The Holderness Whale: Exhibition at Burton Constable

BCBT01-300x203I first met artist Caroline Hack at the “Moby Dick on the Mersey” marathon read I organised in Liverpool in 2013. We’ve since worked together on a little book about the 1816 voyage of the Whitby whale ship Esk. Back in 2013 Caroline was already established with a back catalogue of work related to whales and historic whaling and she is currently Artist in Residence at Burton Constable Hall in East Yorkshire, where there is a famous skeleton of a Sperm Whale, washed up on the Holderness coast at Tunstall in 1825. This skeleton featured first in Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) and later, via Beale, in Moby-Dick (1851) itself.

Caroline has built an exhibition with this skeleton–now in the stables–as its centrepiece, starting from Saturday March 26. If you’re in the area the hall and grounds themselves are a good day out anyway, but this exhibition just makes it all the more worthwhile. Caroline’s work with printed and sewn fabrics is both reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, and starkly corporeal in its use of whale bones and historic objects.

The exhibition runs from Easter Saturday to Thursday 28 April 2016. Opening Times: 11am – 5pm, seven days per week (the hall itself is not open on Fridays). The project is funded by the Arts Council England via Grants for the Arts and the Friends of Burton Constable.

See more of Caroline’s work at

Melville in Liverpool on BBC Radio 4

On Monday I was interviewed on BBC Radio Four for a programme by poet Paul Farley on Herman Melville and his relationship with England and with Liverpool in particular. Melville came to England three times: as a cabin boy in 1839, as an established, and quite famous writer in 1849, and as a writer facing “annihilation” in 1856. We talked by the side of a breezy, chilly Albert Dock. I’ve done several radio and TV interviews over the years and even though we cowered in an alcove by the entrance to the public toilets, this was, from my point of view at least, the most enjoyable and relaxed. The programme, Herman Melville’s Sea Change, is very atmospheric and thought-provoking. If you are in the UK can be heard at this link until early March.


From Liverpool’s Greenland Street to Greenland’s Liverpool Coast: William Scoresby, Whaling, and Exploration

On April 17th this year I gave a public lecture based on my research on William Scoresby Jr, Liverpool, whaling and exploration at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. This was the first in a series of public talks exploring whaling and Liverpool as part of the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival. The video below is a recording I made while I was speaking combined with the slides from my talk. I’ve also included links below to the audio on its own.

If you want to listen to the talk without the slideshow, the mp3 is downloadable from here, or you can use the audio player below.

This public lecture series was organised as part of the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival by Claire Jones of the Department of Continuing Education, University of Liverpool.

Arctic Whaling in Liverpool

I aim to write something about the extraordinary weekend I’ve just had, helping to organise and taking part in Moby Dick on the Mersey, and about all the wonderful people who turned up and read. But before that, here’s a piece I wrote for the BBC website which came out while we were busy reading Moby-Dick. It’s about the brief, but quite significant role Liverpool played in Arctic whaling in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

Arctic whaling in Liverpool

The Kathleen and May

Kathleen and May

The Kathleen and May is a wooden three-masted schooner built in 1900 and restored to her current immaculate condition in 2000 by owner Steve Clarke. She is currently moored in the Canning Half-Tide Dock in Liverpool where she is used for school visits to the Merseyside Maritime Museum, corporate events, and, next weekend, as the setting for some of the reading for the Moby-Dick marathon, and events in the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival. If you go on board, please leave a donation for her upkeep.

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During her working life Kathleen and May was one of many similar ships that sailed around the coasts of Britain carrying cargoes such as coal and grain. It is surprising to learn that sail was still in use on commercial cargo vessels into the 1950s, and that ships like the Kathleen and May were not finally replaced until the 1960s. The parallel with the end of steam on the railways is an obvious one, but somehow commercial sail seems even more distant. Kathleen and May is the last remaining example of her type.

Last week I wandered around the deck taking pictures and was lucky enough to be allowed to climb into the rigging to take some pictures from above. In the next few months I’m hoping to set up some events on board through my job in Continuing Education at the University of Liverpool.

I’ve set up a Flickr group for pictures of the Kathleen and May. Feel free to add to it.

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Thank You to Oxford World’s Classics

Moby-Dick 10.38.53One of the things I’ve liked most about working on Moby Dick on the Mersey is the way that everyone has rallied round to help out. Both major partners–Continuing Education at the University of Liverpool and National Museums Liverpool–have been very supportive, while our still-growing band of volunteers is turning out to be a brilliant bunch of people. We’ve tried as much as possible to do this using existing budgets and of course that has meant a great deal of unpaid work and generosity with time from a lot of people. But for some things we need outside help. Most recently I asked Oxford World’s Classics whether they could help out with some copies of Moby-Dick to use as ‘reading copies’ during the marathon, and they came through with an almost immediate “Yes”. This means that if you’re attending the event you’ll find copies of the novel available to follow along with the reading, while the timekeepers and helpers will have copies they can use to manage the event–it will be a big help. So thank you to Oxford World’s Classics and to everyone else working to make the weekend of May 4th-6th as good as it possibly could be.

Moby-Dick Lecture Series

Thanks to everyone who came along to my public lecture about William Scoresby Jr., Liverpool whaling and Arctic exploration yesterday. That was the first public airing for my Scoresby project other than the Letters to Elizabeth blog and it was good to put it out in front of an audience [Update June 5th, 2013: the talk and slideshow are available online here]. It makes the project feel quite a lot more developed than I thought it was, and has reminded me that I need to get on and start writing properly now.

The lecture was the first in a series of six being held on Wednesdays at the Merseyside Maritime Museum as part of the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival, arranged by Dr. Claire Jones. A further two free public lectures, one on scrimshaw, by Dr Janet West, of the Scott Polar research Institute, and another on Herman Melville and Liverpool, by Katie McGettigan of Keele University, are taking place over the weekend of May 4th-6th as part of the Moby-Dick marathon reading itself. The full lecture series programme can be found here. The complete programme of events for adults and children over the marathon weekend can be found here.


Talks on Scrimshaw and Herman Melville in Liverpool

Talks on Scrimshaw and Herman Melville in Liverpool

Free talks on scrimshaw and on Herman Melville’s time in Liverpool are featured on the Moby Dick on the Mersey website. These are part of the marathon reading weekend May 4th-6th.

Volunteer to Read at Moby Dick on the Mersey


Moby Dick on the Mersey is the first ever marathon reading of Moby-Dick in Liverpool and takes place over the weekend of May 4th-6th 2013 at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. There are still places available for readers who want to take part in this great event. There’s no need to have read the whole novel, though I recommend you do, so if you want to sign up, just click here and follow the instructions. Reading assignments will be finalised in early April.

Crowdfunding Moby Dick: Some Thoughts on Kickstarter

As many readers will know, in January I ran a Kickstarter campaign to publish a fine print edition of Moby-Dick, based on the excellent online annotated edition. Unfortunately, despite a lot of interest, and 177 backers, it didn’t raise the £7100 needed to go ahead with publication. I’ve had time to reflect on why it was unsuccessful, and on the Kickstarter experience as a whole. Different kinds of projects need different approaches, so much of what follows applies to literary projects like this one, drawing largely on a small, but established and highly committed audience.

My reasons for choosing Kickstarter for the project were that it offered the clearest, most direct way (as far as I could see) of setting up and running the campaign. The idea of a video pitch, a written explanation, and a variety of different levels of pledges is simple and straightforward. I’d already decided that Twitter would be my primary social media outlet for the campaign, but I also knew that email would be important. Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but as it turned out it was email, and connections with established networks of enthusiasts, academics, and book lovers that proved the most effective way of spreading the word, though it was also very hard work. The Kickstarter site itself was also a significant source of pledging, providing almost a quarter of the total. Surprisingly, mentions on major literary and publishing blogs, including Galleycat, and The Reader Online, caused barely a ripple on the soft and dirge-like main.

I made some mistakes in presenting the book and working out the offer. My assumption was that price would be a critical factor, and that keeping the price low would generate most revenue. I was wrong. The 100 hardbacks (out of a total print run of 500) sold out quickly at £32, which, including shipping outside Europe, would have been more like £42, or $60. I received a lot of emails asking for more, but having offered a ‘limited’ run of 100 I couldn’t then justify raising the number to 200. I also made the mistake of following Kickstarter’s advice to keep the campaign short. From the beginning this campaign was slow but steady. The graph of pledges over time suggests that another week or two would have seen it make the target–it came pretty close as it was.


There are down sides to Kickstarter, and I ran up against a few of them. For one thing, I wouldn’t go into a project again having to raise all the money this way. Unless you have money to invest (or lose) yourself–I’d suggest ten percent of the total–it is very difficult to add rewards once the campaign is underway. Once the target is set, any change you make affects the calculation and might lead to a situation in which you make the target but can’t fund everything you have offered. In my case, any risk I took adding to the offer would have been funded from our family budget, and that wasn’t something I was prepared to do. Adding rewards also changes people’s expectations and as musician Amanda Palmer found, failing to live up to supporters’ expectations, even when they are misplaced, is a serious consideration too. This aspect of Kickstarter was perhaps the least pleasant for me. It reminded me a little of an auction, where the temptation is to keep raising your bid: I wanted the project to work, so it would have been very easy to throw money at it in the form of new rewards and perhaps see the number of supporters rise. But part of surviving Kickstarter is knowing your limits, and knowing how much you personally are prepared to put in.

Kickstarter’s fee, which makes up a substantial chunk of the target, is often criticized, and it is true that without it my project may well have succeeded. But a more significant issue, I think, is the binary nature of the Kickstarter model: you either make the target, and succeed, or fall short and fail. In some ways that’s attractive. Hollywood thrillers make millions on the basis of win or lose; Las Vegas thrives on it. But I’m not sure now that it makes sense for many projects. The ability to access some or all of the funding even if the target isn’t reached would allow a great many more projects to re-imagine themselves, perhaps find other funding sources, and succeed. That, after all, is how things work in the world outside the Kickstarter hothouse. And there are alternatives to Kickstarter which do just that, including Indiegogo.

Although this project didn’t make it, and despite the limitations of Kickstarter as a platform, my overall experience was a positive one. The relationship between commerce and creation is strained by Kickstarter’s reliance on a fabricated ‘race against time’ approach, but what most impressed me about it was the generosity of strangers in offering up their own money, and the time many of them took to give great advice and encouragement. From a personal point of view, having so many people put their trust in you to deliver is a humbling experience. But according to this New York Times article, these acts of kindness and trust are no surprise: Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites have more to do with the impulse to make art than conventional market economics. Even so, in the end it is not the art, but the social and economic sides of the project that determine its success.