THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

2 posts from March 2017

24 March 2017

‘Post-it’ notes in the Will Self archive

Chris Beckett writes:

‘My books begin life in notebooks, then they move on to Post-it notes, the Post-its go up on the walls of the room […] short story ideas, tropes, metaphors, gags, characters, etc. When I'm working on a book, the Post-its come down off the wall and go into scrapbooks.’ (‘Writers' Rooms: Will Self’, The Guardian, 6 April 2007.)

Here’s Self’s writing room in 71 photographs: http://www.will-self.com/writing-room/index.php

The photographs capture the scale of the author’s devotion to the little yellow pad. The scrapbooks into which Self has gathered the ‘post-it’ notes now form part of his archive at the British Library. Grid-like on the wall, and grid-like in the scrapbooks, the notes intrigue and fascinate. They are little doorways into the text, little honeycomb cells of access.

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Having recently read How the Dead Live (2000), a group of ‘post-it’ notes in the novel’s scrapbook caught my eye. 

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I smiled at the note about the minicab driver who crosses London by an internal map of Lagos (second row, third from left – see p. 310 of the novel). I remembered Lily Bloom’s heavy-smoking fantasy of an elaborate contraption to feed her a continuous supply of ready-lit cigarettes – think cogs, wheels and pulleys, think Heath Robinson – drawn by the American cartoonist Rube Goldberg (first row, novel p. 300). I noted Lily’s anxious ‘dieting lists’, and I caught her familiar combative tone in ‘very few people are fond of me’ (second row) although I can’t find the words in the book. I then wondered about the striking phrase ‘ginny mist’ (second row, second from the left). When I found ‘ginny mist’ in the published text (p. 101), I saw that the image had been deftly extended and deepened: ‘I remember this lack of sensation; it’s happened enough times to me in this bedroom, usually in a ginny mist, a forest of juniper’.  

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Looking through the scrapbook for Walking to Hollywood (my current reading), I discovered a group of ‘post-it’ notes on Scientology. The unreliable narrator of the novel, a writer called Will Self who has lost his capacity to suspend disbelief, goes on a walking odyssey to Hollywood to discover who killed the movies, and has CGI firmly in his sights. In this novel of seems and simulacra, everyone looks like a familiar actor, even Self, who is ‘played’ by Pete Postlethwaite and/or David Thewlis. ‘Actors feel like Thetans’ says one post-it note (see below, second row, second note from the left). L. Ron Hubbard’s cult is described in the novel as a mash-up of ‘Astounding Stories, the Bhagavad Gita and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’ (p. 141).

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In the late 1980s, the narrator once ‘inveigled’ himself on to an introductory Scientology weekend course at the Saint Hill Manor headquarters, near East Grinstead, but was firmly rejected when they discovered his ‘homosexual inclinations’. Thereafter, he was repeatedly rebuffed: ‘over the coming years I went on pitching up at Tottenham Court Road, in disguises and under assumed names, armed with strategies for “fooling” the Capacity Analysis. It was all to no avail: the smiling Scientologists would let me take the test again, then send me on my way, with the advice that I see a doctor, a therapist, a priest – do anything, in short, but submit myself to their own mind control’ (p. 141). Among the background notes for Walking to Hollywood are the results of a Scientology personality test displayed as a graph (Hubbard’s OCA, the so-called ‘Oxford Capacity Analysis’). The test was undertaken by one (thinly disguised) Wihh [sic] Orr at the Scientology Life Improvement Center, Sunset Boulevard, 14 June 2008.

Returning home from Los Angeles, Self finds that the (cartoon) ‘superpowers’ he possessed in LA have vanished, only to be replaced by a growing sense that his ‘mental faculties’ are deteriorating. He walks the crumbling coastline of East Yorkshire and meditates morbidly on ‘the fuzziness and forgetfulness’ (p. 329) that has descended on him. Like the cliffs he walks along, his foot-weary narrative is eroded and ‘breaks off’, along with a sense of purpose and identity: ‘This would be a unique walk of erasure – a forty-mile extended metaphor for my own embattled persona, as its foundations were washed away’ (p. 345). 

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‘The fictional account breaks off short: it is eroded’.

Before starting out on his littoral tramp of East Yorkshire – an ambulatory coda to the morphing masks of LA – Self muses: ‘It was true that in the decade since I had stopped drinking and taking drugs my short-term memory seemed to have improved; at any rate, I no longer needed the elaborate system of Post-it notes stuck to the walls of my writing room that had for years served me as a kind of random access. If I maintained this, it was more as an art installation, or magic ritual […] (p. 330).

And so perhaps we have then, in a sense, in the Walking to Hollywood scrapbook, Self’s final scrapbook post-it note: not the very last physically – the pages of notes continue beyond it – but the note that points, with the satisfying force of circularity, not only to ‘post-it’ notes as a subject within the text but also to the end of the writer’s practical need for them. The art installation has had its final show. RAM is no longer required on the walls.

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‘Amnesia / Post-its’ (third row, first left). And: ‘My family. Who are they? Why haven’t they forgotten me?' (far right).

However, Self quickly decides that his reasoning for the end of the writing room installation is delusional. It is not that his short-term memory has greatly improved, it is just that he now works differently, is better at his trade: ‘I now wrote books with the workmanlike despatch of a carpenter turning out tables, this busy practice obscuring the loss of much I had once known’ (p. 331). 

Next week, I start to catalogue the two novels that followed the ‘wayward and melancholic’ (Self’s description) Walking to Hollywood: they are Umbrella (2012) and Shark (2014). A cursory glance at what the boxes contain suggests that the narrator is indeed an unreliable fellow. Not only are there yellow notes hiding in the drafts of Umbrella, but there is also a scrapbook for Shark. Perhaps we really shouldn’t believe a word he says.

 

Chris Beckett’s blog on the family papers in the Self archive is here:  http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2017/02/first-report-from-the-will-self-archive-family-matters.html

Images of material from the Will Self archive are used with kind permission of the author.

03 March 2017

Visual Verses: John Vicars’s God in the Mount, or Jehova-jireh, 1641.

by Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

George Herbert’s Easter Wings (1633) is the most renowned example of an early modern English pattern poem; it appears in all the anthologies and has been widely discussed and analysed. So, it is a real treat to find an example of an early printed pattern poem that is seemingly little-known, especially when it comes from a surprisingly incongruous source having been composed by a militant Presbyterian iconoclast.

John Vicars (1580-1652) schoolmaster and poet, is remembered most for his Parliamentary chronicles printed during the 1640s, a series of newsbook-style pamphlets written in the sermon rhetoric of popular puritanism. In his sixties by the time of the Great Rebellion he wrote in favour of iconoclastic reform and in praise of Parliament’s efforts to bring it about. He specifically contributed to the literature of iconoclasm with The sinfulness and unlawfulness of making or having the picture of Christ’s humanity (1641) in which the poet William Prynne also contributed a verse against images. Vicars gleefully chronicled incidents of the removal of images, crucifixes, popish books and ‘Babylonish trinkets’, his reports manifest an un-hinged enthusiasm. Fiercely anti-Rome, he staged a dramatic scene to personally pull down a crucifix discretely located in Christ’s Hospital.

Following his sycophantic poem England’s Remembrancer, or, a thankfull acknowledgement of Parliamentary mercies to our English-nation (1641), the first of his Parliamentary chronicles proper, God in the Mount, (also known as Jehova-jireh) (1642), presents the reader with a prominent visualisation of his glorifications. The book’s first three preliminary pages hammer home its purpose as panegyric: the title page is printed in the form of a pyramid, a mount; then there is the virtual monument to the Trinity; but more playfully we see on the next page a dedicatory verse in patterned form, to the Houses of Parliament.

 

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John Vicars’s dedicatory shaped poem to the Houses of Parliament (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

To The Right Honourable, thrice Noble and illustrious Senatours of the House of Peers in Parliament.

To Our Trulie Honourable and most renowned Patriots; the House of Commons, in Parliament.

Right Noble Lords and England’s Commons rare,

(For whom the Lord hath joyn’d, disjoin who dare?)

The poem exalts the men of Parliament, offering prayer that their power is protected from “stormes and mischief” and wishes them courage, “to work a pure, A perfect Reformation”, to:

Go on though you great obstacles endure;

Sol shines most clear, though clouds It (oft) obscure;

Heav’n crown your Counsels (still) with good successe,

And you and yours for all your labours blesse,

How can the poem be evaluated? There are some rhymes constructed in there - at the line breaks (rare and dare; blast and cast; tears and re-chears, endure and obscure etc) and arranged inside the two columns (votarie and memorie; erected and protected; valiantly and malignity; Reformation and generation etc), but its literary worth as poetry is usually best declared upon by expert critics (it’s unlikely to score well!). Another way of measuring its impact though is from some estimation about whether the visual effect ‘works’? It is quite imposing and unambiguous, but also a little crude and unsophisticated. It is always worth considering these efforts as a feat of printing and typography. In fairness, this technopaegnion (the more precise term for this type of shaped poem) does look a little sloppy: we can picture the compositor sat frowning at how to set the type with the author peering over his shoulder. The compositor has had to incorporate different sized type and make much use of em-dashes and fleurs-de-lis to fill spaces to create the pattern.

Texts presented in patterns do not just frustrate the compositor; what happens in the reader’s head when attempting to read the poem? Our minds are accustomed to conventions in the structure of letters and words when reading a text. Shaped text is spatial rather than linear, so normal reading is altered and challenged. The line-by-line arrangement is subverted and the visual impact takes primacy and dominates. Whilst our brains look for conventional patterns they are also powerful problem solvers, so these patterns make us try different ways of reading: is there one way to read it, or several different possibilities? Does the subversion and domination of the pattern detract from textual and other values of poetry? Is it pleasing to look at, or just, well, a bit annoying? It can take some time and effort to read and transcribe.

Is this innovation just a bit eccentric? Here lies its curiosity – this English shaped poem is unusual and uncommon. A previous blog-post on ‘visual verses’ mentions that continental enthusiasm for shape poems in the early modern period was not matched in British Literature. Why is this? This poem by John Vicars, the iconoclast, may help explain. Fear and hatred of idolatry lay at the root of Puritan iconoclasm. Hostility towards false, idolatrous art risked deepening into an iconophobic hatred of all art-forms which appealed to the senses. A widespread antipathy towards visual art was a part of the cultural impact of the English revolution. Religious reformers withdrew from printed ballads, stage plays and pictorial art. So, it seems incongruous that Vicars, the iconoclast, here makes use of innovation and visual images to worship and proselytise the cause of Parliament, God, the Trinity and religious Reformation. Maybe, there is intentional irony and these pyramides and monuments are being offered as an alternative to the usual Popish icons. All the same, this work of Vicars does seem to sit somewhat outside the conventions of his very own prescribed culture.

 

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Title page of John Vicars’s God in the Mount, or Jehova-jireh (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

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The iconoclast’s monumental tribute to The Trinitie (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

Some further reading :

God in the mount. Or, Englands remembrancer. Being a panegyrick piramides, erected to the everlasting high honour of Englands God, in the most gratefull commemoration of al [sic] the miraculous Parliamentarie. .. by John Vicars  (British Library shelfmark 4103.d.34)

Visual Verses: Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia, or Passionate Century of Love, 1582.

Puritan iconoclasm in the English civil war, Julie Spraggon (YC2003a22358)

The Princerton encycolpedia of poetry and poetics, edited by Roland Greene (Open Access  Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 808.103; General Reference Collection YC.2012.b.2422)

The Word Turned Image: Reading Pattern Poems, by Sabine Gross in Poetics Today Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring, 1997) (P.901/1862)