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.

Boris Johnson’s Manchester speech, April 2016 – as .mp3 audio

Boris Johnson made a rousing, optimistic and potentially-historic speech yesterday, in Manchester, to open the UK’s ‘Vote Leave’ campaign. I was surprised that the media covered it without pointing to a full recording. So to correct this imbalance here’s the short speech, followed by the extensive audience questions to Boris, in the form of a trimmed and amplified YouTube video with a static JPG…

Also as a portable MP3 file (30Mb).




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 artist’s 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.

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.

Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation

The Oxford University Press has a new video-interview today, on an outstanding new project…

“Over ten years, David Crystal has constructed an entire dictionary of Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation — with guidance on how every single word in the First Folio would most likely have been heard by Shakespeare’s audiences.”

The book is the new The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation (March 2016). The book is not yet on Google Books and there’s no preview PDF on the publisher’s website.

henry_v_1944_crispin_speechPicture: Oliver as Henry V, 1944 — giving the Crispin’s Day Speech.

Regional complications would have to be addressed when pinning down each pronunciation. Since Shakespeare’s troupe often left London to tour the provinces. Thus London actors were no doubt obliged by their local patrons, and by commercial theatre owners, to adapt their London stage pronunciation to be comprehensible to local audiences…

“Elizabethan pronunciation varied widely from region to region, and no standard pronunciation existed, although the London dialect was beginning to achieve a certain dominance by the end of the reign.” (from Voices of Shakespeare’s England: Contemporary Accounts, 2010)

Did Shakespeare occasionally slip a Midlands or Warwickshire folk-phrase into a play? Some suggest that he might have (“golden boys”), others say not. If he did, then any high standard of academic ‘on the page’ proof seems to have been lost in the mists of time…

“In spite of many attempts to trace Warwickshire vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation in his writings, no one has yet proved beyond doubt that more than a few of these regionalisms appear in his works.” (from The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2015)

Which doesn’t mean that, when visiting the regions, the ‘on the page’ version of the play wasn’t amended to include regionalisms — much as today’s touring comedians and pantomimes adapt their routines to a city’s landmarks, regional food types (oatcakes in Stoke-on-Trent, Cumberland sausages, etc) and local sayings.


Photographers’ Identities Catalog

PIC – the Photographers’ Identities Catalog. Sadly my Web browser wasn’t deemed worthy enough to enter, but yours may have better luck.

“Photographers’ Identities Catalog (PIC) is an experimental interface to a collection of biographical data describing photographers, studios, manufacturers, and others involved in the production of photographic images. Consisting of names, nationalities, dates, locations and more, PIC is a vast and growing resource for the historian, student, genealogist, or any lover of photography’s history.”


Harvard’s library of rare colours

Harvard has a special collection of “rare colours”, the Forbes Pigment Collection…

“a floor-to-ceiling wall of color compiled between about 1910 and 1944 by the director of the Fogg Art Museum.”


The new White Paper on Culture

The government’s new Culture White Paper has just been published. Here’s my quick summary of points which seem relevant to the West Midlands, and which were not raised in the recent budget speech

* “A new cultural citizens programme [to] be led by Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund [which] will reach across 70 areas where cultural participation is lowest.” [It will be targeted at disadvantaged youth, and] will be piloted in three areas, and if successful, will grow over the next three years.”

* “every single cultural organisation that receives taxpayers’ money [will] make sure the most disadvantaged in society have greater opportunities to access culture. […] And they will report on progress made.”

* “With the introduction of the apprenticeships levy, we will expect our larger cultural organisations to take on apprentices”

* A “new £40 million Discover England fund [in which] partners work together across geographical boundaries to develop iconic tourism trails [which genuinely and measurably benefit local communities, as measured through] robust assessment”.

* A “new Great Place scheme. This scheme will back local communities who want to put culture at the heart of their local vision” [and is to be] piloted in twelve areas […] where there is a strong local partnership and a commitment to embed culture in the local authority’s plans and policies.”

* “We will support Historic England to establish new Heritage Action Zones” [probably in twelve pilot areas, and will also] “encourage councils and owners to make empty business premises available to cultural organisations on a temporary basis.”

* “encourage more schools to use the pupil premium to give their disadvantaged pupils a greater understanding of our shared culture and heritage.”

* “We will establish a new Commercial Academy for Culture to improve and spread commercial expertise in the cultural sectors.” [so, could this be based in the Midlands?]

* “We will invest a further £2 million in the Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund, which will be matched by £2 million from the Wolfson Foundation.”

* “We will hold a competition in 2017 to find the next UK City of Culture for 2021, and we will commence the process to find a European Capital of Culture for 2023.” [so, could a strong but failed bid from Stoke-on-Trent be rolled over to become a bigger European one for 2023, if Sunderland were to win the City 2021 title on the grounds of economic need?]

* “ensure that the cultural sectors are able to participate in UKTI’s High Value Opportunity (HVO) programme.”

* “We will increase the amount of investment eligible for Social Investment Tax Relief, subject to [permission from the E.U.]”.

* “We will launch a new pilot scheme […] to explore the opportunities for matched crowdfunding as an innovative way of funding cultural projects and to build the evidence base [on this]”.

Mind the gap…

Google Street View now has the first full UK walking trail online, in 360-degree walkable form. It’s the ancient North Downs Way, stretching 153 miles from Farnham — Canterbury — the White Cliffs of Dover. Next up is the Cleveland Way, and the rest of the UK’s main long-distance National Trails are scheduled to go online over the next two years.

Such virtual walking is also set to be boosted in popularity by interfacing with the new wave of 360-degree VR headsets (Jason Singh’s Tweet Music might be the soundtrack for those + the Trails).

Despite there being many fine long-distance paths in and through the Midlands, there’s a huge blank in the National Trails in the centre of the country…


So will the Midlands have to wait, perhaps a decade or so, to reap the tourism benefits of all this new photo-mapping? Or might a consortium of local councils in the Midlands get together and fund a couple of backpack Google-cameras and series of walks this summer?

Budget round-up for creatives

A round-up some of the key points from today’s Budget speech in Parliament, likely to be of interest to creatives and small businesses…

* There will be tax-breaks for museums and galleries which devise and tour major new touring exhibitions. No details, but presumably it will work in the same way as existing help for videogame producers, orchestras and others.

* A £1,000 per year new tax-free allowance for small ‘back-bedroom’ Internet sellers and digital goods traders – and we won’t need to even declare it on the tax forms, apparently. Presumably the Inland Revenue got fed up at having to check each and every one of the fiddly little $-to-£ calculations on people’s Overseas Earnings tax forms.

* A new clampdown on VAT-free importers who sell items on eBay and similar sites, thus leveling the pitch for small UK online sellers (who do get VAT added).

* There’s a new sugary drinks levy/tax – but he said, in passing, that tiny artisanal drinks producers will be exempt.

* A quarter of UK secondary schools will get a share of the £500m a year raised by the sugary drinks levy – and they will spend this on after-school activities (which the Chancellor said would be not limited only to sports, so I guess a tiny bit might find its way to dance etc?).

* 600,000 small businesses/shops will pay no business rates, and 250,000 have their rates cuts, from April 2017. He gave the example that a typical small family newsagent or corner shop will no longer pay business rates at all. The exemption threshold for small business rate relief will increase from £6,000 to £15,000, and higher rate will also be increased.

* A new “lifetime ISA” for those under 40, from 2017. This will possibly be a useful savings vehicle for artists and freelancers. Put in £4k a year of savings and the government will give you an extra £1k a year gratis. Access the cash at any time.

* The personal tax allowance is increased from April 2017 to £11,500 per year, so pay no tax on the first £11,500. Many artists, actors and small freelancers will thus be taken out of tax altogether.

* He extended the VAT refund eligibility for museums, which apparently helps to support free entry to museums. The VAT refund was previously only available for the big national museums. Big touring museum shows will also be able to claim back the VAT, as part of the forthcoming tax breaks scheme.

* Hull gets £13m for its City of Culture 2017, which might indicate the sort of funding that Stoke-on-Trent could expect if the city’s bid is successful.

* Birmingham gets a big shiny £14m creative industries ‘STEAMhouse’ in Digbeth.

* An extra £20m put into the fund to repair England’s cathedrals and churches, so maybe some extra work in prospect for stained-glass artists, wood carvers and stonemasons?

* And there’s also a “beer duty freeze” for independent artisanal craft brewers.

Needless Alley

Birmingham Conservation Trust has a short blog post today on one of my favorite Birmingham places, Needless Alley

“This little passage way is a survivor from old Birmingham that has managed to escape the urban planners!”

It has escaped the council planners, in the sense that it hasn’t been stopped up. But its unique character was badly affected by various changes in the 1990s, and is now markedly different in many sections than it was in the early 1980s. Definitely less smelly.

“The first mention of Needless Alley was from maps dated from 1731, however, it it likely to have been there much longer, perhaps even as far back as medieval Birmingham. […] in the Georgian and early Victoria eras, Needless Alley was a “disorderly street”, full of “disorderly houses”. In the summer of 1829 six individuals appeared before the magistrates accused of keeping “disorderly houses”, whilst a woman who also stood in the dock was described as “a nymph, resident in Needless Alley”.”

William Parker’s photo of the bottom half of Needless Alley, Birmingham, at a time when it hosted shops such as Reddington’s Rare Records, a little stamp collector shop, and seedy bookshops and burger bars…


My own more recent photo, showing how gentrified it’s become…


Banking on Brum

Super! Not only is HSBC staying in the UK, it’s moving 1,000 jobs from London to Birmingham city centre.

BBC iPlayer and the TV licence fee

A forthcoming new law will mean that “Those who watch catch-up BBC iPlayer on tablets will be forced to pay [the TV] licence fee”

“One option being considered is to make users sign in with a password linked in with a television licence before they can watch live or catch-up programmes.”

Well, that’s up to them. But I wouldn’t have thought that Parliament needed to waste time on passing a new law, just so that the BBC could password-protect iPlayer TV?

Anyway, it’s obviously going ahead. So let’s hope that iPlayer TV will be very clearly split from iPlayer Radio (audio streamed via a Web browser). If not, then some BBC users would loose out. Namely, those who only use the BBC website for weather and catching up on In Our Time and various radio documentaries. We would presumably have to block the BBC’s iPlayer stream right down at at the level of the hosts file in Windows, or else risk being collared by license enforcement.

As for TV viewers, I’d suspect that the BBC are shooting themselves in the foot on this one. BBC bosses may imagine that their new law will caused lapsed licence payers to return to Auntie’s heaving bosom. But I suspect that a great many, especially those who only bother with the big serial dramas and occasional science documentary, will simply be pushed from using iPlayer TV as catch-up (no licence) to downloading .MP4 TV programmes from the torrent websites (no licence).