On May 26, 2014, in Images, by Luke McKernan


Road sign in a Medway tributary, near Strood, Kent,

Why have I expended all this effort in writing when I could more easily communicate with images? I’ve been looking at the statistics for the photographs and other images that I have on Flickr, and collectively they have generated 233,869 views over a period of six-and-a-half years. That seems quite a substantial number to me. I have little skill as a photographer – the minutiae of lenses, f-stops, shutter speeds and such like are a closed book to me. My camera is switched to an all-purpose setting, and all I do is point and shoot, generally with indifferent results. Many of my photos are quick snaps using my Blackberry phone. I don’t travel to interesting places, nor find myself in the middle of dramatic events, indeed I make every effort not to do so.

So even an indifferent photographer with no sense of adventure can get nearly quarter of a million views on Flickr, from what are currently 1,985 images. That’s 188 views per image. I don’t know how many words I’ve written online overall, but my Bioscope blog comprised some one million words and has to date generated 1,245,375 visits, or a little over one visitor per word. Alternatively, the site has 1,380 posts, so an average of 900 visits per post. So more readers of texts than viewers of images, but it’s so much effort to write, to think about what words to say and then the sheet slog of typing them all out. Why don’t I just point and shoot, and communicate the easy way?

It’s not a case of which is the more truthful, or useful. Communicating by words and communicating by images have their different ways of getting at the truth, and are useful in their own particular ways. I guess it it boils down to how we think, and I think in words, and less easily in images. Which is ironic, given that much of my professional career has been given over to argue the case for the special value of images – moving images, that is (and if I’m a bad photographer, I’m a still worse filmmaker and very seldom film anything at all). It may be the way that I think, and because it is an effort, and may involve some skill, that the results may feel more satisfaxctory. If I felt the urgent need to communicate through images, I would work to acquire the skills to do so, or I would feel driven to acquire those skills. But I don’t. Yet it’s a shame, when the results of a simple click of a shutter can catch the eye of thousands.

Here are a few personal favourites from the photos on my Flickr account:


Window shutters, Trieste, Italy,


Boats on the shore at Derwentwater, Lake District,


Shadows on the walls of the Ulster Museum, Belfast,


Volumes at the former Newspaper Library, Colindale (a quick phone snap but my most viewed photograph on Flickr),


Torn advertisements on a pillar in Lund, Sweden,


A row of shampoo bottles in a Aldi store, Canterbury (an out-of-focus phone snap, but I still like it),


Audience in foyer of Verdi theatre, Pordenone, Italy,


London viewed from the Shard,


Rochester Cathedral gardens in the snow,


Mushroom (my least viewed photograph on Flickr, just one view in four years, as of today),

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God save the King

On May 18, 2014, in Shakespeare, Theatre, by Luke McKernan


Production photo of King Charles III by Johan Persson, from

King Charles III is one of the best modern plays I have seen. I’ve certainly not seen enough modern plays to make an authoritative judgement as to its quality, but I found play and production – running at London’s Almeida Theatre until the end of May 2014 – outstanding. The play is by Mike Bartlett, and bills itself as a ‘future history’. It tells of a time, maybe just a year or two from now, when Queen Elizabeth II has died and King Charles III ascends to the British throne. It is written in the manner of a Shakespearean drama, in its theme of the state of things seen through the lives on monarchs, and in its construction. It is a five act play and written in blank verse with iambic pentameter (five stresses to a line). A wittier or more appropriate dramatic conceit it would be hard to imagine. Very simply, it works.

The play’s theme is the nature of constitutional monarchy in the present age. Charles becomes King and is frustrated at the purely ceremonial function of his role. As when he was a prince, he wants to make his opinions known, and now he wants the opportunity to influence through the wielding of power. The opportunity arises when the Labour government seeks the royal signature on a bill legislating on press freedoms. Charles refuses to sign it, and sparks off a constitutional crisis. The nation is divided into those that support his stance and those that rebel against it. Tanks are parked on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, as Charles’s convictions reveal their ugly side, while the government puts forward a bill that will end the necessary royal approval of new legislation. The impasse is broken by William, Duke of Cambridge, initially reluctant but finally egged on by his wife, who forces his father to abdicate the throne and becomes King himself, restoring the monarchy to the ceremonial status perfected by his grandmother. A subplot concerns Prince Harry falling in love with a commoner, planning to renounce his royal status to be with her, but in the end changing his mind.

All of this is great fun, and could have been simply the subject of a mocking satire. It is the great strength of Barlett’s play (and Rupert Goold’s astute direction) that the tale works as high drama, with the emotions suitably engaged, and the action grounded in credibility. These extraordinary things could happen. Charles, as Prince of Wales, is known to write regularly to ministers of state putting forward his opinions – not always very welcome – on a wide range of issues. It is quite plausible that as king he may be less accepting than his mother of the passive role of the constitutional monarch. The abdication crisis of course echoes that if Edward VIII, who like Charles III gave up the throne before his coronation. The characters of the royals, from the conscience-stricken Harry yearning to be free, to the calculating Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, operating behind her ‘plastic doll’ facade to promote the interests of her husband and herself, all chime with a popular sense of how these royals might actually be. In reality they may be dull and stupid; in our imaginations they may be the stuff of Shakespearean drama.


Lydia Wilson as Kate and Oliver Chris as William, photo by Johan Persson

It is Shakespeare that makes this play work. There are obvious, sometimes mocking, borrowings from his plays, notably Macbeth, the Henry IV plays and King Lear. The dissolute Harry is easily connected with Prince Hall, while the ghost of Diana haunts Charles and William, telling each that they will be the greatest king of all, in the manner of Macbeth‘s witches. I wasn’t so sure about the use of Diana – more of a grotesque than a believable human being, to my mind – but it’s an amusing joke for all that. Other Shakespeare homages include comic rustics, and passages describing action that it is easier not to stage.

But the chief joy is the verse. There is a long history of writers who have tried to produce plays in a Shakespearean manner, and produced quite dreadful results, both because they lacked the stagecraft and because they became pompously intoxicated with the curlicues of iambic pentameter: among then Bulwer Lytton (Richelieu, 1839), Alfred Tennyson (Queen Mary, 1875) and Stephen Phillips (Ulysses, 1902). Mike Barlett has mastered the simplicities of such verse. He uses it to enable his characters to express their thoughts most clearly. He avoids the temptation of aping Shakespearean use of imagery, and deftly laughs at pretension by throwing in modern-day language and concerns. This passage from a set piece soliloquy from Kate is a good example of his technique:

I have ambition for my husband yes
And hope my son will grow the finest King
But if I must put up with taunts, and make
So public everything I am, then I
Demand things for myself, I ask no less
Than power to achieve my will in fair
Exchange for total service to the State.
Yes this is what,enthroned, that I will do,
Not simply help my husband in his crown
But wear one of my own.

But here’s my husband, he’s been on the phone.

Act 4, Scene 3

This passage, where Charles agonises over his role and seeks out conformation of his function from Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution shows how effectively Bartlett combines the poetic and the demotic:

I have been through the archive many times
But read as King each word seems made afresh.
I have been seeking moments which relate
Precisely to the current state of play
Our English law is based on precedent
And when I’m called to make my case I must
Have all the facts to hand, examples of
When monarchs in the past have also done
The same as I, or very near. And so.
Here’s Walter Bagehot, eighteen sixty-seven,
Explaining changes to balance of
The Crown and State. I read it as a child.
One line stands out: Bagehot explains that now
The monarch’s mostly ceremonial
And only can expect, from hereon in:
The right to be consulted (which I’ve not)
The right to encourage (which is all I do),
And most importantly the right to warn.
‘The Right to Warn’ so warning is the thing
It’s only what I do, I warn, but even that
I’m told’s too much and so must tolerate
This constant fuzz of bright white noise
The emanates from out the baying mob.

Act 5, Scene 1

Our modern stage lacks poetry. The general trend throughout the 20th and 21st centuries has been towards realistic speech, a continuum that links Galworthy to Rattigan to Osborne to Hare. This is despite the stage being a unnatural place, where the heightened ought to have precedence over the literal. Television drama fulfills the public need for pseudo-realistic language, and while modern theatre has become adept at arresting imagery, its language is too often flatly obvious. It lacks poetry. Why can’t all our plays be in blank verse? was my thought when watching King Charles III. This is how a play should be. It should speak of the concerns of our times in its own language, not always in the language of our times. Blank verse captures the moment; it echoes the deliberation of thought. It has grace and understanding, or at least it does in the right hands. It makes dull royals the stuff of good argument, and invests them with meaningful character. It makes us think we live in interesting times.

I don’t know if King Charles III will become a classic. It is so much of the moment in some of its references that any subsequent production would probably need a re-write to ensure reality had not overtaken it. A highly accomplished, largely lookalike cast such as the Almeida has assembled, might never been assembled again: Tim Pigott-Smith (Charles), Oliver Chris (William), Richard Goulding (Harry), Lydia Wilson (Kate), Margot Leicester (Camilla). In other hands, and at other times, it may not be the same play at all. It has been a privilege to see it, when its time was right.


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Quiet graves

On May 14, 2014, in Cities, People, by Luke McKernan


Weeping angel at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

I’m back from a few days in Paris, where (amongst other things) I visited two of the city’s cemeteries. I hadn’t planned to visit cemeteries on this short break, but the page on Père Lachaise in the city guide fell open in front of me and told me should go, and then Montparnasse cemetery was on the way home. That’s how things happen.

Père Lachaise is the more famous of the two, the larger and the more visually striking. It’s located to the west of Paris, near the Bastille, and is set on a hill which helps give it its distinctive character and the sense of adventure one feels in perambulating the area. It opened in 1804, and became the cemetery where the city’s celebrities chose to be interred after first the graves of Jean de La Fontaine and Molière and soon after the supposed remains of Héloïse and Abélard were moved there. Today visitors are greeted by a large plan at the entrance with a guide to the most notable names to locate, among them Honoré de Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Frédéric Chopin, Isadora Duncan, Georges Méliès, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde.

It is a beautiful place in which they have chosen to rest. It is a garden cemetery, with leafy overhanging trees, and the great variety of graves and monuments, with accompanying statuary, making Père Lachaise a location where every prospect pleases. The cemetery is divided up into sections, intersected mini-streets, which feels like negotiating Paris’ arrondissements in miniature, adding to the sense of cemetery as a reflection of Paris itself, a city of the dead. The graves of the notables are then numbered within each section, and the visitors dutifully check out as many as they have the stamina to do so. Guides are available, who give their groups pocket histories of the subjects’ notable achievements – one guide that I saw appeared to be acting out a large part of one of Molière’s plays for the instruction of his captive audience. I duly went in search of the names that meant most to me, in particular names from the film world, wondering what it is that draws the resting places of the celebrated. It brings us close to them, of course, but also makes us one with them. We admire them all the more for being contained with a small spot of earth with a stone above. We all end up this way.


Of course not everyone in Paris ends up in Père Lachaise. It’s a final resting place for the select, and competition to be buried within its walls is intense. There are fresh graves there, often with photographs of the departed embedded in the stone, a curious modern taste that both shows intimacy and yet somehow belittles the subjects.

The older graves, monuments, vaults and sepulchres have the greater visual appeal, and what progressively fascinated me about the place was those who were not famous, whose graves were not well-attended, whose names did not appear on any tourist guide. Row after row of family sepulchres, shaped like stone police boxes, stand in testimony to city worthies, local politicians, financiers, landowners, lawyers, minor writers and artists long out of fashion, whose names no longer mean anything to anyone. Broken glass (many sepulchres have side windows with stained glass to let in holy light), rusted fretwork and dusty cobwebs mark the locations of the many who receive no visitors at all. Their family names stand proudly above such monuments – for often these are family vaults in which are interred generations under the same name – occasionally with weeping angels to look over them, mourning for those for whom no one mourns.


These are presumably those who paid for their plots in perpetuity (cheaper rates apply for those prepared to be buried for for 50, 30 or 10 years only, while there is a crematorium for more compact storage of the dead). A register somewhere must note that their wishes and their money be respected ad infinitum, and so thousands upon thousands of them stand in mute recognition of the fundamental lack of importance that the majority of us have for anyone beyond our immediate family and friends in the narrow time we spend on this earth. There they are, between Molière and Morrison, symbols of the humble limits of human ambition.


Montparnasse cemetery

A few days later I visited Montparnasse cemetery. This is a plainer, flatter and smaller space, one that is split unequally in two by the Rue Émile Richard, though it has its share of the illustrious dead. Here you may greet the shades of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, César Franck, Guy de Maupassant, May Ray, Eric Rohmer and Susan Sontag. I particularly valued finding the graves of Alfred Dreyfus, the chess player Alexander Alexhine and the documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens, but likewise the many names whose import is lost to time.

Both cemeteries are such quiet places in the midst of a busy city, performing guides notwithstanding, and I wondered what it is that makes us so quiet in cemeteries. Of course we are showing respect for the dead, but is it the dead who demand the quiet or us? The old English ballad ‘The Unquiet Grave’ sees the grave as the resting place of the dead who is disturbed by the mourning of the living. The quietness here lies in eternal rest.

The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.

I’ll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.’

The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
‘Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?’…

But we as visitors to cemeteries are now the ones who are quiet, who want there to be quietness. We recognise the respect due those who are gone. We do not mourn for them, we do not weep with the angels. Instead we recognise our bare, unaccommodated selves in those graves and sepulchres. Those neglected plots have our names upon them. We have no choice but to be quiet. We are as much the dead as they are.


Weeping for the dead – a sculpture at Montparnasse cemetery


Look! We Have Come Through!

On May 1, 2014, in News, Publications, Work, by Luke McKernan

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Video wall in the Newsroom

I didn’t know what to call this post, but whenever I’ve been through some tumultuous period and come out the other side, the exultant title of D.H. Lawrence’s 1917 book of poems Look! We Have Come Through! somehow springs to mind, so it’ll do.

April has been the busiest month, and it has meant that I have neglected things on this site. The effort expended has been mostly in the preparation for events that in themselves were soon over. Much of that effort went towards the launch of the new reading room for news at the British Library, entitled the Newsroom. The Newsroom replaces the former Newspaper Library at Colindale, whose passing I wrote about last year. While the British Library’s newspapers are now being transport lorryload-by-lorryload to a dedicated new store in Boston Spa, Yorkshire, the Newsroom has been opened at the Library’s St Pancras site, with a new vision of providing researchers not just with newspapers, but television news, radio news and web news.

The Newsroom opened on 7 April, and I wrote about the day on the British Library’s Newsroom blog, which describes its layout and features, including such innovative (and technically temperamental) features as a video wall and Twitter feed showing the news coming in as we archive it, as the BL now has the responsibility of archiving the UK web space (which I have written about here). However it is the snazzy digital microfilm readers, with their screens that can be rotated to fit the portrait shape of a newspaper, that have most excited our researchers.

TNR Communications video of the Newsroom opening, which was syndicated to several news websites. I’m in there, somewhere

As the Library’s news curator, I was heavily involved in all this, particularly managing the ‘content’ side of things, while others performed far more practical tasks such as getting the place built and wired up properly. The official launch date was 28 April, when the Newsroom was opened by the Secretary of State for Culture Sajid Javid, whom I took on a tour of the place, trying to make computer terminals and rows of tables look fascinating. The day involved several media interviews (and I truly loathe having cameras pointed at me), and I write about the whole experience in another post on the Newsroom blog. A third post, entitled A strategy for news, sets out the Library’s plans for news content in the future, whose origins partly lie in a post I wrote on this site a while back. It all connects.


Charles Urban (right) with his cameraman brother-in-law Jack Avery

And then there was the book award. Last night saw the Kraszna-Krausz Foundations Book Awards, held as part of the Sony World Photo Awards at London Hilton. The KKF Awards were set up in honour of Andor Kraszna-Krausz who founded Focal Press and give an annual award to the best books on photography and moving image. (or at least the best that have be submitted by publishers who have paid the submission fee). I was a judge for this award three years ago, and now my book Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925 was among the three titles shortlisted for the moving image prize.

Well, dear reader, not to keep you too long in suspense, Charles Urban won the award. I wasn’t there, for reasons that made no sense to those who wanted me to be there, and don’t make much sense to me now, but someone kindly collected it for me on my behalf. So now I am ‘the award-winning author’ – except that the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema book I co-edited with Stephen Herbert way back when was given a minor gong, so maybe I shall parade myself as the ‘multi-award winning author’…

Or maybe not.

All of this, and other work projects too petty to record here, but which have eaten up large amounts of my time, have meant that I have spent little time writing or researching things of personal interest, and the Picturegoing site has been sadly neglected. So I am going to refresh myself in foreign climes for a while, then hope to return to a more balanced life, and will try and find interesting things to say.