Thursday, 11 March 2010

To begin with...

Well, everybody. I'm writing this in the reading room of the National Library of Scotland, convinced that I'm surrounded by people who are smarter than I am, work harder than I do...and are definitely younger...except for the legendary professorial presences who also haunt these halls. I am, in short, intimidated and guilt-struck. This is by no means a novel sensation for me. I’m Scottish.

And I'm not an academic. I mean, I'm not stupid, but I'm not a scholar, and I'm surrounded by scholars here, quietly tapping on their laptops, purple sparks of intelligence dancing round their heads. No, what I am is a playwright, and playwrights are only coincidentally, and not even necessarily "writers". Let alone academics.

So what am I doing here?

I’m doing what they’re all doing. I’m reading. I’m reading and responding to what I read.

What a playwright is, is a maker of plays. There's a "gh" in Wright. In my case, I stole my definition of a playwright from the definition of an animator by the great Chuck Jones and applied it to my job. I am an actor with a pencil.

Or, at the moment, a self conscious actor with a steam driven Dell PC whose battery keeps falling out, itself cringing at all the Mac Books, Life Books and Advents all around it.

Anyway, in the course of the next year, I'm going to be treasure hunting on an island of words called the John Murray Archive, finding objects, documents which will eventually feature on a website…which itself will act as a gateway into what I’ve come to understand, over the past few years, is a different kind of way of looking at history.

This mountain of paper that passed across the desks of John Murray and his six identically named successors over the last two hundred and fifty odd years…is a kind of prism. It gives a perspective, a very particular perspective on what people thought and talked about over two and a half centuries.

There’s a book by Humphrey Carpenter called 'The Seven Ages of John Murray'…and it has some other names on the dust cover too…names that the publisher (John Murray) hopes that we will recognize. These Are They

Lord Byron
Jane Austen
Charles Darwin
David Livingstone
John Betjeman
Kenneth Clark
Walter Scott
Washington Irving
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Queen Victoria

These were all 'Murray authors'

So were

Charles Lyell
Herman Melville
Conan Doyle
Isabella Bird Bishop
Austen Layard
Heinrich Schliemann
Caroline Lamb
William Franklin
Caroline Norton
Mary Somerville
Freya Stark
Samuel Smiles

And so on…

Now, if any of those names mean anything to you, that means there are letters and ledgers upstairs and downstairs from where I’m sitting now.

It is, simply, the greatest publishing archive in the world.

Now specialists and students of all of the above all know about this archive. It had been kept for years by the Murray family in their extraordinary house at 50 Albemarle Street off Piccadilly, and folk have been going there for years to root among the boxes.

What is new is that archive is now at the National Library of Scotland here in Edinburgh. This means it’s being curated and restored and exhibited and publicized in a way it never has before.

I’ve been involved with this for a couple of years now…devising and presenting and co-producing events with actors. I’ve done a play for children on Charles Darwin called “This View of Life”. Four fine actors worked with me and Neil Packham at the Citizens Theatre and a designer called Moley Campbell made us a time machine out of a dinosaur, and a fine time was had by all.

I’m going to make all the scripts and photographs of all this available on this site if you’re interested things, but I’m not doing that now.

I’m in the cages. The cages is where they keep stuff in this library…where book fetchers walk ten miles every day down in the darkness, bringing books up to the light of the reading room. The Murray archive is huge…maybe 12 million objects…that’s as nothing to the total tonnage of paper and film and sound recordings and maps that this building contains.

I’m in the cages. I’m not working on a show. I’m not working with actors at the moment. What I’m doing is trying to look at this collection as a whole, and find interesting ways of letting people know the stuff that’s in here.

I’m going to make a list…a short list. I’m going to read. I’m going to respond to what I read. I’m going to write my thought process down.

I may do poems. I may do jokes. I don’t know yet

I’m in the cages. Reading.

Looking for stuff to read, think about, and talk about.

This isn’t (yet) an argument or a journey.

I'm attempting to turn my tyro status as a researcher to some good use by writing this blog as an Idiot's Guide to this extraordinary collection of science and travel writing, poetry and philosophy, archaeology and well as Sherlock Holmes...from two and half centuries as one of the most important publishers in the English language. And when I say "Idiot's Guide", I don't mean Guide for Idiots...oh, no...I mean BY an idiot. Or if not an idiot, exactly, I'm someone who is guided not by an idea, or the requirements of exams, or a PHD, I'm guided by "amazement" my own freedom to explore...I am following my own amazement from here on in, wherever it leads, and I have probably the most exciting publishers' archive on earth to explore and be amazed by.

What I am is a reader. That’s what it says on my ticket.

I want this to be interesting to look at. I also want it to lead somewhere concrete. I'm not entirely comfortable just improvising into the ether...

The way our thinking about this project is developing is as follows:

that by the end of the year, we develop a web resource...a page duplicating the offices/meeting room/salon at Albemarle Street at the height of the power and influence of the publishing house...when the Murray's establishment was a place where Byron met with Walter Scott...and Murray burned his Lordship's memoirs; where a draft of the Origin Of Species was on Murray's desk at the same time as Self Help by Samuel Smiles and an extraordinary dictionary of the Bible; where woodblocks to illustrate the travels of David Livingstone shared a space with locks of hair clipped from the heads of Byron's admirers(not all from the head) ; where dispatches came from Afghanistan from a martyr of the siege of Kabul in 1842; where Lord Raglan wrote to Murray for a guidebook to the Holy Places of Turkey before going off to disaster in the Crimean War...

What we plan to end up with is a virtual guide…or introduction…or gateway\y…or theatre foyer… to all this...and what I'm doing in the meantime is thinking aloud as I read, as it were...

So sometimes I'll be posting fairly considered pieces on particular objects from the collection (roughly the same ones as are going to end up on the site, and which will form occasional illustrations to this blog)

Sometimes I'll be taking notes on what I'm reading...offering opinions, asking for opinions...not just from the experts here, but from anyone who happens to be out there...

My colleagues will be adding stuff too...useful links for researchers...or for anyone...

But principally I am getting to browse...which is not something one can normally do here.

To make good use of a library like this, you have to know, at least broadly, what you're looking for...

Hence the live element of this...I'm going to allow myself to be led from object to object, text to text...finding a clue in what I find as to what I'm going to look for next.

So I look around me now at all these people who are smarter than me and work harder than I do...who are better than me in every way...lots of them can even type with more than two fingers...and I become unbearably smug for a moment as I look at the people around me.

YOU'VE all got proper work to do. Me, I don't have to specialize in ANYTHING...I can allow my own amazement, my LACK of purpose, my freedom... (Call me Ishmael!) find and tell whatever stories I want to tell, whatever I think will interest, amuse or amaze me...You can all be Captain Ahab if you search of your white whales...I can be Austen Layard standing blinking in the torch light at the Library of Nineveh...understanding nothing that was written there...but knowing that an unknown world is mine to look at.

It only belongs to me because it belongs to all of us. You only need to know it's here.

You never even have to visit a library to understand that it's very important that it's there, that there is somewhere, by statute available to everyone, where all the world is shown, known and catalogued...The John Murray Archive, huge though it is, is a relative pipsqueak to the flammable heaps of historic paper that surround this small, packed readers room. Shelf after shelf, box after box, cage after cage (like beasts, book are dangerous).

The NLS is like the internet...infinite and therefore impossible unless you have a notion what you're looking for. You type a search term into Google...and you have to be precise, or you don't stand much chance of finding anything useful...same with this place. Nobody can come in here and just have to know what you're after in have to enter a search term...and catalogues, like all dead things, are only as smart as you were when you asked them a question to start with. Garbage in and garbage out and all that.

So all the people who come in here, to this building, usually have a very precise idea of the item they want to request...whether it's a letter written by Mary Queen of Scots, or a Motoring magazine from November 1964...

Except me.

Which, I think, places me ideally...Idiot lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!

So that's the theory of what I'm trying to do for myself here. I am trying to be amazed by accident. Be changed by the things I find. Not decide in advance exactly what I'm interested in, but have a slightly smaller pool to jump into than the total stock of the library of the universe. I'm here to be a reader....and be guided by my own amazement. Nothing more.

And this blog is a diary of reading. And what I think about while I'm reading. Some of it is going to get written in the style of a play, of dialogue, because that's what I do, partly...and because I think that's what reading is, or can be.

A dialogue with the dead.


  1. callum cuthbertson12 March 2010 at 20:20

    My God, you're lucky. I look forward to following this journey x

  2. Actually good to have a background on John McMurray 1st and lineage. Do you have it by any chance?

  3. Yes, you can read background information for the 7 generations of Murray's here: