THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

34 posts categorized "Literature"

10 February 2017

Jane Austen Among Family and Friends

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

13 January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 January 2017

Lessons in Vampires and the Gothic

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by guest blogger Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

Last year, the British Library launched a new adult learning programme, providing short courses that bring together guest specialists, Library curators and its unique collections.

I was invited by the Library to develop a pilot course exploring Gothic literature in context, which ran in April and May. For five evenings we explored and debated a range of texts from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and considered the development of Gothic through a variety of media and over a couple of centuries. We also encountered a wonderful array of collection items with curator Greg Buzwell, from Walpole’s own copy of Otranto to Bram Stoker’s cut-and-pasted and handwritten playscript for Dracula.

Following the success of Gothic the Library commissioned a second course to start at Halloween, and I decided that Vampires would make a suitable follow-up. Vampires are undoubtedly glamorous (despite their inauspicious beginnings as something more closely related to what we’d consider a zombie), and they have a sturdy literary history to their name (though sometimes – as is arguably the case in Coleridge’s Christabel – the name isn’t one that is mentioned). 

Gothic course

On Gothic I had been the sole academic lead but for Vampires, I decided to invite three other academics with expertise in the field to share the teaching. Professor Alexandra Warwick talked on ‘Vampires, Victorians and Women’, Dr Stacey Abbott introduced us to ‘The Cinematic Spectacle of Vampirism’, and Dr Catherine Spooner discussed ‘Contemporary Vampires: Comedy and Romance’. In our final session we were joined again by curator Greg Buzwell, who talked us through some other exciting items from the Library’s collections.

So on 27 October, I was back in the Library’s Learning Centre to start a five-week exploration of vampires. As with the Gothic course we had a nice mix of participants, with a variety of working backgrounds and interests (postcolonialism, folk horror and the Double, for example) to bring to the discussion.

I led the first session, in which we looked at vampire texts from the Romantic period. We started by examining early 18th-century newspaper reports on the vampire panic, before turning to the often-quoted passage from Dom Augustin Calmet’s treatise (on angels, demons, spirits etc).

Dom Augustin Calmet

Dom Augustin Calmet (engraved 1750)

(To my mind, Calmet – Catholic writer on vampire lore – is an early prototype of Stoker’s Van Helsing.) After this, we sprinted through some vampire texts from German literature – marvelling at how early some of the enduring motifs are established. Already in 1748, for instance, Ossenfelder’s short poem “The Vampire” associates erotic love with vampirism and pits the power of a mother against the vampire lover. Needless to say, in these cases, mothers seldom win. Fathers do occasionally, but – as in the case of Carmilla – it’s rather a pyrrhic victory. 

Carmilla

Carmilla image by D M Friston from The Dark Blue (1872)

It was interesting to see the strands that were to recur throughout the course. Christabel, unsurprisingly, refused to be quietened.  The cross-fertilization with the German tradition was apparent, not just in the first seminar but in the third, when Stacey showed us extracts from Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and pointed out that some of those working on early Hollywood vampire films were German emigrés with roots in Expressionist cinema.  Both Alex and Catherine talked about the anxieties provoked by the figure of the female reader/viewer – in relation to Victorian novels and Twilight, respectively.  It’s interesting that the figure of the female fan can be encountered in one of the first British mentions of the vampire phenomenon – in a report in The Craftsman in May, 1732. What struck me as another prominent vein (apologies) in vampire representation is the melding of literary tradition with the idea of celebrity and biography. Polidori’s literary success (though he was repeatedly not credited for it, see the image below) was achieved by drawing not only on literary tradition (including Byron’s own myth-making) but also on celebrity gossip.  (He also, of course, drew on Byron’s ghost-story idea).  Clement and Waititi’s vampire house-share mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which we looked at in Catherine’s session, is one of the latest examples.

  The Vampyre

1884 edition of Polidori’s (not Byron’s) “The Vampyre”

One of the best aspects of an evening short course is that everyone has chosen to take it out of interest and for enjoyment – no one is having to worry about formal assessment. I was struck by how much productive conversation takes place at the tea break. People not only start swapping text recommendations, and drawing in references to things they’ve recently seen or heard, but will also try out ideas that might feel too ‘large’ to raise in the slightly more formal seminar setting. Wandering towards a tea-table liberates a lot of thought. There were lots of high points.  I particularly enjoyed the ire that the revelation scene from Twilight provoked.  Everyone seemed to love hating it. Dreyer’s Vampyr, on the other hand, went down very well.

Our final session was the one I was looking forward to most. Having experienced Greg Buzwell’s sessions for the Gothic course (and having visited the Library’s Terror and Wonder exhibition that he’d curated), I knew that some really fascinating works would be brought out and that Greg would instigate some lively discussion. I was not to be disappointed.  Amongst many other items, there was a map of Transylvania used by Stoker for plotting the action in Dracula, the volume containing the celebrated wood-cut of Vlad the Impaler, and some wonderfully lurid (and censored) artwork in Kine Weekly (January 1970) [LOU.1575 1970] for The Vampire Lovers (1970).

For me – and for many of the students – the highlight was Byron’s letter referring to the Diodati happenings, with its vigorous underlining of all the allegations Bryon is supposed to be refuting – “incest” and “promiscuous intercourse”.

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 Letter from Lord Byron to John Murray  15 May 1819 © GG Byron. Ashley MS 4740

by Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

For more information on adult courses, visit www.bl.uk/events/adult-learning-courses

21 December 2016

Will Self’s archive acquired by the British Library

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Rachel Foss, Head of Contemporary Archives, writes:

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

Will typing

Will Self typing on his favourite typewriter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 December 2016

P.G. Wodehouse Archive at the British Library

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Recently, as part of our cultural preview for 2017, we announced that the personal archive of P.G. Wodehouse has come to the British Library on loan and is to be made publicly available for the first time.

P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) was a prolific writer and is one of the most widely read humourists of the twentieth century. Publishing over ninety books in his lifetime, he is best known as the author of the well-loved series of novels featuring Jeeves and Wooster. He also forged a successful career as an acclaimed lyricist, satirist and social commentator.

Sir Edward Cazalet, who has made the archive available to the Library, said:

“I am so delighted that the British Library is to provide a home for my P.G. Wodehouse archive. Given that Wodehouse is now ranked as one of the leading, if not the leading, humourist authors of the 20th century writing in the English language, I believe that this broad-based collection will not only bring much pleasure and laughter to its readers but will also prove to be critical to any serious study of 20th century humour and literature.  

PGW would have been so proud to know that he is now counted amongst his great literary heroes, headed by Shakespeare, Tennyson and so many others. This archive I have built up over a period of more than 40 years since Plum’s [Wodehouse] death in 1975. It contains many of his drafts and manuscripts, and has copious quantities of correspondence with composers, authors, relations and close friends, as well as a wide range of other interesting documents.”

The archive spans material dating from 1900-2005 and includes manuscript drafts and notebooks relating to Wodehouse’s fiction and essays, among them Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, the last novel in the Jeeves and Wooster books, and his final published novel, Sunset at Blandings.

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“Keeping it from Harold”, story by PGW in the December 1913 issue of The Strand Magazine. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the P.G. Wodehouse Estate. 

The archive also contains material relating to his writing for theatre, film and cinema. While in America Wodehouse wrote the lyrics for a number of American musicals in collaboration with composer Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton, playwright and librettist. The collaborators were very successful and at one point had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway. Wodehouse also worked in Hollywood where he was one of the script writers of Those Three French Girls. The screenplay for this is also part of the archive.

Wodehouse’s correspondence reveals his conversations with family, friends, authors and fellow artists. These include letters from Evelyn Waugh - who described Wodehouse as his ‘revered master’ - and from the American lyricist Ira Gershwin. One of his letters to his wife, written while he was under arrest in France, has a rather interesting story.  The letter did not reach Mrs Wodehouse until it was rediscovered in a house in Frimley in the summer of 1977, and sent to her by Peter May, whose neighbour had discovered the letter when sorting through her late husband’s effects. 

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Letter from PGW to his wife Ethel, 25 November 1944. Images reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the P.G. Wodehouse Estate. 

The archive also includes the handwritten manuscript of Wodehouse’s ‘Camp Diary’. Having been interned by the German Army in various temporary prison camps Wodehouse eventually arrived in a converted asylum at Tost, in Upper Silesia. During this time he kept a diary, which he turned into a series of talks with which he entertained his fellow detainees. With typical dry humour, these talks reflected the traditional code of honour of the detainees, their practice of making light of their discomforts and remaining stoic, and showed how they did their best to lift their spirits when faced with challenging and dangerous circumstances.

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

14 November 2016

Treasures of the British Library: Zephaniah meets Shelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masque of Anarchy - Ashley_ms_4086_f001r
 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, autograph draft, 1819, The British Library, Ashley MS 4086.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 October 2016

Angela Carter and the Visual Imagination

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I was too young to see The Company of Wolves when it first came out in 1984. Consequently, until the film appeared on video, I had to make do with reading the reviews in newspapers and admiring the stills reproduced in film magazines. The stills were remarkable, full of fairy-tale imagery run riot. One shot showed a banqueting scene in which ornately dressed guests had developed lupine faces; another showed a cluster of eggs lying in a nest, one of which had cracked from top to bottom to reveal a baby. Perhaps most memorably of all one still depicted a wolf’s snout, all sleek and furred, emerging from a man’s mouth - the beast within made manifest. Inspired by the lush Gothic imagery of the film (I’ve always believed that if Gothic is worth doing it’s worth over doing, it’s a genre that thrives on excess – I’m all for velvet drapes, icy-mists and all round spectacular flamboyance when it comes to Gothic) I sought out The Bloody Chamber, the volume containing the short story that provided the inspiration for the film. And so I discovered the world of Angela Carter – 'Feminist', 'Magic Realist', 'Gothic author', 're-worker of fairy tales' and generally someone to whom a seemingly endless stream of labels have been applied over the years, all of which tell part of the story but none of which do the breadth of her work and her imagination justice.

Angela Carter

(Angela Carter by Fay Godwin © British Library Board)

Perhaps as a result of this early exposure to Neil Jordan’s film adaptation Angela Carter’s work has always, to my mind, possessed something of a cinematic quality. Jean Luc Goddard and Frederico Felline were clearly influences but I often like to imagine that there is possibly a dash of Hammer Horror lurking in the shadows behind some of her stories. In her final novel, Wise Children, Carter had explored the way in which high art and low, Shakespeare and music hall for example, often become entwined. Given such an outlook surely it’s possible to speculate that films like The Curse of the Werewolf, The Brides of Dracula and The Kiss of the Vampire might have played a part in the genesis of stories such as ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and ‘The Lady of the House of Love’. I like to think so, no matter how fanciful such a notion may be on my part. Still, true or not, I’ve always been pleased that I came to Carter’s work via film.

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(Poster for The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and with a screenplay by Neil Jordan and Angela Carter)

‘Dying’, as Gore Vidal once gloomily remarked, is often ‘a good career move’ and in the year following Carter's death in 1992 the British Academy received over forty proposals for doctoral research into her work. Sadly, in art as in life a person’s influence and worth often only really become apparent once they have gone. Angela Carter’s tragically early death propelled her work into the limelight. Almost twenty five years later, and with Edmund Gordon’s eagerly awaited The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography now in the bookshops, the fascination and admiration surrounding her work continues to grow from strength to strength. In a sense Carter’s work achieves that rare but perfect balance – simultaneously adored by academia for its insight, depth and invention but maintaining popular appeal due to its fabulous characters, storylines and sheer exuberance.

The British Library holds Angela Carter’s archive, a resource that consists of a wealth of manuscript material including diaries, notebooks, letters, drafts of novels, outlines for short stories and research notes. Each part of the archive offers a fascinating glimpse into Carter’s life and work but, for those with a love of her fiction, perhaps the most revealing items are the notebooks in which she recorded her research and worked on ideas that later became fully developed episodes in her books.

Fevvers 02

(Above Add. MS 88899/1/11, a page of Angela Carter’s notes for Nights at the Circus. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter).

Shown above, by way of example, is a page from one of her notebooks in which she outlines her initial thoughts about the character of Sophie Fevvers from the novel Nights at the Circus (1984). It is fascinating to see the character in embryo, and to be able to explore how layer upon layer of idea, imagination and imagery is built up until Fevvers, a six-foot-two trapeze artist with wings, emerges complete in the published book. The genesis from notebook to novel took many drafts and, as can be seen below in this page of an early draft of the opening chapter the re-workings of the text continually grow and evolve rather than emerge fully formed.

  Carter - Nights 01 (3)

(Add. MS 88899/1/12. Early draft of the opening scenes from Nights at the Circus. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter).

Carter’s notebooks are a continual delight, and looking through their pages offers a unique insight into the creative process. In a way it is the literary equivalent of siting in a studio with an artist as they work on a painting, seeing the successive sketches and layers of paint as they are applied until the finished portrait appears. You don’t often get the chance in life to see creative genius in action, but Carter’s archive does give us one such opportunity to see exactly that.

Much more about Angela Carter’s archive and work can be found on the Discovering Literature: 20th Century website, with examples from her notebooks relating to Nights at the Circus being available, together with examples of the early drafts of the novel . The British Library, in partnership with the Royal Society of Literature, will also be hosting an event - Angela Carter: A Celebration - on November 24th 2016. Nearly 25 years after her death Angela Carter is more relevant than ever.