THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

44 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

12 October 2017

Discovering Literature: 20th century drama

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

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© Crown copyright

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

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

Highlights online for the first time include:

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

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Orphan work licence

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Orphan work licence

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© the Sir Terence Rattigan Charitable Trust

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

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© Joan Littlewood Estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katie Adams, Content Manager: Digital Learning

 

27 September 2017

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

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Add_ms_88930_2_2_1989_death_penalty - Copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banned Books Week logo

 

14 September 2017

No Longer in the Garage: The Archive of Galloping Dog Press, Poetry Information and Not Poetry

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Chris Beckett writes:

The small press publisher Peter Hodgkiss begins his memoir essay ‘It’s All in the Garage’ contemplating ‘a tatty cardboard box’ with ‘GDP’ written in fading red felt-tip pen on the side: ‘It has moved from landing to attic to garage 1 to garage 2 in two houses in Newcastle to its present residence in Whitley Bay’ (Cusp: Recollections of Poetry in Transition, ed. Geraldine Monk, 2012). That tatty box of Galloping Dog Press books (1974-91), plus the original author manuscripts and associated correspondence, now has a new and settled home, as do comprehensive sets of files relating to the two magazines Hodgkiss edited, typed and printed concurrently: Poetry Information (1970-80) and Not Poetry (1980-85). Peter Hodgkiss has generously donated his publishing archive to the British Library.

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Galloping Dog Press logo (from Gustave Doré, Don Quixote)

Hodgkiss recalls that the origin of the name of his press was serendipitous: reading Ulysses at the time, and living not far from Swansea beach, he drew the name from Joyce’s description of the dog on Sandymount Strand in Episode 3 (‘Proteus’). But serendipity aside, it is entirely fitting that Galloping Dog Press should owe its name to one of the great ur-texts of modernism: the writers and poets Hodgkiss published – and documented in Poetry Information – set their compasses by modernism’s experimental star. They learned their ‘ABC’s and ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of best imagist practice from Ezra Pound, took their metrical lead from the ‘variable foot’ of William Carlos Williams, and avidly read contemporary American poetry (the biggest influence of all) from the Beats to the post-war schools of Black Mountain, New York and San Francisco. Closer to home, they cherished the Northumbrian modernist Basil Bunting. Bunting had appeared in Pound’s combative Active Anthology (Faber, 1933), although years of obscurity followed. In 1966, however, prompted by the curiosity and enthusiasm of a young Newcastle poet called Tom Pickard, Bunting published to great acclaim the long poem Briggflatts (significantly, with non-mainstream Fulcrum Press). Poetry Information 19 (1978) was a ‘Basil Bunting Special Issue’. Bob Cobbing’s (75th birthday) ‘poem for two voices for basil bunting’ was reprinted on the back cover:

  2 Hodgkiss blog PI front cover  3 Hodgkiss blog PI back cover


Geraldine Monk’s introduction to Cusp highlights the regional origins of a ‘seemingly spontaneous outbreak of poetries and poetry communities’ in the 1960s. As one thread, however, within a larger pattern of creative renewal across all the arts during a dynamic period of great social and technological change, the case of poetry was not unique. The contribution of Butler’s far-reaching Education Act (1944) to this renewal, which bore a strongly working-class stamp, from poetry to music to film, cannot be over-estimated. Regional origins are reflected in the two publishing locations of GDP – first Swansea, then Newcastle – and in the geographical spread of the authors Hodgkiss published in the 1970s and 1980s, which included for good international measure two Americans and a Canadian: Gilbert Adair, Guy Birchard, Paul Brown, Bill Butler, Richard Caddel, David Chaloner, Bob Cobbing, Kelvin Corcoran, Owen Davis, Ken Edwards, Clayton Eshelman, Peter Finch, John Freeman, Alan Halsey, Lee Harwood, Ralph Hawkins, Jeremy Hilton, Tony Jackson, Nigel Jenkins, Peter Larkin, Tom Leonard, Phil Maillard, Eric Mottram, John Muckle, Maggie O’Sullivan, Maurice Scully, Gavin Selerie, Colin Simms, and Chris Torrance.

  4 Hodgkiss blog Ghostie Men  5 Hodgkiss blog Wine Tales

Tom Leonard, Ghostie Men (1980). Richard Caddel and Lee Harwood, Wine Tales (1984).

But London cannot, of course, be left out of the picture. The extensive small press network within which Hodgkiss operated formed part of what is usually referred to today as the ‘British Poetry Revival’. Coined by Eric Mottram – editor of the Poetry Society’s Poetry Review throughout the journal’s most radical period (1971-77) – the name he attached to the diverse movement was deliberately polemical. Just as the title of Pound’s Active Anthology had implied the relative inactivity of other poets, so the notion of a revival in poetry’s fortunes implied a base condition of moribund decline. The tussle for the centre ground of contemporary poetry settled upon the premises – and print room – of the Poetry Society, then located in Earls Court. The history of the years in which a more radical and modernist vision held sway at the Society (in 1972, Bunting was elected the Society’s President) has been told by Peter Barry in the aptly-named history Poetry Wars (2006).

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 Bob Cobbing, Vowels & Consequences (1985). John Muckle, The Cresta Run (1987).

Hodgkiss served as a Member of the General Council of the Poetry Society in the final Mottram years (1975-77). Although he moved away from the capital, the drive to publish was nurtured in London. It was in London that Hodgkiss first got his hands dirty. In its final years, Galloping Dog Press ventured into publishing typeset books, but Hodgkiss recalls that his ‘heart was really in the muck and sweat of the clunky and irritating business of feeding that bloody duplicator & swirling that bloody guillotine handle and gluing those bloody pages together….’

Hodgkiss’s archive complements the archives at the British Library of two contemporaneous poets, both of whom he published, and both of whom were also General Council Members of the Poetry Society: Bob Cobbing (1920-2002) and Lee Harwood (1939-2015). The range of their work is a good indication of the richness of influence that permeated the British Poetry Revival. Sound and visual poet Bob Cobbing, who ran the longstanding small press Writers Forum – and got his hands muckier than anyone – drew inspiration from the international concrete poetry movement and from the sound poetry of Kurt Schwitters and Henri Chopin. Lee Harwood edited several short-run magazines in the 1960s. His poetry was greatly influenced by the New York school’s arch blend of French literature and pop art, and he also translated the poetry of the Dadaist Tristan Tzara.

Literary magazines and small press publications have always been associated with experiment and innovation. Peter Hodgkiss’s endeavours over a twenty-year-period – and especially during the 1980s when poetry’s public pendulum, if not its less visible course, swung in the direction of literary conservatism – were a vital contribution to this vanguard mission. Today, the internet and the rise of print-on-demand publishing have brought back into circulation the work of many poets who were active in the 1960s and 1970s but whose work had all but disappeared from view. Paradoxically, the burgeoning digital environment has led to increasing scholarly interest in the evidential value of paper records. The publishing archive of Peter Hodgkiss is a fascinating set of primary documents from a distant recent past.

 

30 August 2017

‘Candle in the Wind’ and the Cultural Legacy of Princess Diana’s Death

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by Dawn Foster

On the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, the British Library is putting on display, for the first time, the original handwritten lyrics to Candle in the Wind. Following Diana’s death Sir Elton John, a close personal friend, asked his collaborator Bernie Taupin, to adapt the lyrics of Candle in the Wind, originally written as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, to reflect the Princess’s life and death. The new version of the song, which opens with the line ‘Goodbye England’s rose’, was sung by John at Diana’s funeral, watched by an estimated 2 billion people. Here, Guardian journalist, Dawn Foster, provides a personal reflection on the memory and legacy of Diana’s death.

 

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Flowers and tributes outside Kensington Palace after the death of Princess Diana, 31st August 1997

Credit: By Maxwell Hamilton from Greater London, England United Kingdom (Flowers for Princess Diana's Funeral) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My mother woke us at 5am and said “She’s dead.” Hours later, when we came downstairs for breakfast, she was glued to the television. The next few days were an uneasy haze: news updates were delivered hourly as the public waited for details on how the crash had occurred and they scrutinised the reactions of the Royal Family. Crowds of mourners fed a sea of flowers, toys and trinkets that surrounded Kensington Palace. 

Even at the age of nine it was clear immediately that the death of Princess Diana on the 31st August 1997 was an historic moment, not just in terms of the death of one of the most famous people on the planet, but culturally. Diana’s death raised questions about the media’s behaviour and approach to personal lives, the role of the Royal Family, and how British people saw themselves. Daily newspapers seemed dated when they failed to carry the most recent twists and turns of the mourning period: the public hunger for information birthed rolling news in a quick, makeshift fudge. Radio and television kept up with announcements and developments more swiftly than print could manage, and small snippets of news took precedence over the more contemplative and authoritative polished segments in news bulletins. 

Coming shortly after New Labour swept to power in May of the same year, Diana’s death and the unprecedented public reaction to the tragedy signalled changing British sensibilities. Diana had become a public individual via her work on campaigns and charitable causes while the Royal Family remained distant authority figures. Deference to the Royals seemed outdated after the divorce of Charles and Diana. Many older friends told me women were emboldened by Diana’s decision to divorce and talk openly about the decision, showing that, even in the highest strata of society, it was becoming accepted that remaining in an unhappy marriage didn’t need to be the norm.

Her relationship with the gay community, too, signalled slow but growing acceptance of different sexualities in Britain. The British Library’s current exhibition, Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty, charts the legal changes and cultural shifts that characterised Britain’s attitudes towards gay relationships - from open contempt and criminalisation to a begrudging acceptance - since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised homosexuality following the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report ten years earlier. The exhibition includes a 2016 cover from the gay magazine Attitude featuring Prince William. Diana was both a pin up and a champion for the gay community, and it’s difficult to imagine the Attitude cover without her engagement with gay politics and people. Her work on HIV was part of a celebrity-led effort to increase understanding of the disease, in both prevention and destigmatisation: the fact she shook hands with HIV-positive patients was shocking to some at the time but was a deliberate decision to show prejudiced ideas about transmission were outdated, damaging and needed to be debunked.

As well as her charitable work, her famous friendships with gay figures were notable. When Sir Elton John asked his collaborator Bernie Taupin to rewrite the lyrics of Candle in the Wind to mark her death, he did so not just as a performer attempting to capture the spirit of a nation in mourning, but as a personal friend and confidante of Diana. Performing at her funeral, the mask of the performer slipped as he ended the song. John’s face, wracked with grief, became a conduit for the emotions of the nation. Anything could happen, and the moment felt unprecedented. It was clear a change was occurring in the wake of the tragedy and the cultural character and mores of the country were shifting. 

The perceived reserve of the Royal Family in responding to Diana’s death and the gap between this and the news, celebrity responses such as John’s, and the public’s reaction were stark. John’s song - itself a cover, updated for the death of a close friend, emotional and heartfelt - chimed with the depth of public feeling for Diana and marked a change in British sensibilities which was here to stay.

Dawn Foster image

Dawn Foster at the British Library’s Gay UK exhibition, 2017 © the British Library

04 July 2017

First Steps into Interactive Fiction

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by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Emerging Media, Contemporary British Printed Collections

It won’t be long until the Infinite Library Summer School. In preparation for this I’m considering choices. What will I speak about? Where will my session led?  How should I introduce my subject?  What is too much?, Where to begin?  

When I say considering choices, what I actually mean is I am considering how narratives take twists and turns, and how great stories can pivot on a single choice which leads the protagonist to the enviable ending. Do these so called choices actually influence the destination or simply the route?

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The Infinite Library

In literary crime and historical fiction the doctoring of the historical narrative as a device often used to present a rich fictional world in which characters meander through historical events into fictional events. Two such examples constructed around an alternate history of the Second World War are SS-GB by Len Deighton and Richard Harris’s Fatherland.  Such a literary method opens an avenue of free agency for the personae dramatica allowing them to operate in an alternative universe, but one which is tied to recognised conventions of good and evil.   

A fundamental of shifting the lens from the historical is under pinning its transition of familiar waypoints in a recognisable environment.  For instance Harris references Albert Speer’s architectural plans and models of a post war reconstruction of Berlin when his fictional protagonist Xavier March travels around the composite Berlin of 1964 in the course of his investigations. Harris himself describes Fatherland as a ‘huge geopolitical "what if"’ thereby raising wider questions relevant historical questions by using alternate history.  

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Map of Berlin 1964 from the 1993 edition of Fatherland interesting  the first edition does not contain this map.     

In making these choices and blending the historical and the fictional it is possible to take the next logical step and give the reader agency in the creative process.  One of the finest examples of this is 80 Days, by innovative Cambridge based games developer, Inkle. They completely reimagined Jules Verne’s travelogue classic Around the World in Eighty Days.  This work literally puts the reader in the driving seat for a trans-continental race against time.  Where the reader is presented with a range of choices on how to proceed, who to interact with and what to read within the narrative.

Over recent years the British Library has taken an interest in interactive works; as part of last year’s International Games Day @ your library (now International Games Week for 2018) we hosted a WordPlay festival, to showcase of some of the best current international interactive fiction and earlier this year, as part of the London Games Festival fringe, we ran Off the Page: Literature and Games, looking at how the fictional worlds of our favourite novels and plays are represented in games and in return what games bring to the written word.

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The Wondering Lands of Alice by Off Our Rockers

Continuing on from these initiatives, next month, the Library is teaming up with award winning poet Abigail Parry to run an Interactive Fiction Summer School. So if you have aspirations to lead your readers down the rabbit hole of the infinite library into stories where they choose the outcome, then you may wish to drink me….

  

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.

Blog image 1 Crash titlepage

Add MS 88938/3/8/1.

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:

Blog image 2 Crash MSS opening

Add MS 88938/3/8/1.

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?

Blog image 3 Crash spine

 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).

Blog image 4 Crash contents

 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.