Everything else

Oxford, The Story Museum and Alice’s Day

Due to the eternal loveliness of my long suffering family, I got to spend the weekend in Oxford. There was a particular rationale behind being there for this weekend: the 4th July commemorates the the day that Charles Dodgson told a story to Alice Liddell and her sisters, and the Saturday nearest to that date sees Oxford turn into Wonderland for the day – “Alice’s Day”. The event, run by the Story Museum and held there and in venues across the city has been on my wishlist for a while. And this year, reader, I did it.

The Story Museum is gorgeous. Really, it is. I appreciate I come from a very nerdy and quite niche perspective, but there’s something intensely magical about a space that is working very directly towards children and allowing them to own that space. Exhbitis are low, pitched for interactivity, and there’s signs everywhere of an organisation that wants children to become involved. I don’t think there’s many places where one can have a conversation with volunteers along the lines of “Have you seen Wonderland?” “No, but I’ve been to Animal?” “Come back when you’ve Been To Bed and we’ll take you to Wonderland.”. There’s some intense pleasures to be found in this higgledy piggledy colourful  building; Narnia’s hidden away in one corner, Philip Pullman’s sketches of the chapter headings to Northern Lights are in another whilst in a third, Katherine Rundell’s on the TV talking beautifully about wolves. It’s beautiful.

I have to share with you a further example of how great the Story Museum is (and it is one, I fear, that might be a bit more information than you require – but skip, gentle reader, if needs be!). The ladies toilets were three cubicles: one was big enough for a parent and child to get in, and even involved a little toy toilet (though I didn’t check if it actually worked!), a toilet with raised seat and grab arms for those in need of mobility help, alongside a third toilet cubicle. Such things I know are a little strange to tell you about but for me, they’re very important. They speak of care for detail and of a care for sharing their message and ethos with everyone. Accessibility, equality, openness. You can tell everything about somewhere by their toilets, I think.
But, enough about toilets! Back to Alice’s Day and the great joy of seeing a city flip into somewhere unexpected. Alice was everywhere, from tiny blue-dressed children dancing a lobster quadrille in the courtyard (adorable) through to seeing a white rabbit peddling bubbles in the street through to seeing a giant Alice ‘walk’ slowly around the Radcliffe Camera or finding the Cheshire Cat in the Botanic Gardens; this is story spilling out in the city and I was exhausted and I was exhilarated and I love it. If you’re an Alice fan you have to visit; there’s something so wonderful about the entire day.



And I can’t tell you how much I almost cried at everything; there’s something so perfect about hearing children insist that they’re called ‘Alice’ (I checked, she wasn’t actually called Alice) and seeing families dance along to horn bands. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Go next year if you can. Trust me, it’s worth it. Maybe we should all dress up for it wherever we are. Wonderland for everyone. Anyway, I’m rambling because I’m still in love with everything, so I’ll finish this post here. Here are some pictures and this is the end of my tail…..




Everything else

Finding Alice at Harlow Carr

The Mad Hatter

As part of my PhD, I’m exploring and thinking a lot about the commercial implications of literary tourism and children’s literature. What texts do people use? How do they use them? What do they hope to get out of it? How is the text transformed as part of that process?

Or, to phrase that a little less ‘head in the thesis’, I go to places that are doing children’s literature related things and check out what they’re doing. And then I have cake.

RHS Harlow Carr, one of the Royal Horticultural Society gardens located in Harrogate, currently has a series of Alice-in-Wonderland themed events going on until the 31st August. There are costumed characters going on, special craft events, storytelling and a band on Sundays playing music. (The band played Frozen. THEY PLAYED FROZEN)

This way!

Harlow Carr is a large site and it’s one that I’m familiar with from many trips there with family over the years. The Alice-in-Wonderland trail runs around the whole site – it’s quite a walk, so any small children may need to take advantage of the benches on route (or the quite fabulous playgrounds that are available). I say small children, but also means PhD students who went and said “Crikey, this is farther than I expected.”

So. The practicalities of the trail are really well done. Children get a small booklet which is covered with activities (there’s a pen fixed at every key stop for them to mark off things in the booklet – some canny thinking there on the part of the authorities) and at each of these moments, there’s a character from the series for children to put their head through and get photographed. Again, I say small children, but this could also mean PhD students and pretty much everyone (I mean, who doesn’t want to masquerade as the Cheshire Cat occasionally?)

The Three of Clubs

One particular note about the signs that marked each key stop; they had more activities on, a contextually relevant activity (can you identify the trees that these leaves came from?), a little fact about the relevant character (Cheshire Cats love to sit in trees. They have a habit of disappearing and leaving their smiles behind). I loved this. It’s clever stuff, to pull something like the Cheshire Cat out of a book and situate it very firmly in a real world context. The ‘made up’ elements of the text sit next to the practical elements (you can see them in the pink section of each sign in the photographs) and there’s nothing splitting the two, nothing that says ‘imagine’ or ‘make up’. Now, whilst imaginary play has its intense validity, there’s something quite delicious about this practical insistence of the fictional being the real. It’s work that speaks both to the adults and the children and to the space around the sign. As far as that sign goes (and therefore, by implication, anybody who’s reading it), Harlow Carr is Wonderland. And that’s a brilliant, brilliant thing.

I love this … intervention? This exhibition? This performed reading? I’m not sure what to call it, but I know that I am nothing but thumbs up for organisations who both sponsor this sort of thing and organisations that allow their space to be redefined and moulded by readers who are recreating texts with every step they take. These sorts of activities build readers. They make readers.

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