THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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55 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

15 August 2018

Michael Palin: Writer, Actor and Comedian

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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

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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

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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

 

 

 

11 July 2018

Cataloguing James Berry

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By Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts. The James Berry Archive, which was acquired by the Library in 2012, is comprised of twenty-eight boxes containing drafts, notebooks, diaries, correspondence and audio-visual material spanning Berry’s fifty year career. Further details about the acquisition can be found here. A conference on Berry’s work will be held in the Knowledge Centre on 5th October 2018, with information and tickets available here. Details about the exhibition, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, containing items from the James Berry Archive, can be found here.

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James Berry’s earliest short stories are not often read together. Despite being published in various popular magazines in the late fifties and early sixties under the name J. Raglan Berry, they remain uncollected and disparate, available only to those proficient in database searches or willing to trawl through microfilm reels. For a cataloguer, tasked with describing a large cardboard box filled with stacked manila binders, each containing annotated typescript drafts of this early work, the experience is very different. Rather than reading each story as a distinct, atomised unit, a structure starts to emerge as they are read one after the other. The familiar rhythm of something being compulsively worked out, again and again, begins to take hold. These are stories about new arrivals to the so-called Mother Country, what they see and how they are seen. But, perhaps more fundamentally, they are stories about encounters; personal, cultural and material collisions parsed out with emotional incisiveness and critical intelligence. In one story, a young factory worker is paralysed by memories of her home island as she stands on the precipice of a cavernous canteen in her new place of work with all eyes on her; in another, a West Indian cricket player becomes an inadvertent focus for English gawkers as he prepares for a match; and in yet another, a young family moving in to a west London flat are met with their new neighbours’ quintessentially English hostility – at once veiled and virulent. One thing which makes these stories of cross-cultural encounter uniquely Berry's, though, is a hard-won commitment to progress; a need to move beyond identifying friction towards something like easing it. In these early stories such a zealous commitment to resolution can sometimes come at the expense of realism: factory workers, cricket players and new neighbours all turn out to embrace the newcomers, in different ways and on different terms, in the end. The short story form – crammed into the columns of popular magazines – is sometimes felt to bring everything together too quickly and easily for Berry’s sense of the complexity of these meetings.

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A selection of marked-up typescript drafts of James Berry’s early short stories, submitted to various magazines, most notably Truth, under the name J. Raglan Berry.

Given space, though, Berry’s later work takes a different approach, particularly in his most famous and final poetry collection, Windrush Songs (2007) – now on display in the Library’s Entrance Hall as part of the exhibition which echoes its title, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land. In this collection, taking on this most mythical of cross-cultural encounters, Berry manages to maintain a voice which is gritty, complex and poly-vocal without ever losing his commitment to resolution, however difficult. If the metonymic ship in the collection’s title (and on its front cover) is ever to plot a successful course for the future, it must first take detailed readings of the past and present in order to adjust for the direction and speed of present travel. The ship’s on-board instrument, language, must then be wielded with extreme sensitivity and acuity. In this way the elegance of the slim volume published by Bloodaxe betrays the massive volume of draft material, amassed over a period of more than ten years, which went into its production. The reams of draft material for Windrush Songs, present in the archive, reveal a practice which was both precise and open-ended. Individual poems are revised daily in a routine which comes to resemble the mantric, meditative practices which interested Berry so much throughout his life and which he wrote about in his personal diaries and notebooks. But as well as being precisely constructed these poems are also amorphous in draft form, blending into one another, taking on new titles, merging, exploding in size and significance only to fade into the background and re-emerge later, recognisable only as a trace. This combination of fluidity and fastidiousness can make the cataloguer’s job more difficult but, as is so often the case with creative archives, what is most difficult for a cataloguer to pin-down often proves to be of the greatest interest to potential researchers.

 

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Various drafts of Windrush Songs, comprising notebooks, annotated print-outs, and handwritten notes.


As well amassing his considerable literary output, Berry’s archive is also a fascinating piece of social history for those interested in the generation of people who left the Caribbean for England in the late forties and early fifties. (Berry himself left Jamaica on the ship after the Windrush, the SS Orbita). In the Library’s exhibition, a photo taken from Berry’s archive showing him at work as a labourer in the United States during the Second World War is intended to unravel the idea of the rural islander travelling for the very first time to unknown shores – Berry and many others from the Caribbean had visited and lived in the US, Canada, and even England before the Windrush set sail. Although the notebook which he carried during this period -- which he thought of as representing the birth of his impulse to write -- does not survive, his pocket-diary from this period does. This little leather-bound pocket-book gives a unique insight into the places Berry lived, the people he met, as well as providing some personal ruminations on life in America. Equally, long-form personal letters from family members in Jamaica, sent after Berry moved to London, provide comments on his burgeoning writing from a Caribbean perspective, send personal encouragement, give news, and fill out a deeply intimate sense sense of the ways in which familial closeness was maintained over long distances during this period of mass migration.

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James Berry’s personal pocket diary, kept during his time spent living in the United States.


These highlights only scratch the surface of Berry’s archive, which also includes correspondence with key figures in Caribbean literary circles, unpublished or hard to find non-fiction essays , talks for TV and radio, as well as material related to his prolific childrens’ writing and his time as a writer in residence at Vauxhall Manor School. All of the material highlighted here, and much more, will be available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room in early 2019.

 

 

22 June 2018

Introducing the Women of Windrush

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Beryl Gilroy - Crop
Guyana-born writer and teacher Beryl Gilroy with her pupils, image courtesy of the Estate of Beryl Gilroy.

On Monday 25 June the British Library in association with Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary writing, will be hosting Windrush Women: Past and Present. When the Empire Windrush sailed from the Caribbean 70 years ago, there were 257 female passengers on board, 188 of whom were travelling alone. There are many stories missing from the Windrush narrative, not least those of bold and pioneering women, leaving everything behind, to better their own and their family’s lives. This evening of poetry and readings will launch the latest issue of Wasafiri, which features a special section on Windrush women from across the generations.

Wasafiri's Editor-in-Chief, Susheila Nasta, says: ‘For better or worse, the stories of the post-war Windrush generation have become more than evident in recent months. Though little known, there were women on board the SS Windrush as well as the other boats that sailed after the second world war. The experiences of the women were as varied as their ages and backgrounds. Join Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary writing, to hear the voices of Windrush women across the generations and find out more about their lives as well as the complex challenges they continue to face’.

Appearing with Susheila on Monday will be Valerie Bloom, Jay Bernard, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Alison Donnell, Hannah Lowe, Catherine Ross and Susheila Nasta. Tickets are still available from the British Library Box Office. As an introduction to Monday’s event, we are publishing here an excerpt from Susheila Nasta’s editorial from Wasafiri No 94.

If this whets your appetite for Caribbean women’s writing, there is more to see (and hear) in the Library’s free exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Stange Land which continues in the Entrance Hall Gallery until 21 October. On display are Beryl Gilroy’s long-lost manuscript for her novel In Praise of Love and Children (1996), Andrea Levy’s working drafts of Small Island (2004) and Jean Rhys’ revisions to Wide Sargasso Sea (1966); plus migration memoirs from Floella Benjamin and Verona Pettigrew and performances by poets Louise Bennett (reading her brilliant patois poem ‘Dry Foot Bwoy’ about a haughty Caribbean man putting on an upper class English accent), Grace Nichols, Hannah Lowe, Maggie Harris, Kim O’Loughlin, Marsha Prescod and Merle Collins. These literary legacies of Windrush are interspersed with recordings of Caribbean women speaking about all aspects of their lives, from working in the NHS to the difficulties of courting in England compared with back home, and music too – there is much in the exhibition to investigate, explore and be inspired by.

 

Excerpt from Wasafiri No 94 (2018):


‘History, as James Baldwin once famously observed is not the story of the past but the present. Coinciding with the seventieth anniversary of the docking of SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948, this issue shows us how the many global intersections of Britain’s mixed cultural past continue to reverberate in today’s migrant present. When Andrea Levy’s award-winning historical novel, Small Island, first appeared in 2004, it was applauded for its fictional portraits of the forgotten voices of ‘Windrush’, for bringing the nation’s post-war migrant history centre stage and its timely intervention into what had largely been a male founding narrative of arrival and settlement. Reviewers were often unaware of earlier Caribbean and black British fictions of this era; whether classics, such as The Lonely Londoners (Sam Selvon, 1956), The Emigrants (George Lamming, 1954) or, more significantly here, given the objective of our special section focussing on ‘Windrush women’, Beryl Gilroy’s belatedly published 1950s novel, In Praise of Love and Children (1994). Despite such gaps, the appearance of Small Island was significant; not only was Levy, herself a daughter of Windrush, presenting her story through a range of narratives – male and female, Caribbean, Irish – but its engaging depiction of Britain’s diverse migrant histories began to touch a wide public readership — I once saw over five people reading the paperback version in one carriage on the London Underground just after the novel’s winning of the Orange Prize was announced. Interestingly Levy’s title, which playfully signalled Britain’s shrinking post-war global status – once ‘great’ empire, now ‘small island’ – was not only powerfully ironic but remains prescient, especially given ongoing Brexit debates over a decade later around ‘Englishness’, national identity, the rights of belonging or leave to stay. There is no doubt, as Grace Aneiza Ali and many of the other contributors to this issue differently observe, that migration continues to be the ‘defining moment of the modern era’ and ‘few’ can be ‘untouched’ by its ‘sweeping narrative’.

‘Highlighting the diversity of the period of migration following ‘Windrush’ and looking within and outside the parameters of what still figures as a powerfully constructed icon, this issue brings together Caribbean and black British voices from across the generations. Loosely defined here as the ‘Women of Windrush’, our special section comprises a range of genres and a mix representing the contemporary writing and works from past generations. It is a small sample which is by no means representative or comprehensive. Hannah Lowe’s feature-interview with three contemporary poets (Grace Nichols, Karen McCarthy-Woolf and Jay Bernard) points to the icon of ‘Windrush’ as ‘that huge fiction of a ship’ (Jackie Kay), a fiction which continues regardless to impact on many imaginations. In interrogating the enduring legacy of this myth, we feature an extract from Beryl Gilroy’s pioneering novel, In Praise of Love and Children, as well as providing the transcription of two interviews, originally conducted at the ICA in 1986, to celebrate the publication of Gilroy’s Frangipani House and a first novel, Timepiece by Janice Shinebourne. Like the 2004 moment when Levy’s Small Island was first published, the mid-1980s was a critical period for the publication of black and Asian women’s writing in Britain. Publishers influenced by the success of African-American writing in the US began to see the migrant black experience in Britain as a potentially profitable market. And it was at this moment that adventurous publishers such as Virago and the Women’s Press began to commission anthologies such as the groundbreaking Watchers and Seekers (edited by Rhonda Cobham and Merle Collins, Women’s Press, 1987).This volume of stories, essays and poems, featuring only the work of women, included, amongst many others, now well-known writers such as Collins herself, Amryl Johnson (who sadly died in Britain in 2001), Meiling Jin and Valerie Bloom. Above all, it was a moment when black women writing in Britain began to get the long-awaited recognition they deserved. Too often anthologised or out of print, the many women who contributed to such vital anthologies are not always remembered. Moreover, as Maria del Pilar Kaladeen’s memoir ‘Windrushed’ painfully evokes, amnesia was generated not only from without, but from within, as some of the older generation chose to sidestep their own histories, shrouding their own pasts from their black British offspring.’

 

 

20 June 2018

Virginia Woolf's Haunted Walk

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A guest post by artist Liz Mathews describing the inspiration and process behind her recently acquired book, The Strand of the Thames, as part of World Refugee Day.  For more information about Liz Mathews' work, including Paper Wings -- a collaboration with Maureen Duffy -- see her gallery blog, Daughters of Earth.

 

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Wednesday 23 June 1937
I went shopping, whitebait hunting to Selfridges yesterday, & it grew roasting hot, & I was in black ... As I reached 52 [Tavistock Square], a long trail of fugitives—like a caravan in a desert—came through the square: Spaniards flying from Bilbao, which has fallen, I suppose. Somehow brought tears to my eyes, tho' no one seemed surprised. Children trudging along; women in London cheap jackets with gay handkerchiefs on their heads, young men, & all carrying either cheap cases, & bright blue enamel kettles, very large, & saucepans, filled I suppose with gifts from some Charity—a shuffling, trudging procession, flying—impelled by machine guns in Spanish fields to trudge through Tavistock Square, along Gordon Square, then where? —clasping their enamel kettles.  -- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5 1936 - 1941

Virginia Woolf's chance sighting of refugees from the Spanish Civil War in London at midsummer 1937 brought tears to her eyes - 'tho' no one seemed surprised' - and burnt on to her mind's eye an unforgettable image: children, women and young men driven from their country by war, trailing homeless, displaced, dispossessed through the Bloomsbury Square that was her home. This sight, with its implications and consequences, was to return to her vividly on another solitary walk many months later in the winter of 1939:

Tuesday 31 January 1939
Took the bus to Southwark Bridge. Walked along Thames Street; saw a flight of steps down to the river.  I climbed down—a rope at the bottom. Found the strand of the Thames, under the warehouses—strewn with stones, bits of wire, slippery; ships lying off the Bridge (Southwark? —no, the next to Tower Bridge [London Bridge]). Very slippery; warehouse walls crusted, weedy, worn. The river must cover them at high tide. It was now low. People on the bridge stared. Difficult walking. A rat haunted, riverine place, great chains, wooden pillars, green slime, bricks corroded, a button hook thrown up by the tide. A bitter cold wind. Thought of the refugees from Barcelona walking 40 miles, one with a baby in a parcel.

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These two entries from her extraordinary diary - both so observant of detail, so evocative of the physical setting and of her state of mind - stayed with me, and I was reminded of them in Gordon Square one afternoon some 70 years later, like Woolf combining shopping - but not for whitebait - with a walk through Bloomsbury observing the London summer.  We, too, met small groups of refugees, some aimless, some more purposeful: one grizzled man sitting on a box playing a melancholy Balkan air on a battered accordion, one old woman in black sitting on the pavement outside the Co-op, her hands joined in the international gesture of supplication, one young man on a bench in Gordon Square who, when we'd given him some change, asked hopefully if we would buy him a mobile phone, another older man - speechless, wordless, with hunger and despair in his eyes.

Virginia Woolf's discovery under the warehouses was the inspiration for my artist's book, Strand of the Thames, which has recently been acquired by the British Library. In setting this text, the sense of history repeating itself was very strong for me. My partner Frances and I are inveterate mudlarkers, and the Thames low-tide beaches between Waterloo and Southwark Bridges have long been a favourite haunt, yielding a rich and often rather pungent harvest of driftwood, eternal claypipes, button hooks, and yes, the green slime that Woolf observes, along with the occasional shard of ancient terracotta or exquisite porcelain.

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One sunny winter's day in 2009, we followed Virginia Woolf on that sacred bus-route and then in her footsteps, choosing our time so that the river would be at low-tide, seeing the sights that she saw - still all there - and reminded inevitably of the other sight she had recalled in that place - perhaps by the river itself, running through time and linking all our days. I photographed each stage of her journey, trying to catch something of the transient light on the water, the darkness of the slippery flight of steps, the ships lying off the bridge, the solid ironwork of the bridge itself, the crusted warehouse walls, just as weedy and worn, the great chains, the immensity of the wooden pillars and the curious sense of separation from the bustling world of the city. We looked for and found the bits of wire, broken glass, stones and chains. We slipped on the ancient wharf stones, smelt the green slime, flinched at the bitter cold wind, and felt ourselves at some unimaginable distance from the clear-lit city we could see through the wooden pillars. 

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And at the end of our walk together, with the winter sun low on the water silhouetting a couple deep in talk with their patient dogs waiting beside them, we too thought of the refugees, Virginia Woolf's fugitives, homeless exiles with their precious burdens and their useless well-intentioned charity kettles fleeing from machine guns to our home city, and as she says - then where?

Back home in my studio, I translated the photos into 15 grisaille watercolours on sheets of rough handmade paper approximately 21 x 30cm. To draw the material presence of the river itself into the views, I mixed the watercolour paint with Thames water, drawn in a jam-jar from the river as Turner did, and I used a small driftwood stick - picked up on the strand, carved by the tides into a rudimentary nib - as my pen, dipped in ink made from the same paint and Thames water. I looked for individual textures, flaws and quirks of the handmade paper pages that I could use to reflect aspects of the text - for example, the page with the strewn-about stones and bits of wire has a gnarled knotted fibre within the fabric of the paper that I just highlit with paint to embody a bit of wire, so that you can feel it with your fingertip; similarly the textured paper surface produces either a flickering effect of light on water when painted with a fairly dry brush, or the chiaroscuro of stones and rubble when painted with a wet one, as the liquid paint puddles darkly into the shadowy hollows between small raised clumps of paper-pulp. (This kind of paradoxical effect that materials can produce unexpectedly is the sort of thing that fascinates me - I enjoy collaborating with materials in making a physical embodiment of the words, allowing the materials and the words to do their own thing.)

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After I'd made the paintings and lettered them, I constructed the lettered images into a battered book made from black handmade paper like our grandparents' photograph albums with their precious wartime portraits and sepia views. And then I made a quarter-size (10 x 15cm) facsimile edition (limited to 20 signed and numbered copies), identically constructed, with the grisaille images re-translated back into black and white photographs, fixed to the album with acid-free photo-corners. The original and one of the edition copies is now in the British Library's permanent collection. Most of my work is one-off, but a few of my artist's books lend themselves well to editions; and this is one of them, where the photo-album concept gives a reference point for both the original and the edition, and a uniting rationale. As an artist, my concern is to make work where form and concept are fully integrated, where words and images are as one, inseparable, rather than co-existing as text and illustrations. Typically, this results in books and artworks whose individual material form is of its nature an expression of the text and therefore difficult or impossible to reproduce; but I do like to enlarge the scope of my books in terms of audience and affordability where it's possible to do so without compromising their integrity, particularly where, as here, the edition adds another aspect to the original, and enhances the meaning of the work.

I have shown Strand of the Thames at many of the artists' book fairs I've been to in the last 10 years, each time hoping that it won't still seem as though nothing changes - that we will have found an answer better than the metaphorical enamel kettles. And every time, with each audience, this book really strikes a chord with people, and together we say again 'Nothing changes', and we honour Virginia Woolf for her engagement with her world, her refusal to ignore the plight of her fellow humans, her recognition of their humanity and her un-fatigued compassion in weeping for dispossessed exiles seeking refuge in Tavistock Square.

 

 

31 May 2018

Past Visions of the Near Future: The Afterlife of J.G Ballard’s High-Rise on London History Day

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By Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts. More information about London History Day can be found here.  Material from the J.G. Ballard Archive has been digitised and discussed here and is available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room at shelfmark Add MS 88938. Laura Oldfield Ford's Savage Messiah is available to consult in our Reading Rooms at YD.2014.a.735, and further material is available here.

Historic England’s ‘London History Day’ implores us to “reflect on and celebrate the pioneering spirit, heroism, initiative and kindness layered in the city’s history”. A dedicated app developed for the day even allows its users, on walks through the capital, to experience its deep architectural and social histories in the form of archival materials – photographs, text, videos – which reach out from the slick, glassy world of their smart-phones and onto the streets. This activity, despite its peculiar newness, echoes the activities of Guy De Bord and the Situationists International in the middle of the twentieth century, who famously drifted through, re-purposed and re-interpreted their own over-determined and over-regulated urban environments. London History Day aims to open up the city to play and new interpretations, allowing people to imagine the areas where they live and work in new ways.

J.G Ballard, whose extensive papers are held at the British Library, was interested throughout his career in this interplay of urban and architectural spaces and individual and social behaviour; in the mutually constitutive relation between space and psychology often called Psycho-geography. London was particularly interesting to Ballard because of the tendency for its limitless appetite for space and convenience to sprawl and carve out liminal spaces at its edges. Airports, motorways and shopping centres were to Ballard what mountains, lakes and streams were to Wordsworth, both infinitely fascinating and utterly terrifying. These non-places represented an attempt to imagine a new form of pragmatic and manageable urban space which could be cleansed of its messy social, cultural and material relations. (Precisely the things which London History Day wants to bring to the fore). By bringing these so-called non-places into the realm of imaginative literature, Ballard was able shed light on what was already literally and figuratively over-lit; to finally see this world of bland uniformity which had tried to position itself as a vanishing point of the spatial, the ideological and the social.

In High-Rise (1975), Ballard’s narrator Laing seeks precisely this retreat from the messiness of urban life. His ‘over-priced cell, slotted almost at random into the cliff face of the apartment building’ situated presciently in London’s now-redeveloped Docklands, promises ‘peace, quiet and anonymity’ but delivers nothing but a ‘regime of trivial disputes and irritations’ which eventually leads to terrible violence, seeing him nonchalantly barbequing a neighbour’s Alsatian on his balcony before the first page is turned. What appears at first to be an escape, whether from the ‘rundown areas around [the building], decaying nineteenth-century terraced houses and empty factories already zoned for reclamation’ or from ‘crowded streets, traffic hold-ups, rush-hour journeys on the Underground’, becomes instead an amplification of these same petty frustrations borne of (perceived) inequality and merely living together.

Ballard High-Rise MSThe first page of High-Rise in  typescript, heavily annotated by Ballard in 1974, with the famous first sentence already in place.

 

The ‘ragged skyline’ of the old city is visible from Laing’s 25th floor balcony, but it appears to him as an ungraspable spectre, an abstraction which ‘by contrast with the calm and unencumbered geometry of the concert-hall and television studios below him resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis’. That this crisis remains unresolved is, we know, an understatement.

More recent Psycho-geographers have been criticised for typifying a barely concealed Romantic-colonial logic, of imposing themselves on an outer-world to which they claim to be preternaturally sensitive. Laura Oldfield Ford is a contemporary Psycho-geographer working against this, in a mode which is highly critical of the so-called ‘yuppie-dromes’ which Ballard imagined in High-Rise and which now dominate the former wastelands of London’s in-between districts. Her zine collection Savage Messiah (Verso, 2011) takes the form a kind of textual augmented reality walk. Oldfield Ford’s fragmented narrator appears as a simultaneously direct and distant, personal and impersonal guide through London’s rapidly gentrifying liminal outskirts. These spaces are haunted by the spectres of past communities, enclaves, subcultures and alternative ways of living which have been swallowed, or are being swallowed up, by the Ballardian logic of the high-rise. Even the form itself, a kind of kitsch but sincere punkish collage, seems to be possessed by the voices of (im)possible futures, utopian social movements subsumed under the utopian dream of the post-social.

It’s this ghostly quality which so often surfaces when the deep social history of urban space, so often obscured by the new, is brought to the fore. A walk through Soho on London History Day, smart-phone in hand, will transport the drifter to a haunted neighbourhood of queer resistance and play. Some will turn off their phones and look carefully around them, at the almost total commodification and unviability of present reality in one of London’s most expensive districts; they will see chain stores, luxury apartments and calculated, cynical seediness everywhere. For some it will even give way to a sense of mourning, perhaps even a desire to live in that world – the world of ghosts, of an imagined past. But for others, hopefully, it will inspire a sense of possibility and a way to creatively re-think what living in cities – that is, living together -- might mean in the future, even as the ragged skyline of the past recedes from view.

 

05 January 2018

Diaries: Recording History in Many Voices

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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.