THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

39 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

09 June 2017

New Acquisition: Three Works by Natalie d’Arbeloff

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Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Published Collections writes:

Recently, I was transported far away from my open plan office, by the vivid work of the renowned book artist Natalie d’Arbeloff.

D’Arbeloff was born in Paris of Russo-French parentage. Since settling in London her career has spanned five decades during which she has worked as a painter, printmaker, book-artist, cartoonist and teacher.

Being a novice in the area of artist’s books it is was a great pleasure to meet the artist and to be introduced personally to Natalie’s work. Something extra is added to the interaction when it occurs in person. This was very evident in March when Natalie visited us in the British Library. During her visit she outlined some of the techniques in her printing processes that went into her work. As she presented her works to myself and fellow curators the books seemed to come alive. There was a growing air of excitement in the room.

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Seventh of seven poems and etchings from  For a Song.

Everything about the work entitled For a Song intimates accessibility. The texture of the book and its size, being a compact sixteen and a half centimetres square nestles comfortably in your palms. The finely honed poetry all draws you closer and closer into this work. Often inner spaces are so firmly shut away for fear of having those delicate feelings trampled and crushed. Between the soft tactile boards of the full leather binding we are confronted with the raw courage, though gentle language of seven love poems.  These are accompanied by the soft flowing lines of etchings printed in intaglio and relief. The verse is set in juxtaposition with the technique. The text was engraved with a power tool on metal plates before being printed in relief.

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Full leather binding of For a Song with blind–embossed panels in a velvet–lined  box.NA2 enochtitle

The title page  of  The Creation from the Book of Enoch (Five and a Half Hours in Paradise)

Published in 1992, The Creation from the Book of Enoch (Five and a Half Hours in Paradise) (copy 9 of 12) consists of twenty loose double leaves printed black from sugar–lift and aquatint plates. This technique enhances the letter press giving it a commanding presence on the page drawing the eye into the starkness.

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Double leaf from The Creation from  the Book of Enoch (five and a half  hours in Paradise)  the Garden of Eden. 

Fungus & Curmudgeonly, a title which I cannot say without a chuckle, excites me on a number of levels.  Pointedly a mix of media, the clear comparison for me is with works such as Heuristic Media’s app version of Shakespeare’s Tempest, where it is possible to follow the text while actors, including Sir Ian McKellen, perform the play.  This offers an aural immersion into the play along with the performance.

Fungus and Curmudgeonly is a play by Simon Meyerson illustrated by Natalie d'Arbeloff. It was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1976 then following that in Stratford-upon-Avon at the Macbeth Room of the Shakespeare Hotel in 1977. Our copy is presented in a maroon cloth-covered double slipcase which incorporates the cassette with a recording of the play with Charles Turner reading the role of Fungus, ageing Shakespearian super-star, and Jack LeWhite as Curmudgeonly, his understudy. 

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Fungus & Curmudgeonly with its maroon cloth-covered double slipcase incorporating the cassette.

The ingenuity of the slip case brings two mediums together in one object providing a practical yet pleasingly simple way to present the work.  

 These and other works of Natalie d’Arbeloff are accessible through Explore the British Library. The internet provides an additional rabbit hole of exploration of d’Arbeloff’s work through her comprehensive collection of web pages which explore many aspects of her work.  

Images are reproduced with the kind permission of  Natalie d’Arbeloff.

Bibliography

For a Song: General Reference Collection RF.2017.a.10

Fungus & Curmudgeonly General Reference Collection EMD.2017.b.8

 

01 June 2017

The writing of J. G. Ballard’s Crash: a look under the bonnet

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 Chris Beckett writes:

Shock greeted the publication of J. G. Ballard’s Crash in 1973. Cult status quickly followed. Today, the novel is widely considered to be a modern classic, a novel that speaks both of its time – the darkening close of a decade of colourful liberation – and speaks dystopically to us today, connected yet disconnected as we are in a time of digital narcissism, detached 21st century voyeurs of pleasure and horror at the touch of a screen. Meanwhile, traffic increases – hurtling towards the limits of catastrophic systems failure – by road, and by what used to be called the information super highway. Is Ballard’s novel a Swiftian satire, a ‘cautionary tale’, as the author suggested, or is it, as he also characterised his novel – as if to evoke de Sade – a ‘psychopathic hymn’? Ballard maintained both positions at different times. The novel’s enduring qualities are connected to its moral ambivalence, an ambivalence that is deeply embedded in a richly layered text that resists closure.

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There are two drafts of the novel in Ballard’s papers at the British Library, both revised and annotated, intensively so in the case of the earlier draft. This is how the earlier draft begins:

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The first sentence of the typescript will remain unchanged (surely echoing the opening of Camus’s L’Etranger): ‘Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash’. Ballard’s novel is a dark conjugation of its opening sentence. The sentence ominously suggests a series of (deliberate) crashes where we expect to read of a single accidental event. But the top left corner of the page, the note in black ink struck-through in red, is where the page as manuscript page begins, with the sketching of a generic setting for Ballard’s writing of the period, the Road Research Laboratory where V[aughan] works: ‘At the RRL at night with girl – they make love as he talks about V., among the wrecks’.

But neither the drafts nor the final form of words – where the text comes to rest, held in creative tension – exist purely, however distinctive, however novel the novel seems. So where did Crash spring from? What is the history of the text?  How is the novel connected to what came before? What else was Ballard writing during the same period?

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 I have just edited a new edition of Crash that tries to address these text-led questions by supplementing the familiar published text of the novel with generous selections of unpublished archive material. Crash: The Collector’s Edition (4th Estate, 2017) places the novel in its writing context. Five chapters in draft are set within the novel. In addition, there are selected stories – the predecessor ‘condensed novels’ – from The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), and Ballard’s two ‘surgical fictions’ (a mammoplasty for Mae West and a face lift for Princess Margaret).

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 The new edition also publishes for the first time Ballard’s draft script for the BBC short film Crash! (broadcast BBC2, 12 February 1971), directed by Harley Cokeliss. Ballard appears in the film alongside a mysterious female figure (played by Gabrielle Drake) whose enigmatic presence punctuates the collagist visual essay. She appears and disappears, sometimes inside the car, sometimes in the middle distance. She gets out of a new car in a car showroom, then lingers among the car wrecks at the breaker’s yard. We see the contours of her body in the shower dissolving into the curved forms of a car body, and we see her slumped across a steering wheel, her face bloodied from a collision. The film was made (in the winter of 1970) between writing the first and second drafts of the novel. Its stylised visual language informs Ballard’s final text. The film is a bridgework that looks back to The Atrocity Exhibition (the following passage from the draft script is taken from ‘The Summer Cannibals’), and looks forward to the emerging novel:

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The earlier draft of Crash is a remarkable document that conveys something of the intensity and the spontaneity of composition. The manuscript is layered over time by the strata of three-coloured revision: annotation-deposits in black and blue and red ink in the margins and over on the backs of pages. The inks codify the rhythms of writing and revision, rhythms that oscillate within the Crash manuscripts, from the drafts to the final text, and oscillate as well, as Ballard pursues his traumatised subject, in the cross-currents of his contemporaneous writing.

For further reading about Crash in draft, see Chris Beckett, ‘The Opening of Crash in Slow Motion’ on the British Library Discovering Literature site: https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/the-opening-of-crash-in-slow-motion

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.

Shelley to Mary Godwin
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