Brain Science, Cholera, Gin (a few of my favourite things?)

I recently reviewed Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century by Anne Stiles for the British Society for Literature and Science. If you’re interested in the Gothic, vampires, murder-mysteries, Jekyll & Hyde, psychology, and nineteenth-century theories of the mind, I’d recommend it. In fact, it fits quite well with the exhibit I just saw at the Wellcome: Brains: The Mind as Matter.

Me, Richard, & Rebecca listening to 'Bedbugs' along with the Henry's crowd.
Photo courtesy of Rob Falconer.

Last night, the Wellcome ‘Henry’s Club’ held its first after-hours Member’s event, a launch of Rebecca Tremain’s ‘The Gilded Vectors of Disease‘ Episode 3: Bedbugs. It was great fun to be part of recording, and to write and perform a new poem, ‘A Bedbug in Manhattan,’ for the episode. About ten club members joined me, Rebecca, programme producer Rob Falconer, and Dr Richard Barnett (guest interviewer for Episode 3 & Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow) for wine & snacks, and to listen to a preview of Bedbugs, which is on the air next Wednesday at 7:30 pm on Resonance FM. There were quite a few ‘ewws’ ‘ahhs’ and chuckles, and ‘A Bedbug in Manhattan’ garnered a round of applause!

The main theme of my week, however, has been Sick City. This project began as Medical London: City of Diseases, City of Cures, a gorgeous box-set of books and maps written by Richard Barnett, (mentioned above,) & published in 2008 by Strange Attractor Press, in association with the Wellcome Collection. It takes the reader on historical, self-guided walks around London, focusing on such stories as Dr John Snow’s solution to the Cholera epidemic in Soho, the lost Fleet River, and the rise and demise of gin in English culture. In his role as Engagement Fellow, Richard has begun to turn these ‘Sick City’ stories into digital media, starting with a series of cleverly-designed apps for smartphones which will allow listeners to go on his guided walks anytime they like.

Richard is working with former BBC radio producer Joanna Rahim to develop this series, and they began with the wonderfully-titled ‘Blood, Guts, Brains and Babies’, of which there is an enthusiastic review here. (6th paragraph down) and a wonderful interview here. ‘Blood Guts, Brains and Babies’ is available here to download free.

'Henry's' Club members listening to 'Bedbugs' pre-airing (pre-listening?)
Photo courtesy of Rob Falconer.

Working with Richard on The Gilded Vectors episode prompted him to invite me to be an extra voice on the apps, and we’ve spent the past few days working with Joanna on three walks: John Snow & Cholera, the London Gin Craze, and the Lost River Fleet. My role is to read excerpts from literature and poetry which flesh out the stories and help bring in colourful, contemporary primary resources.

I’m being treated to the best possible introduction to radio & audio recording, working first with Rob, Rebecca, and Richard, and now with Richard and Joanna. Everyone is delightful and they have a vast amount of professional experience amongst them. (It’s surreal to be repeatedly told I have a wonderful voice, and that I’m in the right country to have an ‘exotic American accent’ – oh Rhode Island, who knew?!)

Most of all, this is fun, and a brilliant learning experience. The pace is snappy and vibrant, a breath of fresh air compared to the geologic worlds of fiction and poetry publishing. Results are quick; sometimes immediate. We’re doing projects that have trackable results & readerships (as its all digital – in fact, Rob said a number of readers came to the ‘Gilded Vectors’ programme from having read it on this blog, so thank you, readers!).

The Sick City apps will be available soon, for free, and you know I’ll tell you when they’re online…

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