THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

03 October 2017

A guest blog by Henry Woolf

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

29 September 2017

Banned Books Week in prison

A guest post by Susan Selby, Library Manager at HMP Garth

Banned Books Week at HMP Garth

Preparing the Banned Books Week display at HMP Garth. Photograph © Susan Selby.

We are now putting the finishing touches to our displays and activities for Banned Books week. Our reading group will be holding a discussion around censorship and our poetry group will be delving into Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

We have hidden books under cover and studded our shelves with 'banned' books in wrappers. This is our normal stock but people who have asked why we are wrapping them have been surprised when told the books have been banned - no one believes that Harry Potter could be banned but it has happened in some US states!

Word searches to find the titles of banned books will be available, together with bookmarks. Borrowers are going to be asked for comments with the intention of making a display as a follow up to the event.

We have also made links with our Safer Custody and Equalities team as many of the reasons that books are banned i.e. homophobia and racism, are issues that are being dealt with within the prison system.

As well as encouraging reading, it is hoped that discussing the censorship of books will open a dialogue about why people see banning as an option, about the the reasons why books have been banned and whether they are still relevant today. Challenges are faced by institutions like prisons; mental health, violence, gender identity issues and religious intolerance. By highlighting how these issues are used as excuses for challenging books we can hopefully break down some of the prejudices that are held.

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

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

  Banned Books Week logo

27 September 2017

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

Add_ms_88930_2_2_1989_death_penalty - Copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banned Books Week logo

 

14 September 2017

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

Chris Beckett writes:

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

  1 Hodgkiss blog GDP dog

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

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

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


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

  4 Hodgkiss blog Ghostie Men  5 Hodgkiss blog Wine Tales

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

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

6 Hodgkiss blog Vowels  7 Hodgkiss blog Cresta Run
 Bob Cobbing, Vowels & Consequences (1985). John Muckle, The Cresta Run (1987).

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

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

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

 

04 September 2017

Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets: Call for Submissions

Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets 2017 – Call for Submissions ends 13th September

Richard Scott Wound

Wound, Richard Scott. Winner of the 2016 Poetry Award.

There’s still time to submit entries for the 2017 Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets.

Awards are made for poetry pamphlet, publisher and illustration. Works published in the UK between 1st July 2016 and 31st July 2017 are eligible for the awards. Details for how to enter, and what works are eligible can be found here.

2017 will see the 9th annual awards, which will be presented at a ceremony in December. The awards celebrate the printed pamphlet as a vital part of the ecology of poetry publishing. They recognise the pamphlet as a space for new poets to find an audience, or for more well-known poets to present new work. The format encourages experimentation and allows for a dazzling variety in the way that poems are presented.   

2016 winners were Richard Scott, for Wound (the Rialto Press), the Emma Press and Mairead Dunne (for illustration of The Clearing, published by the Atlantic Press). You can hear Richard Scott reading from Wound on our Soundcloud channel, and you can read Emma Wright’s acceptance speech here.

An important goal for the awards is to reach new poets and new presses. Recent years have seen increases in both the numbers of publishers and numbers of pamphlets being submitted. We look forward to a strong field of poets, presses and illustrators for 2017.

30 August 2017

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

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

07 August 2017

The Puns of Punjab: Edward Lear’s India Letters

Edward Lear (1812-1888) is best known for his nonsense verse for children, but letters recently acquired by the British Library (Add MS 89254) contain information about events in Lear’s real life, and demonstrate his letter writing capabilities. In 1873, Lear and his servant Giorgio Kokali ventured to India (partially for Lear’s health- he was suffering from bronchitis in a rainy London winter). They travelled the width of India and the length of the subcontinent, before settling in San Remo where Lear worked on his Indian commissions: ornithological and landscape paintings for Lord Northbrook. During this time, he wrote letters to his friend, Lady Mary Wyatt, wife of Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt, architect and art critic.

1

The period which these letters come from pre-date the financial insecurities which plagued Lear’s later years. These letters comprise correspondence pertaining to real events, for example Lear’s wishes that Lady Wyatt’s husband recovers from a minor illness, alongside a healthy dose of nonsense. One describes an ‘accurate history’ of the tale of 401 cows and 183 dogs. Upon hearing the cries ‘the 401 cows filled the ambient air with their laments… numbers of the cows not only shed tears, but that the little dogs actually dried their eyes with their tails’. The figures of the cows and dogs can be seen drawn on the letter in ink, in a similar style to the illustrations for Lear’s other nonsense works.

2

The letter from 24 January 1874 includes many puns, which Lear has underlined:

 ‘I shall send Digby no Delhineations of Delhi, not having been there- nor of Agra- for it would only Agravate him, & he would Be-neer-as happy as he was before… If you had but seen the Elephums & me ariding a top of one! (Which I would not do, as it was in the procession, & I thought it I might be sick just as I came up to the Viceroy)…’

3

His nonsensical letters also reference Tennyson in relation to the chaotic community of 183 dogs and 74 calves, whilst punning on various words for cattle:

‘All at once the 183 little dogs by a Nimpulse, swam across the swollen flood, warbling in chorus the beautiful words of the poet, ‘Flow down cold revulet to the sea’ – &c &c, – till on reaching the 74 calves they seized their noses, ears, & tails, and… dragged the whole party to the shingly banks of the shore opposite where their almost despairing parients, cowed by their recent affliction and bullied by the impendious oxident which had occurred, were heiferlastingly stamping in the melancholy mud’.

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Whilst some may think these letters unreadable out of their original context, it is probably more enjoyable to embrace them as a case of the crossover between the Lear’s real life and his nonsense. They capture Lear’s delight in wordplay and nonsense, which span his works, both literary and epistolary.

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by Emily Montford, Modern Archives and Manuscripts Intern

21 July 2017

Drawing, Not Drowning: The ‘bio auto graphic’ series.

To mark International Zines Day we have a guest post by Michael Nicholson about his 'bio auto graphic' series, recently added to the Library's collections.  The Library collects a very wide range of zines and other independent publications, and we are keen to raise the profile of zines in the Library.  Zines have real value for social and artistic research; they can be an inspiration to others looking to write or create their own publications; they can be a space for sharing issues and experiences where readers can find support; or they can work as part of a force for change, contributing to networks and activism. This post gives an insight into the context and motivation for producing the 'bio auto graphic' series.

 

MN - Londonaut! Cover 2013 (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My name is Michael Nicholson and I draw pictures alongside words I write.

Since 2004 I have created an entirely subjective response to what I see and hear around me in the form of pictures and words, held in a series of self-published editions that many think of as zines.  The work – most recently collected by the British Library I am delighted to say – has been exhibited, collected and purchased around the world. People have said some kind things about it.

The tension between contradictory things gives the series energy; I grew up in the Lake District but chose to live in London; I trained as an illustrator but actually begin the creative process most commonly by writing; I relish company but also solitude.  The core fact of my life – that I am an only child – first allowed me to maintain a safety perimeter between my self and what I see around me. A blast-zone beyond which I am free to observe, assess and consider options before deciding on the right moment to step closer. I like time to think.

 My imaginative life really began with books. The allure of storytelling hooked me very early, as I could read before I went to infant school.  Mere words in a certain order on a page carry an extraordinary potency, and the conventional book format – allegedly diluted by digital usurpers – remains elegant and profoundly interactive (to shamelessly appropriate a bloodless modern term).  Immersion in a new book, either in the company of a familiar author or while getting to know an unknown one, remains a delight.

I wanted to tell stories, having realized I could draw, and images – in the televisual age that was my 1960s childhood – then swirled around my head along with words. Simplistic notions of morality and relationships embedded themselves from a variety of sources: J.P. Martin’s exquisite, subversively English ‘Uncle’ series (illustrated by Quentin Blake) and the giddy Manhattan of Stan Lee’s ‘Marvel Comics’, to the spinning police box of Patrick Troughton’s ‘Doctor Who’ and the sinister hills and woods of Tove Jansson’s ‘Moominland’.  Well-crafted stories with characters to care about, whether they be in Milch & Bochco’s ’NYPD: Blue’, Phil Rickman’s excellent ‘Merrily Watkins’ series or David Mitchell’s ‘The Bone Clocks’, continue to involve me to this day.

What some regard as the dubious lowlands of popular culture always enticed me, and the irreverence of comedy in particular led me to the cheap seats. A sense of humour inspired me, whether it be ‘Monty Python’, Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, the bracing stand-up sermons of the late Bill Hicks or the current withering asides of Stewart Lee. Realising the absurdity of institutions, elites and ourselves - and pointing it out in ways that allow similarly helpless people to laugh at it - is an intelligent coping mechanism. Can laughter topple dictators? Comedy can be visionary, and those who do it wordsmiths and pioneers in my opinion, from Stan and Ollie to Jacques Tati and Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson and Victoria Wood.  Cruelty makes for easy comedy, but it’s the humanity in it that is most memorable.

All these factors shape me; how I see the world, how I step forward to meet it, how I step back to regroup after a blow.   How I phrase what I draw and write in ‘bio auto graphic’.  It was a challenge to tell the story closest to home, but humour helped.

Having worked professionally as an illustrator since graduating from St. Martins School of Art in 1985 – and also as a storyboard artist in TV and film from the early 1990s – by the 2000s I was ready to set out my own ideas instead of interpreting those of others.  It was time to act, in fact, and words as well as pictures would be my tools in doing so.

Having begun to exhibit early work at artists’ book fairs with my partner Mette Ambeck, I produced what I called ‘Issue Zero’ of a strand of editions based on my own life, an idea first suggested to me by a friend, comedy writer/performer Charlie Higson, in a serious moment.

I called the series ‘bio auto graphic’ (lower case, yes) and it was A5 size, produced from A4 artwork of inked pencil line and entirely hand-lettered, without colour. Two staples held an issue together. In this way it was positioned on a through-line from the simplest of medieval chapbooks to – though it was several years before I realised this – what are called ‘zines’ (these being the product of intense enthusiasm and low budgets, cheaply produced and direct in format).  Being the equivalent of a 17th century door-to-door chap book salesman appealed to me. I liked the sheer chance involved in some complete stranger coming up to the table and finding the work.

Stylistically, I adopted some of the conventions of my beloved childhood comic books (speech balloons and frames) but also drew vague influence from concrete poetry and the power of spoken language, overheard conversations, the beat and repetition of joke-telling, verbal double-meanings and the unsettling damp hand of our dreams.  The overall visual approach across the series to date is fluid, responsive to whatever the current theme is, loose enough to try new approaches in composition or format.  Pages lack the confinement of a dense field of ‘panels’, and narrative can be achieved via the creation of a cumulative mood rather than a strictly sequential ‘story’.

Whether in stand-alone issues, or in linked sequences, the editions explore all manner of threads; identity and how it changes; the things that bind and separate us as communities; being fictional or factual; the local and the global.  My mood obviously impacts upon what the reader sees, and the series can be variously angry, bemused, confused, sad, obscure and joyous.  It has certainly helped me chart the blind spots in what I think and who I think I am - and I gladly align it to the notion of the personal as the political.  I am in the process of identifying as myself.

  Mike Nicholson 2

 

Hugely influential practitioners in this diaristic field exist, and my own influences certainly include Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar, Eddie Campbell and Joe Sacco.  Of course, while this list doesn’t reflect it, the notion of strip artwork that draws from life – and zines reflecting it – has also been a strong thread through the recent decades of feminist thought.

The experience continues to satisfy, and there’s genuine anticipation and excitement when I begin to fill in a workbook page, not generally knowing where things will lead. Later the not knowing is replaced by the knowing as things are completed.

Am I merely navel-gazing? Quite possibly, but amidst the increasing velocity of our society I realize I am determined to fight a corner for a quiet reflective voice, away from the bear pit of anti-social media. I don’t have a faith in God, and science can sometimes reflect the hubris of humankind far too easily.

I do meanwhile have a faith in what best expresses our flawed state of being: small actions, gentle kindnesses, connections, hopes and occasional braveries, to which the series bears witness.

We are told what can make us happy every waking moment by the media-sphere – and usually at a price – but I suspect it is a lot simpler than that.

Look in the mirror and ask the person you see: ‘What makes you really happy?’

These editions that I make are zines, episodes in my life, a map, a window and a mirror.

If you said that ‘bio auto graphic’ is about finding what makes us happy, there might be some truth in that.

 

Related sites: Ensixteen Editions blog.

 

Creative Commons License Michael Nicholson 2017