THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

3 posts from December 2017

26 December 2017

Marking the centenary year of the death of the poet Edward Thomas.

Edward Thomas believed poetry to be the highest form of literature, yet it wasn’t until late in his life that he became a poet. For the greater part of his creative life he was a reviewer, critic and the author of a number of books on nature.  He was born on the 3 March 1878 in Lambeth to Welsh parents who instilled in him a strong sense of his Welsh heritage.  He was educated at St Paul’s School and then Oxford University. In 1899, while still an undergraduate, Thomas married Helen Berenice Noble, the daughter of an early mentor, James Ashcroft Noble, who had encouraged Thomas to publish essays based on the copious notes he took on his long country walks.  After Oxford, Thomas made a precarious living working as a reviewer on the Daily Chronicle much to the dismay of his father, who had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps by joining the Civil Service.  Thomas’s determination to earn his living as a writer was to cause a major rift between father and son.

  Edward_Thomas

Edward Thomas photograph circa 1905 Wikimedia Commons

In order to support his growing family Thomas had to take on more and more reviewing – leading him to declare to a friend that “I am burning my candle at three ends”, despite his dislike of what he referred to as his “hack work” he became a prominent and influential literary critic. It was through his growing status as a reviewer that Thomas became acquainted with Harold Monro, whose Poetry Bookshop was the centre for an emerging group of poets who became known as the Georgian Poets. The key members of the group at the time were Lascelles Abercrombie, W W Gibson, Rupert Brooke and John Drinkwater.

In 1911 Abercrombie moved to ‘The Gallows’ a house at Ryton, just outside the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire; he was soon followed to the area by Gibson who, with Abercrombie, persuaded the American poet Robert Frost to move to a house in Ledington called ‘Little Iddens’. The three of them formed what became known as the Dymock triangle.  The Dymock colony is looked back on today as an idyll, a short-lived golden time, brought to an end by the First World War.

Thomas first met Frost in October 1913 and was subsequently a frequent visitor to ‘Little Iddens’, often staying with Frost until he too rented rooms for his family in a nearby farmhouse. Other visitors to Dymock included Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater, Eleanor Farjeon, Ivor Gurney and W H Davies.  Thomas’s friendship with Frost was to prove a pivotal moment in Thomas’s life.  The two men would go for long walks in the surrounding countryside discussing poetry and life.  Frost has been credited as the catalyst in Thomas becoming a poet.  He suggested that Thomas take his prose and turn it into poetry. In the final two years of his life, Thomas was extremely prolific, writing over 140 poems.  One of his most famous is ‘Adelstrop’, written on the 24 June 1914, on a train journey to visit Frost.  The poem recounts an unscheduled stop that captures a moment of peace and tranquillity on a summer’s day, which later took on an extra poignancy for those about to be slaughtered in the coming war

There has been much speculation as to why Thomas enlisted in the army. Certainly we know he spent many hours deliberating over whether he should join up.  As a married man in his late thirties with three children to support he would not have been expected to enlist.  But enlist he did, on the 19 July 1915 as a private in the Artists’ Rifles.  A little over a year later he was promoted to corporal and worked as a map reading instructor, an occupation for which he was entirely suited and a position he could have retained for the duration of the war.  Ironically, it was the army that gave him the freedom to write, free from the financial worries of how to provide for his family.  In November 1916 he was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant, the following month he volunteered for active service.

Thomas arrived in France a few months before the commencement of a major Allied offensive, aimed at breaking through the German defences at Arras. The day before the battle, a shell landed near Thomas but failed to detonate.  That evening he was toasted in the Officers’ Mess for being blessed with luck.  The battle began on Easter Monday 9 April 1917, within the first hour Thomas was dead.  Some biographical accounts suggest he was killed by the concussive blast of a shell which left his body unmarked.  However, a letter from his commanding officer, which lay undiscovered in the New York Public Library for many years, reveals that he was killed by a direct hit through the chest.  The poems that were to make his name were published a few months after his death.

Perhaps his work has been overshadowed by the dominance of modernism, but many poets point to Thomas as an inspiration and he is seen by some as the bridge between Thomas Hardy and Ted Hughes. Hughes described him as “the father of us all”.  On Armistice Day in 1985, Hughes unveiled a memorial to First World War poets in Westminster Abbey, which included Edward Thomas among those commemorated.

 

Duncan Heyes, Curator, Printed Heritage and Contemporary British Publications.

15 December 2017

Get Ready for Quiz Night! A QI Elf's Recommended Reads

This is a guest blog from QI elf Anne Miller. Join Anne, fellow elf James Harkin and QI founder John Lloyd for a  QI Christmas Quiz on 18 December at the British Library. This event will celebrate the publication of 1,423 Facts To Bowl You Over, the latest eye-popping, gobsmacking, over-bowling book from the top QI team. 

Get your best team together and be in with a chance of winning a Quite Interesting prize!

Facts to bowl you over jacket

QI Towers is an office of bookworms. We love all facts but have a soft spot for bookish ones such as there being a German airline which allows an extra kilo of hand luggage so long as it’s books, that there’s a bookshop in Shanghai which sells books by the kilo and that the British Library keeps its collection of over 60 million newspapers in an airtight building with low oxygen so they can’t catch fire.

The-storage-void-of-the-new-british-library-national-newspaper-building-at-boston-spa-in-west-yorkshire-1

The QI office is covered with towering stacks of intriguing books such as William Donaldson’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through The Ages, Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy’s The Geometry of Pasta and Fran Beauman’s The Pineapple which just make you want to stop everything until you’ve read them from cover to cover.

Some of our favourite titles include:

Tolstoy’s Bicycle

Jeremy Baker

This book takes its name from the fact that Tolstoy decided to learn to ride a bicycle (then a modern contraption) when he was 67-years-old. The book is full of facts about the great and the good (and the not so good) but with the facts divided up by the age people were when they happened. For example at two-years-old Hercules strangled two snakes in his crib, Judy Garland sang Jingle Bells on stage and that’s also generally the age when you become too old to travel for free on aeroplanes.

 

Consider The Fork: A History of Invention in the Kitchen

Bee Wilson

Interesting nuggets in Bee Wilson’s history of kitchens include that swingers, pinchers, tippers, perchers and floppers are all types of toaster. We were also fascinated to discover that there are actually precise measurements for quantities such as a 'dash' (1/8 of a teaspoon), a 'pinch' (1/16 of a teaspoon) and a ‘drop’ (1/72 of a teaspoon or 0.069ml). 

 

Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals

Steve Young and Sport Murphy

1950-80 was the golden age of ‘industrial musicals’ - bespoke Broadway-style shows performed by companies to promote their products and to motivate employees. This book gathers the best together including such gems as 1969’s The Bathrooms Are Coming which was only ever seen by people in the bathroom trade.  

One of the songs on the soundtrack was Look At This Tub! which included the lyrics ‘Look at this tub! It’s dangerous and certainly a hazard! It’s positively lower than substandard! Everything here is lower class, Why, I could slip, I could fall right on my... nose.’

 

The Oxford English Dictionary(OED)

The OED is one of our favourite reference books and where we found out that the word ‘omnilegent’ means being addicted to reading, ‘obdormition’ is when your arm falls asleep after you lean on it and ‘onomatomania’ is frustration at being unable to think of the appropriate word.

There are also some great facts about the OED itself. It was originally offered to Cambridge not Oxford and their first editorial assistant was sacked for industrial espionage.

With so many incredible books to get through we’re hopeful of avoiding alogotransiphobia which is the fear of being caught on public transport without a book to read.

Anne Miller photoAnne Miller, QI Elf

11 December 2017

Holy Days and Holidays: Angela Carter’s Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story

by Callum McKean, Curator, Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. The British Library holds the Angela Carter Archive and you can explore some digitised manuscripts on our Discovering Literature website.

For Angela Carter, many of our apparently banal daily practices orbit around ancient and largely invisible centres of gravity; they are the result of rituals repeated and folk narratives re-told across generations, often unconsciously. Her work looks askance at these invisible – or naturalised – narrative and behavioural forces, and then proceeds to take them apart to see how they work. In her hands, myths and fairy-tales are re-told in such a way as to drag them from the dark, invisible world of the habitual into the lighter realm of the thinkable.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Carter is interested in the idea of the Festival as a rupture in the procession of the Everyday; a moment when social norms are stretched and even overturned, at least temporarily. In her posthumously published ‘Ghost Ships: a Christmas Story’, this conflict takes place in a burgeoning 17th century New England colony which finds itself under silent attack from a larger-than-life pagan armada, where the titular ships re-call a contemporaneous Christmas carol of unknown origin. 

  ThreeShips
This reproduction of a 19th Century wood-engraving illustrating the famous Christmas carol, ‘I Saw Three Ships’, shows three intensely colourful and oversized figures aboard ships, bringing music and festivity to the shore in a way comparable to the oversized figures aboard the ships in Carter’s story. (Walter Crane’s Painting Book [1889] YK.2000.b.3201)

 This re-imagination of the folk-song as an attack on puritan sensibilities, where the anticipatory joy of the original song becomes a kind of subliminal violence, is symptomatic of what Carter sees as the paranoid world-view of the New England settlers. The function of music in puritan societies was to help the congregation attain a higher religious ideal. Purely sensual enjoyment was discouraged and severely punished. Songs without basis in scripture, such as carols, came under immediate suspicion; the settlers preferred instead to chant psalms in unison, without instrumentation. ‘The greatest genius of the puritans lay in their ability to sniff out a pagan survival’, Carter writes, ‘they were the stuff of which social anthropologists would be made’.

The irony here, of course, is that peculiarly sensitive noses are at increased risk of ‘sniffing out’ more alluring scents too. Protection from the dangers of the purely sensual came, more often than not in the early colonies, through top-down legislation. ‘Ghost Ships’ begins with such a piece of legislation, an excerpt from a Statute Enacted by the General Court of Massachusetts in May 1659. The Statute itself is real, and still viewable in the Massachussets State Archives. 

Such top-down attempts to purge the so-called New World of its Old World traditions are particularly feeble for Carter. No penalty, however large or strictly enforced, can pry a culture from its origins. The Boston Bay which her pilgrims inhabit – described as being ‘as calm as milk, as black as ink, smooth as silk’ – is a paradoxically fantastical space; an imaginary clean slate constructed as a bulwark against the infinite reproducibility of a folk-culture which some of the more elite or pious settlers had hoped to leave behind, but which could not be forgotten by force. When reading Carter’s annotated typescripts for ‘Ghost Ships’, one is struck by how forcefully this conflict is encoded into the physicality of the text. Her typescript is draped in richly descriptive pen annotations which indulge sensual, onomatopoetic ruminations and asides – one reads simply, ‘slurp, slurp, slurp’:

  GhostShipsMs

 This typescript page from a draft of ‘Ghost Ships’ shows heavy annotations which never made it into the published version of the story, but which throw light on Carter’s sense of the titular ships as overflowing with rich and sensuous imagery. (Add MS 88899/1/39).

However, to focus too strongly on the emancipatory potential of Festival in this story is to forget its ending, where the Lord of Misrule (a precursor to modern Father Christmas whose body is a catalogue of obscene comedy) is thrown back into the sea in defeat. Carter read the work of Mikhail Bakhtin -- a Russian cultural theorist and literary critic whose sense of the Carnivalesque as possessing the potential to liberate us from oppressive structures -- with more than a pinch of salt. In ‘Pantoland’, another story from the same collection, she writes that, ‘the essence of the carnival, the festival, the Feast of Fools, is transience. It is here today and gone tomorrow, a release of tension not a reconstitution of order, refreshment… after which everything can go on again exactly as if nothing had happened’. Rather than overthrowing the puritans of Boston Bay, Carter’s Lord of Misrule leaves only a parting gift, a ‘juicy resistance’ which turns out to be, ‘to their amazed and secret glee, […] a raisin the size of your thumb, wrinkled with its own sweetness, plump as if it had been soaked in brandy, that came from who knows where but might have easily dropped out of the sky during the flight overhead of a disintegrating Christmas pudding’. Rather than a full-scale overthrow of the status-quo, then, Carter leaves us with only an exceedingly ripe kernel, a single transitional object which can move, inexplicably, from the world of magic to the world of the everyday. This saturated raisin, soaked in brandy, is all that remains of the night’s assault, but it is all that is needed to permit the imagination– in the smallest way – to re-think the world.