With construction going on around the campus, some benches have been moved into Bowland quad. One of them is dedicated to Gordon Inkster, and when I came across it yesterday, it reminded me of his wonderful innovation, the campus e-mail newsletter Inkytext, which ran from 1993 to his death in 2001 (see the tributes here). Inkster was a lecturer in the French department, and having been on the staff at the university from very near its beginnings, he had been on just about every possible committee, and had been the licensee of one of the campus bars. I’m told that before I got here, he had a column in a short-lived alternative newspaper. But like Leoš Janáček and Mary Wesley, he found his true genre late in life. Inkytext was like an early blog in many ways: the constant updating, the possibility of readers’ comments, the snapping up and recontextualisation of other texts, and the strong sense of personality and style. He kept it going via laptop even when he was intensive care. But in another sense he was too early; he had to do all this using just an e-mail list, with no blogging software to make the postings and comments easy, and no way for newcomers to get to it except by e-mailing him to subscribe. (As the masthead shows, with its list of places it was read, lots of people did just that). It was, of course, primarily for the local community, and it served as a lifeline through a university financial crisis that had many people worried about their jobs. But there were also bits of commentary, reviews of restaurants and wine, translations of songs, witty word play. I guess that (as with the best blogs) the delight in reading it on the screen, interrupting work, with all its topical references and asides, would not translate into book form.
Like any canonical invention – the telegraph, the telephone, newspapers, cinema, e-mail – blogs emerged alongside various innovations doing similar things in different ways or different things in similar ways. Bloggers themselves were quick to come up with a canonical history, summarised by Rebecca Blood as early as 2000, that goes back to 1999 and Jorn Barger or Cameron Barrett or Pyra or other early users. But before that there were literary commonplace books that brought together bits of reading in one place, and scrapbooks of various sorts. There were the personal letters that provide most of the background to the study of the 19th century, and that have almost vanished today. There were elaborate web-pages that usually seemed to ossify after a brief hopeful start. And there were pioneering uses of e-mail and discussion lists like Inkytext. Just as one begins to see proto-cinema in late 19th century novel and painting, one sees protoblogs in late 19th century uses of existing technologies. Gordon Inkster certainly had the wit, curiousity, conviction, and endless contacts of a good blogger; what he didn’t have was the technology to make his work easy. And so he didn’t have lots of other people doing the same sort of thing at the same time, and he posted usually once a week, not twice or three times a day. I’ll be looking out for other protobloggers.
I can recommend a browse in the complete Inkytext archives, maintained by Barry Rowlingson of the Lancaster University Mathematics Department.
If you don’t know where to start, I’d suggest something like Inkytext 149, in which, after a discussion of the financial crisis, he turns his attention to translating Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’, for contemporary political reasons that he explains.