THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

4 posts from February 2017

27 February 2017

First report from the Will Self archive: family matters

Chris Beckett writes:

Will Self’s review (for the New Statesman) of Peter Ackroyd’s Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002) begins with the suggestion that his grandfather would have enjoyed the book. Before telling us why (Cockney visionaries both, with a tendency to compendiousness), we are treated to a pen-portrait of grandfather Sir Henry:

‘Albert Henry Self was the son of the conductor on the Number 11 tram. A Fulham boy, he was waiting table in a cafe when a patron spotted his ability to add the bill up with a single saccade of his bulbous blue eyes. The cafe's patron became my grandfather's, putting him through school and sponsoring him while he took the civil service examinations. Henry Self ended up as a heavyweight mandarin, Beaverbrook's permanent undersecretary during the war and, latterly, chairman of the Electricity Board. A Knight of the Garter, and one time President of the Laity of the Church of England, in his old age, my grandfather's cockney origins only emerged when he'd had an extra Guinness or three over lunch. On these occasions, he'd beat time with his knife on the table and give us a rousing chorus of "Don't Have Any More, Mrs Moore", much to the consternation of my authentically genteel grandmother, who'd bleat: "Really Henry!"’

As an unexpected bonus, the archive of Will Self at the British Library includes a fascinating documentary foreground: an assortment of family papers – photographs, letters, diaries – that have passed into the author’s possession. Cataloguing of the substantial archive is currently well-advanced: the family papers have been addressed, and work has now commenced on the core of the collection, the multiple drafts of Self’s fiction. Among the family papers is Sir Henry’s compendious ‘The Divine Indwelling’, a grand philosophical summa in five volumes that attempts a ‘reconciliation of science, religion and philosophy’.

Will IMG_5910 IMAGE 1 Self blog

Sir Henry Self, ‘The Divine Indwelling’. Annotations in blue ink are in the hand of his son, Peter Self.

It was this unpublished work (not unpublished for want of trying, however, as Sir Henry’s correspondence in the archive records) that prompted Self to compare his grandfather’s synthesising habit of thought to that of Peter Ackroyd. But Self quickly makes brutally plain the all-important difference between them – the pre-loaded punchline of his comparison – that ‘Ackroyd can write’.

‘Before he too expired from a surfeit of prolixity,’ Self’s review continues, ‘my father repeatedly enjoined me to "do something" about The Divine Indwelling’. In Walking to Hollywood (2010, p. 253), we glimpse ‘the yellowing typescript’ resting – waiting wordily for attention – on the top shelf in Self’s study. Perhaps the patrilineal burden of what to do about Sir Henry’s magnum opus – his laboursome philosophical folly – has now been resolved, custody secured, by its incorporation in the archive of his grandson.

The earliest item in the archive is a Victorian family photograph album, from Lady Rosalind Self, Will Self’s grandmother. The gallery of stiff portraits that fill most of the album give way in the later pages to less formal ‘snaps’ of her two sons, Peter and Hugh Michael. Rosalind Self was the daughter of Sir John Otter. As Mayor of Brighton (1913-15), Sir John initiated the building of The Chattri war memorial, a monument to the Sikh and Hindu soldiers who died in the military hospitals of Brighton. Sir John had served in the Indian Medical Service. The Chattri, a Grade-II listed structure, sits on the South Downs in a remote spot above Patcham, overlooking Brighton. It was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1921, as photographs in the album record. The archive includes photographs of some of the original architectural designs (which show that initially a somewhat larger monument had been envisaged).

Will Chattri_03 IMAGE 2 Self blog

Lady Self was the granddaughter of the Anglican educationalist the Rev. Nathaniel Woodard, who founded eleven schools for the rising and increasingly affluent Victorian middle class. The first school was Lancing College, near Lewes, founded in 1848. In 1843, Woodard had published A Plea for the Middle Classes. He summarised his purpose as the provision of ‘a good and complete education for the middle classes, at such a charge as will make it available to most of them’. In 1925, Sir John Otter published a memoir of Woodard.

Henry and Rosalind Self lived in Brighton, not far from Lancing, in a house in Vernon Terrace that Rosalind had inherited. Peter, Will Self’s father (who held chairs in Public Administration at the London School of Economics, and subsequently at The Australian National University at Canberra) and his brother Hugh Michael (Queen’s Counsel) were both boarders at Lancing College. It had been their mother’s wish that her sons should board there (Henry had been in favour of Brighton Grammar School). From time to time, the brothers must have passed the impressive tomb of their great-grandfather, Nathaniel Woodard, in the grand Gothic setting of Lancing College Chapel, a stolid reminder of the weight of ancestry, and of scholarly expectation.

Will Nathaniel_Woodard IMAGE 3 Self blog

The archive includes Peter Self’s unfinished draft memoir ‘Through a Glass Brightly’ in which he recounts his childhood and his memories of Lancing: ‘my life at Lancing, which seemed at the time interminable, sucked me into a complete, insulated world of intense experience, which made the “real” world outside, for which we were supposedly being prepared, seem remote and unreal’ (f. 45).

Will Self’s American Jewish mother, Elaine (née Rosenbloom) first enters Self’s fictional world in the early story ‘The North London Book of the Dead’, written following her death in 1988. Elaine later takes centre-stage as the (Joycean) Lily Bloom, the sharp voice and the lively dead consciousness of How the Dead Live (2000). The archive includes her diaries and journals (most as copies), which register something of her misanthropic tone and take on life, echoed in the acerbic voicing of How the Dead Live: ‘So many people left to disparage – so little time’ (p. 55). The archive includes the letters she received throughout her life from American and English family and friends, and from her husband Peter.

The Self family letters in the archive span three generations and the three continents of Europe, America, and Australia. After Peter Self emigrated to Australia in 1980, to teach at Canberra, he usually wrote an airletter to his mother on a Monday; they form the sort of tidy pile an archivist loves to find. Will Self’s letters to his father are of particular interest: they make frequent and illuminating reference to his writing. Some were sent from the remote island of Rousay in the Orkneys, a quiet location where many of Self’s novels from the 1990s received their final drafts.

Will IMG_5884 IMAGE 4 Self blog

In a recent interview published in the Paris Review (2012), Self described his first book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991) – a collection of short stories, most of which satirise the world of academic research in the social and psychiatric medical sciences – as an act of parricide: ‘It takes the piss out of my father and his friends and their irrelevance as I saw it and the perniciousness of their discourse and the way in which people believed it.’ The symbolic murder of the father, as Self recalls, was not an entirely conscious action but was ‘done with a sleight of mind’. In ‘My Old Man’ (The Guardian, 15 June 2008), he acknowledges a shift in his appreciation of his father: ‘Ours was an ambulatory, ludic and pedagogic relationship [….] As we come to resemble our fathers, so we re-encounter the individual who reared us’. Certainly, the physical resemblance of Henry, Peter, and Will, all standing at some six and a half feet tall, is striking. Temperamentally, they all enjoyed and enjoy, in Self’s felicitous phrase, the pleasures of ‘happy disputation’. In the light of family history, it is perhaps not surprising that Will Woodard Self has recently turned to teaching. In March 2012, Self was appointed Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University.

Sir Henry Self, a working-class son, was, by all accounts, a man of extraordinary talents, not least in respect of his exceptional capacity for memory. He used his time commuting from Brighton to London to gain eleven degrees. Sir Henry’s prodigious memory is alluded to in My Idea of Fun (1993), in the eidetic – or photographic – memory of young Ian Wharton; his ‘eidetiking’ facilitates the ominous entry of The Fat Controller into his life. In the same novel (partly set on the Brighton coast familiar from Self’s childhood), the shadowy absence of Ian’s father – ‘little more than a ghost in the domestic machine’ – seems to reflect the absence of Peter Self from the family home (from the age of nine). Lily Bloom reflects that she married into a family of ‘true shabby gentility’, a family of ‘nursery names’. In the letters in the archive, we discover that Lady Self is always addressed as ‘Mumbles’ and always signs her letters by the same name, to everyone in the family. Sir Henry’s ‘nursery name’ was ‘Dids’.

Much of Self’s fiction is framed by an exploration of masculine identity, from Cock and Bull (1992) to Dorian (2002), and The Book of Dave (2006). Self’s memoir of his father in the introduction to Perfidious Man (2000), at once a warmly humorous and distancing account, is also enlightening on the subject. Drafts of the novel Umbrella (2012) have been filed by the author along with Sir Henry’s passport and several genealogical research papers. As the author commented when Umbrella was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize: ‘Having reached my 40s, like many another slightly nerdy man (and I think it is a mostly male preoccupation), I started looking into my immediate ancestry.’ The family papers included in Will Self’s archive at the British Library suggest that however extreme the alternative reality his fiction portrays, however skewed and re-scaled the world it depicts, its well-spring is quite likely to be, bubbling beneath, a family matter.

 

17 February 2017

Ken Campbell: 4 poems

Earlier this year, the British Library completed its collection of the published works of the British artist Ken Campbell, with his most recent work You All Know The Words (2016). The British Library is the only Library in UK to hold all the works. At the end of October, the Library held a celebration of the work of Ken Campbell. The texts of presentations from Cathy Courtney and Richard Price can be found on this blog. Reprinted here, with kind permission, are four poems by Ken Campbell.  

 

He is now so close Death

that is, to speak of him is crude,

as remarking on another in the room.

Blackness around the vision

marks the card; prelude

to black ink of songs flow

through windows and door fattening

cushions of dark fill the room

leaving only the space of the client.

 

Terror, Terror 1977

 

KC A Knife Romance

A Knife Romance (1988). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Widow’s Song

Is that you; chance being,

a fine thing; is that you.

The stair creaks, money kept

under carpet, particular tread

now not long dead; is that you.

 

Hovers in the glass of door

your needle, my thread; dog stares,

our garden’s grown too big

with pints of sweetened tea gone cold;

time to leave: is that you.

 

A Knife Romance, 1988

 

KC Fathers Romance

Father’s Garden (1989). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Father’s garden ran his ship:

no waves outraged his wailing walls:

no pitching keel beneath his feet

– nor claycrumb shift in his cold helm.

 

One vision, his, stood stack stock still:

his cargoes all the displaced knew,

& how they all could kill; thus twine

& baling; thus stolen, lying sleepers

 

stacked-in-law, & ordered buckets of fill

made fit. Garden ship shape never could

set sail: I so felt myself & missing went

overboard, awol. Breadcast. Fatherwater.

 

Round the chairdecks made windbreak

his hull horizon sat down stare for me:

a row of planted beanstakes breaking leaf

– our father’s juice flows everywhere.

 

Time water drowns all our fetch,

in reach of unsung dunes: - unless,

land-locked, life-tides work and move: so

ere it remembers you, remember home.

 

KC fathers Garden2

Father’s Garden (1989). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Unlaced in springtime

stepping beneath a golden monastery

a buck in a bush

leapt to his morning furrow.

 

Such a day brought such a boy

from golden morning hoof

to the hammered dead of the afternoon:

history rang on the boiler of his engine.

 

Father’s Garden, 1989

10 February 2017

Jane Austen Among Family and Friends

curated by Sandra Tuppen, Lead Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1601-1850

This year marks the bicentenary of the death of one of our most-loved writers, Jane Austen. To mark this anniversary, we have brought together writings from Austen’s formative teenage years for the first time in 40 years, from the British Library and Bodleian Library collections, plus family letters and memorabilia as part of a temporary display in our free Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. Austen’s treasured notebooks contain stories and poems she wrote to entertain her family and close friends and are accompanied by other items showing her strong family and social networks. Together these items illuminate the personal family life of this towering literary figure.

Austen, Jane

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810 © National Portrait Gallery, London

This display also includes one of the Library’s finest treasures – Austen’s writing desk. The desk was given to Austen by her father and might have been the very surface at which she produced first drafts of novels such as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. While travelling through Dartford in 1798 she almost lost it when it was accidentally placed in a horse-drawn chaise heading for Dover.

Austen desk

Portable writing desk, late 18th century, Add MS 86841

We have united the three notebooks that Austen kept of her teenage writings, which include “The Beautiful Cassandra”, a story dedicated to Austen’s sister, and a spoof history of England featuring illustrations of the Kings and Queens by Cassandra Austen. They are vivid sketches which illustrate the monarchs of England looking rather more like common men and women than they may have liked.

Austen jane history Queens 014601

An image from 'History of England' from Volume the Second by Jane Austen and illustrated by Cassandra Austen (Add MS 59874)

The social world which Austen lived in deeply influenced her books. Her family and friends provided inspiration for some of her novels’ characters. Their opinions mattered to her and she wrote down what each person thought of her later novels. In the exhibition you can see Austen's careful notation of opinions of Mansfield Park (1814), capturing some of the negative comments with a certain irony. The following image shows a page of these comments relating to Emma (1815).

Austen-jane-opinions Emma-c07437-08

Opinions by various people of Jane Austen's work, 1814?, Add 41253 B

Among the letters on display one tells of Austen’s sorrow on the death of her beloved father, while a poem expresses the joy Austen felt on the birth of her nephew. The letters and manuscripts exhibited give an insight to Austen’s close friendships, explore her romances and reveal the family joys and sorrows which shaped the writer.

The exhibition is free to visit in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery until 19th February.

03 February 2017

Busting the Myths of Music Hall

by guest blogger Fern Riddell, cultural historian and consultant for the BAFTA award-winning BBC and Amazon drama, Ripper Street

Teaching a British Library Adult Learning course is an absolute joy. This new range of courses brings together Library experts and guest specialists to offer unique learning experiences, using the Library’s rare collections for inspiration. I was invited to design a six-week course to support Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun, a free exhibition showcasing the Library’s Evanion Collection – a unique archive of the ephemera of Music Hall magician Henry Evans, acquired by the Library and rarely seen by the public.

 

  M. Evanion

Programme of M. Evanion's entertainment, January 13, 1893, Copyright © The British Library Board

I started my academic life as a Music Hall Historian. It’s a well-known part of our cultural history, a genre of entertainment we instantly recognise but actually know very little about. For many people, music hall is a sterotype, infantile, full of mother-in-law jokes and something that should never be considered ‘art’. And this misconception is why I chose to focus on the reality of Music Hall, and not out cultural memory of it, with my course Behind The Myth Of Music Hall. Each week we took a Music Hall myth – from the working class identity, to the role of women – and blew it apart. Did you know that Dickens loved the Music Hall? That women owned and ran music halls across the country; that Kitty Marion, one of our most dangerous suffragettes, was committing arson attacks on MP’s houses in-between on-stage appearances? And that the language of the songs, far from being ‘Knee’s Up Mother Brown’ was witty, clever, and occasionally stolen from the poetry of the greats like Byron or Keats. And above all, Music halls educated their audience about personal rights and situation through topical songs. Music halls kept their audience informed of parliamentary bills, changes in the geographical landscape of London, political intrigues, as well as domestic relationships and trials.

By the latter half of the 19th century, there were over 300 music halls licensed in London alone. Syndicated groups began to appear, opening music halls in towns and resorts across the country, and later the world. The Evanion Collection reflects the huge breadth and depth of acts, performers, and locations across the country as well as Music Hall’s influence over the tastes and ideas of their audience. National stars were created, Marie Lloyd, Leona Dare and Dan Leno packed houses to the roof night after night, and all caught Henry Evans’s eye.

 

  Leona dare

 Poster with an illustration of Leona Dare's balloon ascent, Copyright © The British Library Board

From 1852 Music Hall gained a reputation for showcasing something different, something special, and something new. It was a marvel to behold: opulent ceilings, chandeliers, expensive carpets. The middle classes were shocked: why were music hall impresarios going to such expense just to provide entertainment to the masses? Elegant designs and exteriors belonged to those who could afford to have them at home, not just to be visited for pleasure. But this is where the very core of the entire music hall industry ideal exists. It was a world of fantasy; it attempted to create perfection and sold it to the people who would never have enough money to obtain it. It was the modern day celebrity gossip magazine and reality TV star world rolled into one, and appearing twice nightly just down your road.

The Canterbury Music Hall was the first of these, opening in 1852, and then again in 1856, after a significant rebuild to increase seating capacity. Morton built this hall at 143 Westminster Bridge Road, and it signalled the new style of entertainment, specifically for the working classes, in the heart of the city of London. When the cost of Charles Morton's carpet in the Canterbury was revealed to be over a thousand pounds, he was met with derision and disbelief that he would waste such expense on those who were unable to appreciate it. Morton met his detractors with defiance, his manager, William Holland invited them ‘to come and spit on it’ [Busby, Roy, British music hall: An illustrated who's who from 1850 to the present day (Michigan, 1976), 12.].

 

  Canterbury theatre prog

Canterbury Theatre of Varieties, theatre programme, 1888, © The British Library Board

Historians have argued that the music halls were the first commercial mass entertainment to appear in Britain, they appealed to everyone. In a world that we see as often only operating along strict class and gender divides, the music halls were a place that drew in men and women, old and young, from all walks of life. In the last week of my course, Helen Peden, the British Library’s Curator of Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900, joined us and brought with her a mesmerizing selection of posters, playbills and other ephemera from the Evanion Collection, which we displayed on tables across two rooms. The joy of seeing students connect to original source material is unparalleled, and by the end of six weeks, my passionate group of historical myth busters set off to explore the rest of the Library’s collections. I can’t wait to see what they find.

 

  George Pike and seals

George Pike's wonderful performing seals, © The British Library Board

For more information on adult courses at the Library, visit www.bl.uk/courses. The exhibition There Will Be Fun is open until 12th March 2017.