A novelist’s thoughts on using a word processor for the first time in 1989

blog, history

“STILL VERY MUCH LEARNING TO THINK ON THIS MACHINE,” writes novelist Russell Banks, in a stream-of-consciousness piece relating to his 1989 book Affliction.

Banks was getting to grips with using a word processor for the first time, to get the words from his head onto paper. Suddenly having this digital intermediary, and being used to getting his thoughts down with pencil and paper, he writes (types):

Since there is no object, no product on paper emerging as I go, there seems to be no activity. That’s the greatest difference at present.

More reflections of this nature can be found in this recent post on Slate’s The Vault blog – a newish collection of trivia devoted to “historical treasures, oddities and delights.”

One other remark made by Banks that stuck out for me personally was this:

Word processor would be [a] great way to keep a journal, as one would never have to regard the text as such but could keep making entries almost as if on a tape recorder.

An interesting point, and similar to some of those raised by respondents to the survey which formed part of my research for my final-year project which asked how and why people keep diaries and journals.

Lyveden New Bield

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One of the great things about being a member of the National Trust (oh yes, Lisa and I both very much feel as though we are that far into our twenties now) is the sheer choice of interesting places to visit.

Our first ‘proper’ visit – the one where we decided to take out a membership – was a very much anticipated trip to Snowshill Manor, home to the eccentric and wonderful Charles Paget Wade.

But our most recent came from me scrolling through their excellent app to find locations not too far away which seemed interesting. And so the app led us to Lyveden New Bield, between Northampton and Peterborough.

The building is situated off a minor country road and remains hidden from view until you’ve bumped and rolled your way along a rough path leading to the National Trust car park. But when it appears it looks most peculiar.


A strong, solid outline of a building standing out on its own in beautiful rural scenery, although seeming not to have windows or a roof – surely a ruin? But no – this is a common misconception.

Although this Elizabethan ‘new build’ has the toothless look of a ruined castle or manor house, Lyveden was in fact never completed, after construction began more than 400 years ago.

And what a remarkable thing it is. Beautiful and very telling of the potential for how it could have been – and yet quite empty and heartbreaking. How rare to find not just a building of this age looking so fresh and sharp in places, but also to find one that was started, never finished – and then never demolished either. Just sat there, all lonely and… weird. But still no less beautiful.


Lyveden cuts a lonely figure perched out there in pristine fields, although it is flanked by a nearby cottage and primitive visitor’s centre (quite literally a shed, although the cottage is being converted into a tea room).

Just over the way is its neighbouring manor house; Lyveden was designed by Sir Thomas Tresham to entertain guests. This primary purpose is evident in the building’s layout. Entrance for 21st century visitors is via a low doorway to the rear – originally for servants.

With no interior floors or features – just holes where floorboards and joists would have sat – it takes a bit of imagination to understand the upper areas. But a handy audio guide does its best to explain the situation of various features of the house, while large recognisable features like fireplaces and doorways stand out.


The scale of the construction is also a bit tricky to get your head around. With no roof to close the space in, visitors are left to crane their necks up at the unusual framing of the sky, which is itself a remarkable feature of the place.


Overall, Lyveden is fascinating from a historical perspective just as much as from an architectural one. The remote rural setting is lovely too, and we were treated to seeing it under a slate-grey sky full of cloud as well as in bright sunlight with blue skies in the space of an hour or so. The mind boggles as to how the place must look in other conditions such as snow or fog.

What a wonderful place. I know we will return.

Meanwhile, having driven us from Milton Keynes to pretty Oundle in Northamptonshire, Lisa, the ever-eager driver, decided that we simply must be closer to the sea than usual…

Despite my apprehension that we must surely in fact be about as far inland as it is possible to get in England, we decided to drive out to the Norfolk coast to see the beach at Hunstanton, overlooking the Wash.

But that’s another story for another blog post, I reckon.

The Appendix – “a historian’s version of wanderlust”

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The other day, while searching for a new online history journal I’m a big fan of, I couldn’t remember their exact URL, so I hoped Google would lead the way.

I typed ‘the appendix’ into the search box and was completely baffled – almost recoiling in horror as if hardcore porn had come up in the search – wondering why half the screen was suddenly full of flesh-coloured illustrations of internal organs.



So anyway. The Appendix. A cool new online history journal, which professes to “shed light on forgotten worlds.” I posted an excerpt from a recent interview with the folks behind The Appendix the other day, and you can get more of a flavour of their intentions via the journal’s submission guidelines and their about page.

More directly though, you can just go ahead and start reading articles from the first issue. The theme is “The End?” and features some cracking stuff already – from a personal journey sifting through the archives of another very different journey (Field Notes, Amazonia 1952: FOUND) to the history of a ghost town in Arizona (Local History: The Vulture Mine and Vulture City–Wickenburg, Arizona).

One thing I love most about The Appendix so far is their allowance of the word “I” in history writing. I love reading about someone’s quest to uncover a mystery.

From Felipe Fernandes Cruz’s Field Notes, Amazonia:

I was anxious to visit collections all across Brazil—imagining it as a frenetic adventure, as if Jack Kerouac had been an archive rat in On The Road. I was feeling a historian’s version of wanderlust.

It’s one thing to read about the events themselves, but quite another to relive it through the writer’s words and actions. I think there’s room for both styles of history writing.

“…a historian’s version of wanderlust.” I think that should be the unofficial tagline for The Appendix.

According to the team behind it, the articles in The Appendix “take advantage of the flexibility of hypertext and modern web presentation techniques to experiment with and explore the process and method of writing history.” This means that stories are presented with extra material like footnotes and images front and center, rather than being stashed away in the, uh, appendix.

The online publication aims to release one full journal each quarter, and does this by drip-feeding each article one at a time over the length of that issue’s run. Subscribers can access the full issue up front, and they also get digital copies of the journal compatible with whatever e-reader/device they happen to use.

Anecdotally, the team behind The Appendix seem to be very much on the ball: I had a question about the Kindle format for subscribers, and I had a reply – and not just a brief one, but a warm, detailed one – to my email just three minutes after I sent it.

Christchurch In Panorama (with thanks to the National Library of New Zealand)

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I’ve recently been playing with the National Library of New Zealand‘s excellent Papers Past archive, along with the Digital NZ website. The former is a resource I’ve long been a fan of – even to the point of printing off whole editions of newspapers held in the archive – while the latter is one I’ve known about for a while but never really used.

It turns out that the big search box that greets you on the Digital NZ homepage is basically a Google for digital New Zealand content. Excellent! Not only can you search just one resource at a time, but a whole host of them, refining the search with filters to drill down to find just what you want.

I can’t believe I hadn’t used it before, but it looks like Digital NZ and the NLNZ’s new beta website are both related and are currently under development. They both work great, sure – but they also look beautiful.

It’s not often that you can say that about a library’s public access catalogue!

One of the benefits of an overhauled new system is a system of APIs which allows developers to make cool stuff using the rich sources of data held by the library. One such project is Tim Sherratt’s QueryPicNZ – a simple tool which performs some pretty complex calculations.


It’ll show you on a graph the number of times a particular search term is used in the whole of the Papers Past archive. It’s great for visually analysing the occurrences of a particular event, say, or for easily identifying the unique uses of a particular phrase.

What’s more, the results plotted on the graph are all clickable, and take you directly to the article in question. Seamless.

Anyway, I stumbled on a 130-year-old article in Papers Past after playing with QueryPicNZ.

I’ve had Christchurch on my mind a lot recently. I can’t really work out why; I’ve spent some time there, but not a great deal. I don’t have family there. But the place resonates within me, and the recent upheaval the city is going through has been a source of constant fascination to me. I’m sure I’ll try and distill this peculiar feeling another time, but for now let’s get back to the matter at hand.


The article in The Star newspaper described a panoramic photograph of Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, taken from the recently-constructed (and now destroyed) Christ Church Cathedral, giving a view of the city in 1881. The article compares the photograph to a particular watercolour which was “a faithful presentment of the Christchurch of 1852.”

The article goes on: “When the tower of the Cathedral had been completed, some of the citizens took advantage of the opportunity to look down, upon the City of the Plains…Beyond the Belts they could see thriving and populous suburbs, and, in every direction, indications that the growth of the community is proceeding with undiminished rigour.”

It describes how Messrs Wheeler and Co. captured “as perfect a panorama as could reasonably be desired.” The panorama affords “much surprise of an agreeable nature, inasmuch as they are not the mere ‘pictures of roofs and chimneys’ which might perhaps have been anticipated.”


The article closes, praising the panorama as “a most effective and highly creditable example of the status in this Colony of one of the artistic pursuits.”

Praise indeed. But what about that photograph? It sounded great, and I really wanted to see it.

Knowing that I had NLNZ’s excellent tools at my disposal, I performed a few searches, but turned up nothing. (Actually that’s not quite true; I turned up about ten other items of interest which lost me about an hour in researching those in turn!)

Eventually, however, I found a lithograph from 1889 which made reference to the Wheeler photograph. It turned out that it was actually based on the panorama itself, and coloured in. So although I couldn’t find the original Wheeler image, here was a tracing of that image, with added colour!

And the icing on the cake, that comes with so many National Library of New Zealand searches: the image has been scanned and is available to view online instantly. So here it is:



Potts, William, 1859-1947Edmund Wheeler and Son (Firm). Willis, Archibald Dudingston (Firm) :City of Christchurch, N. Z. W. Potts, lith, E. Wheeler & Son, Photo. A. D. Willis lithographer, Wanganui. [1889]. Wakefield, Edward 1845-1924 :New Zealand illustrated. The story of New Zealand and descriptions of its cities and towns by Edward Wakefield; also (by various writers) the natural wonders of New Zealand (past and present). Wanganui. A. D. Willis, 1889.. Ref: PUBL-0019-09. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23041986

It’s a stunning image, I’m sure you’ll agree. The newspaper article wasn’t exaggerating.

But the great news doesn’t end there.

NLNZ haven’t just scanned the above image; no, just like a whole load more images you can find in their archive, they’ve scanned it at eye-searingly high resolution, which you can view and zoom into just by clicking the catalogue link, then clicking ‘See original record’, then ‘View archived copy online’. It’s a slightly fiddly process, but the results are worth it.

Here’s a snippet of the image at full resolution:


If you ever find an image on the NLNZ catalogue – particularly a photograph from that era – and there’s a link to view it online, do so. The resolution of the scan will be huge, and the quality of those large-format images of the time is insane. I’ve lost hours panning around a street scene from the turn of the century, reading all the shop signs and scrutinising the faces of whoever happened to be in front of the lens the day the photograph was taken.

Related: Check out a recent NLNZ blog post about just this subject: embiggening images.