THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

37 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

24 March 2017

‘Post-it’ notes in the Will Self archive

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Chris Beckett writes:

‘My books begin life in notebooks, then they move on to Post-it notes, the Post-its go up on the walls of the room […] short story ideas, tropes, metaphors, gags, characters, etc. When I'm working on a book, the Post-its come down off the wall and go into scrapbooks.’ (‘Writers' Rooms: Will Self’, The Guardian, 6 April 2007.)

Here’s Self’s writing room in 71 photographs: http://www.will-self.com/writing-room/index.php

The photographs capture the scale of the author’s devotion to the little yellow pad. The scrapbooks into which Self has gathered the ‘post-it’ notes now form part of his archive at the British Library. Grid-like on the wall, and grid-like in the scrapbooks, the notes intrigue and fascinate. They are little doorways into the text, little honeycomb cells of access.

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Having recently read How the Dead Live (2000), a group of ‘post-it’ notes in the novel’s scrapbook caught my eye. 

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I smiled at the note about the minicab driver who crosses London by an internal map of Lagos (second row, third from left – see p. 310 of the novel). I remembered Lily Bloom’s heavy-smoking fantasy of an elaborate contraption to feed her a continuous supply of ready-lit cigarettes – think cogs, wheels and pulleys, think Heath Robinson – drawn by the American cartoonist Rube Goldberg (first row, novel p. 300). I noted Lily’s anxious ‘dieting lists’, and I caught her familiar combative tone in ‘very few people are fond of me’ (second row) although I can’t find the words in the book. I then wondered about the striking phrase ‘ginny mist’ (second row, second from the left). When I found ‘ginny mist’ in the published text (p. 101), I saw that the image had been deftly extended and deepened: ‘I remember this lack of sensation; it’s happened enough times to me in this bedroom, usually in a ginny mist, a forest of juniper’.  

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Looking through the scrapbook for Walking to Hollywood (my current reading), I discovered a group of ‘post-it’ notes on Scientology. The unreliable narrator of the novel, a writer called Will Self who has lost his capacity to suspend disbelief, goes on a walking odyssey to Hollywood to discover who killed the movies, and has CGI firmly in his sights. In this novel of seems and simulacra, everyone looks like a familiar actor, even Self, who is ‘played’ by Pete Postlethwaite and/or David Thewlis. ‘Actors feel like Thetans’ says one post-it note (see below, second row, second note from the left). L. Ron Hubbard’s cult is described in the novel as a mash-up of ‘Astounding Stories, the Bhagavad Gita and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’ (p. 141).

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In the late 1980s, the narrator once ‘inveigled’ himself on to an introductory Scientology weekend course at the Saint Hill Manor headquarters, near East Grinstead, but was firmly rejected when they discovered his ‘homosexual inclinations’. Thereafter, he was repeatedly rebuffed: ‘over the coming years I went on pitching up at Tottenham Court Road, in disguises and under assumed names, armed with strategies for “fooling” the Capacity Analysis. It was all to no avail: the smiling Scientologists would let me take the test again, then send me on my way, with the advice that I see a doctor, a therapist, a priest – do anything, in short, but submit myself to their own mind control’ (p. 141). Among the background notes for Walking to Hollywood are the results of a Scientology personality test displayed as a graph (Hubbard’s OCA, the so-called ‘Oxford Capacity Analysis’). The test was undertaken by one (thinly disguised) Wihh [sic] Orr at the Scientology Life Improvement Center, Sunset Boulevard, 14 June 2008.

Returning home from Los Angeles, Self finds that the (cartoon) ‘superpowers’ he possessed in LA have vanished, only to be replaced by a growing sense that his ‘mental faculties’ are deteriorating. He walks the crumbling coastline of East Yorkshire and meditates morbidly on ‘the fuzziness and forgetfulness’ (p. 329) that has descended on him. Like the cliffs he walks along, his foot-weary narrative is eroded and ‘breaks off’, along with a sense of purpose and identity: ‘This would be a unique walk of erasure – a forty-mile extended metaphor for my own embattled persona, as its foundations were washed away’ (p. 345). 

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‘The fictional account breaks off short: it is eroded’.

Before starting out on his littoral tramp of East Yorkshire – an ambulatory coda to the morphing masks of LA – Self muses: ‘It was true that in the decade since I had stopped drinking and taking drugs my short-term memory seemed to have improved; at any rate, I no longer needed the elaborate system of Post-it notes stuck to the walls of my writing room that had for years served me as a kind of random access. If I maintained this, it was more as an art installation, or magic ritual […] (p. 330).

And so perhaps we have then, in a sense, in the Walking to Hollywood scrapbook, Self’s final scrapbook post-it note: not the very last physically – the pages of notes continue beyond it – but the note that points, with the satisfying force of circularity, not only to ‘post-it’ notes as a subject within the text but also to the end of the writer’s practical need for them. The art installation has had its final show. RAM is no longer required on the walls.

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‘Amnesia / Post-its’ (third row, first left). And: ‘My family. Who are they? Why haven’t they forgotten me?' (far right).

However, Self quickly decides that his reasoning for the end of the writing room installation is delusional. It is not that his short-term memory has greatly improved, it is just that he now works differently, is better at his trade: ‘I now wrote books with the workmanlike despatch of a carpenter turning out tables, this busy practice obscuring the loss of much I had once known’ (p. 331). 

Next week, I start to catalogue the two novels that followed the ‘wayward and melancholic’ (Self’s description) Walking to Hollywood: they are Umbrella (2012) and Shark (2014). A cursory glance at what the boxes contain suggests that the narrator is indeed an unreliable fellow. Not only are there yellow notes hiding in the drafts of Umbrella, but there is also a scrapbook for Shark. Perhaps we really shouldn’t believe a word he says.

 

Chris Beckett’s blog on the family papers in the Self archive is here:  http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2017/02/first-report-from-the-will-self-archive-family-matters.html

Images of material from the Will Self archive are used with kind permission of the author.

31 January 2017

A few ways through the window: welcoming Ken Campbell’s work to the British Library

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Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections, reflects on the Library’s recent acquisition of Ken Campbell’s artist’s books.

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Pantheon (2000). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

I was first in touch with Ken Campbell at the end of the millennium. I can’t now remember the circumstances of our introduction but it was probably through the art librarian Stephen Bury when he was a colleague here, or via the artist Ronald King, who I had been recently working with in my semi-secret life as a poet.

I don’t think we’d actually met until 2004, when I went over to the east end to see Ken at his home, just beyond Brick Lane. We then visited a separate studio space, a short walk away.

Looking back, that morning seems altogether a perfect window into Ken Campbell’s artistry, its darknesses and its considerable areas of light. Impressions include the metallic traffic of Bethnal Green, particulates in the air – Ken’s books don’t dodge politics at the level of the industrialisation of the individual – the rich, argued-over layers of Brick Lane’s history. And then that crossing from the main road near Ken’s home into a vital backstreet. You stepped past pools of blood from halal meat, witnessing scuffed grey-silver shutters half-closed, half-open, all-hours business of some kind or another, openings and closings. Finally, as you walked, Ken was himself telling the stories of the poems and ideas and the making of his books.

That thick blood on the ground, moving at the speed of deliberation, and the strong working frames for those shutters– for a door, for a window the length of a building – these contrasting images, these sensations, rise to the surface of my mind when I think about Ken Campbell’s books.

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Firedogs (1991). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

Kinds of argument and kinds of agreement - collision, scrap, conversation, conference, colloquium, tango – all kinds of interlocution are central to Ken Campbell’s books. He forces the hard components of printing to meet the soft ones, ink layered to a viscosity. Ken Campbell’s books are forensics in reverse, a crime scene de-enactment, with elegy and so love at their heart.

Another part of this is Campbell’s probing of limits. Erasure, superimposition, borders, a window / a black mirror / a printer’s forme / an enclosed garden; fire grate; the aperture of a camera, aperture of the eye; the case-hardened skull; the simple Pantheon, the complicated window frame. His work is always a tribute to, because a transgression of, defining restraints.

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EXECUTION (1990). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

And these are very visceral books. At first they can seem austere, ‘pure’, but it soon dawns on the reader how hybrid and fluid – technically and thematically – they are, and of course how the books flow into each other.

For researchers and other pleasure-seekers at the British Library they will be the focus of hours and hours of immersion, of discussion, of I hope a kind of readerly joy.

They are perfect for us in so many ways. One is to do with their embodiment of an intensely self-reflexive book art – these are books which press a range of traditional printing methods up against modern ones, sometimes to destruction (warped zinc plates), but always physically, a material sub-text in each. Here are printerly zones where the physicality of letter press meets the surface sophistication of contemporary laser printing -- layering and replying to each other. In a way, centuries of book history are made metaphorical in Ken’s work.

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Dominion (2002). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

The voice of the prophet, of a driven messenger, a voice which I believe is strong in Ken’s poetry, is in one of the earliest traditions of the artist’s book – The Lindisfarne Gospels, Blake’s poems, are testament – and I stress testament – to an urgency of creativity within the English artist’s book tradition.

Ken’s big, sculptural books and their compelling texts are the sort of events in space that this muscular part of the tradition recognises, delicate though they also are, and of course the British Library is a very good place to ground yourself in the tap-root tradition of artist’s books in these islands.

Even so, I don’t want to limit Ken’s work to the artist’s book tradition, or even to book history. Artist’s books are seldom ‘just’ about art or books and that’s the same for Ken Campbell’s work. Look here for the resonances of an old old Sanskrit song of the horse, of a fire god, of Halley’s comet from tapestry to our contemporary times; of Rodchenko as creator and, under extreme duress, censor; of Gaelic psalms of exile; British military history, British shipping history, Judaica, black flag anarchy, Shiva, show trials and trick photography, native American narrative and moving personal testimony. Ken Campbell’s books brim with the riches and questions of culture, of civilisation. In so being they are a perfect addition to a Library whose mission is to be a question-mark resonator, to safeguard information and text-based creativity in the cause of thought-provocation and particular kinds of book-related pleasure, particular kinds of reflection and even joy.

by Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections.

13 January 2017

A New Acquisition: Celebrating 50 years of the Graphic Studio Dublin

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Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Emerging Media, Contemporary British Published Collections writes:

In November 2016 I had the pleasure to attend “From Yeats to Heaney: Discovering 140 Years of Literature at the National Library of Ireland” hosted by Embassy of Ireland. After the introduction from the Cultural Attaché and opening remarks from Dr Sandra Collins, Director of the National Library of Ireland, the assembled guests were treated to insightful, often humorous talks on both William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney given by Katherine McSharry, NLI Head of Outreach and Professor Geraldine Higgins, NLI Heaney Exhibition Curator respectively. The lectures illustrated the measurable contribution to, and healthy involvement both men had with the National Library of Ireland.  It is worth noting that the archives of both Heaney and Yeats rest within its walls. 

The British Library has also been fishing in those culturally rich waters which are Dublin. Earlier this year the Library acquired a set of six Sponsors’ Portfolios from the Graphic Studio Dublin.

Between 1962-1979 Graphic Studio Dublin produced a collection of work entitled Sponsors' Portfolios, containing art and literature by writers and artists from Ireland and internationally. In conjunction with their 50th anniversary in 2010 the Graphics Studio re-launched the Sponsors’ Portfolios in 2010.

Each portfolio contains a work commissioned by an acclaimed contemporary Irish writer, and four visual artists. A list of contributors can be found on the  Graphic Studio Dublin's website.  These showcase the printmaker’s art and the skills which are employed in producing fine press items. Each year a limited edition of 75 imprints are produced.  The project will continue to produce folios until 2019 thereby capturing a snap shot of some of the finest work of contemporary Irish writers and artists over the decade. The formula of inviting artists and a writer to work together presents a fresh and vibrant perspective to the interception where visual arts and the written word meet.

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Seamus Heaney, 'The Owl'. Translated from the Italian of Giovanni Pascoli. Letterpress. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

Poignantly Seamus Heaney contributed to the Sponsors’ Portfolio in 2013, in what turned out to be the year of his death. Entitled Translation, his subject was a translation from the Italian of Giovanni Pascoli poem “The Owl” or “L’assiolo” in the original. The acquisition of this late and rare Heaney work to the British Library is an important addition to the rich collection of Heaney’s writing the Library’s has garnered over the last forty years.  My colleague, Dr Richard Price has highlighted some of these in a previous post.

“The Owl” is accompanied by four prints: Pamela Leonard’s “For Sheer Joy ... Took Flight”, Liam Ó Broin’s “Death of Orpheus”, with Jane O’Malley’s “Still Life” and finally Robert Russell’s “Lost in Translation”. These works are beautifully illustrative of how the printmaker’s art can transfer the depth of emotion conveyed in the written word to colour and form of the artist’s reimagining.

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Pamela Leonard, 'For sheer joy... took flight'. Etching. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

 

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Liam Ó Broin, 'Death of Orpheus'. Lithograph. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

If there was any doubt about the truly individual nature these works, when measuring the individual portfolios for their protective phase boxing it was noted  that the was a slight  discrepancy  of millimetres between the size of each of the portfolios. A sure sign of a distinctive and hand crafted nature of these artist’s books.      

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Jane O'Malley, 'Still Life, La Geria'. Carborundum. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

 

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Robert Russell, 'Lost in Translation'. Etching. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin.

To return to where I started, a thought-provoking question was raised at the “From Yeats to Heaney” event at the Embassy: who will inherit the mantle which seemed so mysteriously to pass from Yeats to Heaney in 1939, (the year of Yeats’s death and of Heaney’s birth)? Within the folios of the Sponsors’ Portfolio might be a good place to start looking for the answer to that question.  

In closing, I would urge readers to explore the rest of the series the British Library’s copies of the Sponsors’ Portfolio. 1/10-7/10 are orderable at pressmarks:

 

Ultramarine, Jean Bardon, Carmel Benson, Roddy Doyle, Kelvin Mann and Donald Teskey RHA., 2010, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2280;

Journey, Caroline Donohue, Theo Dorgan, Martin Gale, Stephen Lawlor and Louise Leonard, 2011, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2281;

Thoughts, Jennifer Lane, Seán McSweeney, Niall Naessens, Marta Wakula-Mac & Thomas Kinsella, 2012, British Library Shelfmark: HS.75/2282;

Translation, Pamela Leonard, Liam Ó Broin, Jane O'Malley, Robert Russell & Seamus Heaney, 2013, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2283;

Thief’s Journal, Yoko Akino, Diana Copperwhite, Ruth O'Donnell, Michael Timmins & John Banville, 2014, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2284;

Naming the stars, Colin Davidson, Niamh Flanagan, David Lunney, James McCreary and Jennifer Johnston, 2015, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2285;

Pax, Mary Lohan, Tom Phelan, Grainne Cuffe, Sharon Lee and Paula Meehan, 2016, British Library Shelfmark HS.74/2286.

Furthermore, The National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and Queens University Belfast have also acquired sets of the Sponsors’ Portfolio series.     

21 December 2016

Will Self’s archive acquired by the British Library

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Rachel Foss, Head of Contemporary Archives, writes:

      The British Library has today announced its acquisition of the archive of Will Self. Probably Britain’s leading satirical writer, Self’s dystopian visions and outrageous scenarios hold up a distorting mirror to contemporary British society. Prolific as a writer of fiction and as a journalist, he is also prominent as a public intellectual, broadcasting at times controversial views in the mainstream media. The publication of his short story collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, brought him to public acclaim in 1991. Since then, he has written ten novels – among them Cock and Bull (1992), Dorian (2002), a re-telling of Oscar Wilde’s classic story set in late 20th century Britain, The Book of Dave (2006) and Umbrella (2012) which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – as well as novellas and collections of shorter fiction, and five collections of non-fiction including Perfidious Man (2000), an exploration of modern masculinity. After graduating from Oxford, Self initially worked as a cartoonist for the New Statesman and as a stand -up comedian. He currently holds the position of Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University.

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Will Self typing on his favourite typewriter

     Self’s work is predominantly set within London and the city’s location, colloquialisms and sub-cultures appear throughout his books. Drugs, addiction, aberrant psychology, dystopia, psychogeography and the politics of urbanism are also recurrent subjects in his writing. Along with William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson, Self cites J.G.Ballard as a mentor (the two men were good friends, particularly towards the end of Ballard’s life). Like Ballard, Self writes to shock and de-familiarize, deliberately to provoke and unsettle the reader. He has said: “I don’t write fiction for people to identify with and I don’t write a picture of the world they can recognize. What excites me is to disturb the reader’s fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving are unstable.”

     The archive that has recently arrived in the Manuscripts Store at the British Library consists of 24 large boxes of papers along with artwork, audio-visual material and the author’s computer hard drive. There are extensive successive literary drafts relating to all of Self’s major works as well as to his collaborations with Ralph Steadman and his journalism. The collection includes approximately 100 diaries and working notebooks: many of them used as commonplace books, which contain diary entries, research notes, literary drafts and sketches. Self’s correspondence is also included in the archive: highlights here include a series of letters from J.G. Ballard, in which Ballard discusses - among other subjects - the David Cronenberg adaptation of his novel, Crash, and his reading of Self’s re-working of the ‘modernist idea’. Other notable series of letters include those from John Banville, Iain Sinclair, Martin Amis and Oliver Sacks, revealing Self’s associations and networks and the ways in which his ideas and works have resonated outwards into the cultural landscape.

    Self’s archive joins the British Library’s extensive collections of the archives of contemporary writers, taking his place alongside the archives of his friends and contemporaries including J.G. Ballard, Hanif Kureishi, Graham Swift, Angela Carter, Beryl Bainbridge, B.S. Johnson and John Berger. It will offer a rich resource for future researchers, students and everyone with an interest in contemporary writing and culture. Work to catalogue the archive has already begun and we plan to make the collection available towards the end of 2017.

     Will Self said: ‘As a London writer I’m both honoured and pleased that my literary archive will be held at the British Library as a resource for scholars. Whether or not the jottings of a late twentieth/early twenty-first century novelist will be of much significance as the digital whirlwind continues to radically alter our culture and society, I don’t know – but there it is, and there it will remain, long after I myself have been pulped.’

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A box of notebooks from the Will Self Archive at the British Library

     Self’s archive, like most of the contemporary archives we acquire, is a hybrid archive containing both paper and born digital material. The collection includes his computer hard drive which holds a wealth of electronic manuscript drafts and approximately 100,000 emails along with a huge number of other files yet to be mined and identified (including downloads of his i-Tunes, which offer an intriguing line of investigation for future users of the archive).

     When Self came into the British Library recently to talk about his archive, he brought with him his favourite typewriter. His recent blogs and talks (which the Library has also preserved as part of the UK Web Archive) have frequently addressed the impact of digital culture on the future of writing. Self is a particularly interesting writer from the point of view of his working processes: earlier in his career, he wrote directly onto the computer; later on, he switched to writing long had and uses a vintage typewriter for earlier drafts. His shift to the typewriter is a creative strategy to address anxieties about the digital and its effect on the human mind and creative consciousness:  a deeply set need to feel the physical engendering of language and the weight of words upon the page. The opportunity for examination and analysis that Self’s born-digital traces offer are particularly interesting in the context of the cultural debate about the digital of which Self is at the forefront. The hard drive gives curators at the British Library an exciting opportunity to emulate the working environment of the writer as we continue to confront the challenges presented by these kinds of contemporary collections and work to make these valuable resources available for the future.

On Being Archived: Will Self, Hanif Kureishi and Guests, will take place at the British Library on 24th March 2017 at 7pm. Please see the Library’s Events pages for more details.

14 November 2016

Treasures of the British Library: Zephaniah meets Shelley

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By Alexander Lock, Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1851-1950

The British Library has recently teamed up with Nutshell TV and Sky Arts to produce an entertaining television series in which six famous faces (Lord Robert Winston, Julia Donaldson, Meera Syal, Jamie Cullum and Benjamin Zephaniah) take a personal tour of the British Library’s fascinating collections, identifying the treasures that most interest them and speak to their work. Each episode of Treasures of the British Library follows one celebrity and it was my pleasure to show the poet, author and musician Benjamin Zephaniah some of our collections that told a very personal story about his hero, the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).

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Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, oil on canvas, 1819, NPG 1234. © National Portrait Gallery, London

A gifted poet, political radical, outcast, and early advocate of vegetarianism, Percy Bysshe Shelley had long been admired by Zephaniah as a man with whom he shared certain affinities; in particular it was Shelley’s revolutionary attitudes and his passionate opposition to injustice that inspired Zephaniah and his approach to writing. For Zephaniah:

“Shelley’s my man. If he were alive now he wouldn’t be sitting in an ivory tower only leaving to attend the odd literature festival, he would be demonstrating against the exploitation of the third world and performing at the Glastonbury festival…I used to think of Shelley as just another one of those dead white poets who wrote difficult poetry for difficult people, but then I learnt how dedicated he was to justice and the liberation of the poor. He probably saw very few black people but he was passionately against the slave trade. It was this that turned me on to Shelley, his humanity, passion, and his rock and roll attitude. His ability to connect poetry to the concerns of everyday people was central to his poetic purpose, and those everyday people overstood that he did not simply do arts for art’s sake, this was arts that was uncompromisingly revolutionary, he wrote for the masses. No TV, no radio, no Internet, but his poetry was being quoted on the streets and chanted at demonstration, not only did Shelley know the power of poetry, more importantly he knew the power of the people.”

Given the range of unique and fascinating manuscript material The British Library holds relating to the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley it was difficult for us to decide what would be best to show Benjamin. For instance, we could have shown him the original autograph draft of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, a radical political poem Shelley wrote in response to the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819, or his notebook containing his famous poems ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and ‘Mont Blanc’. Though these would have been fascinating items to show Zephaniah, particularly given their literary and political content, in the end it was decided to show Benjamin something much more provocative.

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 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, autograph draft, 1819, The British Library, Ashley MS 4086.

Instead, Benjamin Zephaniah was shown a letter Shelley had written 6 days after his first wife, Harriet Westbrook (1795-1816), was ‘found drowned’ after committing suicide in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. The letter was addressed to his mistress Mary Godwin (1797-1851), whom he would marry just 3 weeks later. The letter shows a very different Shelley from the Romantic rebel he is usually represented as. Shelley had left a heartbroken Harriet (who was pregnant with their second child) for Mary Godwin two years earlier in July 1814. Mary was the gifted daughter of the radical political philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) and early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). In the intervening years, Shelley’s relationship with Harriet soured and he became increasingly cruel towards her.

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Percy Bysshe Shelley to Mary Godwin, 15 December 1816, The British Library, Ashley MS 5021. © Estate of Percy Bysshe Shelley & Harriet Shelley.

On 9 November 1816 Harriet departed her lodgings, leaving behind her a farewell letter for Shelley. She was not seen again until her body was pulled from the Serpentine on 10 December. As the letter shows, Shelley’s initial reaction to Harriet’s suicide was to deny any blame. He wrote to Mary:

Everything tends to prove, however, that beyond the mere shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would, in any case have been little to regret. Hookham, Longdill ― everyone does me full justice; ― bears testimony to the uprightness & liberality of my conduct to her...

Shelley’s letter also revealed that he believed Harriet had ‘descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith’ who deserted her, although there was no evidence which corroborated this assertion.

Benjamin Zephaniah was initially shocked by this letter and the apparent disregard Shelley showed towards his first wife. It raised questions about the relationship between the artist and their art and whether audiences should judge a work on its own merits or in relation to the lived experiences of its creator. Though Zephaniah was unsettled by the revelations in the letter he still considered Shelley to be a literary hero for the works he produced and causes he supported. The letter is a difficult read but helped demonstrate that no one is perfect in their private lives (even great writers) and gave Benjamin Zephaniah a more rounded understanding of Shelley’s complex character.    

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Benjamin Zephaniah with Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts, during filming at The British Library

Treasures of the British Library will be broadcast on Sky Arts at 21.00 on Tuesdays until 22 November 2016.

06 October 2016

Capturing poetry across formats: from print to digital to electronic literature.

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National Poetry Day comes during the judging phase of the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets, an award administered by the British Library and the Wordsworth Trust in association with the TLS and Harvard University’s Centre for Hellenic Studies.  The Awards aim to raise the profile of poetry pamphlets and to recognise the contribution they make to the world of poetry.  For the Library, running the Awards helps to ensure that a substantial number of poetry pamphlets published each year in the UK find their way into the Library’s collections so that they can be kept for readers and researchers now and in the future.  In this sense the Awards are evidence of the Library’s continuing commitment to collect print culture, not just from mainstream publishers, but also from small and independent presses all the way through to self-published pamphlets.  The pamphlets themselves show the enduring appeal of print as a medium for bringing poetry to a wider readership.

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A selection of the pamphlets entered for this year’s Michael Marks Awards. 

It is also interesting to note the variety of sizes and shapes amongst the entries submitted, and whilst the pamphlets encompass a range of poetic forms, there is also diversity in terms of the layout of text on the printed page.

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From prose poems to spreadsheet poetry: a selection of less traditional text layouts in the pamphlets.

Many of these pamphlets are published by small presses dedicated to poetry, but some are self-published or come into being through arts projects undertaken by cultural institutions, councils or community groups.  The Library aims to capture this creative diversity; we encourage anyone publishing a pamphlet to deposit a copy in the Library for the collections, irrespective of whether it has an ISBN or is distributed formally through booksellers.   We have recently been delighted to acquire for our collections all issues to date of ‘Rising’, the niche ('nish') poetry zine produced and distributed by Tim Wells since 1993. 

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Rising poetry zine, edited by Tim Wells.

The Library’s interest in poetry does not begin or end with print.  In Contemporary British Collections we are working to collect poetry in a range of other formats, and we are also investigating the way that poetry publishing, and literature more widely, is changing in the context of digital developments. The most obvious manifestation of the move towards digital publishing is in our collection of mainstream and academic publishing where a substantial number of publishers have now switched from depositing a printed copy of each work they publish to depositing their works in electronic format instead.  This reflects the 2013 change in the law allowing the British Library, and the other five legal deposit libraries, to receive content in electronic format. Where publishers have moved over to depositing works in electronic format, readers coming to the Library’s reading rooms can click straight through from the catalogue to read these works immediately, on screen.  The screenshot below from our catalogue gives an idea of some of  the poetry collections, from Catullus and Yeats to Vikram Seth and Clive James, now being received as e-books rather than as print copies. 

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A screenshot from 'Explore the British Library' showing a sample of poetry collections received as e-books.

The e-books appearing in the catalogue reflect traditional print culture in its digital manifestation, in that these works are digital copies of works conceived of as books and replicating their form.  Digital publishing is not limited to the format of the book, nor limited to presenting only fixed text and images.  The Library has recently hosted a PhD placement student, Joe McCarney, to undertake a study of online-only poetry publishing, from online zines and journals through to e-poetry that exploits the wider potential of digital media in terms of sound, images and visualisation, animations or interactive content.  As part of his project, Joe identified online-only poetry sites to be added to the UK web archive; he described this work in this fascinating post.  Joe also produced a report on the range of formats and forms used by practitioners of e-literature and on existing efforts to archive this type of creative publishing, and his report will help the Library as develops ways to capture and  preserve emerging media formats, so that they will be available for study in future.  Whilst the rapid pace of change of new media presents challenges for the Library, our poetry collections in particular are given a further  dimension through the wide range of poetry recordings included amongst the Arts, Literature and Performance collections of recorded sound, many of which are available to listen to outside the Library.  Recent recordings include short readings by the poets shortlisted for last year's Michael Marks Awards. This year's shortlist will be announced on 19th October, with the final awards evening taking place on  13th December.

by Debbie Cox, Lead Curator, Contemporary British Publishing

 

See also: Poetry Goes Online: Preserving poetry journals and zines for the Web archive

04 October 2016

Zines Workshop

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by Fearghus Roulston, PHD student working on the British Library's zine collections

On 9 September, the British Library hosted a workshop and discussion on zines – limited-circulation, often homemade publications dealing with relatively niche or unusual topics. The Library has a wide-ranging collection of these materials, dating from the early 1970s onwards, and one of the highlights of the workshop for me was the opportunity to hear about the variety and breadth of the research prompted by different kinds of zines.

We were delighted to bring together a group of researchers, academics and colleagues from within the Library over the course of the afternoon, to talk about how zines have featured in their work and writing. Over two short sessions we moved from the 1950s to the present day, from France to Manchester via the USA, and from punk music to radical politics and literary counter-cultures.

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Image from Chris Warne's presentation

In the first session, Rebecca Claire-Binns of UCL described Gee Vaucher’s design and zine aesthetic and its relationship to anarcho-punk, and especially to Crass; the University of Sussex’s Dr Chris Warne gave a different geographical perspective by analysing the influence of punk design practices on the French art collective Bazooka during their stint working with the leftist Libération newspaper; and Dr Jackie Batey showcased the University of Portsmouth’s Zineopolis collection of art zines, suggesting possible avenues for research within this archive and showing some of her own work connecting these zines to contemporary issues of mental health.

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Image from Jackie Batey's presentation on zines

Despite the apparent disparity of these topics, they brought together a group of really interesting ideas on the relationship between politics and aesthetics, and on how currents of design take shape across time.

In the second session, Professor Bill Osgerby of London Metropolitan University looked at some very early precursors of zines, from the literary counter-culture of the 1950s to biker zines from the 1960s. He also linked the development of zines as a form to technological shifts. The availability of relatively cheap photocopying from the 1970s onwards is a particularly important factor.

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Image from Bill Osgerby's presentation

Bill was followed by Dr David Wilkinson from Manchester Metropolitan University on how zines, especially City Fun, helped him chart the evolution of post-punk as a subculture in Manchester. This research contributed to his new book. I concluded by looking at some Northern Irish punk zines and the insight they give into aspects of everyday life in Ulster in the 1970s, particularly into boredom as described (and perhaps exaggerated) by the young people writing in the zines.

This session highlighted, again, the geographic diversity of zines. It also suggested various different ways of reading them as sources – through their relationship with technology, but also as routes into a particular historic understanding of emotion and of cities. We rounded off the evening with a trip to the final event of the Library’s Punk 1976-78 exhibition, Punky Reggae Party: The Story of Rock Against Racism.

 

31 July 2016

Zines resurgent

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As we reach the end of International Zine Month it seems a good moment to look back and take stock of the situation of zines and fanzines in the Library now. I’m impressed by the current vibrancy of the ‘zine scene’ and the level of interest in zines, both as a resource for social research and as a means of expression for people who are marginalised by mainstream publishing or who favour a DIY aesthetic as a means of retaining control over their work. I was asked recently whether, as a curator, I judged the scene to be growing. It’s hard to tell whether there are more people involved in producing zines or whether interest in, and awareness of, the scene is simply greater, but if the popularity of zine fairs is anything to go on, there does seem to be a real buzz within DIY publishing.  In London, this year’s ‘DIY Cultures’ was agreeably crowded and filled several floors of the Rich Mix building. Across London, at Goldsmiths University, London Radical Bookfair offered a wide range of zines alongside other publications.

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Feminist and punk zines purchased at London Radical Book Fair.

If there is indeed an increase in zine production, there are various reasons. One aspect may be a feeling of disconnect associated with online zines or personal websites.  Putting something together in print brings people together: you can take your zine out and talk to people, find somewhere to distribute it, and table it at zine fairs as part of a community. The print format offers a means to connect with other like-minded people in the real word, rather than virtually. At the same time it does seem that the web has helped the print zine scene by allowing people to raise the profile of zines, publicise fairs, and create online distros to bring zines to a wider audience. The web has given zinesters a means to connect with each other more effectively to exchange ideas and experiences, rather than taking away the need for zines to be produced in print.

Allied with this there seems to be a growing desire to produce something that will last.  Websites may have a wide reach, but they are also ephemeral, and may not endure.  Many of the zines we acquire now show more care in their production than some of the early zines - the paper is of higher quality and covers are stronger, bindings have replaced staples, and there is more use of colour. There is a sense that, having taken time to put them together, their creators want them to last. The care taken in the production of these zines is also a means for their creators to give recognition to the people who have contributed their stories or artwork or whose experiences are represented.

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 Recently acquired zines produced by Rudy Loewe and Jacob V Joyce.

Another factor is the interest in zines within art schools, as well as media courses, given that zines offer students a way of taking their work to an audience.  In some senses this could be seen as a move away from the ‘not for gain’ ethos of many zinesters in the sense of zines being used as a means to further a career – but it also allows students and others to take charge of the way their work is presented and express themselves without being mediated to their audience by a third party. In many ways the early zines also served as a launch pad for their creators’ careers in journalism or the arts; this is apparent just as much amongst the more overtly rebellious punk zines as it is within the carefully crafted artistic works we are seeing now. For art students in particular, zines are a really good way to create an object that can showcase a style or approach in a self-contained way, and the community aspect of zine fairs allows for informal feedback that is both immediate and potentially supportive.  

 
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A selection of zines purchased at this year’s DIY Cultures, London.

There is continuity too, in that the opening up of wider expression and discussion around gender, sexuality and non-binary sexual identities has been a boost for zine production. Zines allow for expression around a very wide range of issues, and whilst at many levels the last decade has seen greater acceptance of diversity, including around LGBT+ identities, body image, and mental health, there are still strong barriers blocking the access of ideas and experiences to mainstream publishing outlets.

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One of several rooms at DIY Cultures 2016 bringing together zinesters and those interested in their work.

Alongside the zines bought at zine fairs or from online distributors, the Library continues to gratefully receive zines sent in directly by their creators, whether they are single issues ‘hot off the press’ or longer runs carefully preserved from years gone by. Recenty, we were pleased to receive a full run of early 1990s Somerset rave zine, TAT (This and That) Mag from its author Terry Hanslip who describes the original aim of the zine as being ‘to inform, educate, protest and make people happy if I could’.

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TAT Mag, a free rave zine produced by Terry Hanslip in the early 1990s.

Not all aspects of print fanzine production are experiencing a boost as media moves online. The Library used to acquire a wide range of football fanzines, but very many of these have become online only, and a much-reduced number are produced in print.  Football fanzines in particular seem to have been affected by many of the same forces that work against print newspapers or magazines, partly because they are often professionally printed and need to be sold at a price that would cover rising production costs. This is hard to achieve when the same content can be made available for free online. Even so, many football fanzines are still going in print, especially those associated with the smaller clubs. A fuller exploration of the Library’s football fanzines is on my ‘to do’ list, so watch this space, but for now I’d like to mention the farewell print issue of Gary Firmager`s long running West Ham fanzine, Over Land and Sea that marked the club’s final match at the Boleyn Ground in May this year.   The Library holds a good run of OLAS from its first issue in August 1989, so it seemed important to add the last issue to the collection, to bring the series to a close. Steve Marsh’s ‘They Fly so High’ website sets OLAS in the context of the many West Ham fanzines over the years. Its 27-year run is truly exceptional, even amongst football zines.

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‘Over land and sea’/ OLAS fanzine, 10 May 2016.

For more about zines in the Library, see Steve Cleary's post on More On and Fearghus Roulston's piece about punk zines as a resource for research.