THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

28 posts categorized "Events"

24 May 2018

Artists’ Books Now: Here and Now

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By Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. Artists’ Books Now is curated by Egidija Čiricaitė, Sophie Loss, Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. The next Artists’ Books Now evening will be held on 5th November at the British Library, with tickets available in the Autumn.

April saw the launch of Artists’ Books Now, a series of events to explore the artists’ book and its place in contemporary culture. The British Library has a significant collection of artists’ books and, in the nature of a national library, has not only many examples of its ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ forms – children’s books, poetry pamphlets, zines – it has centuries of examples of its ancestors (bestiaries, herbals, illuminated books, and so on).

 

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From the outset the term ‘artists’ book’ seems to stimulate a range of questions and contradictions. Is it art or is it a book?  When is a book art, when a literary object, or a work of new information?  Can it be handled, thumbed through or should it be admired (even revered) from behind glass? 

In the first evening, entitled “Here and Now”, the aim was to bring the artists’ book and the audience closer to each other, leaving the glass case behind. Indeed a central goal was to introduce the artists and their books directly to the public, bringing the artists’ own works to a live audience. It seemed to the curators of the event that this was one of the best ways to demystify the artists’ book.

Beyond the theatre-style ‘proscenium’ presentation of traditional events, the first Artists’ Books Now placed the books and artists at the centre of the audience, seated on three sides around two central book tables. This inevitably lead to some Brechtian craning of necks and audience members balancing in on window sills in order to view the proceedings, but the atmosphere was quite unlike conventional events, and we think all the better for it. 

Following a welcome from the Head of Contemporary British Collections, Richard Price, who emphasised the continuities between artists’ books and other book forms held within the Library, the series host for the evening, producer of books and builder of publishing spaces Eleanor Vonne Brown, began introductions.

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Visual artist and graphic designer Danny Aldred speaks on contemporary practice in Artist’ Books.

First to be welcomed was the visual artist and graphic designer Danny Aldred whose talk offered a whistle-stop tour of creative practice in artists’ books, noting, for example, the rise of the distinctive productions of the risoprinter in the contemporary practice of making artists’ books. 

Eleanor then moved on to the first of the artists’ books tables, inviting us to share the work of maker of zines Holly Casio. Holly exhibited and discussed her passion for Bruce Springsteen with her series of zines, Me and Bruce Springsteen.

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 Eleanor Vonne Brown and Holly Casio

Under the surface of artists’ books there is a radical tornado of creativity, practice, vision, and rebellion, all of which feeds in to creating published works which many, including their makers, would not identify as artists’ books. The idea of Artists’ Books Now is not to worry too much about classification where there is clearly enough in common to share ideas and enthusiasm. Zines fully fit that bill: this was a presentation which reflected on class, sexuality, daughters and fathers, and of course, the Boss – all through the prism of the zine, with its own graphic traditions.

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Holly Casio’s zines Me and Bruce Springsteen &  Me and Bruce (and my Dad).]

Visual artist and performer Lydia Julien talked us through her largely autobiographical works including Super Hero Washing Line in her artists’ book table. In her conversation with Eleanor, Lydia explained her use of sequences to grow a narrative based on lived experience. Following Lydia and Holly the evening adjourned to allow the audience the opportunity to more closely examine their work and talk to the artists themselves, again a break from conventional events and deliberately designed to get people closer to books.

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Lydia Julien explaining her work  during her section

Following the interlude Eleanor was in discussion with Gustavo Grandal Montero, from the library of the Chelsea College of Art, as well as an authority on artists’ books and concrete poetry. The ranging discussion came back to focus on the work An Anecdoted Topography of Chance which Grandal Montero  highlighted, for him, as a central work in speaking about artists’ books.   

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Eleanor Vonne Brown in discussion with Gustavo Grandal Montero

 

First in the final set of artists’ tables which Vonne Brown introduced were the works of Amanda Crouch. Amanda’s works cut across media in her journey to research and reimagine the digestive systems. This is far more spectacular than such a description might indicate: as Amanda talked through her extraordinary works, she also held them up, with the scale of the unfurling of one particular concertina’d work surely astonishing the audience, watching frankly in awe and wonder.  

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Amanda Crouch unfurls her work to Eleanor Vonne Brown and the audience

The final artists’ books table was that of artist and researcher John McDowall. John talked about making his work Atramentum (2012), a work which pools the inky contents (theoretically) of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Perhaps the result is a kind of dark almost overwhelming teardrop. For our event it was a fitting full stop, bringing the sessions neatly to an end.

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John McDowall displays an opening from Atramentum during his segment

Not a complete end, however, just a pause: the next Artists’ Books Now evening will be on the 5th November at the British Library.

Images are reproduced with the kind permission of Lydia Julien and Sophie Loss

15 December 2017

Get Ready for Quiz Night! A QI Elf's Recommended Reads

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This is a guest blog from QI elf Anne Miller. Join Anne, fellow elf James Harkin and QI founder John Lloyd for a  QI Christmas Quiz on 18 December at the British Library. This event will celebrate the publication of 1,423 Facts To Bowl You Over, the latest eye-popping, gobsmacking, over-bowling book from the top QI team. 

Get your best team together and be in with a chance of winning a Quite Interesting prize!

Facts to bowl you over jacket

QI Towers is an office of bookworms. We love all facts but have a soft spot for bookish ones such as there being a German airline which allows an extra kilo of hand luggage so long as it’s books, that there’s a bookshop in Shanghai which sells books by the kilo and that the British Library keeps its collection of over 60 million newspapers in an airtight building with low oxygen so they can’t catch fire.

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The QI office is covered with towering stacks of intriguing books such as William Donaldson’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through The Ages, Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy’s The Geometry of Pasta and Fran Beauman’s The Pineapple which just make you want to stop everything until you’ve read them from cover to cover.

Some of our favourite titles include:

Tolstoy’s Bicycle

Jeremy Baker

This book takes its name from the fact that Tolstoy decided to learn to ride a bicycle (then a modern contraption) when he was 67-years-old. The book is full of facts about the great and the good (and the not so good) but with the facts divided up by the age people were when they happened. For example at two-years-old Hercules strangled two snakes in his crib, Judy Garland sang Jingle Bells on stage and that’s also generally the age when you become too old to travel for free on aeroplanes.

 

Consider The Fork: A History of Invention in the Kitchen

Bee Wilson

Interesting nuggets in Bee Wilson’s history of kitchens include that swingers, pinchers, tippers, perchers and floppers are all types of toaster. We were also fascinated to discover that there are actually precise measurements for quantities such as a 'dash' (1/8 of a teaspoon), a 'pinch' (1/16 of a teaspoon) and a ‘drop’ (1/72 of a teaspoon or 0.069ml). 

 

Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals

Steve Young and Sport Murphy

1950-80 was the golden age of ‘industrial musicals’ - bespoke Broadway-style shows performed by companies to promote their products and to motivate employees. This book gathers the best together including such gems as 1969’s The Bathrooms Are Coming which was only ever seen by people in the bathroom trade.  

One of the songs on the soundtrack was Look At This Tub! which included the lyrics ‘Look at this tub! It’s dangerous and certainly a hazard! It’s positively lower than substandard! Everything here is lower class, Why, I could slip, I could fall right on my... nose.’

 

The Oxford English Dictionary(OED)

The OED is one of our favourite reference books and where we found out that the word ‘omnilegent’ means being addicted to reading, ‘obdormition’ is when your arm falls asleep after you lean on it and ‘onomatomania’ is frustration at being unable to think of the appropriate word.

There are also some great facts about the OED itself. It was originally offered to Cambridge not Oxford and their first editorial assistant was sacked for industrial espionage.

With so many incredible books to get through we’re hopeful of avoiding alogotransiphobia which is the fear of being caught on public transport without a book to read.

Anne Miller photoAnne Miller, QI Elf

01 November 2017

Robert Aickman: Strange Stories in the Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Three letters are particularly revealing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Silvia Gallotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer 

03 October 2017

A guest blog by Henry Woolf

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A performance of Spider Love, based on a play by Mick Goldstein, adapted and arranged by Jeremy Goldstein, verse by Henry Woolf will take place at the British Library, Monday 16th October 18.00-20.00.

Spider Love

Photo Darren Black (Henry Woolf and Jeremy Goldstein)

Henry Woolf writes:

Writers are an awkward lot. When they’re dead they just won’t lie down. One visit to The British Library Archives in London will convince you of that. The words of these archived writers, assumed to be safely dead, fly off the page as fresh as a daisy, as warm as toast or as cold as ice but all as indubitably aliveas when they were first put down on paper. Death doesn’t necessarily have the last word. Thank heaven for the British Library archives which make these wonderful words available to anyone and everyone at absolutely no cost at all.

I feel all this very keenlywhen I visit the Harold Pinter Archive and re-read some of the hundreds of letters he wrote to myself and his other friends. He is still alive, forever, captured in the very pages that dropped through my letter box, his pages crackling with affection and energy.

Six of us including Harold and myself made up Harold’s ‘Gang’ We were friends for sixty years. I am the only one officially alive now. I wrote about us in The Guardian in 2008:‘A bunch of determined solipsists is how I would describe the six of us as we bowled about Hackney in the late forties and fifties our lives central to the workings of the Universe. We had mostly met at school encouraged by the shining example of our English teacher, Joe Brearley, to put our lives first and the world second’.

What does that mean?

Well in 1947 the world was too much with us; the Holocaust still loomed; atomic bombs had incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Cold War was being manufactured to keep the American economy going. What lay in store for us looked pretty bleak. We could prove to be the last generation. No future. No children. Did we agonise over this? Discuss our unhappy fate in the small hours? Not a bit of it. By silent agreement we put the day-to-day world to one side. Once we breathed its infected breath we were goners.

If you want a glimpse of what we were like then, how particular, how different from each other and yet sharing a common language, a common stance, read Harold Pinter’s novel, The Dwarfs, written when he was twenty-two. He brilliantly captures young men in all their pride and peacock before society closes in and squeezes the life out of them.

All at once life has caught up with me. The past has stepped off the pages of my friends’ letters and into the living breathing worldof a stage play by Mick Goldstein, one of our closest friends. The play was discovered after his death by his son Jeremy Goldstein who has since adapted it and turned it into Spider Love. It’s about Mick’s complicated life and his friendship with Harold and the rest of us. The British Library has generously encouraged Jeremy and a company of professional actors to present a rehearsed reading of the play on October 16th. Before the reading, Michael Billington the distinguished drama critic of The Guardian and Pinter’s biographer, will engage in a discussion about the play with myself, and in a moment of shameless self-promotion, at some point in the evening I shall be signing copies of my recently published memoir, Barcelona is in Trouble.

Jeremy's adaptation of Mick’s play includes myself as I am today at 87 (c. 2017) in the action of the play which takes place in 1975. A time traveller leading us to a Promised Land is not a bad description. I seem to represent the link between the past, present and future, and The Promised Land evokes the unknown fulfilment of the hopes, we as young men carried within us sixty years ago.

At first Spider Love seems a pretty straightforwardaccount of a man’s unhappy marriage and his own voyage of self-discovery. The play is lively enough, but one feels one has visited its territory before that is, until it dawns on us that everyone in the play not just Mick, is leading a double life. They too are looking for their own Promised Land of their imagination that was the unspoken promise of their youth.

Of course young people today have their own passionate views on life just as we had and feel the same energy and joy, but they express it differently and their approach to the world of politics that we all inhabit is much more straightforward than ours ever was. These days, young people are much more ready to speak up about their concerns than we were, and will confront what they consider to be the dishonest aspects of society, taunting their enemies with marvellous chants like truth to power which resonate with a wonderful confident optimism against the sleazy spin doctors we know so well today. We were much more wary of our shoddy, power corrupted world that was about to blow itself up.

Jeremy has kindly let me write some verse for the play as well as including some poetry that seems to marvellously capture its central theme. One of my favourite lines, and Harold Pinter’s too, is by the poet John Donne who wrote‘At the four corners of the imagined world blow your trumpets angels!’Surely we ourselves are the angels Donne is addressing as well as any supernatural beings that might be in the vicinity. The message is simple, there is more to life than the daily trudge at least for people like ourselves, the affluent few, who need only an economic surplus to release their imagination. On a much more jingle jangle level I wrote a verse myself on a similar theme:

‘What’s that drumbeat, what’s that thunder?
It’s the boys who’ve gone down under,
Beating on the door of wonder
That never closed inside your creaking heart.’

It is places like The British Library with its archives and other collections that help keep the door of wonder open in all our creaking hearts.

Henry Woolf, July, 2017.

Henry Woolf

Photo Darren Black (Henry Woolf)

‘Spider Love’ is a new play forming part of an international art project inspired by the political and philosophical beliefs of Harold Pinter and his Hackney Gang. The play will be read at The Knowledge Centre British Library on 16 October, and from 8 November its companion project ‘The Truth to Power Café’ tours the UK and internationally with Index on Censorship at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford. Devised by London Artists Projects

21 April 2017

TRANSLATORS TAKE CENTRE STAGE AT THE BRITISH LIBRARY THIS SPRING

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by Deborah Dawkin, PHD student working on the Michael Meyers Archive at the British Library

On 8 May we will be hosting The Translator Made Corporeal: Translation History and the Archive.  Showcasing the most recent international research, this conference will reveal the stories of translators throughout history: from the Early Modern period to the present day, and from every corner of the world.

It is hard to imagine the library of any serious bookworm that did not include international classics such as Homer, Tolstoy, Proust, Neitzsche and de Beauvoir, as well as examples of more contemporary authors such as Saramago, Kundera, Knausgård, Murakami, and some Scandinavian crime to boot. But we rarely consider the translators who make it possible for us to read these books; translators have largely remained invisible throughout history. So too, the stories behind the creation of translations: the lengths to which translators might go to ensure the publication of literary gems; the sometimes fierce arguments between translators and their editors; the sacrifices made by translators in difficult political times; and the personal and literary networks, even love affairs, that lie behind translations.

This one-day event in our Knowledge Centre will reveal fascinating stories drawn from diverse historical sources about the human, flesh-and-blood translator: Our panelists will introduce us to (amongst others) translators who have risked exile or even their lives for their beliefs, female translators whose identities have been hidden in a male dominated world, and WWII Japanese interpreters convicted as war criminals. We’ll hear about the part-time criminal who acted for many years as his deaf friend’s court interpreter in 18th-century Ireland and the dragoman who worked as a translator and tourist guide in 19th Century Egypt – and whose recently discovered scrapbook sheds light not only on the everyday life of a non-elite Middle Eastern translator, but on an array of international clients. We’ll encounter Armenian and Persian translators working for the 18th century East India Company and literary translators negotiating with their editors in a time of heavy censorship in the Soviet Union.

While the majority of the conference focusses on translators of the past, there will also be a panel devoted to the collection of data about contemporary translators. Subjects include: the day-to-day struggles of visually impaired interpreters in Poland; research about Finnish translators’ backgrounds and working lives; what the surveys carried out through the Emerging Translators’ Network reveal about the trajectories of the careers and lives of translators in the UK.

This conference also aims to create a space in which the “corporeal” translator might be brought out of hiding and given precedence. It will include a project by emerging Berlin/London based photographer, Julia Schönstädt, on the (in)visibility of translators today. This features photographs taken by Schönstädt at the London Book Fair 2017 along with extracts of interviews with contemporary translators.

The interviews are revealing. Many translators expressed a certain frustration at the public’s ignorance about translation, and stressed the importance of increased recognition for their work, including through the recent use of #namethetranslator on twitter. Others pointed out that the translator’s work often goes beyond the translation of a text – they can also act as cultural ambassadors, literary scouts, advisers.

Yet, some expressed a disinterest in having any public persona: “I quite like to be invisible”, said Kate Lambert, “Perhaps it’s a way of hiding. You do it [your work] behind the scenes. You do it sneakily.” Another, Adrian Nathan West, said “Invisibility? If I can be frank, and I’m afraid this may be a minority opinion, I don’t really care. You know, I like to read, I like to translate…it’s fine…I could have been a pop-star or be in action movies, I could be an actor if I wanted [fame]…right?” 

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The Made Translator Made Corporeal: Translators Through the Lens by Julia Schönstädt and curated by Deborah Dawkin, will be shown at the conference.

 

The Translator Made Corporeal: Translation History and the Archive

8 May 2017 at the British Library

Programme & ticket booking: https://www.bl.uk/events/the-translator-made-corporeal-translation-history-and-the-archive

Website: http://thetranslatormadecorporeal.wordpress.com

FB: https://www.facebook.com/translatormadecorporeal

Twitter: @translator_2017 

Conference hashtag: #translatorcorporeal

 

 

28 November 2016

Foundations of a Movement

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Celebrating 50 Years of New Beacon Books, the UK’s First Black Bookshop and Publisher

At the British Library on Saturday 3 December two events will celebrate 50 years of New Beacon Books: ‘Changing Britannia – Through the Arts and Activism’ (4.30pm-6pm) and ‘A Meeting of the Continents – An International Poetry Night’ (7pm-9.30pm).

‘The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books will be a meeting of the continents for writers, publishers, distributors, booksellers, artists, musicians, film makers, and the people who inspire and consume their creative productions.’

This 1982 welcome statement by John La Rose of New Beacon Books, Jessica Huntley of Bogle L’Ouverture Publications and Race Today Publications heralded the start of the first International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, which would have twelve iterations between 1982 and 1995. Held at Islington Town Hall in 1982, then at Lambeth Town Hall a year later and at Acton Town Hall in 1984, from 1985 the Book Fair set up its London home at the Camden Centre in Kings Cross. These Book Fairs would prove to be groundbreaking in their mission to place literary and artistic production by people of colour from the UK and around the world at the centre — and by 1995 some 114 exhibitors from nearly 30 countries were attending.

  BF Aerial Shot Islington Town Hall
                Islington Town Hall, 1982

 

The International Book Fairs didn’t come about just by accident, though. They were in no small part due to one of the founders of the UK’s first black bookshop and publisher, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016. New Beacon Books was founded as a publishing house in August 1966 by John La Rose, with the active support and assistance of Sarah White. La Rose, who was born in Trinidad in 1927 and who died in February 2006, was a poet, essayist, publisher, filmmaker, trade unionist and cultural and political activist. By the time he arrived in Britain in 1961, he had already been engaged for nearly 20 years in anti-colonial and workers’ struggles in the Caribbean. That engagement taught him that colonial policy was based on a deliberate withholding of information from the population, leading to a discontinuity of information from one generation to the next. Publishing, therefore, was a way of establishing an independent validation of one’s own culture, history and politics; and it could also act as a vehicle between generations to build on what had gone before. This is the concept that has been at the very heart of the work of New Beacon since it began.

Around the same time as the founding of New Beacon Books, John La Rose, the Jamaican writer and broadcaster Andrew Salkey and the Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite founded the Caribbean Artists Movement in London — which is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In March 1967 Kamau Brathwaite’s poetry reading of ‘Rights of Passage’ (the first part of his seminal trilogy of poems The Arrivants) was organised by New Beacon Books at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in London. The event was the public launch of the Caribbean Artists Movement and also publicised the first two New Beacon publications, a book of poetry called Foundations by John La Rose and a book on Marcus Garvey by Adolph Edwards.

From this time, stimulated by the demand for books after the formation of the Caribbean Artists Movement, New Beacon also went into bookselling. Demand for black literature increased further as the black consciousness and black activist movements from various parts of the world impacted on the UK. From 1967 New Beacon began producing specialist catalogues of Caribbean materials, which combined works in English, French and Spanish. Later catalogues also included work from Black British, African and African-American writers. The bookshop, which started as a bag of books in a bed-sitter, then moved to the bottom floor of the home of John La Rose and Sarah White, arrived at its present location in Stroud Green Road in 1973.

                 Bookshop

At the start of the 1980s Britain was rocked by a number of riots in the inner cities of London, Liverpool, Bristol, Leeds, Bradford and Birmingham. The frustration of black youths at years of sub-standard education, being criminalised by an institutionally racist police force and judicial system, and various other factors boiled over into the streets. In some ways, the riots prompted a positive response from both black and white progressives within the UK, who became even more aware of the need for material that gave Britain’s ethnic minorities a positive sense of self and that challenged the everyday racism faced by these populations.

John La Rose and other activist colleagues and comrades in New Beacon had already by this time formed the political and cultural Alliance of the Black Parents Movement, the Black Youth Movement and the Race Today Collective. There was also a unity of purpose with the black radical publishers Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, set up in 1968 by Eric and Jessica Huntley in West London. In the early 1980s, out of the common vision between New Beacon Books, Bogle L’Ouverture and the Race Today Collective, was born the idea of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. It was a pioneering vision which would come to fruition in 1982, which would produce twelve Book Fairs and numerous accompanying cultural events at each one – including the iconic International Poetry Nights – and which would pave the way for every British black, Asian and minority ethnic cultural initiative thereafter.

On 3 December 2016, the 50th anniversary of New Beacon Books will be celebrated at two special events at the British Library. ‘Changing Britannia – Through the Arts and Activism’ by Professor Gus John will sketch out 50 years of Black British activism whilst ‘A Meeting of the Continents – An International Poetry Night’ will capture the cultural vision of the International Book Fairs with a ten-poet reading fest, hosted by Linton Kwesi Johnson.

by Sharmilla Beezmohun

‘Changing Britannia – Through the Arts and Activism’ (4.30pm-6pm) and ‘A Meeting of the Continents – An International Poetry Night’ (7pm-9.30pm) celebrating 50 Years of New Beacon Books is on at the British Library on Saturday 3 December. Tickets available at www.bl.uk

For more information on the history of New Beacon Books and related activist organisations, please visit The George Padmore Institute at www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org

21 September 2016

Melvin Burgess: Censorship and the Author

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by guest blogger, young adult and children's author Melvin Burgess, in anticipation of Banned Books Weeks (25th September-1st October 2016) which kicks off with Censorship and the author at the British Library on 22nd September, at which writers Melvin Burgess and Matt Carr will discuss censorship with Jo Glanville.

Melvin Burgess cred John Coombes

Melvin Burgess photographed by ©John Coombes

Censorship in books for teenagers takes a number of forms, but before looking at them, it's worth looking at the provision of fiction for teenagers in general, and the peculiar and privileged position books do hold among them.

Written matter is, in fact, the only media in which any serious issues can be seriously explored in a fictional way for people under the age of eighteen. Film, for instance, is strictly censored according to age – we're all familiar with the age rating for films in the cinema. At first sight, this might appear not to matter, since anyone can actually get to see anything via the internet; but if you look at provision rather than access, you get a very different picture. When my book Junk first came out, a number of production companies wanted to make a movie based on the book, but they very quickly realised they couldn't because “the audience for whom it's intended won't be allowed in the cinema.” Funding was impossible, and the project was dropped. Junk later appeared in a castrated version on BBC education.

That remains the case to this day. TV is the same. Access, although technically very limited, is in fact almost unlimited. Provision on the other hand is almost non-existent..

Censorship of provision is well and away the most successful way of going about the job of restricting what people get to see or hear but it does have some other unfortunate side effects. In the case of film anyone over the age of about twelve, can get to see things, many of them highly inappropriate, that they technically shouldn't. Meanwhile, the kinds of material they actually should be getting, but which some adults would still feel uncomfortable with, simply doesn't exist at all.

This isn't particular to the UK, either. It is in fact, global. In every continent in which visual material for film or TV is made, serious content for teenagers is effectively stifled at birth by the censorship of age. It appears at first glance to be a matter of simple negligence, censorship by accident, almost; but something that happens with such uniformity on such a global scale is obviously nothing of the kind. That doesn't mean it's done on purpose of course, but it does say a great deal about our attitudes to teenagers that the provision of visual imaginative material for them is restricted to the anodyne on such a universal level.

Books and other written material such as graphic novels and comics are uncensored for age. The importance of written fictional material for teenagers can be measured exactly by the degree of absence of fictions for them in other media. It is of the very first degree of importance.

Censorship of books does occur, however, at a much more local level. I remember very well the librarian who kept my books in a locked cupboard at the back of the library, so that no innocent youngster could inadvertently come across them, and suffer god only knows what forms of psychic shock or corruption. That's an extreme example, but that librarian was acting in the manner in which censorship against books does occur; by the system of gatekeepers. I'm referring to those people who are in a position to control or regulate books to young people; librarians, teachers, bookseller managers, parents – in other words, the very people whose job it is to encourage reading are the ones who also take it upon themselves to limit it.

It goes without saying, but even so I feel I have to say it, that this is not a role all of them relish.

A great deal of this actually happens in the school library, where the kind of material that older teenagers in particular like to read, is by no means always considered suitable for them. When I began writing, schools were still the main source of sales for children's books and to this day, publishers are concerned not to put anything out there that might fall foul of the kind of “standards” that schools require. All too often, such standards, purporting to be some kind of moral stewardship, actually revolve more around the the kind of stories the local press might summon up if they found people under the age of fourteen had access to books with such horrors as drugs, breasts or sexual activity of any kind.  There is in every class at least one unfortunate child with a mad parent, and if the school's senior management is more concerned with public image than developing young minds, that one person can completely define what kind of reading matter every child in the school has access to. In such schools, many readers will tend to ignore the library almost as much as non readers. It's a vicious circle.

Junk of course, and Doing It, were often kept by thoughtful librarians in brown paper wrappers under the desk, to be handed to chosen, suitably mature students, who weren't always he ones who would benefit from them the most. But I can also think of many examples not by any means connected with my more controversial books. One teacher told me how, when reading a passage from my very first book, The Cry of the Wolf, to a group of parents, one mother rose quaking with horror that something so violent (the wolves got shot in a suitably bloody fashion) was available in an institution of education. As a result, not just that one, but all my books were taken off the school shelves.

Violence, however, is one of the rarer targets for the banning of books. The usual one is sex – very handy when everyone over the age of thirteen is fascinated by it – and second is religion. I don't tend to write religious books, but back in the day I did write a book called Burning Issy, which showed witches persecuted by the Church in the 17th C. This book caused me to be dis-invited to a very posh school, on the grounds of “we do not feel the parents of our students would want them to be introduced to this sort of thing.” I was puzzled by what “this sort of thing” might be, but my enquiries yielded no further answers. My guess, though, is that someone somewhere out there, actually believed I was acting as a propagandist for Mr Satan.

Other gatekeepers can include book sellers. Those who remember the book shop Borders from a few years ago, may be surprised to hear that at least one store didn't stock my books, after receiving one solitary complaint.

Of course all this occurs alongside a great deal of support, and stems from an issue which begins life as something quite reasonable. Content, of course, is an issue that all parents will be concerned about.The real issue here isn't about whether we want to allow unrestricted access to children of any age whatsoever; we have allowed them that already (so long as we're not in the room at the time.) It's more about the disconnect between the kinds of material young people want to engage in, (and that we passively allow them to engage with), and the kind of material that we as adults want to present them with. It's a bit like teaching someone to swim in the bath, and then turning your back while they rush out and splash in around in a fast flowing river.

What are we scared of, I wonder? Finding out what they really think? It's all very hypocritical on the face of it, but presumably such a universal system serves some kind of purpose. Perhaps its something to do with permission. All over the world, adults passively encourage teenagers to breech the rules that we ourselves have put into place. I wonder if we rather like the idea that they transgress – that it is in fact a necessary right of passage. In that case, the  rules are more like the governor on a lorry, rather than the actual brakes. Even so, it's a pretty abyssal way of doing it, that leaves people at a time in their lives when they are changing so much, risk taking so actively, and trying to get to terms with an ever more complex and rapidly changing world, without the imaginative structures that might help them negotiate it.

The most moving and enthusiastic, as well as the most common emails and letters I've had from teenagers speak of the sheer relief and joy they've had at finding something that seems to actually reflect what's going on in their own heads in an honest and authentic fashion.

YA is barely twenty years old, and it remains the only form in which the contradictions I've spoken about are ever reconciled. Already it's become fashionable to knock it and to dismiss it's existence as a form, even among the people who actually write the stuff – driven, perhaps, by the urge to widen their readership among adults. Every publisher and every writer wants their work to be crossover, rather than pure YA as such. It would be a tragedy if it ever got genuinely taken over by middle aged wannabe youths, looking for nostalgia. At its best it is for teenagers, about being a teenager, and its disheartening to see grown ups trying to hi jack it for themselves.  If they succeed, we'd be talking about banned genres, rather than just books and that old biblical saying – To those that have not, even that which they have shall be taken from them – will yet again have proven its  worth.

Banned Books Week was 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, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

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19 September 2016

Swimmers: pamphlets and events

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The Library has recently received the first 3 issues of Swimmers bimonthly pamphlet series. These will be available in our Reading Rooms later this year. In this guest post, the editorial team at Swimmers, explain more about the group and the series, and how to find out about future events and publications.

Swimmers publishes a limited-run bimonthly pamphlet series. The pamphlets combine creative and non-fiction written work, alongside artwork in various forms, created by established, emergent, and new writers and artists. To mark the publication of each pamphlet, Swimmers runs an events series—frequently hosted at The Function Room in Somers Town—where artwork exhibits provide a backdrop for poetry, fiction, and script readings and performances.

Swimmers was founded in 2013 in collaboration with arts association STORE. STORE is composed of an educational programme of arts and architecture courses, wide-ranging public exhibitions, and a socially engaged design practice: through this nexus, STORE has created projects and events beneficial to local communities, such as the Summer School in Gillett Square. STORE and Swimmers’ shared ethos and interest in the city space made for an ideal collaborative partnership, through which an initial series of readings, screenings, and performances were hosted in a derelict space in Bloomsbury, where STORE/Swimmers built a library and cinema. Contributors to Swimmers events, and to an anthology-style publication produced in response to the series, included (among many others): Sarah Howe, Maureen McLane, Amy Blakemore, Will Self, Richard Wentworth and Christopher Reid.

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In 2014, the Bloomsbury space was regrettably claimed by property developers. Shortly afterwards, Swimmers dived underground, occasionally resurfacing to host one-off events in collaboration with STORE at a variety of venues across London—such as Taste and Poetry and Architecture.

In March 2016, Swimmers received ACE funding to help launch the pamphlet series. Issue One featured an essay on race and poetry in the UK by Kayo Chingonyi, alongside new poems by André Naffis-Sahely and photo-printed artwork by Ned Scott. Issue Two featured a fragmentary essay on translation and fan-fiction by Sophie Collins, new poems by Caitlin Newby—ancient hymns to the Mayan goddess Inanna, taken from the cuneiform and put through translation software—and A3 prints by Luke Burton. In the current issue, Matthew Gregory explores the phenomenology of the piazza, Richard Scott takes inspiration from Bellini, and Tamsin Snow renders an autopsy table. Issue 4, released later this month, will feature new written work from Daisy LaFarge and Anne Boyer.

Swimmers wants to celebrate the physical, tactile object, to inspire communication between readers, and to allow the written word to enjoy the single-event status often reserved for visual artwork. Swimmers also distributes the pamphlets for free, so that the pamphlets are not restricted to an economically-privileged readership. To achieve all this, Swimmers utilises an experimental distribution model; on subscribing to the mailing list at swimmers.london (or emailing direct at mailinglist@swimmers.london), you will be notified as to when an online sign-up sheet will go live. The first 30 people to sign-up receive a copy—through the post or hand-delivered—for free. In order to widen this readership, a copy of each issue will be accessible to the public at the British Library Reading Rooms. Select content from each issue will also be downloadable as a PDF from swimmers.london, one month after that issue is distributed.

While The Function Room undergoes refurbishment, the next Swimmers event will be held at 7.00pm on Thursday 29th September, The New Evaristo Club, 57 Greek Street, London W1D 3DX. Readings from Emily Berry, Daisy LaFarge, and special guests. Entry is free.