Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic – V&A

Winnie-the-Pooh poster

As a lifelong Winnie-the-Pooh fan, I was delighted to be able to visit the V&A‘s new exhibition, Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic. Themed around the world of the books, it welcomed visitors with a greeting and the themed decor made you really feel part of the Hundred Acre Wood. There was a slide and assorted activities for children – but I couldn’t help being glad that during my visit, on a Friday evening, there weren’t many kids around.


Pooh-themed toys
Pooh-themed toys

The exhibition began with a display of the various Pooh-themed toys, games and accessories that have been created over the years. I was particularly pleased to see a cuddly toy version of the Soviet Pooh, which I love, but was gutted to spy a gorgeous Cath Kidston dress that I obviously missed when it was in store.

Soviet Pooh
Soviet Pooh
Cath Kidston dress
Cath Kidston dress

The exhibition explored the writer, A. A. Milne, and the illustrator, E. H. Shepard, and the history of the Pooh stories. Particularly fascinating were the sections on how the two worked together to produce stories that seamlessly blended words and pictures, strongly appealing to little ones (as well as grown-ups like me!).

North Pole

I found the exhibition completely fascinating, and it really reignited my love for Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. (I’ve always felt a particular affinity for Piglet).


Friendly with Bears

Harry Potter: A History Of Magic – British Library

I booked my exhibition ticket for Harry Potter: A History of Magic back in April, and it’s just as well, as many dates for this groundbreaking exhibition are already sold out. It’s the first British Library exhibition to focus on the work of a living author, and I couldn’t imagine a better subject. The exhibition will fascinate any Harry Potter fan, but there’s much here to interest those who have never read a word about the famous boy wizard.

J.K. Rowling took inspiration from myths, legends and history to write about the magic in her books, and the exhibition looks at how magic as it has been seen in our world helped to inspire her. It’s divided up into sections based on the subjects Harry studies at Hogwarts: Potions, Divination, Charms, Care of Magical Creatures, and so on, and there is also a section on alchemy, relating to the Philosopher’s Stone which is so important in the first book.

We see many rare books and historical artefacts: the Ripley Scroll, purporting to explain how to make the philosopher’s stone, alongside Nicholas Flamel’s gravestone (apparently discovered being used as a chopping board in Paris). The Potions section has rare books describing the various potions and their antidotes – there is also a bezoar displayed – and Herbology displays a copy of Culpeper’s Herbal, of which Rowling had her own copy that she used to refer to when writing the books. We see a cauldron and a broomstick from the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, and possibly my favourite exhibit of all: the ‘Invisibility Cloak’.

Throughout the exhibition, illustrations by Jim Kay bring the characters to life, and we also see sketches by Rowling, which are fascinating as they show the characters as she originally imagined them. My favourite parts were the handwritten or typed early drafts of various chapters, showing the Harry Potter stories as they might have existed, and offering insights into how Rowling changed and adapted her stories.

I loved this exhibition – it runs until February, so there’s plenty of time to see it, but I definitely recommend booking in advance.

An evening in conversation with Arne Dahl – North Finchley Library

Just a quick note on an event I went to at North Finchley Library – a talk by Swedish author Arne Dahl (real name Jan Arnald). I love a bit of Nordic noir and I’ve enjoyed several of Dahl’s books as well as the TV series they are based on.

Dahl spoke a bit about his most popular series, the Intercrime books, as well as his upcoming work. At the end there was a question and answer session, which I didn’t contribute to (I never do, to be honest). It was definitely worth the trek to North London after work, though.

Shakespeare: Metamorphosis – Senate House Library

Senate House Library

On my day off I headed to Senate House Library for their contribution to the Shakespeare 400th anniversary celebrations: Shakespeare: Metamorphosis, an exhibition which uses the famous “Seven Ages” speech from As You Like It to explore how Shakespearean scholarship has changed over the years. As a librarian, Shakespeare-lover and bibliophile I was very happy to see that the exhibition consisted of several rare and beautiful volumes.




The entrance to Senate House Library has been transformed for the occasion, with a Shakespeare design adorning the steps. Before you even reach the exhibition, there are posters all around, each exploring a different aspect of the history of Shakespearean scholarship.

2016_0718Metamorphosis07 2016_0718Metamorphosis08 2016_0718Metamorphosis09 2016_0718Metamorphosis10 2016_0718Metamorphosis11 2016_0718Metamorphosis12 2016_0718Metamorphosis13

Once you get up to the exhibition, there are some fascinating works to see. Gallery One, ‘The Infant’, explores the influences on Shakespeare and features Holinshed’s Chronicles and the works of Chaucer. Gallery Two, ‘The Schoolboy’, features early quarto editions of some of the plays, including Othello. Other galleries explore the history of Shakespearean scholarship and performance, including the adaptations performed by actors such as David Garrick. In the search to create an authoritative text various sources were used and there were conflicts between scholars. The twentieth century was especially good for academic Shakespeare studies: the first Oxford Complete Works was produced in 1891 by William James Craig, a forerunner of the modern Oxford Shakespeare series edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor from 1986.


The final gallery, ‘The Superstar’, looks at Shakespeare in the digital world and invites exhibition attendees to make their own contribution, sharing on Instagram or Twitter.


Shakespeare: Metamorphosis runs until mid-September, but if you can’t get to London, or want to explore the topic further, you can view an online version. The University of London’s Shakespeare microsite will remain up for the foreseeable future, a valuable resource for fans and students of the Bard.


1816: The Year Without A Summer – Study Day

year without a summer

It might not be the conventional way to spend a Saturday, but I really enjoyed my experience at the 1816: The Year Without A Summer Study Day. Following on from my Friday evening talk and concert, I turned up bright and early to enjoy a day of talks around the consequences of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.

The world’s biggest volcanic eruption caused severe climate change and led to poverty, famine, disease and migration, as well as influencing creativity. The talks were delivered by experts from the various fields of science, medicine, neurology, culture and history, and culminated in a panel discussion.


Atmospheric Effects of the Mt. Tambora Eruption
Prof Giles Harrison (Professor of Atmospheric Physics, University of Reading)

In this first talk, Professor Harrison gave us a bit of insight into the context of the eruption and what it meant for the atmosphere. Tambora, on Sumbawa Island, Indonesia, had a history of rare but major eruptions. One took place in around 3910 BC. In 1815, there was an initial eruption on 5 April before the ‘proper’ eruption on 10 April.

The immediate consequences of the eruption included whirlwinds, ashfall, a pyroclastic flow and a tsunami. Rock was expelled from the volcano, burying a nearby village. 71,000 people died in the nearby area, 12,000 directly and the rest by starvation in subsequent weeks. The Volcanic Explosivity Index lists the Mount Tambora eruption as 7 out of 8, the largest known historic eruption.

In the wider atmosphere, small particles of sulphur influenced sunlight and temperature. In recent years, ice cores taken from Greenland show that air samples from the time of the eruption contain volcanic dust and sulphur. It has been suggested that the art of the time, such as paintings by Constable and Turner, reflect the condition of the air and the presence of dust, but then again we don’t always know how the paints have aged over time.

At the time of the eruption, a sparse temperature measurement network was developing. Early measurements were usually taken by educated individuals who viewed such observations as a hobby, but their diaries enable us to make deductions about the weather of the period. The evidence suggests that the summer of 1816 was the coldest of the 1810s and the third coldest since 1659. Eastern Europe wasn’t so badly affected, but Western Europe did suffer with the cold and wet. The effects spread as far as North America, with, for instance, snow recorded in New York. Back in the UK, one diarist reported that their cucumbers froze.


Frankenstein’s Weather!
Prof Gillen D’Arcy Wood (Professor of English, University of Illinois)

Professor Wood was a particularly engaging speaker and his talk was probably my favourite of the day. He referenced the artistic works mentioned by Professor Harrison in the previous talk, mentioning Constable’s Weymouth Bay of 1816, painted on the artist’s honeymoon, which revealed the state of the sky. Most of his talk was concerned with the myths that built up around the summer at the Villa Diodati.

The summer of 1816 marked the return of British tourists to Europe after the Napoleonic wars. It was Mary Godwin’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who persuaded Mary and Shelley to visit Lord Byron in Geneva. Along with Byron’s physician Dr Polidori, they spent a legendary summer by the lake. Dreaming of a summer of picnics, walks and mountain climbing, they were instead faced with the coldest, wettest summer in Geneva for 450 years. Surrounded by starving refugees, the group spent the summer holed up in the Villa Diodati, telling ghost stories to pass the time: Byron’s reading of Coleridge’s Christabel had Shelley running screaming from the room.

Professor Wood drew parallels with modern-day climate change, citing a phenomenon called “climate shock”. He discussed the stages of response to climate shock: creative sympathy, political violence, and the “flight into hell”. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Byron’s Darkness and other works can be read as creative sympathy, but there were other, less obvious consequences: the first bicycle prototype was invented to replace horses, many of which had died, while in a bid to deal with the problem of starvation Robert Peel established the group which would evolve to become the British Board of Health. Still, unrest was common. In Britain in 1816, there were riots and protests by starving peasants. Rural communities all over Europe experienced starvation, leaving their homes and seeking shelter and food elsewhere: hence the “descent into hell”. One wealthy figure gathered 25,000 refugees, travelling around Europe, setting up soup kitchens and preaching the imminent apocalypse. ‘Starvation medallions’ were produced as mementoes of the occasion.


‘Not yet saved’: Europe after the fall of Napoleon
Prof Robert Tombs (Professor of French History, University of Cambridge)

Professor Tombs talked about Napoleon, defeated at Waterloo in 1815. Admired by Byron, Beethoven, Shelley and Goethe, he was exiled to St Helena where he acquired much sympathy. His carriage was brought to London, where 100,000 people visited it. Byron bought it and used it to travel around Europe. Wellington, rather oddly, acquired Canova’s statue of the nude Napoleon. It can still be seen in Apsley House. He also “took over” Napoleon’s mistress.

Contemporary cartoons by the French show the English in a bad light, and many of Balzac’s novels featured English characters who were ‘bad’. Back in England, Napoleon was burned in effigy. A ‘geopolitical revolution’ was set in motion.

The fast growth of populations and cities, as well as the influx of newly unemployed soldiers, meant that famine and unrest were common problems. The ‘Bread or blood’ riots in Ely in May 1816 led to the hanging of 83 individuals – an unusually high number. Poor relief was eventually increased, but the consequences of these events lasted many years.


Lightness, Darkness and the Creative Brain
Prof Michael Trimble (Emeritus Professor of Behavioural Neurology, UCL)

This was another talk which I found especially interesting, exploring the connection between the weather (of 1816 in particular) and mental health. Professor Trimble started with a brief history, going back to Greek ideas about the four humours, a Platonic theory promoted by Hippocrates. Galen referred to a “Darkening of the mind”, and in later years a number of books on the theme of melancholy were published: Thomas Horclewe’s My Compleint (1420), Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and An English Malady (1733) by George Cheyne.

News reports indicated a wider spate of melancholy during 1816, but was the weather responsible? Esquirol’s French Maladies of 1845 suggested that climates and seasons can have an effect on melancholy, while Henry Morselli’s study of suicide in 1881 suggested that the dreariness of the northern climate might be more likely to influence such actions. Weather was seen as a proxy for the human condition.

The influence of the weather on mental state declined as the science of meteorology advanced. However, Seasonal Affective Disorder was first described in 1984. A recent study suggests there is no association between seasons, sunlight and latitude, but a recent review of psychiatric hospitalisations confirms a seasonal pattern, especially for bipolar patients. A literature review from 1979-2009 suggests that the highest number of suicides occurs in the spring and early summer.

Professor Trimble moved on to speak particularly about Beethoven and Schubert. Beethoven’s father and grandmother were alcoholics, his mother a melancholic. A lonely child with few friends, he hated authority and suffered greatly when his mother died. He suffered from depressive episodes in 1812-13 and 1816-17 when his productivity vastly decreased. He may well have been bipolar.

Schubert might have suffered from cyclothymia, being possessed of a bright side that coexisted with a morbid aspect. He tended to experience increased productivity during the spring and autumn, composing very little during the summer. Evidence seems to suggest that while there is no direct link between mood and weather, those already suffering from a condition such as bipolar might be more likely to be affected by it.

The day ended with a panel discussion featuring Judith Bingham, one of the composers featured in that evening’s Byron in Switzerland concert, and chaired by Ian Ritchie. The day as a whole was incredibly interesting, and if I felt like I was back at university again, this is all to the good. I enjoyed the chance to stretch my brain properly.

1816: The Year Without A Summer – Introductory Talk – King’s Place

Kings Place is an arts and conference venue just north of King’s Cross. It only opened a few years ago, but has already gained a reputation for hosting high quality music, spoken word and arts events. Recently, a weekend of events took place entitled 1816: The Year Without A Summer. It consisted of two concerts and a study day exploring the events of this momentous year, the result of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.

Before the Friday evening concert Beethoven and Schubert in Vienna, which I reviewed on my theatre blog Loitering in the Theatre, I attended the introductory talk, delivered by curator of the programme Ian Ritchie. He summarised the exceptional climatic, cultural and historical contexts in which Beethoven and Schubert were living in 1816 and explored how their work might have been affected.

Ritchie explained that all of the music in the evening’s concert had been composed in 1816 by either Beethoven or Schubert, both of whom were living in Vienna at the time. The period was already a time of great change, with the growth of Romanticism after the Enlightenment and the recent defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Prometheus, inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, was a popular cultural figure: Beethoven wrote a piece of music on the subject, initially dedicating it to Napoleon, but after becoming disillusioned with the French leader he crossed out the dedication (Byron was another figure who wrote in praise of Napoleon – composing an Ode to Napoleon – but who later became disillusioned). Inventors, such as George Stephenson, Humphrey Davy, and Michael Faraday, were making new scientific discoveries, and Luigi Galvani was attempting to reanimate corpses using electricity (from whence we get the term “galvanise”.

The Mount Tambora eruption of April 1815 was the biggest volcanic eruption for hundreds of years. It caused a shifting ash cloud leading to crop failures from Ireland to the east coast of the USA, the coldest winter since medieval times, and the development of a new strain of cholera in India. When Byron decided to go into exile from the UK, he arrived in Switzerland to find a country suffering from crop failure and famine. Along with Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley) and Doctor Polidori, he spent the summer in the Villa Diodati, experiencing terrible weather instead of the glorious summer he had hoped for. Byron wrote a poem about the experience, called Darkness:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream,
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless; and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air
To be continued…

As meterological science was in its infancy, people didn’t know why the weather was so bad: some predicted the end of the world. In such circumstances Beethoven and Schubert wrote music in Vienna.

Schubert was only 19 at the time, compelled to write even though he had only one paid commission this year (a cantata, now lost, coincidentally also called Prometheus), composing over 100 lieder in 1816. Unable to marry his fiancée as he couldn’t support her, he was also rejected by his hero Goethe, so it is understandable that his work from this period sounded rather melancholy. His lieder from this period rarely use poems relating to summer, and his music is often sad and reflective.

Beethoven also faced disappointment at this time, partly owing to the death of his brother. Though this was a fallow period for him, he did produce the first recognised song cycle. Did the pair of composers ever meet? Possibly not – Beethoven was an established composer at this time,  and moved in higher circles, while Schubert was still a student and relatively unknown at this stage.

The short talk was really enlightening, and whetted my appetite for the evening concert and the next day’s events… on which more in the next post.

Utopia: Then and Now – King’s Place

The other day I went to King’s Place for an interesting talk about Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. Entitled Utopia: Then and Now, the talk featured Michael Caines chairing a discussion between Matthew Beaumont and Chloë Houston, academics who have worked on the book.

I originally read Utopia as a history undergraduate and although I’ve forgotten most of the details, I do remember finding it an interesting read. The talk looked at the concept of a Utopian society, which reaches back to the classical period, and whether or not there is a universal “utopian impulse” in many societies around the world. The talk also discussed the idea of a dystopia in relation to an utopia, and how one could be related to the other. The discussion also mentioned other ideas of utopia throughout the years, including critical (such as Voltaire’s Candide) and mocking (such as Swift’s).

Ultimately, the talk made me realise that my original understanding of Utopia is actually rather simplistic, and it would definitely be worth me going back and exploring this hugely important text.

Treasures of the British Library

Treasures of the British Library is the permanent collection of rare books and manuscripts on display in the British Library‘s Treasures Gallery. I had visited before, several years ago, but decided that the time was right for another visit.

There are more than 200 items in this Gallery, also known as the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, including hand-painted books, early printed books, maps, manuscripts and musical scores. Some of the most famous include Gutenberg’s 1455 Bible, the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Beowulf manuscript which is written in old English. These are just the early works: from later years we have a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci’s, a Shakespeare First Folio, the handwritten score of Handel’s Messiah, and even handwritten Beatles lyrics. Among the more unusual items are Jane Austen’s writing desk. There are also letters written by early kings and queens, including Elizabeth I.

My favourite items include the manuscripts of Jane Eyre and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as well as Captain R.F. Scott’s diary detailing his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. There is room in the Gallery for small temporary displays: the current display is Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing (until 17 January 2016) and it includes some of the earliest examples of Chinese writing, inscribed on “oracle bones”, as well as writings on other materials including wood, silk and paper.

The Treasures Gallery is free to visit and it’s a must-see for anyone interested in the history of British literature. It is open seven days a week and is located near Euston and St Pancras/King’s Cross stations.

Animal Tales – British Library

I popped into the British Library to see a small free exhibition called Animal Tales. It explored the different stories told about animals, “from Aesop’s Fables to Ted Hughes’s Crow”. It was interesting to see the variety of animals that have been presented between the pages of books, from fairy tales to childrens’ stories and even political satire (such as Animal Farm).

London Lit Weekend: Trollope at 200 – King’s Place

As part of London Lit Weekend I visited King’s Place near King’s Cross to attend a talk on Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, entitled Trollope at 200. The talk comprised a number of academics and Trollope enthusiasts discussing the themes explored in the author’s work: writer and biographer Jonathan Keates, Oxford Professor of English Literature Helen Small, Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London John Sutherland and Simon Grennan, scholar in the field of visual narratology and creator of a graphic adaptation of Dispossession.

I personally feel that Trollope is a very underrated author, so was pleased to attend this discussion. Members of the panel discussed their own experiences of Trollope, his role as a novelist “of the present”, his realism and naturalism, and his handling of dialogue. One panellist raised the question of Henry James’ debt to Trollope, which I had never considered although I am a fan of both authors. I left the talk with a determination to seek out those works by Trollope that I haven’t already read, and with a renewed appreciation of his work.