THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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50 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

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 Matthew's 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 photographs black and white photos, 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.

11 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  GhostShipsMs

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

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

23 November 2017

Artist and Poet collaboration: Carolyn Trant and James Simpson

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A guest post by Carolyn Trant.

James and I met at Schumacher College, at a week-long event combining poetry and bookbinding workshops, and soon realised our creative inspiration came from similar sources. We enjoyed discussing our ideas from a position of intuitive understanding. This was quite special, enabling us to get down to the nitty-gritty and fine-tune our arguments without time-consuming explanations, to push ideas forward without tedious back-stories.

Since I was a small child I had always loved poetry but was forced to choose between writing and painting by the tenor of the times (art school in late 60’s/early 70’s); James also makes wood engravings and pots. We respect each other’s judgments and feel free to criticise constructively. Our discussions inspire us each in our own medium, passing images and words between us.

We see the books as parallel texts, word and image, which we develop in tandem; neither ‘illustrates’ the other and a book is gradually extruded, together with the physical processes of its’ making, like red white and blue striped toothpaste from a tube. For me the physicality of the finished book is a major consideration from the start.

As an artist I have always been inspired by words, music, storytelling and the natural world; gradually the Artists Book seemed the natural gesamtkunstwerk I had dreamed of as a child. Although single-minded in pursuing the vision of my books, collaboration urges one to push oneself even further, with the benefits, if one finds the right person, of moral support – creativity can also be a tough and lonely business. I do also continue to make my own personal books, sometimes using texts of my own.

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My first book Gawain was inspired by Harrison Birtwistle’s music, the operatic production premiered at Covent Garden and the libretto by poet David Harsent – a fait accompli but very much chiming in with my own preoccupations of links between medieval and contemporary concerns. Similarly my book Winterreise used Schubert’s music and Wilhem Mueller’s words, in both English and German, plus my own text, all layered on top of each other with images underneath. I’ve also made a dual language edition of Llorca’s Sonnets of Dark Love with both texts and images cut in wood. Cutting texts by hand gives them a new dimension.

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Working closely with a contemporary poet was an exciting step forward. To date James and I have made Hunting the Wren and Love Poems and Curses; The Untenanted Room – published by Agenda Editions and soon to be re-thought and hand-made as The Ruin; The Rhyme of the Reddleman’s Daughter (2015) and Some Light Remains (2017). Some of these books have also later been developed into more three dimensional forms, cut-out leporellos, peepshows etc.

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29 october 2011 CR and UT 040-800

29 october 2011 CR and UT 002

For a poet, editions are regrettably small as they are very ‘hand-made’ but they find their way to important public collections here and abroad, where there is the potential to be looked read by a large number of people. We also show them at book fairs where many people come by to look, handle and often stand to read them. James also has the poems published in magazines such as the London Magazine, and Agenda, often with an image included. It all feels a worthwhile enough way to get them out into the world.

In terms of art practice, an Artists Book is for me like a little time capsule when deposited in a collection like the British Library. At the same time, when displayed, however briefly, or seen by a ‘reader’, it contrastingly becomes a transitory event – fugitive and volatile - and like a piece of land-art or a theatrical experience it can live on in the mind afterwards, with a variety of meanings for the possibly wider and more varied audience than the regular gallery-goer; a poetic event in itself which the text concentrates and refines even further.

I prefer this idea to the fixed image on a gallery wall. Book Fairs, with a democratic marketplace of tables and stands (and hopefully without curated interventions) leave room for varying kinds of interactions with the ‘the public’ by both poet and image maker, including informal conversations, talks and readings.

Innovation exists in the ways the art takes place whilst embracing longstanding methods of human communication - narrative and storytelling, aesthetic appreciation and emotional response; emotion being not merely a wash of sentiment but something that takes one from one place to another, whether comfortable or not, in a situation where the audience can talk back, critique, discuss. Working with another artist/poet places feedback at the centre of the creative process from the start, keeps one grounded and provides a sounding board at every stage.

 Any halfway attempt to reproduce our work digitally always leaves us dissatisfied. For Hunting the Wren we used silk-screened text printed by a local expert; many people thought it looked it like letterpress, which is hugely costly and time-consuming and although lovely, irrevocably linked to a historic aesthetic. Although meticulous within our parameters, we prefer to try to work fast, so that new ideas don’t go ‘off the boil’, and we can move on. I made a point of being trained by a wonderful ‘trade’ bookbinder when the need arose. Sometimes pragmatism is a virtue.

 Print runs, like the measure of the ‘acre’, are contingent on how many images for each page can be printed in a day. For Gawain I actually set myself the same task as in the story of the Green Knight, of finishing the whole project within a year and a day. The next impending important book fair often has some bearing on the case, or at least on how many hours sleep I allow myself.

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Latterly, the use of magnesium line-blocks, made by a helpful company called Metallic Elephant, has opened up new possibilities for texts; they are tricky to handle on my etching press, which is what I use for the woodcuts, but any imperfections are part of the process – something I always love about medieval technologies which are often working right up to the edge of possibilities.

In other words materiality, ‘words made flesh’ as it were, seems exciting and important alongside the digital world, a sort of ‘slow bookmaking’ for a fast age, within which James and I can keep up the pace of excitement about further collaborations, and battle to get things done with heads full of ideas stretching into the future. The Ruin, with hand-cut texts, is to be finished for the Oxford Fine Press Book Fair in spring 2018.

 

Further information:

http://carolyntrant.co.uk/  

http://carolyntrantparvenu.blogspot.com

 

James Simpson

https://jamessimpsonactaeon.wordpress.com

 

 

01 November 2017

Robert Aickman: Strange Stories in the Archive

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On the 10th November the British Library will be hosting Even Stranger Things: A Night for Robert Aickman. It will be an uncanny evening of readings and discussion to mark the arrival of Robert Aickman’s archive at the British Library. The archive has now been catalogued and this blog explores some of the riches to be found in the collection.

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Many know Aickman the conservationist, who dedicated much of his life to saving the British canal system and co-founded the Inland Waterways Association in 1946. But many also know Aickman the writer, author of 54 short stories, 3 novels, 2 autobiographies, numerous articles, and other works that remain unpublished.

His archive reflects all stages of Aickman’s literary career, from the very early days to his death in 1981. For most of his literary output, it is possible to see the different stages of Aickman’s creation process: a holograph manuscript, a corrected typescript and/or a final clean typescript. This makes the collection an invaluable resource for those interested in his writing technique and style.

Examples of his early writing include essays, plays and poems composed during his time at Highgate School (early 1930s), and many articles from the 1940s, when Aickman started writing theatre and drama reviews for the periodical The Nineteenth Century and After (he became their dramatic critic in 1945) and film reviews for The Jewish Monthly.

Aickman’s most popular creation are his short stories, or ‘strange stories’ as he preferred to call them - the term ‘ghost stories’ he thought ‘unsatisfactory’. Fifty-three of them are included in the archive (the one missing is Ringing the Change), as well a few unpublished and unfinished stories.

In addition to his two published novels and autobiographies, the British Library holds manuscripts of Aickman’s only unpublished novel entitled ‘Go Back at Once’, written in 1975, and his philosophical work ‘Panacea’, which Aickman wrote in 1936 but never succeeded in getting published.

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Title page of We Are for the Dark, Aickman’s first collection of stories, with Elizabeth Jane Howard, 1951. The working title 'Ghost Stories for Women' and Aickman's pen name Robert Vigo are crossed out - Add MS 89209/1/70 Reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman

Aickman’s work as editor is also reflected in the archive: typescripts of his first collection of stories We are for The Dark, produced in collaboration with Elizabeth Jane Howard and published in 1951, and 8 more collections, some of which were never published. Most notably, Aickman edited The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories from 1964 to 1972.

 

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First page of holograph manuscript of Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal [1971] - Add MS 892092/1/37 Reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman

The collection also includes the author’s literary correspondence, which provides fascinating insights into his creative mind and his views on writing. Aickman kept carbon copies of most of the letters he wrote (on bright pink paper). Amongst others, he corresponded with many fellow authors from the U.K. and the U.S., including Lady Cynthia Asquith, L.P. Hartley, Ramsey Campbell, T.E.D. Klein, and Russel Kirk.

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Letter from RA to Lady Cynthia Asquith (at James Barrie Publishers) sending her some of his stories, 9 Feb 1955 - Add MS 892092/4/36 Reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman

Three letters are particularly revealing:

  • In December 1975, Aickman writes a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in which he compares ghost stories to poetry as ‘they enlarge not merely the imagination but also some other less definable aspect of the reader’s being’. ‘Nothing’ he adds ‘is more lethal to the effect that a ghost story should make than for the author to provide alternative materialist solution. This reduces a poem to a puzzle and confines the reader’s spirit instead of enlarging it’ (ref. no. Add MS 89209/4/55).
  • In a letter to literary agent Carol Smith, in August 1976, he distinguishes between ‘entertainers’ who ‘write for a specific market’ and ‘artists’ who ‘ write in response to a voice inside them which they cannot control beyond a certain point – which indeed, almost dictates to them, an experience that has several times came my way and which regularly produces one’s best work (such as Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal)’ - This was officially recognised as one of Aickman’s best stories and won the World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1975 (ref. no. Add MS 89209/4/57).
  • And finally, in a letter to Ramsey Campbell in June 1978 he writes: ‘I always read each story aloud to a selected person after it has been completed; and thereafter usually revise various things which came to light only by that process. After these revisions, I generally read the story aloud to some other selected person…There is nothing like reading aloud for the tidying up of stylistic shortcomings’ (ref. no. Add MS 89209/4/59).

Large part of Aickman’s correspondence is with his American literary agent, Kirby McCauley, who became his good friend and great admirer. McCauley successfully got some of his stories published in the United States, by Charles Scribner’s Son.

In the U.K., Aickman was initially represented by Herbert (Bertie) Van Thal who wrote to him in 1963 after reading his story Ringing the Changes. According to Felix Pearson, Aickman’s literary executor, this was the turning point in his writing career: Aickman sent his novel The Late Breakfaster, previously refused by many publishers, to Van Thal who managed to get it published in 1964.

Aickman’s personal correspondence includes letters from Lord Douglas, who he met in 1941, Peter Scott, who was involved with the Inland Waterways Association, and actress Margaret Rawlings.

A smaller portion of the archive contains papers relating to the literary agency which Aickman named Richard Marsh Ltd., in honour of his grandfather, author of the supernatural novel The Beetle (1897). Aickman set up the agency in 1944 with his wife, Edith Ray Gregorson, who left her job at the World Press Feature agency and took some of the clients with her, including the caricaturist and cartoonist Victor Weisz, known as Vicky. Partners in the agency were also photographer Howard Coaster and his wife.

There are also family papers in the collection, which include some correspondence of Richard Marsh, typescripts of some of his short stories, and part of the holograph manuscript of his novel The Beetle. The posthumous papers included in the collection are helpful in understanding how Aickman was viewed by his friends and colleagues.

If Aickman the writer was perhaps not sufficiently appreciated during his lifetime, his archive opens up many opportunities to bring back to life some of his best stories and the man who was behind them.

by Silvia Gallotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer 

12 October 2017

Discovering Literature: 20th century drama

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‘I visited this play last night and endured two hours of angry boredom’; ‘A piece quite without drama and with very little meaning’. This was one audience member’s summary of the first London production of Waiting for Godot  – now regarded as Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece of 20th century drama. This wasn’t, however, the opinion of just any regular audience member – but an examiner for the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which until 1968 examined and licensed all plays for public performance. Heriot was called on to review the play in production following a letter of complaint from Lady Howitt, who was appalled by the play’s ‘lavatory references’ (f. 8r) and wanted it banned. According to Heriot, audience members ‘fled, never to return’ – except for ‘a sprinkling of young persons in slacks and Marlon Brando pullovers with (according to sex) horsetails or fringes’.

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© Crown copyright

This is just one of the stories that you can find on the new 20th-century theatre phase of our free educational resource, Discovering Literature, which launched earlier this month. From production photographs of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey to manuscript drafts of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, the website draws on the British Library’s rich literary and theatrical archives to examine the work of 14 key dramatists. Aimed at A Level students, teachers and undergraduates, as well as the general public, this phase of Discovering Literature aims to show the developments and innovations on the British stage over the course of the century – which saw playwrights and practitioners breaking new ground with the subjects and characters they portrayed, and the forms and styles they experimented with.

We’ve digitised over 100 collection items, from manuscript drafts – offering fascinating glimpses into the creative processes behind the plays – to contemporary production photographs, reports from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, reviews, posters and programmes, which help to shed light on the plays’ cultural, historical and political contexts.

Highlights online for the first time include:

  • Manuscript of A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, written when she was 19 and typed on her employer’s notepaper, on a borrowed typewriter. You can view the entire original manuscript of the play, and discover the notes and changes made by Delaney and Joan Littlewood, director of Theatre Workshop.

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Orphan work licence

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Orphan work licence

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© the Sir Terence Rattigan Charitable Trust

  • Script extracts from Oh What a Lovely War, with notes and rewrites by Joan Littlewood that reveal how the show evolved through a process of discussion, improvisation and experimentation by Littlewood, Gerry Raffles and members of the Theatre Workshop cast, in collaboration with Charles Chilton.

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© Joan Littlewood Estate

  • One of several unpublished draft typescripts of The Black Jacobins, C L R James’s 1967 play about the Haitian Revolution.

In addition, we have partnered with institutions including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading and the J B Priestley Archive at the University of Bradford, to showcase archive material from different collections held in the UK and US. Highlights include:

  • John Osborne’s notebook for Look Back in Anger (held by the Harry Ransom Center), featuring title ideas for the play including ‘My Blood is a Mile High’, ‘Farewell to Anger’, ‘Angry Man’ and ‘Man in a Rage’ before Osborne hit on the iconic ‘Look Back in Anger’.
  • Letter from a young J B Priestley, sent from the front line during World War One (held by the University of Bradford). Priestley’s wartime experiences shaped his awareness of class division and injustice, which would greatly influence his political life and his writing in later life.

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© The Estate of J.B. Priestley. © J.B. Priestley Archive, Special Collections, University of Bradford.

Alongside this digitised collection material, you’ll find 40 newly-commissioned articles by leading scholars, critics, directors and curators. Michael Billington explores Oh What a Lovely War and The Birthday Party, Yvonne Brewster reflects on forming Talawa Theatre Company and producing The Black Jacobins, Jeanette Winterson writes on the impact of Shelagh Delaney and A Taste of Honey, and Dan Rebellato considers Look Back in Anger. We’ve also covered influential theatre practitioners and genres, ranging from Brecht to, more recently, the work of Punchdrunk .

There are new interviews, too. We spoke with Max Stafford-Clark about directing Top Girls and Our Country’s Good at the Royal Court in the 1980s, and created film interviews with actor Murray Melvin, who reflects on his experiences starring in the original and ground-breaking Theatre Workshop productions of A Taste of Honey and Oh What a Lovely War.

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© Estate of J V Spinner (born in Walthamstow).

Lastly, teachers should also find our teaching resources area helpful. These downloadable resources offer a range of ideas for how to use the digitised collection items and articles in the classroom.

This new phase of material joins our existing site on 20th century poets and novelists, which went live in May 2016. Discovering Literature first launched in 2014, focussing on Romantic and Victorian literature, and the resource continues to grow, with the ultimate aim being to cover the backbone of English Literature from Beowulf to the present day – and to use our collection to enrich the study and enjoyment of literature.

Explore more: www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature

Katie Adams, Content Manager: Digital Learning

 

27 September 2017

Standing With Salman: Banned Books Week looks back at The Satanic Verses

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Detail from Salman Rushdie campaign literature, 1991, Add MS 88930/2/2

As part of this year’s Banned Books Week programme we’re hosting an event on Thursday evening looking back at the controversy surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Lisa Appignanesi of the Royal Society of Literature will chair a panel discussion with freedom of speech campaigners Melvyn Bragg, Frances D’Souza and Caroline Michel, together with human rights activist Yasmin Rehman. There are still a few tickets left for Standing With Salman but they are running out fast so book now if you would like to come along.

The Rushdie controversy seemed an apt choice for our contribution to Banned Books Week as the British Library is home to the archive of the Salman Rushdie Campaign Group. The collection comprises the working papers of the campaigners who banded together to support Salman Rushdie as the fatwa imposed on him by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini neared its 1000th day. By 1991, two years on from the publication of The Satanic Verses, opposition to the novel had reached frightening proportions. The book’s Japanese translator had been murdered and the Italian translator badly beaten up, two imams had been shot in Brussels and there had been riots in Pakistan and India resulting in the deaths of seven people and hundreds of injuries. As the violence worsened and the prospect of Rushdie returning to a normal life seemed farther away than ever, literary agent Caroline Michel joined forces with broadcasters Melvyn Bragg, Alan Yentob and others to galvanize the literary world into standing up for freedom of speech. The plan was to gather support from 1000 writers to mark the 1000th day of Rushdie’s life under the fatwa on 11 November 1991.

Things didn’t turn out quite the way they had been planned. In preparation for Banned Books Week I have been looking back through the archive, reading my way through the letters, minutes, petitions and press releases that were generated by the campaign. What becomes clear is that the grand plan for a 1000th day event in Westminster Central Hall had to be scaled back at the Government’s request due to concerns that it might impact on negotiations for the release of British hostage Terry Waite. Despite the Foreign Office’s concerns, the writers gathered anyway – albeit in a less high-profile location - and speeches were given by Hanif Kureishi and Günter Grass among others. These can be read in the archive alongside Rushdie’s own statement condemning the Foreign Office which was read out on his behalf, a public appearance being far too dangerous due to the £1.5 million bounty on his head.

It is the statements of support from other writers and prominent figures that form the bulk of the archive and they make for interesting reading. When I opened the files I found it poignant to see a handwritten letter from the late Alan Rickman, lamenting the fact that Rushdie would still be in the care of Special Branch come November, his life ‘a bargaining point in our Government’s trade interests’. There’s also Kazuo Ishiguro’s warning that ‘History will not forgive today’s world leaders if for reasons of short-term expediency, the “death sentence” method of political terrorism is permitted to become to the nineties what hi-jacking and hostage-taking was to the seventies and eighties’. Graham Swift takes a different tack, reminding us of literature’s power to live in our imaginations and asking us to read this award-winning book before arguing against it.

Not all those petitioned by the campaigners were in support of Salman Rushdie: Dirk Bogarde's letter sets out his reasons for not supporting him (he calls Rushdie an ‘arrogant fool’). Another high profile critic of Rushdie at the time was Roald Dahl, who wrote to The Times arguing that ‘In a civilised world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech’. You can see the full range of responses from writers in the series of incoming correspondence (Add MS 88930/1/1-7).

Thirty years on from the writing of The Satanic Verses, the book remains just as relevant to us today for its critique of British society as much as its commentary on fundamentalism of all kinds. If you can’t join us on Thursday evening, celebrate your freedom to read by picking up a copy of this much-discussed but under-read book. And if you would like to read more about controversy, The Rushdie File (London: Fourth Estate, 1989) edited by Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland is a great place to start.

The Salman Rushdie Campaign Archive is available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room and the catalogue is searchable on Explore: Archives and Manuscripts. Check out our Sound & Moving Image Catalogue for recordings of Rushdie reading from and discussing the book.

This blog is published as part of Banned Books Week 2017 (24-30 September). 

Banned Books Week was first initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. The 2017 UK contribution to Banned Books Week features events staged by a variety of cultural organisations including the British Library, Free Word, Royal Society of Literature and Islington Library and Heritage Services. British Library events can be found here.

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