THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

21 July 2017

Drawing, Not Drowning: The ‘bio auto graphic’ series.

To mark International Zines Day we have a guest post by Michael Nicholson about his 'bio auto graphic' series, recently added to the Library's collections.  The Library collects a very wide range of zines and other independent publications, and we are keen to raise the profile of zines in the Library.  Zines have real value for social and artistic research; they can be an inspiration to others looking to write or create their own publications; they can be a space for sharing issues and experiences where readers can find support; or they can work as part of a force for change, contributing to networks and activism. This post gives an insight into the context and motivation for producing the 'bio auto graphic' series.

 

MN - Londonaut! Cover 2013 (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My name is Michael Nicholson and I draw pictures alongside words I write.

Since 2004 I have created an entirely subjective response to what I see and hear around me in the form of pictures and words, held in a series of self-published editions that many think of as zines.  The work – most recently collected by the British Library I am delighted to say – has been exhibited, collected and purchased around the world. People have said some kind things about it.

The tension between contradictory things gives the series energy; I grew up in the Lake District but chose to live in London; I trained as an illustrator but actually begin the creative process most commonly by writing; I relish company but also solitude.  The core fact of my life – that I am an only child – first allowed me to maintain a safety perimeter between my self and what I see around me. A blast-zone beyond which I am free to observe, assess and consider options before deciding on the right moment to step closer. I like time to think.

 My imaginative life really began with books. The allure of storytelling hooked me very early, as I could read before I went to infant school.  Mere words in a certain order on a page carry an extraordinary potency, and the conventional book format – allegedly diluted by digital usurpers – remains elegant and profoundly interactive (to shamelessly appropriate a bloodless modern term).  Immersion in a new book, either in the company of a familiar author or while getting to know an unknown one, remains a delight.

I wanted to tell stories, having realized I could draw, and images – in the televisual age that was my 1960s childhood – then swirled around my head along with words. Simplistic notions of morality and relationships embedded themselves from a variety of sources: J.P. Martin’s exquisite, subversively English ‘Uncle’ series (illustrated by Quentin Blake) and the giddy Manhattan of Stan Lee’s ‘Marvel Comics’, to the spinning police box of Patrick Troughton’s ‘Doctor Who’ and the sinister hills and woods of Tove Jansson’s ‘Moominland’.  Well-crafted stories with characters to care about, whether they be in Milch & Bochco’s ’NYPD: Blue’, Phil Rickman’s excellent ‘Merrily Watkins’ series or David Mitchell’s ‘The Bone Clocks’, continue to involve me to this day.

What some regard as the dubious lowlands of popular culture always enticed me, and the irreverence of comedy in particular led me to the cheap seats. A sense of humour inspired me, whether it be ‘Monty Python’, Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, the bracing stand-up sermons of the late Bill Hicks or the current withering asides of Stewart Lee. Realising the absurdity of institutions, elites and ourselves - and pointing it out in ways that allow similarly helpless people to laugh at it - is an intelligent coping mechanism. Can laughter topple dictators? Comedy can be visionary, and those who do it wordsmiths and pioneers in my opinion, from Stan and Ollie to Jacques Tati and Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson and Victoria Wood.  Cruelty makes for easy comedy, but it’s the humanity in it that is most memorable.

All these factors shape me; how I see the world, how I step forward to meet it, how I step back to regroup after a blow.   How I phrase what I draw and write in ‘bio auto graphic’.  It was a challenge to tell the story closest to home, but humour helped.

Having worked professionally as an illustrator since graduating from St. Martins School of Art in 1985 – and also as a storyboard artist in TV and film from the early 1990s – by the 2000s I was ready to set out my own ideas instead of interpreting those of others.  It was time to act, in fact, and words as well as pictures would be my tools in doing so.

Having begun to exhibit early work at artists’ book fairs with my partner Mette Ambeck, I produced what I called ‘Issue Zero’ of a strand of editions based on my own life, an idea first suggested to me by a friend, comedy writer/performer Charlie Higson, in a serious moment.

I called the series ‘bio auto graphic’ (lower case, yes) and it was A5 size, produced from A4 artwork of inked pencil line and entirely hand-lettered, without colour. Two staples held an issue together. In this way it was positioned on a through-line from the simplest of medieval chapbooks to – though it was several years before I realised this – what are called ‘zines’ (these being the product of intense enthusiasm and low budgets, cheaply produced and direct in format).  Being the equivalent of a 17th century door-to-door chap book salesman appealed to me. I liked the sheer chance involved in some complete stranger coming up to the table and finding the work.

Stylistically, I adopted some of the conventions of my beloved childhood comic books (speech balloons and frames) but also drew vague influence from concrete poetry and the power of spoken language, overheard conversations, the beat and repetition of joke-telling, verbal double-meanings and the unsettling damp hand of our dreams.  The overall visual approach across the series to date is fluid, responsive to whatever the current theme is, loose enough to try new approaches in composition or format.  Pages lack the confinement of a dense field of ‘panels’, and narrative can be achieved via the creation of a cumulative mood rather than a strictly sequential ‘story’.

Whether in stand-alone issues, or in linked sequences, the editions explore all manner of threads; identity and how it changes; the things that bind and separate us as communities; being fictional or factual; the local and the global.  My mood obviously impacts upon what the reader sees, and the series can be variously angry, bemused, confused, sad, obscure and joyous.  It has certainly helped me chart the blind spots in what I think and who I think I am - and I gladly align it to the notion of the personal as the political.  I am in the process of identifying as myself.

  Mike Nicholson 2

 

Hugely influential practitioners in this diaristic field exist, and my own influences certainly include Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar, Eddie Campbell and Joe Sacco.  Of course, while this list doesn’t reflect it, the notion of strip artwork that draws from life – and zines reflecting it – has also been a strong thread through the recent decades of feminist thought.

The experience continues to satisfy, and there’s genuine anticipation and excitement when I begin to fill in a workbook page, not generally knowing where things will lead. Later the not knowing is replaced by the knowing as things are completed.

Am I merely navel-gazing? Quite possibly, but amidst the increasing velocity of our society I realize I am determined to fight a corner for a quiet reflective voice, away from the bear pit of anti-social media. I don’t have a faith in God, and science can sometimes reflect the hubris of humankind far too easily.

I do meanwhile have a faith in what best expresses our flawed state of being: small actions, gentle kindnesses, connections, hopes and occasional braveries, to which the series bears witness.

 We are told what can make us happy every waking moment by the media-sphere – and usually at a price – but I suspect it is a lot simpler than that.

Look in the mirror and ask the person you see: ‘What makes you really happy?’

 These editions that I make are zines, episodes in my life, a map, a window and a mirror.

 If you said that ‘bio auto graphic’ is about finding what makes us happy, there might be some truth in that.

 

Creative Commons License Michael Nicholson 2017

13 July 2017

Gay UK: Love, Law, Liberty and Literature?

The tag line for the British Library’s Gay UK exhibition is ‘Love, Law and Liberty’. One could add another ‘L’ to the alliterative list and make the tag ‘Love, Law, Liberty and Literature’. Literature, and the way it has been used for and against the gay community is a revealing thread running throughout the show. The very first display case in the exhibition examines the downfall of Oscar Wilde and the way his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray – fit for ‘none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys’ in the words of one reviewer – was used against him during his trial for gross indecency. Wilde himself realised he had gone too far in the original version of the story, published in Lippincott’s Magazine in the summer of 1890, and for the first novel publication in 1891 he rewrote the book. In the new version the passionate expressions of Dorian, Basil Hallwood and Sir Henry Wotton are recast in aesthetic terms, removing the original’s emphasis on male relationships. The damage was done though and in the eyes of the prosecution lawyers the Lippincott’s version revealed Wilde’s true, criminal, nature. He was, in their eyes, condemned by his own work.

Lippincott's

(Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, July 1890. The first appearance of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray in print)

This need to either rewrite a novel, or to modify it in order to avoid moral outrage (or indeed to not publish it at all, as E. M Forster did with Maurice) is a common theme. Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) was prosecuted for obscenity, and banned, almost as soon as it appeared. By today’s standards the novel is tame but the line ‘and that night, they were not divided’, which referred to two women, was enough to have James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, raging with disgust. He wrote: ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel’. Further comments by Douglas made a direct link back to Oscar Wilde and the decadence that was a key part of the Victorian fin de siècle – ‘It is a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society. It flings a veil of sentiment over their depravity.’ The trial caused a sensation, with both sides being easy prey for satirists.

Sink of Solitude 01 (2)

(An illustration by Beresford Egan for The Sink of Solitude (1928), a satire on Radclyffe Hall, her novel and the case brought against her book. Hall is being martyred on the cross; the Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks looks on; Cupid makes an insulting gesture and Sappho leaps joyously across the centre).

Perhaps Radclyffe Hall’s real offence was to root lesbianism in the English countryside, as much a fixture as the fox hunt and the Saturday-to-Monday house party. She drew attention to it and she defended it. Just as she pointed out and defended the fact that many women ambulance drivers on the Western Front during WWI had been lesbians. This was something a large part of the establishment did not wish to hear; it didn’t tie in with their old-style vision of muscular Christianity and their sense of order.

This open hostility towards literature that addressed gay life lasted well into the 20th century. Terence Rattigan conceived his play The Deep Blue Sea (1952) as a one-act piece revolving around a love affair between two men. Knowing this would never get past the censors however he had little option but to place a heterosexual relationship at the play’s heart if it was to be performed. A few years later however things were beginning to change. Following the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957, which recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the subsequent rise in campaign movements and pressure groups such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society, attitudes were finally starting to relax. On 31st October 1958 the Lord Chamberlain issued a memorandum to his staff stating that plays about homosexuality, or including homosexual characters would no longer be subject to an automatic ban. The language of the document is grudging and of its time (“We will not allow embraces between males or practical demonstrations of love”) but all the same it was progress and plays like Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) soon brought sympathetic portrayals of gay men and women to the London stage.

  LCP Report 01

(Lord Chamberlain's memorandum from 31st October 1958 outlining what can, and what cannot, be permitted on the stage with regard to the portrayal of homosexuality)

Although the pace of change has been gradual the positive advance in attitudes over the twentieth century is encouraging. Seventy years after the banning of The Well of Loneliness Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet (1998) achieved impressive sales and critical acclaim. A racy television adaptation was broadcast four years later. Waters’ novel is immeasurably more daring in its depiction of lesbianism than The Well of Loneliness. It is graphic, sexy, bold, joyous and brilliant. The fact it was also available to buy in high-street bookshops and to borrow from libraries up and down the country is indicative of how far attitudes towards same-sex relationships have progressed since the dark days of Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty runs until 19th September 2017. The events programme to accompany the exhibition can be seen here.

 

 

04 July 2017

First Steps into Interactive Fiction

by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Emerging Media, Contemporary British Printed Collections

It won’t be long until the Infinite Library Summer School. In preparation for this I’m considering choices. What will I speak about? Where will my session led?  How should I introduce my subject?  What is too much?, Where to begin?  

When I say considering choices, what I actually mean is I am considering how narratives take twists and turns, and how great stories can pivot on a single choice which leads the protagonist to the enviable ending. Do these so called choices actually influence the destination or simply the route?

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The Infinite Library

In literary crime and historical fiction the doctoring of the historical narrative as a device often used to present a rich fictional world in which characters meander through historical events into fictional events. Two such examples constructed around an alternate history of the Second World War are SS-GB by Len Deighton and Richard Harris’s Fatherland.  Such a literary method opens an avenue of free agency for the personae dramatica allowing them to operate in an alternative universe, but one which is tied to recognised conventions of good and evil.   

A fundamental of shifting the lens from the historical is under pinning its transition of familiar waypoints in a recognisable environment.  For instance Harris references Albert Speer’s architectural plans and models of a post war reconstruction of Berlin when his fictional protagonist Xavier March travels around the composite Berlin of 1964 in the course of his investigations. Harris himself describes Fatherland as a ‘huge geopolitical "what if"’ thereby raising wider questions relevant historical questions by using alternate history.  

Fatherland Berlin 1964

Map of Berlin 1964 from the 1993 edition of Fatherland interesting  the first edition does not contain this map.     

In making these choices and blending the historical and the fictional it is possible to take the next logical step and give the reader agency in the creative process.  One of the finest examples of this is 80 Days, by innovative Cambridge based games developer, Inkle. They completely reimagined Jules Verne’s travelogue classic Around the World in Eighty Days.  This work literally puts the reader in the driving seat for a trans-continental race against time.  Where the reader is presented with a range of choices on how to proceed, who to interact with and what to read within the narrative.

Over recent years the British Library has taken an interest in interactive works; as part of last year’s International Games Day @ your library (now International Games Week for 2018) we hosted a WordPlay festival, to showcase of some of the best current international interactive fiction and earlier this year, as part of the London Games Festival fringe, we ran Off the Page: Literature and Games, looking at how the fictional worlds of our favourite novels and plays are represented in games and in return what games bring to the written word.

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The Wondering Lands of Alice by Off Our Rockers

Continuing on from these initiatives, next month, the Library is teaming up with award winning poet Abigail Parry to run an Interactive Fiction Summer School. So if you have aspirations to lead your readers down the rabbit hole of the infinite library into stories where they choose the outcome, then you may wish to drink me….