On My Wife’s Back: An Exercise in Historical Hooliganism
I would like to use this space that I have been given to tell you something about the life of a forgotten man. His existence was briefly dramatic, and it always struck me as unfair that he should now go unremembered even amongst those historians who specialise in such men. Don’t worry, I won’t spend too many lines on him. I know that you are reading this to learn about my fictions, and it can get very boring when all that you are flung instead are dates.
Isaak Charles Walter Scinbank was born in Derby in the early months of 1808, in the house of his mother. His father, Walter, is credited for establishing one of the first paediatric practices in Britain. Walter was also an ardent angler, and Isaak was named for the near-legendary writer and fisherman Isaak Walton, whose book The Compleat Angler was written on the shores of the Derbyshire rivers Dove and Derwent. Young Isaak spent many salad days as a boy exploring the valleys, courses, springs and rills of the Derbyshire Dales with his father, and became an accomplished rodman himself.
Much of Isaak’s adult life went unrecorded, and the present day is left only a few unsubstantiated rumours of him entering the naval profession and sailing to the China Sea and the Okhotsk. The only certainties are that he married Elagail Hopwood, the daughter of a Buxton bathhouse impresario and a forthright and defiant victim of scoliosis, and built a house with her on the limestone cliffs overlooking the Dales hamlet of Mill Dale, where Isaak Walton had fished atop the bridge.
Though he did not seem cut from the soggy, gumptious cloth of a sailor, Isaak was commissioned in the summer of 1852 by Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the famous polar explorer Sir John Franklin, to travel to the Canadian Arctic in search of her husband who had gone missing amongst the ice and seal-blown islands some seven years previously. Scinbank accepted and left in November of that year with one ship, the Otranto, and a Benettonesque crew of Derbymen, Americans, Orcadians and even a Dutch wildman. The travails that they faced in the polar regions almost cost them their lives, but after nearly one year at sea Scinbank found John Franklin, with the remnants of his crew, on the western shores of what is now Axel Heiberg Island. Bringing him home to his expectant wife and an ecstatic public, Scinbank quietly slipped away from the hubbub and returned to Mill Dale and his Elagail, where he peacefully fished the rest of his life away on the proceeds of his reward. He died in 1878 at home, of a septic ulcer.
In September of 2014, 136 years after his death, I made up Isaak Scinbank entirely, beginning with the portrait at the beginning of this article, and extrapolating out from that.
Isaak is, and was, entirely fictional, but prosing him into existence was not as mean a feat as I imagined; mostly because I have spent the last six months narratively burglarising my way into an institution where the written word, even my own, is quite literally treated as a treasure; the British Library.
Isaak is the main creation of my time as the Library’s interactive-fiction-writer-in-residence, a hyphenated, gamey mouthful of a title which I am in the process of discarding. During my time here, attached to the very successful Lines In The Ice exhibition, he has come about through a series of accidents, circumstances and serendipities which have all served to make him the man he never was.
In retrospect, this is not so different from how most of us are made, fictional or not.
It is this happenstance which has always so intrigued me about the Library, and more generally about the processes of history. As I began my residency, with little notion of what it was that I would actually be producing for the money I had been kindly given, I firstly did what had been expected of me; I lowered myself into the archives, began to read, and felt really awful about myself. Lines In The Ice, still open at the Library until the middle of April, concerns the Western world’s almost-drunken misunderstandings with the Arctic region throughout history. I spent several months gingerly tree-hugging pages that had not been trees for six hundred years, or two hundred, or two, reading about exciting, psychotic men such as Martin Frobisher, a Tudor explorer so desperate for recognition that when he failed to find gold in the far North he resorted to tricking an Inuit hunter onboard his ship, subsequently treating the man so badly that the native preferred to bite off his own tongue and die of sepsis rather than spend another moment in Frobisher’s company. Amongst the volumes and volumes of unironic body hair and phenomenal tales of derring-do which served often to make me feel like a plump, smooth pattycake of a man, unremarkable and to-be-unremembered, one story stood out as particularly heroic and mythic. Sir John Franklin, his life standing as the factual scaffold of Scinbank’s fable, disappeared into the Arctic in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage, another entirely-fictional construct in which it is convenient to believe.
Searching for an ice-free line across the roof of Canada and down into Russia and China, Franklin’s crew were stranded and came to a chocolate box assortment of sticky ends, including scurvy, lead poisoning, tuberculosis, exposure and starvation. There was evidence of cannibalism amongst those who survived the initial ravages, vehemently denied by a Victorian public who could not comprehend the existence of their heroes’ oesophagi. Though many bodies, and the least-edible parts of other bodies, have been discovered in the intervening years in those still-desolate lands, Franklin’s corpse and the wrecks of his two ships had not, and this void in the historical record has since been deluged by a never-ending wash of conjecture, academia and expensive science. Only a few months after I had begun at the Library, a state-funded Canadian expedition uncovered the mouldering hulk of Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, denuded on the shallow seabed off King William Island. The elation that we all felt at the free publicity and fortuitous timing was a little sullied, as if we had all glimpsed the leaked pornography of an untouchable celebrity and felt immeasurably sad afterwards.
You may have noticed that in my brief biography of Scinbank that I obstinately refuse to utilise this neat, settled, official history for my narrative, instead opting to clumsily divert the flow and insist that my fictional explorer found Franklin alive and mostly well. I made no attempt to transplant my alternates onto existing fact, so skilfully that you could barely see the join, but instead brutally established them and moved on. To me, this skimmed stone of a biography, the second thing of Scinbank’s that I completed after his portrait, is perhaps the least interesting element about the man-character. His official story, what might be pasted into his Wikipedia entry, is remarkably similar to how we are permitted to remember most real historical figures.
History, as it actually happened in all its contradictory, meaningless, tangled impossibility, is hard to digest. In order to have any chance of understanding, no matter how imperfectly, it must be smoothed and made lozenge-like, so that it may pass through us and do whatever good it might do. What is lost in such abstractions, unfortunately, is perhaps what makes history so unbelievably interesting; the unpickable knots, the apparent nonsense, the unplanned chaos, and at its centre the bilious, vile, gorgeous, transcendent humans, who rarely really act on the historical scale with anything approaching sense. History as it is taught and written rarely allows us the jumbled, confused view of events from the many angles that they were experienced, a view more accurate but less saleable. Instead it permits us access to only those few scant details which had the wherewithal, or random chance, to survive to the present day. These feelings coalesced when I went to visit the National Maritime Museum, which houses a permanent Franklin collection, and saw the best that history could allow to survive of the man; a monogrammed fork, found in the possession of Inuit by Leopold Flintlock in 1859. It was such a silly thing to survive, such a utilitarian, bizarre thing, owing less to its rhetorical potency and more to the particular chemical makeup of metals on our planet. There was also the political factor to consider, which things are actively preserved according to the beliefs and values of the curators in charge of them. Accordingly, the innocuous fork has been press-ganged by the museum environment to stand for this boring, extraordinary, stupid and kind man’s life, and the eyes of millions each year pass over it and subsume it alongside the other scant prescriptions through which they move, like care home residents with their tiny cups of pills.
I became more and more concerned with this erosive view of history because Isaak, my precious imaginary human, was going to be represented physically in the Lines In The Ice exhibition by some hardy, insufficient symbol, just like Franklin and Frobisher and all those other complicated humans made allegorical by time. A book is perhaps more complicated than a fork, more representative of the networks of temporal spaghetti that make up a human being, but in this complexity it has the potential to become even more political and overbearing. In my research I read many books that said little at all, despite running to many hundreds of pages, other than to bale the reader’s mind with a choking hay of imperialism or personal glory. Being resident in the Library, I knew that Isaak would have to be represented by a book, and thus it was. Alongside the Library’s incredible Conservation Centre I created another fictional character; Isaak’s sea-journal, kept aboard ship all those years ago.
A fictional character queue-jumped into real events is not worthy of comment alone; it has been attempted by countless other writers before me. However, alongside this book and its own deceptions, Isaak went further than most in the brazen physicality of our installation. The book was given its own biography, covering both its fictional nascence at the hands of its publisher, Thomas Whiflick of Derby (another fake man, hurriedly notioned). Supposedly a present from his father and originally designed as an angling ledger, the book went with Isaak to sea and suffered numerous environmental indignities before returning with him to England along with Sir Franklin. On his death, it passed through the negligent hands of several unremarkable collectors, was dampened and scorched and forgotten, and was eventually accessioned by the Library, or so I say, into its great, partial repositories. Having created it and explained why it was in the collections, we simulated this age and travail (with tea leaves and candles, as if we were hurriedly completing primary school homework) and fastened to its own lectern within the larger exhibition. Isaak’s portrait and his biography hang on the wall next to it, in the same format and font as all the others. Apart from a minuscule caveat which I was forced to include by nervy Library executives, there is no indication that any of it is false. If you are timely you can go and see it for yourself, and unlike the other exhibits you can actually go and touch its leather, scrawl graffiti when the security guards aren’t looking. You can read the unfolding story of Isaak in his own spidery hand, a hand that I had to invent and learn as well as my own. Sometimes, unfortunately, the book is gone from the exhibition, seemingly spirited off for a minor repair; in actual fact it is only me, writing out the next piece of Isaak’s story, the next day of his voyage, the next complaint about the weather, the next unanswered letter home to his wife, all of it warped and faded through a dishonest process.
It is tempting to think that my fears about the disingenuousness of the stories which history leaves to us would be combated by being in command of Isaak’s story myself. The diary is a form that lends itself to candid revelations, saucy details, human folly and complex unfoldings. How else can we know a person other than by breaking the heart-shaped lock, making sure nobody is looking, and reading their secrets? This may be true of other fictional characters, unaware that their lives are surveilled by the reader, but not so for men like Isaak. Explorers, or more generally heroes of their age, did not write their journals just for themselves, but instead for the presumptuous understanding that history would truly care what it was they had to write, unlike all those other poor unknowns putting down their hopes and faults. It is true that I wrote Scinbank as a minor figure in British history, overshadowed utterly by the man he was sent to rescue; indeed, at the very start of his diary he reassures himself that “they shall never publish mine, no matter what Mr. Whiflick says”. However, what becomes apparent, as he writes himself further and further away from home, is that Scinbank cannot help but daydream of the public adulation, scholarly interest and historical adamantine that other explorers have enjoyed. He certainly lived in the right Age to be remembered for his efforts. Therefore, throughout his writings we see him comfortably self-censor, prune and topiary his words, and the reported facts of his mission, into a shape that befits a Victorian officer and gentleman. He mentions dry statistics, boring homilies as to his men’s resolve and initiative, the ‘Boy’s Own’ clichés of his time and other times, and entirely fails to mention any difficulty not overcome, any behaviour not befitting, any disaster too horrible or weird. He does not bring back stories of what happened to Mr. Kjaer on Euston Island, or what he gave the Inuit of Bathurst which ruined their civilisation forever, or even what they found floating in the North Sea off Berwick-Upon-Tweed, just days after their departure from London.
Ordinarily, such weirdness and coincidence and life, base life, is lost. For every book in the Library’s archives there are thousands of other books unwritten, on everything that went on in between those initial authorships. There is so much of Franklin and Frobisher and Ross and Parry and all the others that went unrecorded or instead perished, so much life beyond their roles as dry tools for political machination and scholarly top-downings. These men deserve better, and far worse, than forks, books, wrecks and flags.
In Scinbank, then, I saw a way to emancipate true history, as never experienced by any one human, from its role as a linear allegory that we tell ourselves to convince that there are patterns and causal logics to things. I could not draw out the unspoken facts of the lives of these great men, but I could create a lesser man, an honest man, a flawed and flabby man not so different from myself, and tell every one of his stories. In his diary, in the exhibition, in the encapsulated and endlessly contextualising environment of the Library, Scinbank is represented as an understandable, typical gentleman of his age. In there, he is all dates and places. However, the vast, hidden bulk of my work at the Library, the underwater trunk of my iceberg, lay in building Isaak’s secret world. I stepped beyond the physical survivals of his diary, and those scant artefacts which I have cribbed from junk shops to stand for him; a scrimshawed whale’s tooth, a leaf, a few oxidised coat buttons. I wrote music that was sung by his sailors onboard ship and in their bunks at night, ancient tunes reinvented and given new, imperfect and off-key meanings. I constructed maps which show this tension between the public and the unreported, allowing that public to fly over Scinbank’s Earth like an Inuit shaman in the form of a tulugak, a holy raven, in which nothing physical or spiritual is left unnoticed. I built text-based games for the web, locked behind passwords which take the form of locations and places mentioned in Scinbank’s diary; it is only by reading this conventional history that you may access the true, visceral accounts of what occurred in those places, and what Scinbank hid from himself. In doing so you may play the role of this man, and other men and women, and enact and make choices about those stories from his life which did not survive with his memory into the present; the stories of his incredible wife, of the native peoples which he met, and of the brief intimacies that he and Elagail could snatch behind their coal bin, a few moments before he left their house in Mill Dale.
In Scinbank’s long-vanished life, the distinct moments and fleeting impressions which are usually left to the romanticising preserves of literature, I have built him more truly than any story could, more honestly than he would ever tell himself, and in doing so I have created an amalgam of him and me, an indistinct, febrile yet complete presentation of what my residency was all about; being a particular person, in a particular place, and at a particular time. The casserole of our two lives begins in the curves of Scinbank’s face, a vampiric mix which is so coincidentally similar to my own, and which extends out into every glovefinger of this man’s frustrating, barely-reported, overshadowed existence.
I have been to the Library several times and watched people walking through the exhibition. They follow the labelling avidly, their eyes passing over important things, partial things, and in so doing building a chunked, optimised version of the past. Scinbank’s diary is no different; though some may pause and thumb through his words, there are too many for any one person to stand and read at once. However, what I can only hope is that some people, some ersatz scholars or bored chroniclers with nothing else to read, will take the leads and hints from that book and move out into the great spiritual landscape that I have built for him in webspace and other spaces, all of it confounded and refusing to conform to any conventional structure. In reading this they will see how accidental Scinbank is, how circumstantial the events of his life, and below it they will start to plot its genesis; how I took the Library as a culture, as a part of the history that it contains, and made myself resident in it, noticing everything, taking nothing as disposable, and subsuming it all randomly into the mass of Scinbank complete. In that mess they will see scraps of the trip I took to Orkney some years ago, when I was so unsure of myself and of my place in the world, and how I unwittingly camped in the same bay that Franklin himself moored in on his way to the Arctic all those years ago, and how it would not be strange if he had felt that same way, in the same place, as I did. These scholars will see glimpses of the time I spent in Wapping trespassing on the foreshore, nearly drowning on the inward tide amongst the ghosts of the Otranto and the Erebus and all of those other blunderbuss, obvious ships. And in my bibliographies, the research and self-scholarship which I will continue to write, my readers will see that I have left nothing out; no truth too embarrassing, no story too insignificant, no horror too horrible.
Perhaps by that point, some twenty years from now, I will have finished the work I began at the Library, and I will have joined Scinbank’s story and life back up to the present, bringing my own unique catch of history ashore as he used to do in the River Dove with his father. By then it will have been accessioned into the Library’s archives, as I have been promised it will. Perhaps my readers will be true scholars by then, and they will call up On My Wife’s Back, as I have been calling this project, on the catalogue system with as little pomp and ceremony as Franklin’s journals, or Shakespeare’s folios, or the Gutenberg Bible, and they will see both Scinbank the encyclopedia entry and Scinbank the human, Scinbank as he would like to be remembered and Isaak as I cannot help but draw him. In this work they will, in turn, see myself, feeling dreadfully depressed in front of all those colossi of history, and feeling that the only way to make my mark was to be subversive, to point out how the Library is not an impartial observer of history but a prime suspect in its committal. I have called On My Wife’s Back a sort of hooliganism, with a vain, pointless hooligan at its centre, and in weighing the life of my Isaak against the history of which he is a part, perhaps this is all that writers and artists and game designers and musicians can hope for; to conduct a soon-forgotten bit of violence.
I am a writer, artist, musician and games designer who lives in London. I have made a little mess, like most people. Sorry. It includes:
A stint as the Interactive Fiction Writer-in-residence at the British Library
The Black Crown Project, a web-based pathetic-epic adventure game published by Random House which, sadly, will not be playable online from the 31st October 2014, though we do intend to revive it with a little ionised water and open-source code at some point.
The Spare Set, a choose-your-own-adventure story in which you default on your mortgage and lose your home, designed and written for the UK housing charity Shelter
Stage plays concerning gods in wells, argumentative kidneys and the most benighted of night buses
Journalism and lectures on game design, the nature of art and other non-subjects
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