Last March, I was invited to Oxford’s Story Museum for a secret photoshoot. I’m not generally a great fan of cameras, since I’m about as photogenic as a mousetrap. However, I wouldn’t be attending this shoot as Frances Hardinge, but as the book character of my choice.
This threw me into wild indecision. I don’t have a single favourite book character, I have hundreds. I was tempted by the Cheshire Cat, but wasn’t sure how to disguise myself as a disembodied smile. In the end I chose one of my favourite tricksters – The Scarlet Pimpernel.
On the day of the shoot, the wonderful Ginny Battcock presented me with a complete outfit in my size, including a powdered wig and a beautiful red frock coat, all borrowed from the National Theatre Company’s wardrobe. Then the makeup expert Sue gave me a powdery, courtly pallor, and drew a tiny black heart on my cheek.
I then spent a happy hour play-acting, flourishing handkerchiefs, brandishing masks and generally being larger than life, while the excellent photographer Cambridge Jones took pictures.
And when I saw all the photographs later, they were brilliant.
I became even more excited when I learnt the names of the other authors involved: Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Malorie Blackman, Philip Pullman, Julia Donaldson, Anthony Horowitz, Michael Morpurgo, Jamila Gavin, Shirley Hughes and her daughter Clara Vulliamy, Francesca Simon, Charlie Higson, Benjamin Zephaniah, Geraldine McCaughrean, Terry Jones (from Monty Python), Cressida Cowell, Holly Smale, Katrice Horsley, Kevin Crossley Holland, Steven Butler, Ted Dewan, Michael Rosen and Katherine Rundell.
Nonetheless, I still imagined that the exhibition would be nothing more than a photo gallery. I was beautifully wrong.
26 Characters has taken over two floors of the museum. Each of the photos nestles at the heart of a carefully created set-piece, often filling a room. As Charlie Higson put it: “You can step inside twenty-six great books.”
You can sit in Badger’s parlour from The Wind in the Willows, and hear the crackle of the fire. You can stand on the deck of Treasure Island‘s Hispaniola, or even swab it if you like. You can try to steal the One Ring (though you might regret that). You can push through a wardrobe full of fur coats, into Narnia.
I don’t care how old you are. If you love books and can reach Oxford, you should drop in at the Story Museum and see 26 characters.
While you’re there, stop in at the Talking Throne. Grab a board, choose some word tiles to give yourself a pick ‘n’ mix title, then proceed grandly up the red carpet and sit on the throne. It will announce you by your chosen title, with fanfare.
I had myself announced as “The Devastating Cheese of the Underworld” before thinking, hmm, didn’t I write a book about that?
There is also the Story Loom, demonstrated to us by Ted Dewan (in a splendid Victorian outfit). He regaled us with the sad tale of its lovelorn inventor, while the machine filled the room with sedate music and smoke. (The little buttons on the front say things like, “Foreshadowing”, “Past” and “Dream”.)
Now I just need to find an excuse to go back…