Bringing the Express & Star photo archives online

There’s a Facebook page for The Express & Star photo archive project, which seems set to make a big bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project seems to have made a start earlier this year, involving volunteers sorting the archives, having secured seed funding to “explore” the archives in late 2015. I can’t immediately find any funding news after that, but it seems that — if funded — around 750,000 news photographs will be scanned, and then presumably they’ll go online in hi-res. For those who don’t know it, The Express & Star is one of the biggest local/regional daily newspapers in the UK, and has always had excellent geographic coverage via stringers.


About those ‘Euro billions’…

My local newspaper The Sentinel is reporting today that Stoke-on-Trent… “may miss out on £157m of European cash” from the 2014-2020 funding round. That’s a paltry £22m per year.

It’ll be easily replaced…

“… the West Midlands paid in £3.55 [to the EU] for every pound it gets back [in European grants]” — said by Open Europe Director Mats Persson, giving evidence in Parliament to the Communities and Local Government Committee, 2012.

Keep in mind, also, that the city probably wouldn’t have got another £157m for 2020-27 — because the EU would have shifted ever more funding over to Eastern Europe after 2020, regardless. Even if the UK had stayed in the EU, the city might have been lucky to get another £60m for 2020-2027.

Update: The EU funding body (Special EU Programmes Body or SEUPB) today said it is “business as usual” for our EU funding application bids, so we can get and apply for EU funds that run to 2020. (We’re likely to finally leave in June 2019).

A film for today: “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”

If you want a good film to watch this Sunday, it’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007). I’ve just seen it again, and it’s an utterly perfect fit with this moment in history.

The Leave vote in the West Midlands: an infographic

Here’s my quick re-tabulation of the BBC local results, to show only the West Midlands. It demonstrates the ‘Leave’ vote surging across rural and metropolitan areas alike, in what was the biggest popular vote in British history. Of course, some are already trying to re-frame the narrative on the vote — feebly squeaking about voters being ‘gullible’, ‘tricked’, ‘racists’ or ‘illiterates marking their cross at random’. But their anti-democratic squeaking is silenced by the roar of the results, which was heard right across the West Midlands from Stratford-upon-Avon in the south to the Staffordshire Moorlands in the north…



“O brave new world…”

“O brave new world, that has such people in it!” — Shakespeare, The Tempest.


We’re leaving the EU

Congratulations to every one of the much-mooted “… people who have not spoken yet”. You’ve spoken at last, and have voted for the generations who are coming. It’s 4.45am and the UK is leaving the EU.

Lunar Society conference

Lunarticks, Linnaeus and Lichfield Conference 2016

“… in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the Lunar Society. This two day conference will be held at Erasmus Darwin House … an extensive programme of speakers covering a variety of topics relating to the Lunar Society”


Community Media Conference 2016

10th September 2016.
The Community Media Conference 2016, Birmingham city centre.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – a game set in the rural Midlands

I’m not a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction in its modern American form, but there’s an interesting and rather more lyrical literary tradition in English sci-fi — stretching from Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” (1826) through Wild England (1888), to H.G. Wells and beyond — which makes the English countryside and topography an integral part of such a story. The genre was perhaps at its strongest and most mature from about 1972 until 1984, when it mingled with interest in ‘earth mysteries’ and had its book sales bolstered by various popular post-apocalyptic TV series such as the original Survivors. I remember that I sought out and read just about all such books, up until around 1985 — as well as a few comics that treated the theme, such as the earliest appearance of Woodgod.

So it’s interesting to find this tradition put into videogame form and set in the Midlands. The game Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is set in and around a meticulously recreated Shropshire village, in the fateful summer of 1984.



The game’s use of the ‘the rapture’ in the title is frankly very off-putting, suggesting it may perhaps be some born-again Christian propaganda game. But it’s been made in Brighton and is published by Sony, and the game gets a very respectable 79% score in a review in the latest PC Gamer magazine (June 2016). It’s said to take a slow and meditative ‘walking + storytelling’ approach, and is far from being a grim and dusty Fallout or a “bring me the thumbs of 100 zombies” RPG game. The plot, involving a village in a Doctor Who-like “quarantine”, is a “fairly standard sci-fi” story according to PC Gamer. But the huge village environment, non-player characters and the orchestral music / sound-design apparently make up for the slightly downbeat and standard story.



What the PC Gamer review doesn’t mention is that the game appears to have won a shed-load of awards…


England: Made in the Middle

Such irony. It seems that the new five-part BBC series about the history of the Midlands has been made… in Manchester. England: Made in the Middle is on BBC Radio 4, 1.45pm from next Monday.

The Bluedot Festival

The famous Jodrell Bank telescope, located 15 miles north of Stoke-on-Trent on the Cheshire plain, is to be home to a major new three-day festival on 22nd-24th July 2016. Electronic music maestro Jean-Michel Jarre will headline the event’s music stage, along with Air, Underworld and Caribou — with Brian Eno doing projection-mapping onto the iconic telescope. There will also be a full slate of arts-and-science events and talks, which are being announced on the website as confirmations come in.


Shrewsbury, home of comics crafting

A new BBC News article today on “Shrewsbury – the unofficial home of the British comics industry”. The large market town of Shrewsbury is on the western fringe of the English Midlands, with fairly good connections to the cities of Stoke and Birmingham, and is also home to The Shrewsbury Cartoon Festival. The Festival is best kept up-to-date with via their Facebook group these days.

Eastercon 2017 in Birmingham

Eastercon, the year’s major British convention for literary science fiction, is coming to the Birmingham NEC next year. 14th – 17th April 2017 at the Hilton Metropole, with Guest of Honour Pat Cadigan.


A Coventry man has started a very promising service for remote recruitment and networking of bona fide African talent…

SkilledAfricans, a pan-continental social network that boasts 750,000 members, aims to […] “increase knowledge, and prove knowledge,” says CEO and co-founder Dr. Nicolas Bussard. The website and app — which launches this week — are designed to give users the tools to build their skill-set and certify their resumes — essential in today’s job market. [Bussard was …] born to an “extremely poor” family in rural Cameroon and adopted by French-Swiss parents, Bussard moved to England to study at Coventry University, where he became a lecturer in mathematics and e-commerce by the age of 21.”


Breakthrough Starshot

The $100m Breakthrough Starshot plans to send light-sail powered space probes to Alpha Centauri, at 20% the speed of light. This major private project was announced yesterday by an all-star panel, including Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, Mark Zuckerberg and others. The final cost seems likely to be around $12bn. Cosmos magazine covers the technical details, and the Daily Mail rounds up all the videos.


I’ve Photoshopped together a clutch of public domain ISS pictures and my new 3D render, for a quick impression of such a probe (above). Slightly aggrandized, as the actual interstellar payload will be less of a pole and more of a small box. But such probes bound only for the solar system (Pluto in three days!) might perhaps be a big as this.

Arts funding and local government – new report

Just released, a new PDF report from the Arts Council and the New Local Government Network. It covers topics such as: the dip in funding that comes via local councils (a 19% cut in the West Midlands, since 2010); the ongoing pressure on small museums; the move toward trusts, home-brewed fundraising and commercial ventures; and the need for better measurement of outcomes from local projects/investments. There’s no mention of Staffordshire or Stoke in the report, but Birmingham and the Midlands get some attention.


Penda’s Fen on DVD

At last… Penda’s Fen (1974) on DVD, albeit in an expensive boxed set.


Pet Shop Boys – Super

Super, there’s a new album from The Pet Shop Boys. Just released, and Super. Yes, the title is just… Super.

1. Happiness.
2. The Pop Kids.
3. Twenty-something.
4. Groovy.
5. The Dictator Decides.
6. Pazzo!
7. Inner Sanctum.
8. Undertow.
9. Sad Robot World.
10. Say It To Me.
11. Burn.
12. Into Thin Air.

Plus two B-side tracks, available on the album’s single, “The Pop Kids”

* In Bits.
* One-hit Wonder.

Also a free PDF interview booklet.


Gi’ It Some ‘Ommer

The new academic book Regional Aesthetics: Mapping UK Media Cultures has a chapter on ITV’s screen representations of some aspects of Black Country traditions and ways-of-life.


ITV’s regional programming in the early 1970s reflected that particular moment in our history when there was an emerging awareness of the enormity of what was being lost in the rapid erosion of English traditions, and the knowledge (among intellectuals, mostly) that many aspects of a once-living folk-life were already quietly slipping away into dusty academic libraries and archives.

As a consequence there was…

“… a surge in interest, not only in recording and preserving those traditions, but also in recreating and reconstructing them […] the ITV regional companies operating in this period did not so much invent the performative [TV] mode of representing the Black Country discussed here, but rather tapped into a pre-existing [local] movement.”

I’d note that this was paralleled by the sudden and strong revival of localist fantasy and ‘earth mysteries’ in the 1970s, which rediscovered past Midlands-linked glories such as The Lord of the Rings and which expressed itself in a variety of highly influential children’s novels (Alan Garner, et al). To a lesser extent it also reached the screen, in works such as Penda’s Fen. Such works of imaginative claiming and re-adaptation were made all the more profound, since they were being shadowed by the very real losses and fragilities recorded by the likes of ITV.

The chapter’s author initially feels the need to chide the more lumpen sort of media studies academic, the sort who tends to see TV as manipulative and constructive of a false consciousness among ‘the masses’. Personally I have no problem with a sympathetic media playing a large role in the reconstruction and adaption of tradition. In my view it always has had that role, from the bardic ballads onward. One of the great English traditions is the invention of tradition, and then the deft elision and interweaving of this with real lives and wider histories. An example of the process in its nascent form might be 2016’s new Staffordshire Day on 1st May.

Of course, such a process works best when it’s part of a conversational and quietly mutual re-construction that’s carried out across groups, and is usually best undertaken by a loose alliance of sympathetic thinkers and do-ers each located in very different strata of society. Often those thinkers and do-ers are traditionalists, but of the sort that knows tradition only works for people if it’s constantly re-made and re-worked. So they’re very different from the gloomy sort of fossilised conservatives (“bring back 1894!”), who are often such unimaginative pessimists that they form a de facto unholy alliance with the cynical and deconstructive left (“bring back 1984!”).

Anyways, short clips from some of the ITV coverage discussed in the chapter can be seen online, such as “On the Road to Nowhere” (1974), the full version of which was on the out-of-print MACE DVD The Black Country 1969. The chapter also discusses the use of local poetry from The Blackcountryman magazine, as well as songs, used by ITV as a distilled localist commentary laid over their screen montages.

Cat Hampurr

Stoke-on-Trent based cat subscription company Cat Hampurr. A different cat, boxed and delivered to your door each month.


No… it’s not actually quite as cool as that. They actually send you a monthly box of tempting kittie-nibbles and feline fun stuff.