THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

4 posts from January 2018

31 January 2018

Nowadays and Anywhere: Jim Crace on his New Novel

UPDATED COVER JACKET

 

A guest blog by Jim Crace, who will speak about love and grief, music and myth, how society treats its less fortunate and the creation of his new novel, The Melody, when he launches it at the Library in February.

My novels are hardly autobiographical. They tend to spring from something puzzling or troubling beyond my experience rather than from events in my own life. So it was with The Melody. About three years ago, I was on the 10th floor of a lavish hotel in Chennai, India, a guest of the Lit for Life Festival. Everything was perfect – except for one annoyance: I couldn’t sleep because of the ceaseless, metallic racket from the waste ground below my suite. I looked down from the window on my first restless night to watch the hotel’s garbage bins being toppled over and raided for food scraps by, mostly, feral dogs and a few other animals I couldn’t, in that half light, put a name to. A couple of them looked alarmingly like children. I lay awake, disturbed in every sense, until the waiter brought my breakfast on a tray.

What I’d witnessed at the bins had been a distressing and sobering sight, not just because of the disparity between my pampered life and theirs but also because it made me speculate from my elevated viewpoint how biologically debasing and destructive poverty must be. Those scavenging street children had seemed little more than animals.

That was the seed for the novel and it provided the question the narrative would hope to answer: What occupies the space between the human mammals in their hotel rooms and those amongst the bins? A realist, autobiographical writer, employing the pen as a camera, might have set the novel in 21st century Chennai.  I was wary of that. I was a white, privileged tourist there. Whatever I wrote would seem like a narrow, judgemental, post-colonial misrepresentation of a diverse nation about which I knew very little. India is so much more than poverty, of course. Besides, if a book were to be written on the subject of destitution in the sub-continent, there were plenty of talented Indian writers who would make a truer job of it than I ever could. Many have already done so. No, what I needed was a setting out of Asia and one which could not offend the citizens of any actual place. That meant making up an unnamed nation of my own, something I am very fond of doing. Minting a new world, rather than holding a mirror up to a real one, is a liberation I nearly always search for in my novels for the licence and the freedom it allows. Anything can happen in the realms of make-believe.

So The Melody is set in a time long lost (the late 1920s, say), on a coast unnamed (by the Mediterranean, perhaps) and in a town unbuilt, except within the pages of the novel. As in all the public places we enjoy, there is a throng of music, street life and romance, there are intrigues and shenanigans, there are good intentions and bad decisions. The only part of Chennai that survives is the night-time racket of the bins - but in The Melody these discords are relocated to disturb the wealth and poverty of an invented place that I hope can stand for Nowadays and Anywhere.

Jim Crace is the prize-winning author of several books, including Continent (winner of the 1986 Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize), Quarantine (winner of the 1998 Whitbread Novel of the Year and shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and Being Dead (winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award). His 2013 novel, Harvest, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was the winner of the International Dublin Literary Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Authour Press Shoot

https://www.bl.uk/events/jim-crace-the-melody

24 January 2018

Just Plain Gone: Three Monographs from Etcher, Print-maker and Sculptor D.R. Wakefield

by Jeremy Jenkins, Curator for Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media.

 

Frontis Going Going Going                                       Frontispiece, Going Going Going

When I walk between the West End and the Euston Road I would cut through the British Museum galleries to vary my route. This would inevitably take me past the gigantic carved stone statue or moai, which were erected on Easter Island and looked over the villages on Rapa Nui. 

As I weave through the snakes of tourists and visitors in the British Museum’s Wellcome Gallery where Hoa Hakananai'a resides, I could not help thinking that if this stone monolith was imbued with some sort of consciousness what would he think?

It is likely he had seen it all before millennia earlier on his ancestral shore.  Indeed if, as is argued, he is representative of the pinnacle of  his society’s achievements it is likely he witnessed the slow  decline and collapse of  this home has there was a greater competition for the island’s limited resources. Another view is that it was the arrival of Europeans that began the decline.    

Contemporary British Publications recently took delivery of  three monographs from etcher, printmaker, and sculptor, D.R. Wakefield.  These works straddle the final steps documenting the transference of a range of mammals in the spectrum from endangered to extinct.

 An Alphabet of Endangered Mammals: A Collection of Etching Depicting Animals Considered Extinct in the Wild by 2050 takes the reader on an alphabetic journey starting with the Asian lion and ending Zubr, It includes the Nepalese giant elephant, the well-publicised precarious situation of the polar bear, and others, all of which are portrayed in tinted etching.  The etchings are pulled through a 19th century star wheel engraving press, while the type for each piece of text is assembled by hand, and pressed on an Albion press.

 

Endangered Polar Bear     A Polar Bear, An Alphabet of Endangered Mammals

The second volume in the package was Going, Going, Going: Some Thoughts on the Destiny of the Rhinoceros as an Icon of Natural History. The pages explore the predicament of an animal whose early representations and fossils were attributed to be evidence of the mythic unicorn, the rhinoceros. The level of detail and skill demonstrated in engraving and printing from the plates of this work is of the very highest standard and provide the reader with a detailed study of five different rhinoceros species including the Indian and black rhinoceros. 

The briefest of glimpses of the frontispiece leaves the reader in little doubt of the Wakefield’s view that poaching is responsible for the tragic decline in rhinoceros across the world.  This is further illustrated in the manner in which the book’s title has been printed, by simply embossing the final “Going” into the paper.  This echoes palaeontology where the only evidence of the existence of a creature is the imprint it made that subsequently became fossilised, such as the Tetrapod Trackway

 

Tetropod trackway           The Tetrapod Trackway, Valentia Island, County Kerry, Ireland. [permission, author]

These mental imprints reflect back on earlier representations of how the rhinoceros were perceived which in crude terms described it as a beast about the size of a horse with a horn. Combine this with archaeological evidence of knawel horns and third hand reports of beasts from the edge of imagination and there are fertile grounds for the conjuring of the image of the unicorn.  Indeed as late as the early eighteenth century the unicorn versus rhinoceros debate continued.   

Foldout 2 Going going going

                                            The Black Rhinoceros, Going Going Going

Finally, An Alphabet of Extinct Mammals almost seems to be the natural book end for this collection from Chevington Press. The fact that Wakefield illustrates the frontispiece of this work with a self-portrait which airs toward the creature-like seems to echo a warning to the reader about how closely our fate is intrinsically connected to mammals. 

Frontis piece ExtinctFrontispiece, An Alphabet of Extinct Animals 

There is something unique and particularly individual and characterful about the illustrations which are all yet beautifully faithful representations of these once majestic creatures. One of the most powerful messages in this work is the fact that Wakefield can fill the alphabet with extinct species. Most of the species illustrated have slipped in to extinction in the since the age of exploration.  This work is certainly not a corpus of Victorian expeditionary corpulence although it does include such examples as the Warrah or Falkland Islands dog which was “eased into oblivion” by the “inevitable government bounty” in the mid nineteenth century.    

Because of the new security measures placed at the entrances it is now not so easy to pass through the British Museum. So I must find a new route through the pollution choked city to meetings in town.

Bibliography

D.R. Wakefield, Alphabet of endangered mammals: a collection of etchings depicting animals considered extinct in the wild 2050, The Chevington Press: Goole, 2010. [British Library Shelfmark: RF.2017.b.58]

D.R. Wakefield, An alphabet of extinct mammals; The Chevington Press: Goole, 2009 [British Library Shelfmark: RF.2017.b.59]

D.R. Wakefield, Going, going, going: some thoughts on the destiny of the rhinoceros as an icon of natural history with etchings, The Chevington Press: Goole, 2015 [British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2322]

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Allen Lane: London 2005 [British Library Shelfmark: YC.2006.a.14921]

 

 

15 January 2018

It’s a kinda magick: Aleister Crowley

A guest blog by Rachel Brett, Humanities Reference Specialist

For those who believe in magic it’s reasonable to accept it can form in monochrome shades. Potentially the most infamous practitioner of the darker variety was Aleister Crowley (pictured below). Emerging from the Fin de siècle moment when, along with philosophers and psychoanalysists alike, he became interested in mysticism and the occult. Rebelling against his evangelical Christian upbringing causing his mother to dub him ‘The Beast’ a moniker amongst many he would adopt throughout his life as a magician.

ACrowleyCrowley began his magical apprentice training with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, other probationers included W.B.Yeats. Crowley however, developed an interest in goetia- the evocation of demons and would later believe Yeats was casting spells on him because he was jealous of his poetry… The clandestine life style Crowley was beginning to indulge in encompassing drug taking and sexual experiments cast a cloud over his progress with that magical order prompting him to seek wider magical landscapes.

He travelled extensively and studied a myriad amount of ancient eastern traditions from yoga, meditation to kabbalah. He married and shortly after in telepathic communication with his new wife made contact with the Egyptian god Aiwass, which resulted in him producing The Book of the Law which would serve as the basis for the magic system he dedicated his life to. The premises of his belief system was ‘Do What thy Will, Love is the Law’. Analogous to Nietzsche before him he believed that individuals held the power to be free and live according to their own desires, despite the effect of those desires. Having achieved top level magus status Crowley became head of Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) he added a ‘k’ to the spelling of magic and set about establishing the religion of Thelema that would guide in the new Aeon.

One vital element to Crowley’s practice was the attainment of a magic diary. He had a strong interest in science and felt that magic should use the ‘method of science with the aim of religion’. In the age of enlightenment knowledge received by reason could be scientifically calculated. The practice of magic for Crowley had to be studied in the same manner; collect data and look for repeatable patterns and repetitions. The diary was key to this procedure.

He kept a diary from his initiation into the Golden Dawn and expected all his students to do likewise. The process of keeping a diary was to record and reflect on experiences and effective exercises. The recording allowed theories and methods to be tested but also a tool to aid his most profound motto; know thy self and ones limits.

He chronicled everything in his diary, from Astrological charts, concentration exercises, dreams, daily observations to what he ate and when. The resolution was to show life as a spell that is willed for a purpose. Evocations were his way of confronting obstacles to the self. By recording all his thoughts, feelings and activities and the reflecting upon these illuminated his perceptions. The practice of keeping the diary was a disciplined aspect of training for the aspirant. The diary would be maintained for a year then reflected upon by the teacher before a pupil could become adept. The principle was for the magician to record their past, where they came from and how they were brought to the gateway of magic. The diary would function as the writer’s conscience that could be used for further experiments. The recording of all activities meant that the mind could not forget or falsely remember.

Sometimes coded cipher might be used, and grammar was banished. There would be no full stops, or use of the word failure Crowley writes in The Book:

“This full stop may never be written anywhere else; for the writing of the Book goes on eternally; there is no way of closing the record until the goal of all has been attained.”

Aleister_Crowley_as_OsirisPicture showing Aleister Crowley as Osiris

For Crowley the maintenance of a magical diary was so vital to attainment that he wrote a novel based upon his own experiences. ‘The Diary of a Drug Fiend’ is a fictional account premised on his own experiences.

Magicians diaries rarely survive least of all become published, the full set are still waiting publications. John Dee who was the astrologer of Elizabeth 1 also kept a magical diary. Some of his original manuscript form part of the British Library collections.

Aleister Crowley had many faces, an iconoclast, a poet, a mountaineer, a mystic and popular culture icon. His cultural influence began as early as 1908 when Somerset Maugham wrote The Magician a novel caricaturing Crowley. During the revolutionary 1960’s Crowley would posthumously become an alternative inspiration for the new generation from magicians to pop stars. It seems that the subterranean world of the magician is an enduring mystery that looks set to remain in our popular consciousness for a long time to come. Just remember magic isn’t just one colour…  

References books on magic can be located on the open shelves in Humanities one reading room.

05 January 2018

Diaries: Recording History in Many Voices

Guest blog by Travis Elborough author of  Our Twentieth Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters, published by Michael O’Mara.

 TravisElborough author photo (c) David X Green - croppedDiaries and journals as we know them now have been with us since at least the 16th century. But it wasn't until 1812 that the stationer John Letts first began selling a yearly almanack from his shop at the Royal Exchange in London – at that time home to numerous booksellers and coffeehouses and an area previously haunted by Pepys. The Letts Diary was an immediate success, attracting such devoted users as William Makepeace Thackeray who favoured the 'three shillings cloth boards' No 12 model, and continues to be published in a multitude of formats to this day.

I’ve never really kept a diary. But I am an inveterate reader of other people’s. For me, the appeal has always been their immediacy and intimacy. That unique sense of being addressed directly, and sometimes extremely candidly, by someone, perhaps from an age other than our own, is intensely seductive. At the British Library there is the added thrill of being able to consult the original diaries of the likes of Laurie Lee, Kenneth Williams, Alec Guinness, Beryl Bainbridge and Shiva Naipaul in the archives, their personalities coming across here in pen stroke and paper stock as well as in choice turns of phrase.

It has been an enormous pleasure and a real privilege to be able to consult such documents and the Library’s unparalleled collection of published diaries while putting together my latest anthology, Our History of the 20th Century. In this book I’ve used extracts from over a hundred different diarists, both the great and the good and the completely obscure, to present a kind of top down and bottom up account of Britain during the last century. My diarists range from politicians, heads of state, novelists, playwrights and celebrities to ordinary people and the largely unknown and unsung contributors to the Mass Observation Project.

But in any case, as an historian and author of books on vinyl records and the British seaside, diaries are where I go to try and find as instantaneous or unvarnished a reaction to events as possible. First impressions count because they tend to get superseded by the collectively agreed verdict of history. Take for example the funeral of Queen Victoria, an event which we condescendingly assume must have been greeted with great solemnity by the general public. And yet here is Arnold Bennett’s impression of the occasion from his journal on 2 February 1901:

This morning I saw what I could, over the heads of a vast crowd, of the funeral procession of the Queen. The people were not, on the whole, deeply moved, whatever journalists may say, but rather serene and cheerful.

Afterwards, Legge, Fred Terry and Hooley lunched with me at the Golden Cross Hotel, and all was very agreeable and merry.

Diaries are, of course, often far from authoritative and have no commitment to tell the truth or record incidents accurately. They are by their very nature subjective, and so subject to the egos, whims and biases of their writers. Bennett may, perhaps, have nursed a particular antipathy toward the old Queen, who knows? Elsewhere in his journals he denounces cocktails, admires Lyons Corner House restaurants and records meeting T S Eliot and asking the American-born poet if The Wasteland was intended as a joke.

This is another joy of diaries, they can often supply frank (and sometimes amusingly wrong-headed) assessments of artworks long since judged canonical. It is in her diary that Virginia Woolf famously confessed on reading James Joyce’s Ulysses to feeling ‘puzzled, bored, irritated, and disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. In turn Beatrice Webb writes off To the Lighthouse in her diary, deeming the ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative of Woolf’s 1927 novel ‘objectionable’ on the grounds that ‘even one’s own consciousness defies description’.

Our History Cover final - Travis elborough Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman might well have won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 and is widely regarded as a classic of post-war American theatre. One that continues to be studied and regularly performed all over the world but after seeing its first London run, Malcolm Muggeridge judged it ‘a wholly sentimental affair’, concluding in a diary entry for the 27 September 1949 that it was little more than ‘a glorified hard-luck story.’ He was similarly damning of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger too.

Anyone familiar with the work of the film and theatre director Lindsay Anderson, leading light of the Free Cinema movement who produced politically-charged movies like If and Britannia Hospital, might have expected him to take a rather dim view of Star Wars. And indeed he does, with the robots C3P0 and R2D2 in George Lucas’s cinematic space epic coming in for particular criticism. But it is also in the pages of his diary we learn, rather surprisingly, that in 1978 he was a committed viewer of the American television series The Incredible Hulk.

Armed with this knowledge is it tempting to imagine what Anderson, who late in his career worked unhappily with the 80s pop group Wham! on a documentary of their tour of China, might possibly have done himself with a Marvel comics movie.

Anderson died in 1994, the year Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party. And there is, if anything, nothing more distant than that recent past. What seems like yesterday remains a period when news of Princess Diana’s death, for instance, reaches all the diarists in my book via landline telephone, radio, terrestrial television and inky newsprint rather than by text, the internet or social media.

Today, of course, many more people choose to document their lives with pictures on Instagram and comment publicly on events, personal and political, on Facebook or Twitter rather than privately in the leaves of a diary. It will be interesting to see what future historians might then use to construct a similar volume about our current century. 

Travis Elborough’s new book Our Twentieth Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters is published by Michael O’Mara.