THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

66 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

30 August 2017

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

Add comment

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.

 

Flowers_for_Princess_Diana's_Funeral

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

13 July 2017

Gay UK: Love, Law, Liberty and Literature?

Add comment

The tag line for the British Library’s Gay UK exhibition is ‘Love, Law and Liberty’. One could add another ‘L’ to the alliterative list and make the tag ‘Love, Law, Liberty and Literature’. Literature, and the way it has been used for and against the gay community is a revealing thread running throughout the show. The very first display case in the exhibition examines the downfall of Oscar Wilde and the way his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray – fit for ‘none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys’ in the words of one reviewer – was used against him during his trial for gross indecency. Wilde himself realised he had gone too far in the original version of the story, published in Lippincott’s Magazine in the summer of 1890, and for the first novel publication in 1891 he rewrote the book. In the new version the passionate expressions of Dorian, Basil Hallwood and Sir Henry Wotton are recast in aesthetic terms, removing the original’s emphasis on male relationships. The damage was done though and in the eyes of the prosecution lawyers the Lippincott’s version revealed Wilde’s true, criminal, nature. He was, in their eyes, condemned by his own work.

Lippincott's

(Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, July 1890. The first appearance of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray in print)

This need to either rewrite a novel, or to modify it in order to avoid moral outrage (or indeed to not publish it at all, as E. M Forster did with Maurice) is a common theme. Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) was prosecuted for obscenity, and banned, almost as soon as it appeared. By today’s standards the novel is tame but the line ‘and that night, they were not divided’, which referred to two women, was enough to have James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, raging with disgust. He wrote: ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel’. Further comments by Douglas made a direct link back to Oscar Wilde and the decadence that was a key part of the Victorian fin de siècle – ‘It is a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society. It flings a veil of sentiment over their depravity.’ The trial caused a sensation, with both sides being easy prey for satirists.

Sink of Solitude 01 (2)

(An illustration by Beresford Egan for The Sink of Solitude (1928), a satire on Radclyffe Hall, her novel and the case brought against her book. Hall is being martyred on the cross; the Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks looks on; Cupid makes an insulting gesture and Sappho leaps joyously across the centre).

Perhaps Radclyffe Hall’s real offence was to root lesbianism in the English countryside, as much a fixture as the fox hunt and the Saturday-to-Monday house party. She drew attention to it and she defended it. Just as she pointed out and defended the fact that many women ambulance drivers on the Western Front during WWI had been lesbians. This was something a large part of the establishment did not wish to hear; it didn’t tie in with their old-style vision of muscular Christianity and their sense of order.

This open hostility towards literature that addressed gay life lasted well into the 20th century. Terence Rattigan conceived his play The Deep Blue Sea (1952) as a one-act piece revolving around a love affair between two men. Knowing this would never get past the censors however he had little option but to place a heterosexual relationship at the play’s heart if it was to be performed. A few years later however things were beginning to change. Following the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957, which recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the subsequent rise in campaign movements and pressure groups such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society, attitudes were finally starting to relax. On 31st October 1958 the Lord Chamberlain issued a memorandum to his staff stating that plays about homosexuality, or including homosexual characters would no longer be subject to an automatic ban. The language of the document is grudging and of its time (“We will not allow embraces between males or practical demonstrations of love”) but all the same it was progress and plays like Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) soon brought sympathetic portrayals of gay men and women to the London stage.

  LCP Report 01

(Lord Chamberlain's memorandum from 31st October 1958 outlining what can, and what cannot, be permitted on the stage with regard to the portrayal of homosexuality)

Although the pace of change has been gradual the positive advance in attitudes over the twentieth century is encouraging. Seventy years after the banning of The Well of Loneliness Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet (1998) achieved impressive sales and critical acclaim. A racy television adaptation was broadcast four years later. Waters’ novel is immeasurably more daring in its depiction of lesbianism than The Well of Loneliness. It is graphic, sexy, bold, joyous and brilliant. The fact it was also available to buy in high-street bookshops and to borrow from libraries up and down the country is indicative of how far attitudes towards same-sex relationships have progressed since the dark days of Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty runs until 19th September 2017. The events programme to accompany the exhibition can be seen here.

 

 

27 April 2017

John Milton's publishing contract for Paradise Lost

Add comment

John Milton’s publishing contract for Paradise Lost goes on display

350 years ago today, the poet John Milton entered into an agreement with the printer Samuel Simmons to publish his epic poem Paradise Lost. Through this publishing contract, one of the greatest works of English literature came into print. The original contract for Paradise Lost is held by the British Library, and has just been placed on display in our Treasures Gallery.

Milton publishing contract

John Milton’s contract for the publication of Paradise Lost, 27 April 1667. British Library shelfmark: Add MS 18861.

The contract between John Milton and Samuel Simmons reveals that Milton was to receive £5 from Simmons immediately for Paradise Lost, and a further £5 once 1,300 copies of the poem had been sold. There was potential for Milton to earn an additional £10 if two further editions, also of 1,300 copies each, were sold. Unfortunately Milton died shortly after the second edition was produced in 1674, and so received only £10 for his masterpiece.

On display alongside Milton's contract is the first edition of Paradise Lost, which Simmons duly printed in 1667. It is in ten ‘books’ or sections, and contains over ten thousand lines of verse. Simmons did not include his own name on the title page, but listed the three London booksellers who acted as wholesale distributors of the book.

Paradise lost first edition

The first edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (London, 1667). British Library shelfmark: C.14.a.9.

Milton’s poem, on the subject of the temptation of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden, had occupied him for many years before it was finally published. Having lost the sight in both eyes by his early forties, he had to dictate the work laboriously, line-by-line, to an assistant.

The publishing contract is believed to have been signed on Milton’s behalf by an amanuensis. Milton then affixed his seal to it. This is the earliest known example of a contract between an English author and their publisher.

by Sandra Tuppen, Lead Curator, Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850

10 February 2017

Jane Austen Among Family and Friends

Add comment

curated by Sandra Tuppen, Lead Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1601-1850

This year marks the bicentenary of the death of one of our most-loved writers, Jane Austen. To mark this anniversary, we have brought together writings from Austen’s formative teenage years for the first time in 40 years, from the British Library and Bodleian Library collections, plus family letters and memorabilia as part of a temporary display in our free Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. Austen’s treasured notebooks contain stories and poems she wrote to entertain her family and close friends and are accompanied by other items showing her strong family and social networks. Together these items illuminate the personal family life of this towering literary figure.

Austen, Jane

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810 © National Portrait Gallery, London

This display also includes one of the Library’s finest treasures – Austen’s writing desk. The desk was given to Austen by her father and might have been the very surface at which she produced first drafts of novels such as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. While travelling through Dartford in 1798 she almost lost it when it was accidentally placed in a horse-drawn chaise heading for Dover.

Austen desk

Portable writing desk, late 18th century, Add MS 86841

We have united the three notebooks that Austen kept of her teenage writings, which include “The Beautiful Cassandra”, a story dedicated to Austen’s sister, and a spoof history of England featuring illustrations of the Kings and Queens by Cassandra Austen. They are vivid sketches which illustrate the monarchs of England looking rather more like common men and women than they may have liked.

Austen jane history Queens 014601

An image from 'History of England' from Volume the Second by Jane Austen and illustrated by Cassandra Austen (Add MS 59874)

The social world which Austen lived in deeply influenced her books. Her family and friends provided inspiration for some of her novels’ characters. Their opinions mattered to her and she wrote down what each person thought of her later novels. In the exhibition you can see Austen's careful notation of opinions of Mansfield Park (1814), capturing some of the negative comments with a certain irony. The following image shows a page of these comments relating to Emma (1815).

Austen-jane-opinions Emma-c07437-08

Opinions by various people of Jane Austen's work, 1814?, Add 41253 B

Among the letters on display one tells of Austen’s sorrow on the death of her beloved father, while a poem expresses the joy Austen felt on the birth of her nephew. The letters and manuscripts exhibited give an insight to Austen’s close friendships, explore her romances and reveal the family joys and sorrows which shaped the writer.

The exhibition is free to visit in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery until 19th February.

03 February 2017

Busting the Myths of Music Hall

Add comment

by guest blogger Fern Riddell, cultural historian and consultant for the BAFTA award-winning BBC and Amazon drama, Ripper Street

Teaching a British Library Adult Learning course is an absolute joy. This new range of courses brings together Library experts and guest specialists to offer unique learning experiences, using the Library’s rare collections for inspiration. I was invited to design a six-week course to support Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun, a free exhibition showcasing the Library’s Evanion Collection – a unique archive of the ephemera of Music Hall magician Henry Evans, acquired by the Library and rarely seen by the public.

 

  M. Evanion

Programme of M. Evanion's entertainment, January 13, 1893, Copyright © The British Library Board

I started my academic life as a Music Hall Historian. It’s a well-known part of our cultural history, a genre of entertainment we instantly recognise but actually know very little about. For many people, music hall is a sterotype, infantile, full of mother-in-law jokes and something that should never be considered ‘art’. And this misconception is why I chose to focus on the reality of Music Hall, and not out cultural memory of it, with my course Behind The Myth Of Music Hall. Each week we took a Music Hall myth – from the working class identity, to the role of women – and blew it apart. Did you know that Dickens loved the Music Hall? That women owned and ran music halls across the country; that Kitty Marion, one of our most dangerous suffragettes, was committing arson attacks on MP’s houses in-between on-stage appearances? And that the language of the songs, far from being ‘Knee’s Up Mother Brown’ was witty, clever, and occasionally stolen from the poetry of the greats like Byron or Keats. And above all, Music halls educated their audience about personal rights and situation through topical songs. Music halls kept their audience informed of parliamentary bills, changes in the geographical landscape of London, political intrigues, as well as domestic relationships and trials.

By the latter half of the 19th century, there were over 300 music halls licensed in London alone. Syndicated groups began to appear, opening music halls in towns and resorts across the country, and later the world. The Evanion Collection reflects the huge breadth and depth of acts, performers, and locations across the country as well as Music Hall’s influence over the tastes and ideas of their audience. National stars were created, Marie Lloyd, Leona Dare and Dan Leno packed houses to the roof night after night, and all caught Henry Evans’s eye.

 

  Leona dare

 Poster with an illustration of Leona Dare's balloon ascent, Copyright © The British Library Board

From 1852 Music Hall gained a reputation for showcasing something different, something special, and something new. It was a marvel to behold: opulent ceilings, chandeliers, expensive carpets. The middle classes were shocked: why were music hall impresarios going to such expense just to provide entertainment to the masses? Elegant designs and exteriors belonged to those who could afford to have them at home, not just to be visited for pleasure. But this is where the very core of the entire music hall industry ideal exists. It was a world of fantasy; it attempted to create perfection and sold it to the people who would never have enough money to obtain it. It was the modern day celebrity gossip magazine and reality TV star world rolled into one, and appearing twice nightly just down your road.

The Canterbury Music Hall was the first of these, opening in 1852, and then again in 1856, after a significant rebuild to increase seating capacity. Morton built this hall at 143 Westminster Bridge Road, and it signalled the new style of entertainment, specifically for the working classes, in the heart of the city of London. When the cost of Charles Morton's carpet in the Canterbury was revealed to be over a thousand pounds, he was met with derision and disbelief that he would waste such expense on those who were unable to appreciate it. Morton met his detractors with defiance, his manager, William Holland invited them ‘to come and spit on it’ [Busby, Roy, British music hall: An illustrated who's who from 1850 to the present day (Michigan, 1976), 12.].

 

  Canterbury theatre prog

Canterbury Theatre of Varieties, theatre programme, 1888, © The British Library Board

Historians have argued that the music halls were the first commercial mass entertainment to appear in Britain, they appealed to everyone. In a world that we see as often only operating along strict class and gender divides, the music halls were a place that drew in men and women, old and young, from all walks of life. In the last week of my course, Helen Peden, the British Library’s Curator of Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900, joined us and brought with her a mesmerizing selection of posters, playbills and other ephemera from the Evanion Collection, which we displayed on tables across two rooms. The joy of seeing students connect to original source material is unparalleled, and by the end of six weeks, my passionate group of historical myth busters set off to explore the rest of the Library’s collections. I can’t wait to see what they find.

 

  George Pike and seals

George Pike's wonderful performing seals, © The British Library Board

For more information on adult courses at the Library, visit www.bl.uk/courses. The exhibition There Will Be Fun is open until 12th March 2017.

21 October 2016

Dan Leno: the original Pantomime Dame

Add comment

by Helen Peden, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 and British Library curator of exhibition Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun.  

When Dan Leno performed as the Pantomime Dame in the 1880s he transformed a previously minor role into the main part and shaped pantomime into the Christmas show we know today.

  Dan Leno

Illustrated cover of the score of My Old Man (1889) H.1260.m.(43

The great clown Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) had been the star of Regency pantomime and brought the subtle arts of mime and gesture to this popular entertainment. In Grimaldi’s performances the clown was always the main character but after his death these clever skills were lost and soon replaced by the much less finely drawn charms of Principal Boys and Pantomime Dames. Clowns no longer played a pivotal role in the production and returned to the circus leaving pantomime without a main character and in need of a new direction. This was provided through the comic genius of Dan Leno.

Playbill Leno

Foresters’ Music Hall playbill (1885) Evan.611  

On Monday, October 5th, 1885, Leno made his first appearance in London at the Foresters’ Music Hall. Playbills in the Evanion Collection document Leno’s early London success (Evan.611, Evan.1063) and list him as a champion dancer – he had won a world clog dancing competition in Leeds in 1880. His champion clog dance was the main part of his turn at the Foresters’ but his comic song – I’m Going to buy Milk for the Twins – proved more popular with London audiences. Although the words have not survived, we know that Leno rushed on stage in the guise of an ordinary, harassed, yet spirited and resilient woman, and immediately grabbed the attention of the audience with his rapid comic patter in which he revealed the many small injustices of everyday life. Although Leno performed alone on stage the characters he embodied were so well drawn that his stage always seemed to be fully peopled.

Playbill- leno

Oxford Music Hall playbill (1886) Evan.1063

George Conquest, manager of the Surrey Theatre in Lambeth, South London was so impressed by Leno’s performances that he was quickly engaged to play Dame Durden in the 1886-7 pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk. Leno’s Dame stole the show and he subsequently appeared in every spectacular pantomime at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until the end of the 1904 season.

Mother Goose

Illustration of Dan Leno as Mother Goose. Jay Hickory Wood: Dan Leno. London, 1905 10827.f.24.

The Good Old Original Mother Goose

Leno became the pantomime star of the late Victorian era. The main part of Mother Goose was written for him by the writer J. Hickory Wood for the 1902-3 Christmas season at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The character went through a number of phases – from poor to wealthy, humble to haughty, plain to beautiful and young to a final incarnation as the good old original Mother Goose, complete with top-knot and bunion.

Mother Goose was Leno’s favourite pantomime role and was considered to be the greatest triumph of his pantomime career.

Visit There Will Be Funa free British Library exhibition on Victorian popular entertainments, open until March 2017, and see many other rare and wonderful treasures from the Evanion Collection.

Helen Peden, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900

 

10 October 2016

'Rhys-cycled’

Add comment

By Sophie Oliver, co-curator of the display ‘Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys, Jane Eyre and the Making of an Author’

Jean Rhys is amply represented in the British Library’s manuscript collection, including by several versions of her best-known (and widely loved) novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Fifty years after that book appeared, and 200 since the birth of Charlotte Brontë, whose Jane Eyre (1847) inspired it, 2016 seemed like a good moment to celebrate Rhys and the British Library’s archival holdings of her work.  

Wide Sargasso Sea

The display ‘Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys, Jane Eyre and the Making of an Author’, showing in the Treasures Gallery until 8 January, takes Brontë as a starting point. From her manuscript of Jane Eyre we’ve shown the part when Rochester takes Jane to see his ‘mad’ first wife, Bertha Mason, whom he rejects in the cruellest terms: ‘her nature wholly alien to mine […] her vices […] intemperate and unchaste’. Rhys referred to this nineteenth-century classic text as ‘frozen assets’, material to be reignited and given new life. She objected to what she felt was Brontë’s one-dimensional depiction of Bertha as a ‘poor Creole lunatic’, and resolved to write ‘her story’. Although Rhys’s letters show that she hugely admired Brontë, this oppositional stance was typical. For many literary critics, Rhys is above all a West Indian and a woman writer: her relationship to the Western canon is tangential and celebrated as such.

For her part, in work and life Rhys promoted an image of herself ‘outside the machine’, as one of her stories is titled. Yet she admitted that she longed for Wide Sargasso Sea ‘to be understood and read and so on’. The long process of drafting her final novel was spurred on by the attention that she gradually began to receive in the 1950s (having all but disappeared after Good Morning, Midnight was published in 1939) from critics, publishers and the BBC, which broadcast a radio dramatisation of Good Morning, Midnight in 1957.

The display was conceived to explore this aspect of Jean Rhys’s career – the public reception of her work and the making of her reputation in the years leading up to Wide Sargasso Sea and in the decade after, when she achieved international renown. The British Library’s Rhys archive is particularly strong on this period. For example, it holds Rhys’s corrected page proofs of the story ‘Till September Petronella’, published in London Magazine in 1960. This was Rhys’s first appearance in print since 1939, so in some ways represents the re-ignition of her literary career. She remembered it fondly for years, writing in one letter that ‘Petronella’ ‘just about saved my life’.

The Rhys archive also includes drafts of her earlier novels After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931) and Voyage in the Dark (1934) – pages of determined, fluent notes together with frenzied revisions and angry crossings-out. All of her earlier books were reissued in hardback and paperback in the late 1960s after the great success of Wide Sargasso Sea. The return of the 1930s fiction brought Rhys to a broad contemporary audience – not just through the books themselves, but in the form of profiles in the mainstream press and TV adaptations. The work that Rhys wrote in the interwar period seemed to fit in the 1960s, a decade of great social change. Thirty years previously she had written books and stories that listened to the marginal voices – those of women and racial minorities – that were being heard more in the 1960s. A profile in the fashion and lifestyle magazine Nova that is included in the display suggests that Rhys’s fictional obsession with flawed women spoke to that publication’s celebration of female identity in all its contradictory guises.

  Fig. 1

Julie Kavanagh, ‘Rhys-cycled’, Women’s Wear Daily, 13 November 1974.
Photo by Willie Christie. Reproduced with kind permission of Julie Kavanagh
and Willie Christie

As well as manuscripts, then, the display draws on the full breadth of the British Library’s collections, including newspapers and magazines, formats that were central to the story of Rhys’s rise to fame. Her presence in the press on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s confirms that Rhys and her work had become fashionable. Two newspaper items that we weren’t able to include refer to a Rhys ‘cult’ in this period. Julie Kavanagh’s 1974 profile in Women’s Wear Daily, ‘Rhys-cycled’ (illustrated), connects the republication of Rhys’s earlier work with the fashion system’s continual updating of old trends. Originally a fashion trade journal, by this point WWD was a ‘fashion gossip’ magazine with a mass market, decreeing who and what were the latest social and cultural phenomena. In late 1974, it seems, Rhys was. The previous year, aged 82, she had even been given her own fashion shoot in The Sunday Times, styled by the notorious fashion editor Molly Parkin (illustrated). The photographs were taken by Norman Eales, whose images of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy had appeared in Vogue, Queen and Cosmopolitan.

  Fig. 2 copy

Molly Parkin, ‘Look! Fashion’, The Sunday Times, 25 February 1973. Jean
Rhys photographed by Norman Eales. Reproduced with kind permission of the
estate of Norman Eales

The fashion press often picked up on Rhys’s own love of clothes and their importance in her fiction, where they feature as signs of hope and despair – the promise of fulfilment and individuality or a way to blend in, but also the threat of deadening sameness. In the Sunday Times piece, contemporary quotes from Rhys are interwoven with fashion-conscious citations from her writing. Some have a more abstract link to fashion, such as this from Voyage in the Dark: ‘It was one of those days when you can see the ghosts of all the other lovely days. You drink a bit and watch the ghosts of all the lovely days that have ever been from behind a glass.’ But in the context it seems clear: the way that the past haunts the present is like the return of an old style. Much like Rhys herself, then: a ghost who, last seen in the 1930s, returned with new relevance in the 1960s.

Sophie Oliver is finishing a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her article ‘Fashion in Jean Rhys/Jean Rhys in Fashion’ will be published in the journal Modernist Cultures in November 2016.

15 September 2016

Philosophies of punk

Add comment

By Rachel Brett, Reference Specialist

Among the fanzines on display in ‘Punk 1976-78’ is a copy of Sideburns, featuring a diagrammatic representation of three chords, with the caption 'This is a chord - this is another - this is a third ... now form a band'.

Imagine this famous three-chord approach as a manifesto for life; it might look something like this:

  1. Committing to the destruction of old beliefs
  2. Accepting that we are alone and committed to create our own ideals and beliefs
  3. Living in accordance with these self-authored ideals while resisting the temptation to return to old ideal (in the words of Robin Ryde).

When we speak of punk then, you could argue that we are also speaking about a philosophy. We are still talking, and putting on exhibitions about, Punk because inside the record sleeve was the message: change is possible.

Brave New World

First-issue-of-ripped-and-torn-created-by-tony-drayton

The first issue of Ripped and Torn created by Tony Drayton (Tony D) on display at Punk 1976-78 at the British Library until 2nd October

While the three points above read like a punk manifesto, it is in fact a summarisation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s conceptualisation of a ‘superman’. Such beings would live by their own values, choices and beliefs, cast off old perceived habits and pre-given morals to ultimately lead a freer and more fulfilling existence.

This is an over simplification of an illustrious theory by Nietzsche, yet parallels can be drawn with the ethos of the punk spirit which was tantamount to the idea of change and autonomy. Punk wanted to rip it up and start again, and it wanted to do it for itself. If we want to consider the significance of punk, its legacy and intention beyond slogans perhaps then the German philosopher Nietzsche is just as germane as Joe Strummer.

This is not to connote punk was a preconceived philosophical gesture, rather it is offering a reflection on punk’s demand for change that became a shaping force within culture as demonstrated in the British Library’s exhibition. This however, raises a question - If art can be philosophically considered, why shouldn’t pop music also be contemplated with philosophical curiosity?

Such outrageous posturing to situate punk within a philosophical proposition will provoke a loud disquiet in the crowd. What has punk got to do with philosophy? A brief glimpse into some of Nietzsche’s ideas may be thought provoking for the curious. Nietzsche loved music. Life without it he famously said isn’t worth living. Music for him was an expression of the imagination, a dynamic power in the everyday world, an expression of a life changing force within all humans, a feeling and an emotional outburst, and anger after all is energy…

Nietzschean gesture

  Nietzsche187c
Friedrich Nietzsche around 1869. Photo taken at studio Gebrüder Siebe, Leipzig. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Nietzsche considered music’s function within Greek tragedy, which he understood as an artistic form born from the struggle between the gods Apollo and Dionysus. As a philosophical concept Dionysus denotes a primordial urge outside the rationality of instincts representing intoxication, excess, and a drive towards a transgression of limits. Nietzsche identified these aspects within non-representational art and specifically encapsulated within the power of music to covey suffering as a universal truth as opposed to an individual symptom.

In the modern world the rational reigns, while gods and myths are banished as the divine guiding principle for human existence. Nietzsche’s panegyric of Greek tragedy lies in his argument that such enlightenment had failed. Instead privileging  a return to the subterranean impulse of the Dionysian spirit within music to exposes the depths of human experience beyond the rational.

Put another way, the unifying experience of music contains a potential for change to live creatively beyond the suffering of the human condition. Heck, sounds a bit punk to me!

Going Underground

PunkGNeill

Reproduced with kind permission of ©Gary Neill

In 1886 Nietzsche raised the question “What would music have to be like if it were no longer Romantic in its origin, as German music is, but Dionysiac?”. Given his understanding of the Dionysian drive in music, I would propose it would be like  Punk. This proposition was explored in the contemporary world by the artist Dan Graham in his work “Rock my Region”. In this ‘video essay’ Graham drew out the ecstatic release within punk music and illustrated comparisons with the same release in religion and the Shaker movement.

Punk was a sonic and visual sign in an otherwise grey, over commercialised industry. It was the fly in the ointment, a critique of society, mass culture and of itself. That is to say of pop music. Perhaps punk’s greatest legacy is that it remains indefinable. What do we mean by punk? Everyone knows all the answers to this, don’t they? Yet we still dispute it, maybe because punk demanded a change and while it was not the revolution McLaren’s King Mob dabbling’s aspired to, it did effect exactly what pop music could be, sound like and how it could be made and distributed.

Punk’s still got a job to do; only it’s going to take more than a guitar to do it. Better get out your philosophy books kids, there’s an overdue revolution waiting to happen and perhaps Nietzsche and a bit of Greek Tragedy just might help…

Hey! Ho! Dionysus & Go!