articles. The title page (carefully decorated in inkpen to resemble a title page though on the first page of lined paper) details four transcribers, so this was separately copied out four times. Indeed, the NLW holds the copies of Issue for both Division 1 and Division 4. To explain the divisions, I turn to the note I found at the back of the magazine, once the pagination had ended:

The Circulation of the Magazine.
In order to facilitate the distribution of the Magazine
the Society has been divided into four divisions,
and through each of these divisions one copy
of the current number of the Magazine will
                To accomplish this successfully,
the Committee requests a strict observance
of the following rules.
  1. No person shall retain a copy during
    circulation, for a longer period than
    two days.
  1. Each person is to pass the copy on to
    the person whose name directly
    succeeds his or her own in the 
    following list.

With Division 1 having 12 names, and Division 4 11, we can estimate an overall circulation – and thus membership – of 44 people (or ‘Myllinites’ as they later call themselves!). The difficulties inherent in setting up and sustaining a magazine are clear when in issue 3, the editor details the previous two attempts to set up a magazine (both failures).

The content of these magazines varies: there are creative pieces (poems as well as prose), updates on the local schools, the history of the local area, competition-winning essays and more. While some articles are of a literary bent (one memorable one taking a pop at Browning for “the horrible incongruity of some of his rhymes”), others are more scientific, with an essay on ‘Influenza’ explaining the work of germs within the body (though in the most delightfully descriptive of ways).

Although Arnold is not mentioned by name, the currency of the culture debate was still high in 1898, since one of the long essays in issue 3 takes ‘Culture’ as its topic. This time, culture is split into three strands: Culture of the Body, Culture of the Mind and the Culture of the Heart. There may be some influence of Shairp in this last, since this is a cultivation of the intellect that also serves the divine. Again, it shows how mutual improvement and literary societies were partaking of a climate of ideas, which may have begun circulating at a national level via universities and the national press, but which filtered down to individual local societies.

The magazine continues, by the way. By number 4, it’s a typewritten affair (for which I’m sure the transcribers were truly grateful!). There’s a gap in the NLW’s holdings, but by number 10 in April 1901, it’s printed with two columns of text, accompanying drawings and available at a price of 2d (suggesting a much increased circulation than the original issues.


Side view so you can enjoy the detail of the design


Ala Road Literary Society

This society is a lesson in audacity! The NLW holds the Ala Road Literary Society Letter Book 1895-99, so you can read the replies they got, as well as who they were writing to. From the first few letters, it became clear that they were writing to the great and the good of literary London asking for donations to their burgeoning library (all good mutual improvement and literary societies have one), some with greater success than others. In an effort to bolster the Society, they also wrote to people offering them Honorary Membership of the Society, and yes they did ask the Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin, whose secretary declined on his behalf for fear of “giv[ing] umbrage to other societies”.

The best way to demonstrate the unbridled optimism with which the Ala Road Literary Society sought connections is to give you my archival notes verbatim for a few sentences:

On headed paper from 10, Downing Street, Whitehall. S.W. July 15th 1896. Arthur James Balfour writes a HW letter declining honorary memb. This is pre-PMship but he’s Leader of the House and First Lord of the Treasury
OMG they try again! July 28th 1896 Ar James Balfour has to decline AGAIN noting that ‘For were I to become a member of one Literary Society outside the districts with which I am directly connected, it would be difficult, or impossible, for me, – without making invidious selections, – to refuse to join similar Societies in any part of the Kingdom’

I can only hope you enjoy this as much as I! So who was writing all of these letters? A Ivor Parry, who also edited The Pwllheli Home Messenger, the magazine of the Ala Road  Presbyterian Church. Rather wonderfully, people who didn’t respond positively might meet with the wrath of the Welsh press: The London Kelt in December 1895 drips with disdain over novelist Allen Upward’s response to being asked to send one of his books to the Society. The paper notes “We should never think of referring to the man were it not for the fact that over 6.000 of the intelligent voters of Merthyr Tydvil, recorded their votes for him at the General Election” (Upward stood as a Lib-Lab candidate for Merthyr in 1895). Upward writes to ask for the denomination of the Ala Road chapel in which the Society meets since as a Baptist, “I could not possibly send my works to a Congregational Society, far less to a Wesleyan one.” It’s up to you which side you come down on: that of the soliciting literary society (Parry also wrote to the descendants of several writers as well, including Rosettis and Quiller Couchs), or the put-upon solicitee, but The London Kelt is adamant:

“We deeply regret that such contemptible bigotry should prevail in any denomination.”

Thanks to the NLW’s FREE online databases, Welsh Newspapers Online and Welsh Journals Online for providing me with both information and endless enjoyment.


So there you have it: toes dipped into some regional C19th societies and their activities, and a display of the wealth of information the NLW holds. All of this learning about people learning makes me want to learn even more… About them, about whatever there is available to me to learn. Members of C19th mutual improvement and literary societies are inspiring in their aspirations for knowledge!


The world lies before you as you exit the NLW, which also happens to be the feeling of satisfaction after an ace library trip. It’s just that the NLW’s positioning actualises that.

Hey Hay!

This story begins with a competition and self-doubt. But then, maybe all stories involving competitions also include self-doubt. I’ve since used this story as a case in point when going into schools/colleges on outreach visits, and having the confidence to put yourself forward for an opportunity you’d like. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. I saw the annual ASLE-UKI/INSPIRE Public Lecture competition advertised online. The theme was literature and sustainability, and the prize was to give the lecture at the Hay Festival. The Hay Festival! Hay was one of those mythical places for me – full of books, beautiful scenery and a phenomenal festival on occasion, but I’d never been myself.

I thought “well, I’ve been sketching out some ideas for a while on tree-felling in the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Charlotte Mew – this is a good way to motivate myself to work it up properly. I’ll never win, o’course, but it’s good to do these things.” Telling myself – I even told my boss! – I had no chance of winning was a self-protective strategy, perhaps unsurprising in the world of endless rejections & disappointments that is academia, but it was a return to the default position I’ve taken all my life: that really there’s someone else better and more deserving – the exact position I counsel state school students not to take when I’m doing outreach work and encouraging sixth formers to apply for the university of their dreams.

One day, I received a very surprising email that I’d won this competition and could talk about poetry and trees in front of an audience! So, I ended up in Hay in order to speak at the festival!

With Prof Brycchan Carey, Chair of ASLE-UKI, and Dr Jane Davidson, Director of INSPIRE and Pro Vice Chancellor for External Engagement and Sustainability at UWTSD. Photo credit: Adam Davies.

My advice for a newcomer going on stage at a big event is, ‘go on with tried and trusted professionals’ – and I was lucky enough to have two: Prof Brycchan Carey and Dr Jane Davidson, representing ASLE-UKI and INSPIRE respectively (the sponsors of the competition). With the lecture beginning at 5.30pm, we three could have a leisurely – free! – three-course lunch in the Artists’ Restaurant, and swap stories of favourite trees, especially-visited trees, earliest memories of trees… Poetry got into the conversation too(!), but trees have a particular hold on the emotions, even more so in an age where we are acutely aware of the impact human society is having on the environment.


When LitSciPod went to Hay! Me with Dr Laura Ludtke.

I was also fortunate to be supported in a personal sense by family and friends including my other half (in a podcasting sense) – Laura Ludtke, co-host of LitSciPod: The Literature and Science Podcast. A favourite moment was taking my parents into the Green Room because it turns out it really is as magical as I imagined. A little round of ‘Spot Prue Leith/Lucy Worsley!’ later, and we were settling into our newly special surroundings like giggling children. Since my parents supported me throughout my mad decisions to keep on studying literature, it was great to be able to give them something in  return. As I said to the woman serving in the Green Room, “if I can’t get my parents free coffee and cake, then seriously what was the point of doing a PhD?!”

Speaking at the Starlight Stage took me back to being a toddler in a pink tutu ‘dancing’ (realistically my toddling limbs had limited skills) at ‘The Stardust’, a local venue that was the stuff of dreams due to the pinpricks of light in the ceiling, or the ‘stars’ that we fully believed they were.

Starry starry Starlight Stage! Credit: Adam Davies

It turns out that I’m as much of a sucker of ‘starlight lighting’ in my thirties as I was when I had fewer years than fingers…

My lecture was entitled ‘”Such a pair”: The Twin Lives of Humans and Trees or Poetry’s Sustained Interested in Trees’. ‘Such a pair’ comes from Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Felled Elm and She’, where a woman and an elm – at all stages of their respective lives – form a ‘pair’. Such examples formed the core of the lecture’s first section, ‘The Paralleling of Plant and Person’. The second section, ‘Tree-Felling in Victorian/Edwardian Poetry’ focussed on Thomas Hardy’s and Charlotte Mew’s experience of urban trees in London, and particularly on their loss as many were cut down. A comparison of William Barnes’s ‘Vellen the Tree’, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Binsey Poplars’, Hardy’s ‘Throwing a Tree’ and Mew’s ‘The Trees Are Down’ illustrated the loss felt by poets over tree destruction. I also explored periodic felling – well, ‘wholesale massacre’ – of trees in Kensington Gardens, the same trees that had inspired Charles Darwin. Finally, the lecture considered ‘Trees with Body Parts’ and the long literary history of giving trees bodily form from Dante, through Shakespeare, and all the way up to Don Paterson’s 2007 poem ‘Two Trees’. In short, I aimed to have something for everyone(!), while underlining the unique voice that poetry lends to the loss of trees, forcing readers to hear the fall and experience the hurt.

While I was delivering the lecture, I could see in the front row someone scribbling away, but it didn’t look like she was taking notes… It turned out that the Hay Festival had an Artist-in-Residence, Henny Beaumont, and she was live-drawing my lecture!


catherine charlwood 1
The Hay Festival Artist-in-Residence, Henny Beaumont, live drew my lecture!


catherine charlwood 3
Being captured next to a tree, talking about trees, with branching fingers, makes this my favourite image ever – thanks, Henny Beaumont!


catherine charlwood 2
Henny also captured the questions from the audience, where there was heartening concern for trees in evidence


If you’d like to hear about poetry and trees, then the entire lecture was filmed and is freely available on YouTube. I will warn you, though, that I gesticulate a LOT…



[NB. This video doesn’t show the PPT slides (sorry! not my choice!) so you have two options if you want to access them: 1. email me and I’ll send it to you, 2. buy access to the Hay Player and you can watch this along with everything Hay has ever filmed online!]

Feel free to skip to the end to listen to the discussion we had during questions with the lively and knowledgeable audience. One chap even had his free Woodland Trust tree in tow, and had brought it along to the lecture! The questions proved that there’s a lot of love for trees, as well as concern for the next generation’s knowledge of and care for whatever state nature is in by then.

Hay sequence
Nothing like being snapped by a photographer to make you realise quite how much you talk with your hands… Credit: Adam Davies


Academia is full of ups and downs, and all of us feel like we get more than our fair share of the latter, so let me underscore this: thank you to ASLE-UKI, INSPIRE and the Hay Festival, because I’m so grateful that I got the chance to talk about two of my favourite things – poetry and trees – in front of an audience which included some of my favourite people in the whole world.

All Hay speakers are given an honorarium of six bottles of high quality wine! So far, it’s delicious, but we’re savouring them and haven’t finished them yet 😉 Thanks, Hay Festival!


GLAM-ing it up in the Archives

I have been rather lax in keeping this blog updated… Apologies. I’m playing catch-up given busy working patterns. However, nothing was going to keep me from posting about my marvellous two days at Glamorgan Archives/Archifau Morgannwg – or to give it its shortened – and cooler – name, Glam Archives!

Upon turning the corner the majestic archives rose ahead of me!


Glamorgan Archives is in Cardiff, near Ninian Park/Parc Ninian station. It sits just behind the Cardiff City stadium, and next door to the excitingly titled House of Sport. Indeed, when I first arrived, I was asked “Are you looking for the House of Sport?” so I guess a lot of visitors head that way looking for sport, but in truth I’ve always thought that – even at a glance – I’m built for the schoolroom rather than the stadium.

A quick and easy registration process later, I was in possession of a reader’s ticket and ready to get reading. Pleasingly, there were other people registering to conduct family history research, and it seems the archive does a lively trade (just an expression: it’s free) in ancestor-interested members of the public. This is as it should be: archives are for all, because knowledge is there for the taking! The archive’s logo represents agriculture (sheaves of wheat), industry (colliery winding gear), maritime (ship’s wheel) and the pre-industrial history of the county (castle wall) – and I’m grateful to the Archive for explaining this to me!

My reader’s ticket showing the Glamorgan Archives logo

NB. If you’ve forgotten what mutual improvement and literary societies are, revisit my previous post, as I’m diving into specifics here!

I started off by looking at the syllabus (so programme of events) for the Broadway Wesleyan Mutual Improvement Society for January-March 1887 which, appropriately, met in the Broadway Wesleyan Schoolroom. I believe this is the chapel in question, in Roath, Cardiff. Reading through these programmes does make you wish you could attend… I’d love to hear about ‘”Physiognomy with Practical Illustrations’ from Mr. Powell! In this society – and it’s not true in all – women are allowed to give talks, but only on other women, it seems: on 25th January 1887 Miss Caird speaks on “Madame de Stael” (French woman of letters/historian) and Mrs J. Spencer Ingram on “Anne Damer” (a famous sculptor). Given that de Stael died in 1817 and Damer in 1828, it shows that the society were engaging with recent historical figures and/or helping shape the canon of great lives. Appropriately for this #born1819 year of #GeorgeEliot200, I also found a Miss Atty giving a talk on “George Eliot” on 22nd February. Eliot died in 1880, so I imagine this talk may have reflected on the breadth of her career.

Like many mutual improvement societies, Broadway also organised debates, and it seems that Cathays Mutual were a longstanding debate partner. Crucially, this society seemed to have a magazine, since on 15th March 1887 the evening was devoted to ‘Quarterly Magazine’. However, I have found no evidence of the magazines (as tends to be the case) so far.

Next, I saw the programmes of the Mutual Improvement Society at Cefn Coed (literally ‘back forest’), who met in Hen dy Cwrdd (the old meeting place), in Merthyr Tydfil. Both names are unusually Welsh for a society that seems supremely English in its activities. You can read the history of Hey dy Cwrdd – which was virtually re-built in 1895 – here.

GlamArchives have the programmes for three sessions: 1910-11, 1911-12 and 1912-13. Printed programmes such as these tend to be a single tiny piece of card folded in half: the whole thing would fit safely in the palm of an adult hand. When a lecture specifies With Lantern Illustrations – as many do across several societies – members had the extra treat of a magic lantern display to accompany the talk or paper. Personally, I’d really like to have attended the lecture “Sketches from Dickens” (Illustrated by Lantern Slides) on 30th January 1912.

One thing which confused me – and do send the answer if you know it! – is ‘Sharp Practice’. Across all three years, the MIS at Hen dy Cwrdd always have at least two sessions devoted to ‘Sharp Practice’. Is this some religious training I’ve not heard of? The legal definition makes no sense here unless it has a more general ‘debating’ meaning rather than just the pejorative one, and I’m assuming that no-one was swinging swords around in a chapel at a self-improvement class! An archivist suggested that it was a musical activity, like a choir, but that makes no sense to me having sung in several choirs: being sharp is quite the crime for a singer, and – presuming you’re singing tonal music – you aim to sing the ideal mixture of sharps and flats specified by the key signature. ‘Sharp practice’, then, is my latest mystery.

Again women are involved, but in a somewhat underwhelming fashion. On the evening when young people speak, it’s

Girls on “Famous Women”
Boys on “Famous Poets”

The archives also hold the programme for the MIS at Hen dy Crwdd, Cefn Coed, for the session 1909-10. This earlier manifestation shows a couple of shifts in tone overall: the programming seems more religious in topic (e.g. ‘Celebrated Unitarians’), and they are more obsessed with putting all the various letters they can behind someone’s name than they are later on. As ever, women only speak on women, so three short papers take in ‘Celebrated Unitarian Women’ including Florence Nightingale (J-Mem – that one’s for you!). However, another interesting difference is that this earlier session has a paper actually ‘(in Welsh)’: a Miss Magdalen Morgan, B.A. lectures on ‘Ceiriog’, that being John Ceiriog Hughes, sometimes known as “the Robert Burns of Wales”. One thing I will admit to after reading all the Hen dy Crwdd programmes is that I want to attend a ‘Social Tea’. Doesn’t have to be in the past – I just think that having ‘Social Tea’ in my diary would be rather delightful.

Finally, for Day One, I had a nice surprise when it transpired that something catalogued as a membership card for the Roath Road Wesleyan Mutual Improvement Society – interesting to look at, but ultimately limited in the information it can provide – turned out to be a programme instead! No judgement for the mis-cataloguing: I’m just glad that such things have been retained. Plus, it gave me a jolt of extra MIS fun!

The programme was for January to March of the 1899-1900 session. Women as well as men are on the committee (not always true), although when on 7th February 1900 they had a ‘Gentlemen’s Evening’, I found myself wondering ‘What happened to the women last night?!’ Again I found evidence of a society magazine, this time indisputable: on 28th February the session centred around the ‘Magazine’, presented by ‘The EDITOR’. Now while (again) I’ve yet to locate the magazine itself, it’s incredibly heartening to know that Welsh societies, like their Scottish counterparts, were putting their new-found writing and editing skills into practice.

I did have a brief moment when I thought I’d found the magazine, because the archive holds copies of the Roath Road Record (or RRR) and I flicked through the six volumes of the 1907 output. It’s much more Sunday school based by 1907, and with no mention of the MIS (but lots of other groups reported on), I can only imagine it had disbanded by this point. While the Roath Road Church was a huge focal point for years (and by huge I mean seated 1,021 in 1873), but it was damaged in the Cardiff blitz and ultimately demolished in 1955. You can read more about how the RRR became an important wartime publication on the GlamArchive blog.

For amusement value, you should know that I was staying in the Cardiff Ibis Budget (an excellent option for the travelling, largely penniless academic who needs only a basic set-up). Now it turned out that there was an Olly Murs concert happening nearby and pretty much every other guest in the hotel was a preteen/teenage girl near-faint with excitement about seeing said Olly. I even got asked if I too was there for the concert! “Er, no. I’m working in an archive?” was not the response they were hoping for.

Not that I intend for Wetherspoons to become a feature of this blog (or in any way to condone its frankly crackers stance on Brexit), but it transpires that, like Llandudno, Cardiff has a beautiful venue for its Prince of Wales pub – a former theatre. The original theatre was built in 1878 and you can read about its history here.

It’s not every pub that can boast a proscenium arch
Is a theatre a theatre without pillars, plush red curtains and pelmets? (Not so much the fruit machines)
The exterior of The Prince of Wales (far right) along with another beautiful Victorian building, the Cardiff Philharmonic Hall (1876), and a white van in the foreground for realism’s sake.


Day 2

I started Day 2 with the Roath Road Wesleyan Mutual Improvement Society syllabus for 1902-3, Oct.-Dec. 1902 (which newly declares ‘and “Wesley Guild”‘). In this session there’s a Ladies’ Evening as a counterpart to the Gentlemen’s, so I guess the question for that night is Where did the men go?! Happily, I found for the first time a woman speaking on a topic more abstract (and gender-free) than a woman’s biography: on 3rd December 1902, Miss Bale spoke on “Endurance”. And goodness must nineteenth-century women have had sticking power to keep sticking up for themselves in a society that didn’t necessarily value their presence…

The bulk of my day was taken up with records of the Treforest Mutual Improvement Class, handwritten in the back of a book otherwise devoted to the Hopkinstown Mission Committee who sought to set up a chapel in Hopkinstown (near Pontypridd). Handwritten in pencil – the hardest of archival writings to read after more than 100 years has passed – was their programme for Oct-Dec 1892. The Treforest Class took the unusual – at least in my findings – step of assigning specific ‘critics’ to papers. One must feel a modicum of trepidation for poor Miss Morris, who was assigned FOUR separate critics for her paper ‘On Cycling Past & Present’, three of whom were men. (The next highest number of critics was three, and that was for a paper by a fellow gent).

The minutes give a little write-up of each session, always commenting on attendance, and almost always commenting on how well the paper was given (or not!). It’s made me even more conscious of how I present at conferences: intelligibility, reading speed and the interest of the subject are all key to an audience, as these minutes remind us. While ‘Mr Paynter gave a painstaking paper on “Coral” […] it did not provoke much discussion, not being sufficiently debatable’. In their second year, the minutes record a paper ‘written in an easy flowing style, but read somewhat rapidly’ – food for presenting thought! That the society was genuinely aiming to help its members is evident when the 24th February 1893 entry records ‘We had impromptu speaking in which a good many took part showing considerable improvement’. (Impromptu speaking being, usually, when subjects are picked at random and members required to improvise a speech on said topic).

My favourite entry, though, has to be the thinly veiled critique of Mr Stafford’s paper on Johnathan (presumably Saul’s son in Samuel 1 of the Bible, since this class also has regular meetings discussing chapters of John):

The Paper was read very well only a little too fast to understand the meaning of the words[.] We all thanked Mr Stafford for his Paper and hoping […] the next Paper will be a little more interesting

[3rd March 1893]

While Mr Stafford gets thanked, he doesn’t get away either with being boring or with a poorly judged reading speed! Treforest Mutual Improvement Class: saying it how it is.

As with the Broadway Wesleyan MIS, Treforest’s standard debating partner seemed to be the Hafod Mutual, and on 20th April 1894 they debated “Is it the duty of a Xtian to be a teetotaler” leading to my favourite Freudian slip of all time:

Result majority for Affir


The last time I was in Cardiff (the only time I’ve previously been) was in 2014 for the conference for the Cultural Politics of Memory, and I had no time to see the city. On this visit I was determined to see some of Cardiff’s wonderful nineteenth-century offerings:

The Victorian arcade with its own stashed-up staff!
A tree-framed arcade – what could be better? I particularly enjoy the fact that ‘Mr J. P. Jones Architect’ has chiselled himself into history.
Inside the arcade…


Having looked at the documents I’d come for, and with a couple of hours left to go, I decided to request some documents for a different research project of mine on the opiate-based soothing syrup, Godfrey’s Cordial. I looked at the papers of Mr Albert Hagan, a dispensing chemist in Cardiff. Inside were recipes for ‘Dental Tincture’, ‘Gripe Water’, ‘Cold Cream’ and ‘Tic and Neuralgia Pills’, which made me glad of modern medicine. Our remedies today generally contain less arsenic, which has to be a good thing.

Evidently a professional of some stature, Mr Hagan was corresponding with W.A.H. Naylor, a London chemist working in the ‘Laboratory Department’ of Heron, Squire & Francis (according to his headed notepaper) who offers Hagan the recipe for ‘Lime Juice and Glycerine’. Not only are the ingredients listed, but directions like ‘Shake thoroughly for five minutes then add gradually […]’ or ‘While making this last addition vigorous shaking at small intervals must be resorted to’. Hagan also had a telegram in 1882 from J. J. Horton, Jun., ‘Family and Dispensing Chemist’ in Birmingham. Horton appears to be telling Hagan how to mix ‘my Sea Green colour’ among other things, but uses a chemist’s shorthand I can’t make out. However, the same sort of preparation instructions are found: ‘stir up and mix a bit of ??? until dissolved then add […] and filter’.

Horton signs off ‘Wishing you every success in business’ and it did make me wonder if the Wellcome Trust or the like have any projects investigating the communication networks between regional chemists? Given the sharing of recipes via letters/telegrams, it seems a vital part of the profession in the late nineteenth century. And who knows what else is languishing in archives around the UK?

So yes, a wonderfully successful visit to Glamorgan Archives and I recommend it to you all!

Yes I did go, to Llandudno

NB. The ‘dud’ of ‘Llandudno’ is pronounced ‘did’…

It’s little things that give you the tip-off it’s going to be a good day. A young man on the bus (far too young and clever) was playing ‘Come On, Eileen’ through his not-noise-cancelling headphones; I saw an excellent tree from the Merseyrail train while passing through the Wirral; Chester Station Costa had bananas of such a perfect yellow-to-green ratio that I bought two and ate them with an unbecoming rapidity. Put simply, by 10am last Thursday morning I knew I was in for a treat.

I was off to the Conwy Archive Service in Llandudno as part of my BAVS-funded research project ‘Mutual Improvement Societies in Nineteenth-century Wales: The Lie of the Archival Landscape’. Mutual improvement societies and similar groups, such as literary and scientific societies, were set up to allow local, often working class people, access to lectures on a wide variety of topics, possibly to a lending library (with several periodical subscriptions), and an active social life all in the service of self-improvement. For fantastic work already done in this area but in a Scottish context, see Glasgow’s Literary Bonds. I went to Bangor University Archives in February, so was getting back in the archival groove and excited at the prospect of further discovery. (In Bangor, I got to consult an 1847 library ledger from the Amlwch Literary and Scientific Society which had been saved from a fire and still smelled and looked like a relic from Krook’s house! #whattheDickens? #BleakHouse).

Conwy Archive Service is housed in the premises of the Llandudno Board School, so already I had a nice Victorian link, as this one was built in 1882. Board Schools were the first form of state-run schools (run by local ‘Boards’ – that is, until the 1902 Balfour Education Act put education into the hands of Local Education Authorities (LEAs)). Education was somewhat a theme of the day, with me looking into societies which allowed adults a pathway to self-improvement through education, and a woman popping by to see if the archive had any photos of a local school (she was putting together a collage for a friend’s 60th birthday!).

Conwy Archive Service, open Mon-Thurs 10-12.30 and 13.30-16.30
The Llandudno Board School (now housing the Conwy Archive Service) with ‘A.D. 1882’ visible up top.

A retired couple were just ahead of me signing into the archive. They were on holiday, staying with a friend nearby, and had popped into the archive to settle a question of family history. Armed with black and white photographs, the woman was trying to identify the boarding house where her parents had honeymooned in Llandudno decades earlier. With the help of further archive photographs, and several pairs of archivist eyes keen to test out their local knowledge, said building was identified and the address could be looked up. It is today a BetFred, but this only served to delight the Detective Daughter (and, having been past said BetFred myself, I can confirm that at least the upper storey of the building still looks rather fetching). The reason I share this anecdote is because this woman so enjoyed her foray into the archive, and finding the answer to her question, that she asked aloud “Why didn’t I come before?” One of her parents (both? I got confused) had died when she was fifty “and I’m now 77!”. I shared in her love of archives and said how amazing it was that these services were free and open to the public – but not enough people know about them. It’s got to signal something when a retired couple are beaming inside a building when the sun is bearing down on the seaside outside and they claim it’s the “best bit of the holiday, this”. Archives away, everyone!

Llandudno sea front in one direction…
…and the other (just to prove the weather was wonderful)

I had gone to the archive to do some initial looking at the materials relating to the Llanrwst Mutual Improvement Society; the Llandudno Literary, Scientific and Debating Society; and an exercise book containing a lecture delivered to the Penmaenmawr Mutual Improvement Society in 1911. What is fantastic about looking at local societies is that when you see their syllabi or programmes (lists of the meetings and their topics) you can begin to imagine people gathering of an evening – in their free time – to exercise a bit of intellectual curiosity. For later societies (like Llanrwst which is mainly twentieth century) archives often have the dinner menus for the Annual Dinners and it’s intriguing to see what goes in and out of fashion as a ‘posh’ menu! Llanrwst also appeared to do a good line in limerick competitions and despite the lack of Google woe betide any members trying to write a published one from memory – the judge has written disparaging comments about “passing off another’s work as your own” on such entries… Ah, plagiarism past!

An 1895 letter set my little grey cells a-sparking. The Honourable Secretary of the Llandudno Literary, Scientific and Debating Society wrote to someone indistinguishable clearly looking for a merger of sorts (the Hon Sec seeks to know whether your Committee agrees to the proposals and whether a joint circular can be sent out to members), but I’ve no idea who. This is the difficulty of a single letter, cut off from its contextual networks – who was writing to whom at this time, and why? This is why the work of such projects as the Darwin Correspondence Project; the Hardy and Heritage project; the [Humphrey] Davy Letters project; and the – hopefully soon-to-be-funded – future work of Dr Karin Koehler and Dr Jennifer Orr, respectively, makes such a huge difference to scholars. However, in the meantime, I’m delighted that were you to send a telegram to the Llandudno Literary, Scientific and Debating Society, the headed notepaper tells you all you need: ‘LITERARY; LLANDUDNO’.

The text of a mutual improvement society lecture will always interest me. I want to ‘hear’ what members heard when they attended these gatherings. The lecture in question was ‘”The Geology of our Neighbourhood” A paper read before the Penmaenmawr Mutual Improvement Society Nov 17 1911’ by Ivor E. Davies. Davies’s handwriting is beautiful – black fountain pen, cursive towards copperplate: there is dedication in the writing of this 16-page lecture. With only a long-hand single copy, it’s clear that Davies thought through his text carefully, crossing-out and re-drafting bits to improve clarity.

Archives tend – somehow! – to provide moments of serendipity, and so it was with this geology lecture text. Just a couple of weeks earlier, in conjunction with Dr Karin Koehler and Andrew Hewitt of the Thomas Hardy Society, we’d run a workshop for teachers contextualising the C19th literary non-fiction element of the new 9-1 GCSE English Language. We endeavoured to show how fiction and non-fiction were more closely aligned in the nineteenth century than they are now, and to exemplify this looked at how the famous cliff-scene in Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes reworks obstetrician/geologist/paleontologist Gideon Mantell’s ‘Retrospect’ in the sixth edition of The Wonders of Geology. In both cases, the vast expanse of geological time provides narrative possibilities. So  imagine my delight when Ivor E. Davies of Penmaenmawr near-opens his lecture on ‘The Geology of our Neighbourhood’ with the notion that

“The story of the rocks is the science ‘Geology’. The chapter in that serial which is here daily open to be gazed upon & to read, is the ‘Silurian’ chapter”.

*satisfied sigh* Archives always remind me that knowledge is always in dialogue with other manifestations of intellectual inquisitiveness – across years, borders, any division we care to claim. I’m determined to try and work parts of this lecture text into my future C19th outreach work, not least because it’s also rich in metaphor: I enjoy greatly Davies’ figuration of rock fashion, since “The Igneous rocks […] have preference for a garment of heather, but, sometimes, they choose to expose their bare backs unreservedly”. I say!

Even better, Andrew, Karin and I had been introducing teachers to the fact that nineteenth-century scientists often quoted poetry in scientific texts, and – as if Ivor E. Davies was waiting for me to read him at this particular moment – Davies quoted lines from Tennyson’s In Memoriam to help his listeners grasp the geological points he was making. I remain fascinated by this facet of scientific writing and the fact that the writing propensities of professional geologists like Sir Charles Lyell might filter down to the regional level of one’s local mutual improvement society. Await with bated breath Dr Gregory Tate‘s forthcoming book on the exchanges between poetry and the physical sciences – I know I am!

While I may despair over their political stance, Wetherspoons have saved a lot of cultural moments from ruin by re-purposing them as pubs. In Llandudno, it’s The Palladium – the former Palladium Theatre originally built in 1920. It’s rather fun to eat lunch where Gracie Fields once performed and where the ceiling is ludicrously high!


The rather grand looking Palladium (once a theatre, now a pub)
Inside The Palladium – with faux audiences in the boxes and all!


Back from lunch, I continued in transcribing Davies’ beautiful handwriting and his genuinely engrossing lecture. I gave thanks for the little bit of Welsh that I do have: deciphering handwriting is challenging at the best of times, but had I not known that cwm, pen and moel are all Welsh words likely to be used in the context of describing the landscape, I’d have been lost in some of Davies’ bracketed passages. (In my less-than-dictionary definitions, cwm = steep hollow; pen = head; moel = rounded hill).

In a sobering moment, I found the replies to a dinner invitation to a Llanrwst Mutual Improvement Society soiree. While several members reply to say that they and [insert wife’s name] would be happy to attend, one letter declining the kind invitation points out ‘Should you have occasion to write to me again, please note that I am a widower’. Post must be a hard reminder of loss and it reminded me – albeit a different situation – of Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘A Circular’, in which the speaker opens mail addressed to his now-dead wife.

Inevitably, I came away with far more questions than answers, but that’s a rich archive for you. I’d like to thank Conwy Archive Service for their expertise and good humour (especially when I asked things out of the blue such as ‘When did the biro first come into common use?’). Rich in history and hearty in sea air, I hope to return to Llandudno soon (and not only because I want to make further archival discoveries!). However, as one born in land-locked Leicestershire, I leave you with something that will never cease to be magical: a view out into the sea.


Pretty annoyed – women & adverts

Once again I find that I wrote something a while ago, and did nothing with it. Perhaps this was in part that I knew that in putting this out there, I’m likely to take some flak (if anyone reads it, that is…). The only times I’ve ever used #everydaysexism, I’ve immediately been trolled. Oh well: caution, wind, being a concerned citizen who’s done a lot of work with young people – they all go together.


If I’m confused, what the HECK are girls thinking?:

Female identity and self-worth in adverts


The following arose from seeing two very different adverts back to back at the cinema. I suggest you watch them first, in the same order I did, in order to understand:

  1. EDF, ‘Pretty curious’
  2. Max Factor, ‘Leading Lady’


Location: FACT, the Picturehouse Cinema in Central Liverpool

Date: Monday 16th April 2018

Mission: See Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs…for the second time

Result: Confusion before film even started

I do not go to the cinema expecting to be confounded by adverts. By the film, yes (if I’m lucky), but the adverts and trailers tend to be a necessary chore having little in the way of real impact on me. However, this week I found myself thinking ‘what if I was 13 again and I saw this? What would it lead me to think?’ Thankfully, the media is more varied than it was when I was a teenager and is more sensitive to the possible harm certain messages can do young people if heavily promoted. Generally, we want our teenagers to be planning and having adventures, not worrying whether or not they have a ‘bikini-ready body’ (your body is your body at all moments in life: it’s ready to be put in the clothing of your choice).

I’m guessing that the consecutive nature of these adverts was accidental, but I secretly hope that someone up there (in the tech box, not heaven) thought the stark comparison-by-juxtaposition too ludicrous not to draw. In essence, EDF’s advert is about the growing debate about the lack of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers. Four girls’ faces (from pre-teens to teenagers) appear onscreen in close-up one after the other, each beside the text ‘I’m pretty’. When the shots broaden out, the scene is transformed to a wave-generator, a wind farm, an artificial intelligence lab, and an observatory. The accompanying text extends to reveal positive, feminist messages of ‘I’m pretty curious’, ‘I’m pretty determined’, ‘I’m pretty inventive’, and ‘I’m pretty focused’. In the switch from adjective to adverb, the word ‘pretty’ is supposed to regain its credibility (and its complimentary nature?) when applied to young women.

These girls are not self-identifying as ‘pretty’ at all, but as possessing educational virtues (which aren’t specific to STEM subjects, by the way, but hey ho). The advert relies on its audience being initially duped into thinking the girls are saying “I’m pretty”, or at least thinking “this can’t be the point of the advert, surely?”. It’s true, the shots widen and the girls magically acquire a body as well as a face. But they don’t use them. The appearing text informs us that the girls are ‘curious’ or ‘inventive’, and they’re in the right situations to demonstrate such, but we don’t get to see them being research-active, or active at all. The most movement we see is one girl clasp a robot’s hand. Beyond that, the final (and oldest?) girl – the future astrophysicist – tucks her long hair behind one ear. And this is the exact same ‘action’ we see the Max Factor lady performing.

Marianne, the sole star of the Max Factor advert, has some kind of love affair with her mirror: she keeps her eyes on herself, whereas the defiant STEM girls of the EDF advert look into camera. The message from EDF, though, that we are all of us more than just a pretty face, is immediately thrown into relief when one woman – adorned in gold dress and gold earrings – sits at her vanity table, applying make-up. Even less active than her STEM-interested counterparts, Marianne’s actions consist of putting on her make-up, tucking her hair behind her ear in a moment of affected choreography and (near) mickey-mouse scoring, and finally getting to her feet to go on her night out (which we don’t see). We are privileged to see inside woman’s Boudoir of Facial Preparation.

In contrast to EDF, the overarching message of the Max Factor advert concerns ‘celebrating the leading lady in you’. How do you do that? You guessed it: by applying make-up to that face o’yours. (I’d far prefer an advert in which women open a door on their torso and find out if there’s an Ingmar Bergman, an Audrey Hepburn or a Kate Winslet inside you. Personally, I’d love to find out that there’s a miniature Frances McDormand residing in my chest cavity but I’m far from badass enough.)

The ad opens onto a lavish hotel bedroom. Marianne sequentially applies a full face of make-up, interspersed with text screens, to a soundtrack of bargain basement cinematic Einaudi reaching eventual climax. Since these ‘leading lady’ adverts were made to be shown in a chain of boutique cinemas, the ‘preparing for a night at the Oscars’ vibe makes sense. Indeed, this campaign is linked to specific film releases (so that those watching can ‘Create the look’ of the film, and I always rearrange my face, wardrobe and interior design based on the most recent film I’ve seen. Thanks, Wes Anderson, dog tags don’t work for me).

Now I didn’t experience this advert as celebrating women except to celebrate that they can make themselves glamorous (by donning Max Factor’s clearly ace products), but it’s hardly offering a range of options to the female of the species. Yet the whole ‘You X Max Factor’ campaign, of which this advert is part, is apparently about keeping up the good work of International Women’s Day. Indeed, Max Factor held an evening where “guests [had] a chance to watch the films nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role with a complementary drink and the chance to speak to Max Factor make-up artists for advice on their perfect look’. What can I say? Nothing celebrates female achievement more than reducing us back down to objects to be prettified.

In neither advert do the women speak: heaven forbid we give those problematic females a voice! EDF opt for a first person singular voice to foreground the girls’ individual aspirations: ‘I’m pretty curious’. Meanwhile, as if still the voyeur to Marianne’s pre-going out ritual, Max Factor use the third person: Marianne is talked about, but she has no actual say in her leading lady performance:

Meet Marianne…

This is her time

She’s prepared

To make it her night

She’s never felt more beautiful


celebrating the leading lady in you

Your Life X Our Inspiration

You X Max Factor

find out more at

Our Marianne, the anonymous author indicates, only aspires to look fantastic for this one night. She will make her mark not by using her brain (as the EDF girls seem geared towards) but her face. Even her dress-bedecked body takes a back seat here (and remains seated).

The opening of the Max Factor advert made me laugh anyway: ‘Meet Marianne…’. This might not be the oldest rhetorical trick in the book, but it’s one of the easiest. In fact, as a former English Teacher, I can reveal that this is often the default opening we feed to students who don’t know how to how to start their ‘Writing to present a viewpoint’ section of the GCSE Language exam: ‘Meet [name]… s/he’s…’. It gets the reader/audience onside by artificially personalising the issue.

The medium in question here is advertising, so both examples have a corporate agenda. EDF want to be seen as a socially responsible company promoting the ‘right’ messages (and hey, if that persuades you to switch to them as your energy supplier, they’re probably ok with that); Max Factor want you to buy their make-up products over those of their competitors. Both explicitly appeal to girls’ and women’s sense of identity and self-worth, but in the one case this is tied to education and aspiration, and in the other it’s tied to physical beauty.

EDF’s advert is part of their Pretty Curious campaign, which has the aim of ‘Inspiring a generation of girls to discover the future through STEM’. Noble, important, long-term. But imagine that 13-year-old viewer again: how seriously is she going to take EDF’s challenge when there’s an immediate rebuttal in the form of the Max Factor ad? “Hey there, young person! Aim high! Do great things! However, you do realise that the only way to feel really good about yourself is to make your face up just right, right?”

Also, this jarring-by-accidental-juxtaposition will happen to you. Another recent one was when the huge electronic billboard opposite Lime Street station (apparently called the ‘Liverpool Media Wall’) had a men’s razor commercial where the virtuous company had created lots of different types of razors because no man’s face is the same shape… followed by Missguided advertising ‘Official Babe Uniform’. Conform, ladies, conform. (I can almost hear The Handmaid’s Tale’s Aunt Lydia calling “all right, girls” – the cue for us to form neat lines).

While the EDF offering has a much more positive and important message, I don’t like either advert. We need to give girls and women a greater voice, and more dynamic roles within society and its media off-shoots. A lot more thinking needs to be done about the messages being broadcast and the way these are expressed. Currently, even as we attempt to inspire girls to aspire, we simultaneously reduce them to the same passive, silent and pretty objects of old. In summary: advertisers, EDF-off.


Proof of pain

Given that I’m writing a whole PhD thesis on memory, it’s probably not that surprising that I’m interested in memories of my childhood. This post was occasioned by my sorting through all of my stuff in an attempt to live in marginally less clutter than before. What I’ve really learned, of course, is that if only I could live in a book fort I would want for nothing.

I have a box which I refer to as my ‘memory box’ (misleading as I own a number of receptacles containing memory materials). In there are badges, little bits of knitting, Care Bear finger puppets I must have had help to make, my bouncy ball collection etc. However, there was something I’d stored in there which I wasn’t necessarily expecting to see again: the hospital identification bracelets from my operations. These aren’t the markers of happy moments in my life; they also aren’t as old as almost everything else in that box – I had my first operation in 2006, last in 2010. Why on earth had I decided to keep them?

The awful thing is that I know the answer, and I’m ashamed. I have these flimsy plastic strips which are punctured with holes (let’s dispense with the misnomer that is ‘bracelets’ right now) is because they are proof of my operations.

I need to go back to more basic facts in order to explain. Particularly if you haven’t read this blog before! I have chronic pain. I have a chronic pain condition in my right forearm that the doctors can neither diagnose (well, after c.14 years there’s still no consensus) nor treat. That that is a fact is undeniable. That it is a hard fact to acknowledge is equally undeniable: hard for me to acknowledge because it’s unpleasant and it affects my entire existence; hard for others to acknowledge because there is no proof. I explain and the person I’m talking to says “really?” with a look and tone of incredulity, “you mean you’re in pain, right now?”. My anger over this has (largely) abated now, since – as a pain clinic nurse once told me disapprovingly like – “you’re going to exhaust yourself fighting”.

In an attempt to rectify, or at least ameliorate, this condition I’ve had two general surgeries and a handful of mini-procedures involving X-ray guided steroid injections (delicious, I know). These hospital souvenirs are identification tags, and while I might have worn them at times when I least identified with my own name (or any human state at all, perhaps), they denote that I was part of a hospital’s daily work on several different days. I’ve held on to this limp surgical detritus with a view to proving what I already know happened to me. That’s not an impulse I admire within myself, but it is one that I recognise all too well. Coming to terms with chronic pain is, in some ways, coming to terms with the fact that you will not always be believed. As Elaine Scarry so starkly puts it, ‘to have pain is to have certainty; to hear about pain is to have doubt’. Just as I can’t avoid the certainty of my pain, I can never give you that certainty because it would involve giving you my pain (and that is something I would never do. I often think that the most immoral thing I could wish would be to give someone else my pain).

I’m throwing these tags out now, because I don’t need them. Yet for all my rational, adult thinking about my pain, I know that I will continue to be anxious about the inability to prove it. Alarming as it ever is to align oneself with Shakespeare’s Othello, I too know the desperation of wanting ‘ocular proof’. That impulse, though, is waning – and I’m better able now to control it. These can go, but it’s yet another negotiation of memory (which is also always a negotiation with identity) that I’m pleased to do: hey, it’s not always a pleasure, but that’s life!

*waves bye* (mainly to you, reader, but also to those darn tags that have dogged me!).

PS. ‘Perhaps’, ‘largely’, ‘seems’ – none of these qualifiers appear in this post by chance. Linguistic certainty is a fool’s game if you’re trying to write about something as extra-linguistic as pain. I no longer hide behind such hedging language, but – in fits, in starts – embrace it.





Watching ‘Woolf Works’

Speed reading novels by Virginia Woolf is not something I never thought I’d find myself doing, but life is nothing if not surprising. However, I couldn’t have predicted that the Royal Opera House (ROH) would mount a production called ‘Woolf Works’, a triptych based around three separate Woolf novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. Needless to say, I didn’t manage to read all of them (by a fair way). Credit where credit’s due, though, all of Mrs D and three and a half chapters of Orl ain’t too bad.

The programme is pretty interesting in how unlike the standard ROH format it is. There’s a fold-out insert in the middle, with a detailed, though visually inexplicable, timetable of Woolf’s life and works. The ROH have also canvassed opinions on Woolf’s importance for individual lives, with some interesting responses printed up. The ever-excellent Dr. Susan Jones (St. Hilda’s, Oxford) also makes a welcome comment.

Like other ballet fans my of my generation, Alessandra Ferri remains a kind of hero. Her entire body bespeaks dance – all of her musculature is readied for the art form. Perhaps because of my problems with mine, but I have always loved Ferri’s arms. The expression seems to originate by her neck and come right through the shoulder, down the elbow, forearm, wrist, fingers and onwards. She remained a classic Juliet, dancing the role of the lovesick teenager well into her 40s. To have her back performing in England, out of dance retirement to dance en pointe at 52, is quite simply amazing (not to mention a coup for our age-resistant society).

I Now, I Then (from Mrs Dalloway)

I don’t know what I was expecting from this, but it more than delivered. Also, I’m extremely glad I managed to read the novel in time, since this piece largely follows the narrative in structure. My only reservation with ‘I Now, I Then’ is that it seemed a little overdetermined: not only were we using music and dance, but also square frames, period video footage and modern footage (of, presumably, Woolf’s garden) to tell the story. That’s a lot to throw into the mix. I appreciated most of it, but the garden footage was out of place and disturbed the otherwise period aesthetic of it.

This movement is prefaced by Woolf’s famous quotation about how words ‘are full of echoes, memories, associations – naturally’. She notes how certain words/phrases instantly recall other usages by Shakespeare, or other literature so embedded in the readerly consciousness. Memory in literature is my day job, and on this evening out I thought more about how true this is for dance, also. Certain movements/positions recall those from ballets past. In my (likely impoverished) memory, I saw in ‘I Now, I Then’, a MacMillan lift position (from a Manon pas de deux?), Julie Kent’s lunge from James Kudelka’s Cruel World pas de deux, a drop from Anthony Tudor’s The Leaves are Fading pas de deux, and a possible allusion to Puck (of Ashton’s Dream) in the way the character of Evans span in and out of view. I’m not saying that McGregor consciously referenced other works, but that certain steps/positions are so encoded within the context in which one originally saw them, that it can’t help but revive memories of previously-witnessed dance. Also, because this is a literary adaptation – to a certain extent – it also recalled MacMillan’s Winter Dreams (based on Chekhov’s The Three Sisters), especially in the relation of the older Mr. Dalloway figure (all tweed-suited like Antony Dowell’s character in WD) to the younger, more sprightly Peter Walsh figure, threatening to draw Mrs Dalloway’s affections. In the presentation of Dalloway and Walsh’s remembered youth, too, there were undertones of Ashton’s A Month in the Country! All in all, this offered quite the connections for the eager audience member.

Ferri was sublime as Clarissa Dalloway (the elder version), but if anyone could threaten to overtake her in sheer dramatic and anguished portrayal, it was Edward Watson as Septimus, the shell-shocked and all-round mentally-troubled ex-WWI solider. Long may choreographers continue to create literary roles for Watson to portray – Wheeldon’s rendering of Leontes for him in The Winter’s Tale was stunning, to say nothing of the critically-acclaimed Metamorphosis (Arthur Pita), and there are plenty more characters that are just begging for Watson to embody them.

Septimus and Rezia (his wife) worked together well to show the torment both of the madness-tempted husband and the wife who cannot help but cannot help but try to. There were a few touchstones to the narrative, with Rezia (Takada) constantly trying to change the Septimus’ (Watson) focus, even going so far as physically to try and turn his head away from Evans’ haunting (Dyer). This took me straight back to the “Look, look, Septimus!” and “Look […] Oh look,” she implored him’ of Woolf’s text. Indeed, Woolf’s constant use of the verb ‘implore’ in relation to Rezia came out in both the choreography and Takada’s performance.

A powerhouse of flexibility and psychological insight himself, pairing Edward Watson with Ferri is a gift I think we were all waiting for. Putting these two dramatic gifts together is possibly the best reason one could have to deviate somewhat from Woolf’s plot. Had the programme offered only ‘I Now, I Then’, I couldn’t have said it wasn’t worth the ticket. It left one awash with thoughts, emotions that couldn’t quite be articulated as thoughts and physical sensation – as art should.

Becomings (from Orlando)

Having ploughed my way, rather roughly, through 3 1/2 chapters of Orlando did little to help me understand this piece. Thinking there might be lasers involved in a Virginia Woolf novel is the kind of thought projection only Jeremy from Peep Show would manage. But lasers there are, many lasers! And a lot of gaudy gold costumes: Woolf has caught a severe case of The Shinies in ‘Becoming’ this version of Orlando. The way that the lasers can draw along the floor, or extend vertically in space is impressive, certainly. I think, though, that I appreciated ‘Becomings’ more as a light show than a ballet. In fact, it reminded me, with pleasure, of Light Show at the Hayward Gallery (2013).

I was at first intrigued by the Elizabethan-style costumes and static positions on the stage, wondering if the choreography was to look at restricted movement, movement codified by gender norms, perhaps, or even harking back to the courtly origins of ballet at Louis, ‘The Sun King”s court. None of these happened. Not much of Orlando happened, either, really. This looks a lot more like a lot of current ballet choreography: rapid flexibility and punctuated movements, all constant and all over the stage. Nothing wrong with it (although the ‘gymnastic turn’ in ballet is not for me) but not what I would particularly choose to go and see. There’s something about this style which makes me hear my Granny’s voice in my head: “I mean, it’s very nice that you can open your hip joint up like that, but why are you doing it?” A fair question.

Steven MacRae’s precise allegro was, though, as ever, impressive and detailed to watch. Also, there was the complementary pairing of Sarah Lamb with Eric Underwood, which I haven’t seen live since Electric Counterpoint in 2010; they really bring out greatness in each other.

Richter’s score (which I’m mainly not mentioning for good reason) reached breaking point in this movement. I had to stop myself from laughing when, at a particularly still moment a glockenspiel just struck out a few notes. It could have been effective as an eerie infantile throwback for a horror movie, but here it sounded like the precursor to an awkward conversation between conductor and percussionist beginning “now Bernard… we talked about this. You promised you wouldn’t hit the glock. You absolutely promised!”

Unusually, the company’s synchronicity was off on Friday night, which didn’t help matters. If this style of McGregor’s demands anything, it’s a rigorous adherence to the tempo. Otherwise, the audience can distinguish too easily between better and improving dancers. The ending, with two enlarged spotlights and individual dancers running through them looked more like an A Level devised piece rather than the artistry we know and love of the RB. A shame.

The most arresting moment for me was when a lone female dancer took centre stage in a nude unitard, moving as if discovering her body. This seemed to suggest the man-to-woman change at the heart of Orlando, but it wasn’t made pivotal enough to assure one of that. Since the performance, a friend has suggested that the shiny strip at the centre of the stage might have been representing the frozen Thames. I hadn’t thought that at the time, but I hope that is true, because there was an odd lack of representation of the changing state of water, so important to Orlando: ice so solid that body heat can’t melt it, to water so powerful you wish for Noah’s vessel.

Tuesday (from The Waves)

‘Tuesday’ is beautiful, moving and heartfelt. It is the sort of experience one hopes to have from art. However, I have one moral objection: the piece opens with Gillian Anderson reading from ‘a letter’ written by Virginia Woolf. It is not a letter, it is her suicide note and, as such, it is not an art work to be used to heighten aesthetic effect. The fact that this note has been often used before does not, for me, make it any more ok. Yes, it was effective – and affective – but just because something is effective doesn’t mean it should be implemented. Maybe it’s because I just finished a book on J. Robert Oppenheimer, or recently saw The West Wing for the first time, but this argument bespeaks boardrooms and bombs to me.

The background video of the sea – in black and white and considerably slowed down – made for a calming and meditative constant, which went well with the small repertoire of repeated steps. Having RB dancers eventually take over from Royal Ballet School dancers showed just how well-trained those little ones are.

‘Tuesday’ is much more biographical – about older Woolf – than a narrative version of The Waves (she says, having consulted a plot summary and talked to people who have read it). It feels like a swan song, not least because of the focus on the lone figure of Ferri/Woolf. The uniting and repeated step of the rond de jambe a terre (arms in fourth) into a semi-curtsey, which begins with just Ferri but gradually attracts the entire company, was an appropriate use of basic ballet vocabulary. As every ballet class ends with the reverence (as death comes, sometimes, with last words) there are codified ways to say goodbye.

Although ‘Woolf Works’ has its problems, I’m so thrilled that the Royal Opera House continues to commission new work. I went to see Oppenheimer in Stratford recently, too. As money continues to be diverted away from the arts, it is events like these which remind us that audiences appreciate seeing new work (the cheers were *deafening*). Also, I always remember Kevin McKenzie (Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre) saying, on an interview segment as part of what was then American Ballet Theatre Now (1998), “if we don’t create the mirror to hold up to the audience, what happened, you know? It’s our duty to do it.” Absolutely. And the ROH are fulfilling that duty well.