Discovery of the month – an unfortunate incident with a cushion brush

Having worked with the accident record books of Wolverton Railway Works for a good few months, I’m no stranger to some quite traumatic incidents. I would not want to make light of any accident or injury, but: every so often you come across something memorable. And it gives me a little bit of joy to know it has been recorded for posterity.

On the 12th June 1909, a 25-year-old gentleman had the following unfortunate accident:

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A traumatic incident recorded in WWO/19, Milton Keynes Museum

To be clear, yes that does read: “Whilst brushing cushions in a compartment, he struck his testicles with the head of cushion brush.” One can only hope he recovered swiftly from his traumatic orchitis. Given that I’m sharing this more than 100 years later, I’m not sure his dignity could have recovered as quickly.


Quotation of the month – Matt Haig on reading to stay alive

Reasons to Stay Alive came along at the perfect moment for me. Not only did it move me towards a new stage of recovery from my depression, it did so in a language that felt completely personal to me. For Haig, reading was a vital part of his recovery, and as such his book is liberally sprinkled with quotations from the literary greats. Emily Dickinson seems to be a particular favourite, and the fact that the words “hope is the thing with feathers” pop so frequently into my head when I’m in need of an emotional boost is entirely thanks to Haig. To read a book that was not only about hope in the midst of the darkness of depression, but also about the power of words and reading, made me feel that Haig had tailored this book just for me. And I know I’m not alone in feeling that.

Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive
Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive

“‘The object of art is to give life a shape,’ said Shakespeare. And my life – and my mess of a mind – needed shape. I had ‘lost the plot’. There was no linear narrative of me. There was just mess and chaos. So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered. Films. TV dramas. And most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to me to reflect this idea. Which is why the plot of every book ever can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something’. One cliché attached to bookish people is that they are lonely, but for me books were my way out of being lonely. If you are the type of person who thinks too much about stuff then there is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength. In my deepest state of depression, I had felt stuck. I felt trapped in quicksand (as a kid that had been my most common nightmare). Books were about movement. They were about quests and journeys. Beginnings and middles and ends, even if not in that order. They were about new chapters. And leaving old ones behind. And because it was only a few months before that I had lost the point of words, and stories, and even language, I was determined never to feel like that again. I fed and I fed and I fed. I used to sit with the bedside lamp on, reading for about two hours after Andrea had gone to sleep, until my eyes were dry and sore, always seeking and never quite finding, but with that feeling of being tantalisingly close.” – Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive (Canongate Books, 2015), p.136.


Discovery of the month: war-time adverts

There’s something glorious about old advertising: their dated language, their occasionally inappropriate gender stereotyping, their excitement at things we take completely for granted. Perhaps more than other documents they can make us feel that “[t]he past is a foreign country” (L. P. Hartley). Looking through the Wolverton Railway Works collection at Milton Keynes Museum, I found an excellent selection of adverts from the Second World War. Here are a few from ‘Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management: the Journal of the Industrial Welfare Society’ (1944).  This single magazine contains no fewer than four adverts for moisturising creams—the accident record books of the Works show that industrial dermatitis was a huge problem.


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Music and Safety: “Workers are cheered and stimulated, and the pulse of their industry is quickened…” (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/128)
Glamaband Headwear Advert small
Safe and Chic: Glamaband (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/128)
Swivel Respirator Frame Advert small
Prototype for Bane: the Swivel Respirator Frame (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/128)


For more about the Wolverton Railway Works collection at Milton Keynes Museum, visit Adventures in Archives:
Part One: Milton Keynes Museum
Part Two: Soundscapes and Tissue Paper
Part Three: What’s the Point?

Worthy and unsettling successor to a classic: Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek

Gabriel Utterson witnessed the downfall and death of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde seven years ago. When a man claiming to be Jekyll arrives in London, Utterson’s life is turned upside down. Everything from his inheritance to his sanity is threatened by Jekyll’s apparent return from the dead. Utterson sets out to find the truth: “If he be Mr Hyde, I shall be Mr Seek.”

Anthony O'Neill Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek

I often get quite protective of my favourite novels when they are rewritten by contemporary authors. P. D. James’s “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice — Pemberley —for instance, is a fun but slightly incongruous return to characters I know and love. It’s enjoyable, but not something I’d ever consider a true successor to the original. Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek, however, not only convincingly reimagines Stevenson’s novel, but it does so in such a way that expands on and enhances the original. A dialogue is established between the two, so that each enriches the other.

O’Neill’s writing puts us very convincingly in the world of Victorian London. Everything from the setting, style, and even narrative structure is reminiscent of Stevenson. The novel starts as a Gothic romp in Victorian London (with a jaunt to Edinburgh, Stevenson’s hometown, which I particularly appreciated). But it quickly unravels. As Utterson fights to prove the new Jekyll is an impostor, he is assailed by doubts. The Gothic romp becomes a deeply unsettling portrayal of a deteriorating mind; a study of madness and obsession.

Since Utterson can’t tell if he can trust anyone, including himself, he becomes an unreliable narrator. The readers are left not knowing what is real and what is not. This is particularly effective as any so-called “liberties” taken with the original novella can be undermined depending on which version of the facts you choose to believe. Nothing is certain.

A only 133 pages, you race through it, barely able to pause for breath. A dark and discomforting tribute to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, this is also an excellent read in its own right.

Favourite quotation: “Hyde is concealed deep within Dr Jekyll, and safely imprisoned at that. He is a scoundrel and a malefactor, true, but no more evil or dangerous than all the other scoundrels and malefactors that today lie hidden in this very court. For whom among you does not harbour his own Mr Hyde?…Who does not daily, hourly, suppress the urges of his horrible Hyde?…[W]hile you have every reason to deliver a verdict on Mr Hyde, you can no more condemn Dr Jekyll than you can condemn yourselves. We are all Jekylls, yea, but equally we are all Hydes.” (loc 769-781)

Anthony O’Neill, Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek (Black & White Publishing, 2017)

Thank you to Anthony O’Neill and Black & White Publishing via NetGalley for a copy in an exchange for an honest review.


The ultimate surveillance nightmare – Broadcast by Liam Brown

David is a vlogger, and has found fame telling millions of followers about the intricacies of his ordinary life. He keeps nothing from his adoring public. Then MindCast offer him the opportunity to broadcast his thoughts 24 hours a day. A small operation, a tiny chip in his brain, and he will be the most famous person on the planet. How could he say no?

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Broadcast is a fast-paced and intriguing exploration of the dangers of our social media-obsessed society. The world Brown describes is just one small step away from our own. In fact, MindCast is the next logical step in our social media journey — not even a short step away, but a shortcut to instant gratification.

I loved this most when it was talking about the philosophy of surveillance and celebrity culture, especially the celebrity of the everyday. The consequences of the chip, such as David not being able to use passwords and PINs, not even being able to think negatively about a restaurant without risking being sued, are extremely well thought-out. The anxiety this provokes is hugely convincing.

A number of reviews I’ve read have focused on how unsympathetic David is. While he’s certainly not someone I can immediately imagine being friends with, I didn’t find this in any way a barrier to my enjoyment of the novel. David’s character — vapid, self-obsessed, often thoughtless — was believable if not likeable. He barely thinks about the consequences of having the chip implanted: the decision is made apparently on a whim, spurred on by his competitive nature and desire for fame, but this was completely in-line with his character.

The last quarter of the novel is more dramatic and action-based, which I personally found less appealing. I wish too, that Alice’s role and character in the latter part of the novel had been explored further. That said the ending is tremendously unsettling and a worthy conclusion to well-executed book with a fascinating concept.

Liam Brown, Broadcast (Legend Press, 2017)

Thank you to Liam Brown and Legend Press via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Magic ordinary and extraordinary: The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale

Cathy Wray, 15 years old and newly pregnant. Fearful of losing her baby, she runs away from her family, responding to a job advert in the newspaper: “Are you lost? Are you afraid? Are you a child at heart?” This is Cathy’s introduction to Papa Jack’s Emporium, a place where lost souls gather to experience the spectacular magic of Papa Jack’s toys. She meets the intimidating Papa Jack, the charismatic Kaspar, and his long-suffering brother, Emil. We follow their fortunes over the course of 50 years: births, marriages, war, bankruptcy, and magic.

The Toy Makers Robert Dinsdale
Cover by the hugely talented Laura Barrett

Despite the fact the story covers such a long period of time, the plot never stumbles. Hours passed as I was reading without me realising, and even when it reached the small hours of the morning, I could not stop. I wish I could put my finger on what makes this book so brilliant. The writing is gorgeous, vivid, and visual. The narrator often acts as a guide, inviting us in to explore the labyrinth of the emporium, the minds of the characters. It seems redundant to say the characters are well developed. They weren’t characters to me. They were real people, with all the hopes and dreams, fears and foibles of real people. I shared in their pain, their uncertainties, their unexpected joys.

Robert Dinsdale’s story-telling has a peculiar magic. Reading his writing it is as though the words fade away to reveal the scenes he describes, played out in front of you. Inanimate toys are wound up, and they stand to attention. But what is this peculiar magic that makes toys act beyond the expectations of their mechanisms? The magic that makes Dinsdale’s words reach out, take your hand, and drag you along with the story? It feels like his writing, just like his toy soldiers, is alive.

The book succeeds because its foundation is a study of human life, and watching four generations of a family succeed and fail. It’s also a book about nostalgia, sentimental but never mawkish. It’s about how toys can make us feel like children again, and the trials of one family trying to bring some joy into a troubled world. But it’s also about magic. The ordinary magic of love and hope, and the extraordinary magic of what might happen if, just if, a toy were to one day come to life.

Favourite quotation, the wisdom of Papa Jack:
“But can a toy come to life? My dear…it isn’t foolish at all. All of the magic, all of the love we pour into them. I should think the only foolish thing is to wonder why it doesn’t happen all of the time.”

Robert Dinsdale, The Toy Makers (Penguin Random House, 2018)

Thank you to Robert Dinsdale and Penguin Random House via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Quotation of the month – John Wilkins on the vice of liberally quoting

I’m aware there is a certain irony in choosing as my quotation of the week a quotation that warns against quoting. But I think there is sufficient substance in Wilkins’ advice to justify sharing it here. I came across this in a notebook, clearly written before I started systematically writing exactly where I was quoting from. As such I have no idea where I found this quotation, but I’m sure it resonated with me as a scholar of English literature trying not to rely too heavily in my essays on the thoughts and ideas of others. I haven’t read all of Wilkins’ Ecclesiastes, but it sounds like an interesting read, calling for, as did many 17th-century works, simplicity and authenticity in speech and writing.

“To stuffe a Sermon with citations of Authors, and the witty sayings of others is to make a feast of vinegar and pepper, which may be very delightful being used moderately as sauces, but must needs be very improper and offensive to be fed upon such as diet.” – John Wilkins, Ecclesiastes (1646)

Gamification of the library experience: Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library

“Knowledge not shared remains unknown.” – Luigi L. Lemoncello

Mr Luigi Lemoncello, the world’s most famous gamemaker, has completely redesigned Kyle Keeley’s local library. When Kyle and his friends are invited to an exclusive sleepover before the library opens, they find they have to solve Mr Lemoncello’s ultimate puzzle: how can they escape the library, using only the resources inside it?

Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library

I was fairly sure I’d like this book just on learning the title. After reading the first few chapters, I was certain I would love it. I am the kind of person who will read a book just because it has “library”, or “bookshop”, or “museum” in the title. So I hadn’t initially realised it was written for children (ages 8-12) until I went hunting for it at my local library (appropriately enough). But it being a children’s book wasn’t going to put me off—I’d just discovered the Artemis Fowl books for the first time, and had read them obsessively. I get rather cross when people talk about being “too old” to read a certain book.

And how glad I am I found it, nestling among the low-hanging books of the children’s bookshelves. This book has everything. A tightly plotted adventure, literary references galore, outrageous puns, and a healthy does of parable-type moralising. It even has a few irresistible puzzles for the reader. Above all it’s a love letter to libraries and the power of stories and knowledge.

For adults, it’s a fun afternoon read to make us fall in love with reading again. For children, it’s a must for encouraging them to read books and visit their library. Although they might be disappointed if it doesn’t contain a holographic tiger—I’m certainly hoping my local library will be installing a Book Nook Café soon.

Favourite quotation: “A library doesn’t need windows, Andrew. We have books, which are windows into worlds we never even dreamed possible.”

Chris Grabenstein, Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library (Yearling, 2014)

Quotation of the month – Johnson on the mutability of language

I’ve always been fascinated by the tension between prescriptivism and descriptivisim, so it was a surprise to discover the Preface to Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary only recently. I had difficulty choosing which part to quote, because the whole thing is so perfectly phrased in that poised but passionate 18th-century way. The whole text is well worth a read, and available on Project Gutenberg and on the British Library website.

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary Second Edition
Title page to the second edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language

“…with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.
With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.
…The language most likely to continue long without alteration, would be that of a nation raised a little, and but a little, above barbarity, secluded from strangers, and totally employed in procuring the conveniencies of life; wither without books…men thus busied and unlearned, having only such words as common use requires, would perhaps long continue to express the same notions by the same signs, But no such constancy can be expected in a people polished by arts, and classed by subordination, where one part of the community is sustained and accommodated by the labour of the other. Those who have much leisure to think, will always be enlarging the stock of ideas, and every increase of knowledge, whether real or fancied, will produce new words, or combinations of words. When the mind is unchained from necessity, it will range after convenience; when it is left at large in the fields of speculation, it will shift opinions; as any custom is disused, the words that expressed it must perish with it; as any opinion grows popular, it will innovate speech in the same proportion as it alters practice.” – from the Preface to Johnson’s Dictionary (1755)

Immersive and convincing historical fiction: A Pearl for My Mistress by Annabel Fielding


Both Hester and Sophie are trying to escape. Hester dreams of travelling. She has left her family and her home, abandoning her working class vocabulary and Northern accent to become the perfect lady’s maid. Sophie longs for independence, to free herself from the rigid shackles of her aristocratic upbringing. In trying to escape, they find each other. But it’s 1934 in England, so can their relationship survive the threat of war, financial instability, and slander?

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When I began this book I imagined it would be an easy read; your average romantic novel. How wrong I was. This book is so much more than a love story. Yes, the pace nips along nicely and the story is totally immersive, but the historical context adds great depth and intrigue, and the prose is beautiful, elegant, and expressive.

This book is not merely set against a backdrop of the 1930s, but is completely immersed in the time. Fielding’s writing is so evocative that it’s easy to imagine every last detail of life in 1930s England. A Pearl for My Mistress is clearly thoroughly researched, and the historical context is effortlessly intertwined with the plot. Fictional narrative merges with real-life events and characters, moving seamlessly from intricate details of high society life and working class drudgery to broader political themes. While the details are intricate and informed, they never overpower the story. The political climate of the era is profoundly complex, and so the book benefitted from a range of viewpoints. I imagine Lucy, given her support of the Blackshirts, is a somewhat divisive character, but her motivations are perfectly justified, even, at times, sympathetic.

My only gripes were very minor—the commitment to telling the story in the voice of both Hester and Lucy meant some immersion was lost when they were together and the reader had to jump between the two perspectives. I was sad, too, that Hester faded a little into the background towards the last third of the novel.

There’s so much to love about this book: the vividly described historical context, the convincingly flawed characters, the sensual, sentimental, and oh so relatable descriptions of love (which Fielding describes beautifully as like “velvet”). I also loved Fielding’s descriptions of writing and reading, and the power of words and legends to inspire and even control. Fielding’s passion for the era and for the writing process itself is infectious. This is no simple romance, but a story about misplaced trust, self-destructive behaviour, and how characters can survive and thrive against manipulation on a personal and political scale.

Favourite quotation: “Lucy Fitzmartin lay in the darkness, feeling absolutely no inclination to sleep. Her mind was ablaze with stories, with thoughts, with possibilities. She could feel the spectres of a thousand plots at her fingertips. Words flared up in her head, colliding and intertwining with one another, forming sentences and paragraphs of the stories yet to be written. Now she had someone to read them.”

Annabel Fielding, A Pearl for My Mistress (HQ Digital, 2017)

Thank you to Annabel Fielding and HQ Digital for a copy in exchange for an honest review.