THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

62 posts categorized "Interviews"

24 July 2017

Recording of the week: ‘The BBC are coming on Friday, can we show them a prototype?’

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

To anyone who grew up in the 1980s the Acorn BBC Microcomputer was the computer they used at school, a machine that gave countless Britons their first experience of computing and sold over 1.5 million units. Yet this iconic piece of computer hardware came about almost accidentally. With the world on the verge of a computer revolution in the early 1980s, the BBC were desperately searching the British electronic industry for a computer to accompany a new educational television series about computing. To a small company in Cambridge called Acorn Computers, having the BBC adopt their new computer as the BBC Computer was a deal that could transform the company into a major player. However, as Acorn designer Steve Furber recalls, there was one problem: they didn't actually have a new computer yet, and they had just a week to develop one...

Designing the Acorn BBC Microcomputer (C1379/078)

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This clip is part of Voices of Science, an online resource which uses oral history interviews with prominent British scientists and engineers to tell the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

23 June 2017

Women in the Electricity Supply Industry

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23rd June is International Women in Engineering Day. To mark this we look at the role of women in the electricity supply industry, recently documented by National Life Stories in the project An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK.

In the 1920s and 1930s  the electricity supply industry was thought to offer opportunities for women engineers that were absent in other sectors and some of Britain’s pioneering women engineers including Caroline Haslett, Margaret Partridge and Beatrice Shilling worked in the sector. 

Despite this optimism the electricity supply industry documented in An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK was one that employed few women engineers, even after the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.  Mike Kay, who started his apprenticeship at NORWEB, the regional electricity supplier to north west England in 1978, observed:

Mike Kay on the lack of women engineers in 1970s Britain

Being the first to appoint a woman engineer was something senior managers remembered with pride.  Glyn England recalled doing so during his time at SWEB, the regional supplier for the south west:

Glyn England on the appointment of a woman engineer as a chief officer

So what was it like for these women engineers entering a largely male working environment?  Alison Simpson studied electrical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, secured work experience in a power station and participated in the Scottish Engineering Training Scheme before joining the South of Scotland Electricity Board in 1979 as a trainee in commercial engineering, which involved working with domestic and commercial customers to design and install electrical systems. The lack of women’s toilets at the company’s engineering training facility was an early sign of the discrimination she later faced.

Alison Simpson on sexual discrimination in the workplace

Eventually Alison managed to secure the job as a distribution engineer that she had sought at the outset. This involved working on the high-voltage distribution network and gave her access to a wide range of training courses. These including training in climbing poles and transmission towers that allowed her to appreciate the work of the line staff who kept the system running.

Alison Simpson on climbing electricity poles

Changes to the industry from the later 1980s, especially privatisation and the development of renewable energy sources, challenged its structures, leading to new opportunities for women with a range of expertise.  Lawyer Fiona Woolf developed an understanding of how power systems operated as a legal advisor to the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. This led to an appointment working for National Grid. She and her team wrote hundreds of agreements designed to ensure that a privatised industry really would keep the lights on, learning how to combine market rules with the laws of physics. (Listen to Fiona Woolf's interview on BL Sounds).

Fiona_Woolf_(cropped)Fiona Woolf (2014). Courtesy of  the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

More recently renewable energy companies have provided new opportunities for women, including in leadership positions. Juliet Davenport studied physics and environmental economics before working on energy policy. She worked as commercial director of the UK subsidiary of German energy company Unit(e) and was part of a management buy-out of the firm that later became Good Energy, of which she is currently chief executive. In her interview she suggests that her background in physics was important in establishing her credibility in an industry where some of the existing operators were struggling to adjust to the new ways of doing things that renewable energy represents.

Juliet Davenport on establishing her credibility in the renewable energy industry

Dr Sally Horrocks, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leicester, and Senior Academic Advisor to the National Life Stories's project, An Oral History of British Science.

20 June 2017

A conversation: celebrating the donation of the Hay Festival archive

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To celebrate their anniversary the Hay Festival, led by Director Peter Florence, has generously donated the archive of some 5000 audio recordings, 2000 video recordings, and many folders of correspondence. Here, Head of Contemporary British Collections Richard Price reflects on the Festival and its archive.

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Thirty years ago, the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts began life as a conversation round a kitchen table. Actors Norman Florence and Rhoda Lewis were talking with their 23-year old son, Peter Florence, about the possibilities of live literature, of the extra life books can have when their authors are discussing them with a live audience. Was there room in the literary calendar for a new literature festival? They thought probably yes, and they thought right: thirty years later, from its modest beginnings in improvised spaces in the Welsh borders town of Hay-on-Wye, the Hay Festival is now one of the largest literary festivals in the UK.

You can go too far with the word ‘conversation’ – it has become a cliché of cultural criticism that a book is ‘in conversation’ with another earlier book, this painting ‘in dialogue’ with another. And is a reader really ‘in conversation’ with the book they are reading? -- this to my mind just slightly misrenders that mysterious relationship between a reader and literature.  Even interactive apps can’t really have a dialogue with their users, and a traditional book can’t really, either.  But that is one of the glories of a reader’s relationship with a book: the conversation is all in the reader’s head. One of the joys of reading is the peaceful stimulation of internal ‘voices’ which reading entails.

A festival is more clearly a two-way conversation -- or a series of ones . It is a gathering to share word and thought and enthusiasm, and to pass all that literate energy on, to learn through interchange (yes, authors do learn from their audiences – it’s not a one-way transaction); to inspire.  A festival is one of the few places where author and audience can actually meet and talk about the ideas a writer has dwelt with for many years, labouring to create their book. Members of the public will relish that opportunity (and the opportunity to meet other readers) but for many writers it is also a time when they can step out of their normal solitude and see at first hand the effect their writing has had on other people.

Over the years, the Festival has played host to almost every UK writer or public intellectual with a significant public profile. Writers featured in the archive are far too numerous to name but include Maya Angelou, Orhan Pamuk, Hanif Kureishi, Will Self, Karl Ove Knausgård, Dave Eggers, Ben Okri, George Szirtes, Germaine Greer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Carlos Fuentes, Laurent Binet, Ruth Rendell, Arnold Wesker, Margaret Atwood, Susan Sontag, Paul Muldoon, Doris Lessing, Edna O'Brien, Jackie Collins … and the list goes on.  Artists and musicians include Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Brian Eno, Billy Bragg, Grayson Perry, and Gilbert & George.

The Library holds many discrete collections of audio recordings of public and literary talks. These include talks recorded at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), the writers' organization PEN International, and the Royal Society of Literature. The Hay Festival collection, however, greatly exceeds in scale all of these collections put together.

Clearly, Hay is a major player in the literary part of the creative economy. Although the archive is bound to be used for the light it sheds on individual authors – and hundreds of authors have appeared at Hay - it is also likely to be a source for understanding how festivals can generate success and sales.

Researchers at the British Library will find the Hay archive a rich source in that regard, and they will also be able to use our other resources alongside the archive to get a fuller understanding of literary production. Fiction or poetry captured in a book has already been through all kinds of dialogue before it reaches the printed page. The writer’s real-life conversations with friends, family, other writers, his or her editor, mentors, school days teachers, new teachers, colleagues and even strangers past and present, all will have affected the production of a short story or a novel or a poem.

The Library’s Author’s Lives oral history programme (in partnership with National Life Stories) tries to capture the hidden life of the writer and their work. We interview acclaimed writers at length – the interviews take place over several days – taking them back through their lives in a way that can sharply elucidate the work they would later produce. In our contemporary manuscripts collections we acquire authors’ notebooks, diaries and letters to, again, build a richer picture of the writer and their world.

And then finally there it is: the finished published work, going out multiply to readers of all kinds. Our Legal Deposit collection of UK and Irish books, in which a copy of almost everything published in these territories is held at the British Library, helps preserve the immense creativity of these islands as represented in those literary traditions.

The Hay Festival archive will complement these collections by focussing on the continuing life of the book after its physical entity – Hay is about readings of the work itself and discussions of the feelings and ideas literature and other works conjure. The Hay archive bears witness to authors who have shaped the literary landscape of recent times – Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, James Kelman, and Beryl Bainbridge, to name just a few. Politics and science are also part of the Hay worldview, and so Jimmy Carter, Mary Warnock, Germaine Greer and Mo Mowlam are there – all figures who in their various ways are fundamental to an understanding of modern times, and, no doubt, to the continuing conversations of future generations.

02 May 2017

Blair's Babes

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Twenty years ago, Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in a landslide general election for the Labour Party. Among the new government’s Members of Parliament were 101 women. A photograph taken on 2 May 1997 of 96 of the new Labour women MPs with Blair publicised the new cohort, but the image and the associated term 'Blair's Babes' were attacked as having a demeaning, sexist tone.

Mo Mowlam on Blair's Babes

In this extract from an interview Mo Mowlam (1949-2005) remembers inadvertently coining the phrase. Mowlam was not proud of the image, but she justified it by pointing out that it helped convey the message that such large numbers of women MPs had been elected, to a public largely unaware of what happens on Parliament. In any case, she comments, ‘A lot is demeaning in politics.’

Full transcription:

I have the unfortunate notoriety of having worked out Blair Babes, because somebody said something, and I said “Well, Blair Babes, that’s what we are”, which I don’t—I’m not proud of, and it’s been used against us. But I think we needed to do that. I think we needed to do other things to show that we were there in such large numbers, because you very rarely understand how little the public know about Parliament, how little they know about their MP, how little they know about what’s going on, and I think it’s very important to get whatever method you can to get that message across, and I think that was a good one.

I mean, some people felt it was sort of kind of demeaning.

A lot is demeaning in politics. You often get used, you write something, it gets rewritten; that’s demeaning. I think there are many more demeaning things than that picture. I can see that we were being herded together like animals, but it was for a function, for a purpose, to get a message across that women had arrived, and I think that was an important message.

Did you think then that big influx did actually change the atmosphere at all?

It did a little. I didn’t think it would, but I remember when I went in once and there were men talking to all the women, which wasn’t always the case, and I suddenly realised there was an election coming up and jobs in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and women had votes, and so they were being talked to in a way I hadn’t them seen before, and men took women’s issues into account.

This interview (C1182/64) was interviewed by Linda Fairbrother in July 2004 for the Harman-Shephard collection of interviews with women Members of Parliament. The Producer was Boni Sones. Find out more in our oral histories of politics and government collections guide. Follow @soundarchive for all the latest news.

12 April 2017

By preserving our sound heritage now, in the future we can recreate the past

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Sound recordings freeze moments in time: music or theatrical performances, the words spoken by the famous or in everyday speech, or the sounds of our environment. When played back, they allow us to understand, to experience, to be immersed in - to relive - those moments.

Yet preserving sound recordings and making them accessible is a huge challenge, not least because sound recordings can rapidly decay and as technology marches forward, formats quickly become unplayable.

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Many thousands of archived magnetic tapes urgently need digitising

The British Library’s Save Our Sounds programme received a tremendous boost when in 2015 a £9.5 million grant was earmarked by the National Lottery. After months of preparation and assessment, prioritising the most significant at-risk sounds collections around the UK and building a network of 10 collaborating institutions, our ambitious project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is launched today.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage builds on the generous support of other donors and funders, meaning that the total project funding of £18.8 million is now in place. The funding enables the formation of the first ever UK-wide network of ten sound preservation centres. This network will now come together with the British Library to save almost half a million rare and unique recordings.

The funding allows the British Library to lead this major preservation and access project, sharing skills and supporting the ten centres across the UK in order to preserve their own unique and rare regional sounds and make them more accessible to the public.

The Library and its ten partners will invest in a schedule of public engagement activities, including well-being workshops, learning events for families, and tours, events and exhibitions. A vital element of the project will be a new website for listeners to explore a wide selection of recordings. This website is scheduled to go live in 2019.

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Cleaning a shellac disc before digitisation in the British Library’s sound studios

Dr Sue Davies, Project Manager at the British Library commented:

“This project has been a long time in development and, over the last 18 months, we have laid good foundations for the next five years. I am excited to be part of this HLF funded project which will make a huge difference to the care of and use of audio archives across the UK. I am particularly looking forward to working with the ten institutional partners, sharing our skills and making it easier for a wide range of people to engage with recorded sound.”

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, Headley Trust, the British Library Trust and the American Trust for the British Library and other kind donors.

The ten centres that will soon begin work on preserving their regional sounds are: National Museums Northern Ireland, Archives + with Manchester City Council, Norfolk Record Office, National Library of Scotland, University of Leicester, The Keep in Brighton with the University of Sussex, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, National Library of Wales, London Metropolitan Archives, and Bristol Culture.

Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision

More information: 
Save our Sounds
Unlocking our Sound Heritage press release 12/04/17
£9.5m boost from Heritage Lottery Fund for our Save our Sounds campaign
Save our Sounds: 15 years to save the UK’s sound collections

27 March 2017

Recording of the week: Silversmithing - 2D to 3D

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This week's selection comes from Liz Wright, National Life Stories Project Interviewer.

Rod Kelly is a silversmith who specialises in the technique of chasing to create low relief decoration on the surface of silver vessels, which he often raises (hammers from sheet metal) himself. Rod depicts images from nature with a fluidity of line that seems effortless, but the process of decorating a three-dimensional object, based on a two-dimensional design, can be painstaking. In this clip, he describes the nerve-wracking process of composing a design on a silver form.

Rod Kelly_the nerve-wracking art of silversmithing

BK-1988-5Silver vase, Philippe Wolfers c.1895 (Rijksmuseum) 

Visit Crafts on British Library Sounds to hear more from British artisans working with studio crafts such as pottery, metalwork, jewellery  and book arts.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

07 March 2017

Michael Tippett: In the composer’s own voice

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Guest blog by Thomas Schuttenhelm, current Edison Fellow and author of  The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett, (Faber) a contributing author for the Tippett Cambridge Companion and monograph, also for Cambridge University Press, on The Orchestral Music of Michael Tippett: Creative Development and the Compositional Process. His book Vision and Revision: Michael Tippett’s Fifth String Quartet will be published by Ashgate-Routledge in 2017.

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Tippett at work (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) was an English composer for whom the act of creating music was a constant obsession. His fierce commitment to composition resulted in works that were original in design and devastating in their expression. Each work by Tippett originated as a singular vision and resulted in a singular achievement and the consistency of his creative process allowed him to fashion artifacts of shocking originality. His oeuvre is comprised of works that are remarkably diverse especially when we consider that they were the product of just one composer. What is truly remarkable is that his compositional process remained so consistent throughout his many changeable creative phases.

Tippett was educated at the Royal College of Music and served as Director of Music at Morley College, London. In addition to his creative interests he was also active in broadcasting and television and his talks on music and musicians brought him widespread attention. Many of these have been preserved at the British Library Sound Archive and these will serve as a fascinating exploration into a hitherto unknown side of this dynamic creative artist. By referencing these remarks we are transported back into the historical moment and return to the most authentic source on Tippett’s music: the composer’s own voice.

Michael Tippett lived deep in the English countryside and his creative obsessions required him to live alone. This was both a choice and a necessity but this created a classic conflict between his social-emotional side and his creative side, and it left a deep ‘wound’ on his psyche as he told Dr. Antony Clare during a 1987 session In the Psychiatrists Chair.

1 Clare 23041987

In his interview with Dr. Antony Clare, Tippett continued: ‘The wound is something absolutely autonomous, something of its own …but the price, well, I was always willing to pay the price.’ Those most closely associated with the composer were well aware of his compulsion but some were unable to submit to the severity of his devotion to the creative act. Regarding his relationship with Francesca Allinson he remarked:

2 Clare 23041987

Allinson eventually committed suicide, and in the same interview Tippett admitted:  ‘Another man whom I loved and lived with at times also committed suicide [Karl Hawker]. I may, perhaps, attract people, I don’t know.’

Similar to the poetry of William Blake and William Butler Yeats, Tippett’s music was created from a self-constructed mythology. It is, at times, eccentric, but it is never without a guiding narrative or an internal logic. Tippett created characters of fantastical proportions to render these narratives through intricate operatic plotlines and in his concert music he invented such unique timbres for his themes that they required a realignment of the planes of musical abstraction. These attributes often confounded the public and he was occasionally the target of sharp criticisms, but his singular devotion to the creative impulse allowed him to persevere, and with each successive work his creative identity became stronger and his music became more strikingly original.

Tippett spent a considerable amount of time contemplating the details of his compositions and the essence of his originality lay in the conceptual dimensions that were so uniquely conceived for each individual work. Multiplicities abound in his music but they always remain in the service of a strong integrated vision for the particular composition.  

Tippett’s solitary existence allowed him the contemplative atmosphere in which to envision some radical music but he firmly declared that he needed, always, to maintain a strong contact with the world in which he was a part. His compositional process would transform his experiences into the materials he required for his music. Tippett’s imagination was luminous and it radiated outward, through the splendor of Augustinian windows, onto panoramic vistas that resounded with otherworldly music.  He explained to John Warrack on Musical Influences broadcast on 21 May 1969. 

3 Warrack 21051969

Inspiration for specific works often came from some outside source but his creative impulse was internal and his allegiance to it was unwavering. This process was often a mysterious one, even to the composer but he had an implicit trust in his powers of invention to guide his ear towards the sounds that gave the strongest resonance to his fertile imagination.

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Tippett in later years by Jane Bown (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Throughout Tippett’s long life he witnessed many shifts in style but he was unaffected by these changes and remained committed to creating his own original music.  Here he talks to Natalie Wheen in one of his last broadcast interviews from 1995.

5 Wheen 021995

Tippett had an exceptional ability to capture the ethos of his time and he used this ability to create music where the hideous—‘mans inhumanity toward man’—and strongest visions of affirmation were placed into the strangest combinations. In the aura of its release, where chaos and brought into a convincing but temporary reconciliation, we are reminded how essential Tippett was to shaping the soundscape of contemporary music.

The Edison Fellowships are funded by the Saga Trust.  Three of the extracts come from recordings in the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) which was digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

Follow all the latest Classical news on Twitter @BL_Classical

31 January 2017

When politics meets science: Tam Dalyell, Labour MP (1932-2017)

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The many tributes to Tam Dalyell, who died last Thursday, paid little attention to his unswerving interest in scientific affairs throughout a 43-year career as an MP.

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Tam Dalvell, Labour MP (1932-2017), courtesy of Douglas Robertson and the University of Edinburgh

Dalyell read history and economics at Cambridge in the 1950s, yet acknowledged in his 2012 interview for the History of Parliament oral history project “it’s important that there were particularly others from the sciences that I got to know very well”.

While at university he was friends with Ron Peierls, son of nuclear physicist Sir Rudolf Peierls, and attended lectures given by physicists Sir James Chadwick and Otto Frisch.

Dalyell on attending lectures given by Otto Frisch (British Library Reference: C1503/38)

Dalyell knew many world-famous scientists through his friendship with David Schoenberg, head of the Mond Laboratory in Cambridge. In 1964 he was the only MP on a high-level science/political delegation to the Soviet Union, witnessing how personal relationships within the international science community could transcend Cold War politics.

However it was through writing a weekly column for New Scientist for 37 years that Dalyell “provided a conduit for researchers to speak to Parliament and vice versa”.

Dalyell’s support for the public understanding of science demonstrates that parliamentarians who are actively involved in debates about science do not necessarily come to Westminster with a scientific background, as interviews with other former MPs confirm.

Patrick Jenkin (MP for Wanstead and Woodford, 1964-1987), who died in December 2016, spoke about having never been taught science at school, yet he became president of both the Foundation for Science and Technology and the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. He was chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee during its 2000 inquiry into Science and Society.

David Price (MP for Eastleigh, 1955-92) read history at university but in Parliament became a vigorous campaigner for British industry and space research.

David Price on his involvement in space research (British Library Reference: C1503/19)

The interviews also reveal that MPs with a technical or scientific background were not always comfortable adopting a visible position on science. “I really didn’t feel sufficiently technically qualified in order to become, as it were, a technical guru in Parliament, so in the end I concentrated on foreign affairs,” said Ben Ford (MP for Bradford North, 1964-83), despite a thorough knowledge of aviation electronics and experience of lecturing on productivity at INSEAD and the University of Cambridge.

From accounts such as these, it seems that there was little correlation between these MPs’ scientific credentials and an inclination to be actively involved in Westminster’s consideration of science.

The interview clips featured in this blog are sourced from the ongoing  History of Parliament Oral History Project (deposited at the British Library). For further interviews in this collection, search 'C1503' in the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. Further oral history interviews relating to Science and British Scientist can be found via the Sound and Moving Image, online via BL Sounds and the Voices of Science webpage, the website of the Oral History of British Science programme, led by National Life Stories in association with the Science Museum, and with support from the Arcadia Fund.

Emmeline Ledgerwood, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, University of Leicester and The British Library