THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

5 posts from August 2018

30 August 2018

Mary Shelley in Italy: ‘…tragedy with a scene both affecting and sublime’

By Stephen Noble, Modern Archives and Manuscripts. You can read more about Mary Shelley on our Discovering Literature website. Material relating to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is now on display in our Treasures Gallery.

In 1818 Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley travelled to Italy on the advice of Percy’s doctors, but also to avoid their creditors. Over the next few years they travelled all over the country and it was a time of great creative output for them both. Mary completed the novels Matilda and Valperga, as well as the plays Proserpine and Midas, while Percy wrote his lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound.

These years were also marred by tragedy. In September 1818 their daughter Clara contracted dysentery and died in Venice, where they had gone to find medical attention. Nine months later whilst staying in Rome, their son William died after catching malaria.

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Richard Rothwell, oil on canvas, NPG 1235 ©
Reproduced with the kind permission of National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Despite the traumas the couple endured, they continued to travel and were able to enjoy their experiences in Italy. In January 1821 Mary Shelley wrote to her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Ashley MS 4020), giving her ‘some account of my adventures’. She had been to Lucca to see a performance of Tommaso Sgricci, a famous improvisational poet. She wrote ‘Sgricci acquitted himself to admiration in the conduct and passion & poetry of his piece. As he went on he altered the argument as it had been delivered to him and wound up the tragedy with a scene both affecting and sublime’.

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Mary Shelley, letter to Claire Clairmont, [14] January 1821 (Ashley MS 4020, f2v)

Mary was moved by the performance, and by how ‘truly and passionately did his words depict the scene’. Others in the party were not so impressed, describing it as ‘una cosa mediocra’, a mediocre thing, but to Mary ‘it appeared a miracle’.

In July 1822 tragedy struck again. When returning from a trip to Livorno, where he had visited their friends Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned when his boat sank during a heavy storm in the Gulf of La Spezia. A few weeks later Mary Shelley wrote to her friend Maria Gisborne describing the last months she and Percy had spent together, the events of his death and her immense grief (Ashley MS 5022). ‘I said in a letter to Peacock, my dear Mrs. Gisborne, that I would send you some account of the last miserable months of my disastrous life’…‘The scene of my existence is closed’.

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Mary Shelley, letter to Maria Gisborne, 15 August 1822 (Ashley MS 5022, f1)

On Monday 8 July, ‘it was stormy all day, and we did not at all suppose that they could put to sea’. By Wednesday the weather had improved enough for boats to arrive, which ‘brought word that they sailed on Monday, but we did not believe them’. On Friday 12 July, a letter arrived for Percy from Leigh Hunt in which Hunt wrote ‘Pray write to tell us how you got home, for they say that you had bad weather after you sailed Monday, and we are anxious’.

Now she knew something had gone wrong, ‘The paper fell from my hands. I trembled all over’, but she still had hope that the worst had not happened. In Lerici, the nearest town, she was told there had been no reports of any accidents. In Livorno she learned that Percy had been warned about the storm, but set sail anyway.

It was while returning home on Saturday 13 July that Mary learned that part of his boat had been found, washed ashore a few miles away from Lerici. It was not until 19 July, almost two weeks after his death, that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s body was recovered.

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Mary Shelley, letter to Maria Gisborne, 15 August 1822 (Ashley MS 5022, f5)

Mary closes the letter: ‘Well, here is my story – the last story I shall have to tell. All that might have been bright in my life is now despoiled’.

Mary Shelley did go on to tell other stories, writing and publishing many novels, short stories, travel books, biographies, articles, and poems. Published in 1930 with the title Absence, Mary Shelley wrote of her grief for her husband (Ashley MS A4023):

‘Ah! he is gone — and I alone;

How dark and dreary seems the time!

‘Tis Thus, when the glad sun is flown,

Night rushes o’er the Indian clime’.

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Autograph, fair copy of a poem ‘Ah! he is gone — and I alone’ by Mary Shelley, undated (Ashley MS A4023)

 

17 August 2018

Remembering Bill Griffiths

by guest bloggers Professor Robert Hampson, FEA, FRSA, Royal Holloway, University of London and Matt Martin, Stuart Hall Research Scholar, Birkbeck, University of London.  An evening of readings and reminiscence to honour Griffith's achievements will take place at Birkbeck School of Arts this week, on what would have been Griffith's 70th birthday, more information about which can be found here.  Bill Griffiths's small-press works, including the ones pictured below, can be ordered using our catalogue and read in our Reading Rooms. Griffith's archive is maintained by the Special Collections service at Brunel University, London.

Bill Griffiths, who would have been 70 this month, was a poet, publisher, translator, archivist, Anglo-Saxonist, prisoners’ rights activist and much more. He was educated at University College, London, where he graduated with a BA in History, and he later completed a Ph.D. at King’s College, London, on King Alfred’s translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae.  

He published his first poems in 1972 in Poetry Review during Eric Mottram’s editorship. These energetic and compacted poems, from his ‘Cycle on Dover Borstal’, with their biker-gang and borstal material, had an immediate impact. They present starkly the issue of survival in a hostile environment. They also established, from the start, what Clive Bush has called Griffiths’s ‘absolute loyalty to the poor and dispossessed’ and his concomitant scepticism about the operations of the legal system and the discourses of power. Over the next few years, Griffiths was extremely prolific, publishing poems in various magazines (such as Second Aeon and Sixpack) and through his own Pirate Press. The most important of these early publications was probably War w/ Windsor, which was subsequently republished in collaboration with Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum press. During this period he also produced multiple-voice performance texts and performed as part of Konkrete Canticle with Bob Cobbing and Paula Claire.

In the mid-1970s, he left London and moved to Germany as a ‘guest-worker’. Among other things, this led to his book A Preliminary Account of Nordrhein-Westfalen etc, an assemblage of laconic travelogue, Wagnerian cut-up, Grimm stories, musical scores and natural history.  On his return, he lived briefly in a houseboat in Middlesex. When this was accidentally destroyed by fire, he was rendered homeless for two years before moving, in 1990, to Seaham in the North East of England where he was based until his death in 2007. Here he set up a new press, Amra Editions, and produced a steady stream of publications including the six-volume Seaham Reader, a record of his engagement with this new environment and culture, from megalithic and Roman times through to the more recent local history of labour and labour struggles. During this period, among other things, he also compiled A Dictionary of North-East English and Pitmatic, the first dictionary of North-East miners’ language. Reality Street published three volumes of Griffiths’s collected poetry (1966-1996) posthumously (2010-2016). The Mud Fort (Salt, 2004) included a selection of the post-1996 poetry.

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Bill Griffiths, The Great North Forest, Amra Imprint, [1992]

Translation was an important part of Griffiths’s practice. He published translations from a number of languages – Celtic, Romany, Greek – but, perhaps most importantly, from Old English. He produced sensitive and inventive translations of ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, Guthlac B, Old English riddles and Old English charms  - and, with John Porter, the whole of Beowulf. He even wrote his own Old English riddles about contemporary objects such as escalators. Griffiths’s translation practice was to allow the source language to influence the target language, and, in his own poetry, he drew on his knowledge of the syntactic structures of other languages to disrupt and reshape the syntax of English. In 1992, he published an edition of Aelfric’s ‘Life of St Cuthbert’ in Old English with his own translation, but also published an original work, Variations on the Life of Cuthbert, in collaboration with Clive Fencott, where twentieth-century abstract polysyllabics jostle with the Welsh, Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Latin speakers of Cuthbert’s period. 

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Bill Griffiths, To the Rescue of Reality, Amra Imprint, 1994

Griffiths’s writings continue to inspire. He is unusual among innovative British poets for drawing so strongly on contemporary folk traditions of culture and speech – ‘folk’ for him being a category inclusive enough to welcome language and ideas from (for example) Roma and Afro-Caribbean communities. Combining all these marginalised voices into one body of poetry, he articulates a shared resistance against the centralised hierarchies that he saw increasingly dominating British society. These concerns have, if anything, grown even more pertinent since his death. In recent years, poets like Doug Jones, Joanne Ashcroft, Luke Roberts, Peter Manson and Mendoza have engaged with Griffiths’s work and incorporated this influence into their own radical poetics. In tandem, scholarly research into his accomplishments is gathering pace. Dozens of Griffiths’s publications are available to researchers at the British Library, while his archive is maintained by the Special Collections service at Brunel University, London.

 

  

15 August 2018

Michael Palin: Writer, Actor and Comedian

By Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives, and Silvia Gallotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer. The Michael Palin Archive, generously donated to the British Library by Michael Palin in 2017, is now available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room. A display – Michael Palin: Writer, Actor and Comedian – featuring items from the archive can be seen in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library until 11th November 2018.

Attempting to curate a small display featuring material from the archive of Michael Palin was rather like attempting to select a small number of iconic songs written by The Beatles. The sheer volume of fascinating material available to choose from rapidly made the task of deciding what to leave out the stuff of nightmares. Diaries, letters, photographs, notebooks, annotated scripts and publicity material all jostled for attention. About fifty of the notebooks date from Palin’s time with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and provide a fascinating insight into how comedy routines such as ‘Spam’ and ‘Spanish Inquisition’ developed through different versions into those we know – and can’t help but recite using all the different voices – today. Finding iconic material to exhibit was clearly not going to be a problem.

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The Michael Palin display in Treasures Gallery at the British Library.

The display follows Palin’s career from the mid-1960s up to the late 1980s. The first case opens with the script for a mock theatrical documentary about attitudes towards sex through the ages called ‘The Love Show’ which Palin worked on with Terry Jones in 1965. Although never produced ‘The Love Show’, for which Palin received his first payment as a professional writer, shows early signs of the surreal humour that would come to define Monty Python. Other highlights in the first case include handwritten scripts by Palin and Jones for The Frost Report  –  a show which proved to be a meeting ground for future Pythons Palin, Jones, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle – and from Do Not Adjust Your Set where Palin, Jones and Idle met another future Python, Terry Gilliam. The item on display relating to Do Not Adjust Your Set is a sketch, written by Palin, called ‘Captain Fantastic’s Christmas’. David Jason played the hapless Captain Fantastic, a bumbling bowler-hatted superhero endlessly battling Mrs Black – ‘the most evil woman in the world’ – played by Denise Coffey. Although intended for children the anarchic humour of Do Not Adjust Your Set rapidly gained a cult following among adults.

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‘Captain Fantastic’s Christmas’, a sketch written by Palin and starring David Jason as Captain Fantastic and Denise Coffey as Mrs Black. 1968. Add. MS 89284/2/11. © Michael Palin.

The following section is dedicated to Palin’s career with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and to his subsequent work on Ripping Yarns, and on films such as The Missionary, A Private Function and A Fish Called Wanda. Included in the display is an early scene from The Holy Grail in which a surreal explanation for the absence of horses and the use of coconut shells to mimic the sound of their hooves is provided (‘Our horses grew weary, unable to carry us further. We were forced to leave them by the mountain and continue with coconuts …’). Also included is an early draft of the ‘Biggus Dickus’ scene from Life of Brian and one of Palin’s notebooks in which he has written a potential running order for various Python routines including ‘Spanish Inquisition’, ‘Fish Licence’, ‘Scott of the Sahara’ and ‘Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights’.

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One of Michael Palin’s notebooks, listing potential running orders for sketches including ‘Spanish Inquisition’, ‘Scott of the Sahara’, ‘Communist Quiz’, ‘Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights’ and many others. Add. MS 89284/2/15. © Michael Palin

Ripping Yarns, which Palin worked on with Terry Jones in the mid-1970s is represented by an annotated script from the pilot episode ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’. The episode is a brilliant satire on public school life and the adventure stories found in magazines such as The Boys Own Paper. Tomkinson’s trials at the school include being nailed to a wall on St Tadger’s Day, fighting the school grizzly bear, being hunted down by a leopard while attempting to escape and, as seen here, having to take part in the ‘Thirty Mile Hop’.

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Annotated script for ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’, the first episode of Ripping Yarns broadcast in January 1976. Add. MS 89284/1/75. © Michael Palin

The last part of the display looks at some of the less widely known aspects of Palin’s career including his books for children, and the brilliantly disturbing Bert Fegg’s Nasty Book for Boys & Girls (a humorous book satirising popular encyclopaedias for children and presented as though written by the most unsuitable and disturbed person imaginable for the job). This part of the display also includes two of Palin’s diaries, one of which is open at an entry for 27 March 1970, in which Palin recollects the beginnings of his career just a few years earlier, when he was ‘finishing ‘The Love Show’ with Terry’, ‘still unmarried’, with ‘no immediate prospects’. He concludes: ‘A little bit of nostalgia, but I like sometimes to get my bearings right, just to convince myself that I haven’t wasted the 1960s’.

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Michael Palin’s diary entry for 27th March 1970, reflecting upon the 1960s and writing the second series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. © Michael Palin

The display represents only a very small portion of the archive, but hopefully it provides a glimpse into the riches it contains. The large amount of material included in the collection relating to the production, publicity and distribution of Palin’s TV shows and films makes the archive a wonderful resource for those interested in the history of comedy, TV and filmmaking. The wealth of notebooks and annotated scripts meanwhile provides a unique insight into one of the nation’s most popular entertainers, and into the genesis and development of comedy sketches and films that are now part of the very fabric of our cultural history.

 

10 August 2018

The Daybook of Mrs. Pettigrew

by guest blogger Paul Boakye, who tells the story of his mother, Verona Franceta Pettigrew, and her primary job in Britain after migrating here from Jamaica in 1956. You can see her memoir - The Daybook of Mrs Pettigrew - on display in the Library's free exhibition, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, more details about which can be found here

Mrs-Pettigrew-(1997)

Mrs. Pettigrew in 1997

Everybody knew that Mrs Pettigrew’s Daybook was always 100% accurate. Mrs Pettigrew was the brilliant bookkeeper who managed the accounts department at the company where she worked for twenty years, but she was without a title, without a job description, and without even a contract of employment.

Her employers used the fact that the British were prejudiced on racial grounds to employ her, and others like her, partly under the table and off-the-record at the lower end of the pay-scale.

    ‘You were in charge as long as you were on your own. Once someone white came along, you     became his or her assistant, but you had all the     responsibility without any of the corresponding     pay.’

Even the accountants used her bookkeeping accuracy to their advantage. They came twice a year to audit the books, but there was usually nothing for them to do after the first week, but they earned more money in two weeks than she got paid all year.

She had thought in 1966 that as the business grew, she would grow with it, but her Eastern European employers had no such plans for their “schvartze workhorse. When the company finally computerised its accounts in 1986, Mrs Pettigrew’s expert paper-based system was now surplus to requirements.

Mrs Pettigrew's Passport Picture (1956)Mrs. Pettigrew's Passport Photo, 1956

She was not trained to use the company’s new accounting software. She taught herself at evening classes, but her job vanished anyway, her position now replaced by a new financial director’s post complete with company perks.

Upon losing her case for unfair dismissal, she fell under a spell of writing about her life and everything she could remember. So stirred was she by these diary entries that she moved from place to place with a briefcase full of papers.

She began by writing letters – first, to practically anybody who could help with the ensuing industrial tribunal case – and then, to a variety of friends, colleagues, politicians, people in the public eye, and even a daily missive to a secret, unnamed lover, entitled ‘Letters from America.’

Convinced that various figures in her life – her employers, doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists and social workers – have conspired in the destruction of her health, her home, and her career, she has moved temporarily to Deerfield, Illinois, as the companion to a sick and elderly woman.

Hiding out in suburbia, USA, she now writes endlessly, furiously, about all aspects of her life and everything under the sun. These stories are the primary source of material for The Daybook of Mrs Pettigrew Blog and the various posts shared with its 5000+ Facebook Fans.

Following on from the recent Windrush Scandal, we can perhaps begin to make allowances for Mrs Pettigrew’s state of mind—she is, after all, trying to make sense of her situation – and what it means to be a Black, British, Jamaican grandmother in today's modern world.

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The wedding of Verona Franceta Bennett and Thomas Ranford Pettigrew in London, 1956.

 

She was supposed to have prospered in England but was worse off in Britain in 1997 than when she arrived in 1956. All of her former school friends from Jamaica were now big news in the United States. Yet the vast majority of West Indians she knew came to England for a better life for themselves and their children.

    ‘So, what the hell happened? Nothing! Zilch!’

She laughs out loud alone in her room with a selection of her diaries laid out before her.

    ‘No point being mad without showing it,’ she writes and underlines it.

Some people in England had thought that she was certifiable, and for a time there on medication, she had questioned whether she had, in fact, lost it. Having arrived out here in America, finally, although she still behaved oddly at times, she felt hopeful, confident, perceptive, and strong.

She was ‘awaiting an audience with Oprah.’  Dig in!



03 August 2018

From the strange to the enchanting: the hidden surprises of poetry pamphlets

by Gemma Meek, PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University working in collaboration with the British Library, funded by the AHRC NWCDTP.  If you want to discover more about poetry pamphlets, you can search the library’s extensive collections. Or, you can support independent press through purchasing pamphlets on individual publisher’s websites. They are often very modest in price – ranging from £4-10. For a list of independent presses that publish poetry pamphlets visit: The National Poetry Library or Sphinx Review for a list maintained by Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press.

 

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Exploring a doll’s house, beheading a saint and the collapse of an urban café. These are just some of the themes of the pamphlets shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award.

As the 10th Michael Marks Award approaches, it might be a good time to reflect on the current poetry pamphlet scene. As a PhD placement student at the British Library, this involves rummaging through the Michael Marks shortlisted pamphlets. As well as speaking to the various individuals within and around pamphlet publishing – from academics, to poets, publishers and librarians. This post is a reflection on these explorations, and a brief tour of some of the surprises in the pamphlet field.

Reading the Michael Marks shortlisted pamphlets evokes a range of different experiences. Sometimes it can feel like entering another’s dream, walking across a landscape or noticing overlooked aspects of the everyday. Although it is hard to choose a favourite, there are some pamphlets I am particularly drawn to: Sarah Jackson’s Milk (2008, Pighog Press), which includes a strange and uncomfortable exploration of a doll’s house. Richard Scott’s Wound (2016, The Rialto), which contains some violent (and occasionally erotic) poetry – with one written from a witness perspective of a saint’s beheading. And David Hart’s rather long titled: The Titanic Café closes its doors and hits the rocks or: Knife, fork and bulldozer ultra modern retail outlet complex development scenario with flowers. (2009, Nine Arches Press) as a politicised ‘documentary’ style pamphlet, using photography and poetry to explore a Birmingham café closure.  

Traditionally, a poetry pamphlet is a small collection of poems printed and bound with staples (saddle-stitch), glue or thread in a slim publication (normally A5, but not always). Although pamphlets can vary in the number of pages, it is generally much thinner than a book – with the Michael Marks Award only accepting pamphlets up to 36 pages long. This bite-sized format emphasises a cohesive collection of poems, with their selection, arrangement and editing often developed through discussions between publisher and poet (unless, of course, they are self-published).

Many pamphlets are published by independent press, a term used to define small enterprises which produce a limited amount of publications annually, and are often considered an ‘alternative space’ to the mainstream or more established institutions (although there are always exceptions to the rule).

In the case of poetry pamphlets, the publishers are normally involved in the selection of work, its editing, design and marketing. Most presses have some form of selection criteria, whether that is based around the personal preferences of the publisher, or certain thematic/stylistic concerns. These can range from publishing a particular genre of poetry, to a focus on certain identities, dialects or works from particular regional areas.

Some presses have ‘house styles’, in which their pamphlets have uniform cover designs, size, font choices and branding – seen in some of the Smith/Doorstop or Tall Lighthouse Press pamphlets. Whereas others, such as Longbarrow Press or Pighog Press, produce more individualised, or unique pamphlets in accordance with the content and style of the work being published.

Presses also like to push the boundaries of what is possible with the pamphlet form. This is visible in David Hart’s The Titanic Café Closes Its Doors and Hits The Rocks (2009, Nine Arches Press), and in Devorgilla Bridge by poet Hugh McMillan and artist Hugh Bryden (2009, Roncadora Press) – an artist book turned pamphlet. Like This Press have been making ‘books-in-a-box’, with Rupert Loydell’s Tower of Babel (2013) containing a poetry pamphlet, an essay and various postcards of vibrant abstract paintings. There are also free, digital pamphlets which can be downloaded from Platypus Press and Neon Books, challenging a focus on tactility. And it is worth checking out the poetry pamphlets in University of Sheffield Special Collections by CURVD H&z, where spontaneous poetry is stamped on food labels and used envelopes. These various experiments might encourage poetry pamphlets to be seen as a ‘zone of activity’ rather than a fixed definition.[1]

There are also presses working to be more inclusive of the various voices, identities and performances occurring in the poetry scene – although much more work needs to be done in this area. As a recent report by David Coates from Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics shows, not only is there is a lack of BAME writers being published, but there is also little critical review of the work. Chantelle Lewis also raised this concern when she ran an event at the library ‘Bringing Voices Together’, which aimed to highlight independent publishers committed to writers of colour.  

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Rachel McCrum, The Glassblower Dances. Stewed Rhubarb Press. 

Some presses are also breaking tradition by exploring the relations and differences in written and spoken word. For example, Stewed Rhubarb Press shows a penchant for queer, feminist or minority voices– often publishing work that starts off as spoken word. Their pamphlets attempt to convey the poet’s performance through dialectical and formal experiments, to encourage the reader to perform the work.

Test Centre have also been working with spoken word and performance, publishing vinyl and cassettes with pamphlets, scores and books to highlight fiction, poetry and sound works. These multi-sensory publications are slamming, singing, humming and pacing words, whilst still giving the pamphlet form some exposure.  

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Ian Sinclair. Westering. Test Centre.

As I come to the end of my placement, I hope to pull together these reflections on pamphlet experimentation alongside discussions with publishers on running an independent press. These reflections will be collated into a report, which will consider some of the following themes: definitions, working models, budgets, pamphlet quality and the place/benefit of pamphlet awards.

This report will be a collection of different voices – as I draw together the conversations and information individuals have shared. Although it is difficult to provide a cohesive account of the poetry pamphlet ‘scene’ in three months – I hope this report will generate further discussions about the future of pamphlet production.

 

[1] The idea of a ‘zone of activity’ was used by Johanna Drucker to explain the different experiments and forms within artists’ books. Drucker, Johanna. (2004) The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books