26 July 2023
Lesley Finn is a writer and artist based in New Haven, Connecticut, and was a 2022 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
A library is an excellent place to connect with the dead. After all, many of its books, papers, and artifacts were made by those no longer living. But what about really connecting with the dead?
I came to the British Library to research Spiritualism, a religious movement with the core precept that the soul survives physical death, and that the living can communicate with the spirit world those souls inhabit. As a writer working on ghost stories and a visual artist working with text and book arts, I was fascinated by the drama of Spiritualism’s séances, the concepts explored by the movement, and the possibilities of visually interpreting its archival material. Much of what I write and make is concerned with how relationships endure barriers of material, time, and distance, and Spiritualism offers a unique way to think through this concern.
One distance that Spiritualism bridged was the Atlantic Ocean. Though the religion originated in the United States in the 1840s, it came to Great Britain soon after, and many of the movement’s notable practitioners crossed back and forth on visits. Transatlantic exchange shaped this spirituality—one that has been marginalised in the historical imagination as occult and other, though it was a popular religion for nearly a century, replete with churches and published hymnals.
At the same time that households across the US and Britain were establishing practices to communicate with the dead, the technology of the telegraph, another practice of communicating across space and time, spread in usage. The telegraph, a mechanism that relied on magnetic fields and electricity to transmit words from one person to another, had much conceptual overlap with the séance, which communicated disincarnate messages from the dead through the magnetic field and electricity of the human body, specifically that of a spiritual medium. This parallel was embraced by Spiritualists of the time, who called the séance a spiritual telegraph, and titled a periodical that circulated in the US in the 1850s with the same name.
The majority of Spiritualism’s history in the US and Britain takes paper form: in addition to periodicals like The Spiritual Telegraph, there are books published by The Spiritualist Press and other houses, along with photographed and written documentation of séances by groups like The Ghost Club (British Library Add MS 52258-52273) or by investigators (more on that later). The British Library contains a noteworthy addition to this history: the Dan Zerdin archive, which contains a rare 1934 recording of what was at the time considered the world’s largest séance. The Zerdin recording offers a first-hand, unfiltered experience of the historical Spiritualist movement.
With support from the Eccles Centre, I launched a project to study the archive and transcribe the recorded spirit messages from the séance into another form: telegrams. My idea was to take this documentation from an understudied religious movement and creatively reimagine it, with the goal of disrupting fixed narratives of “archives we are inclined to overlook,” to quote historian Tina Campt. Dominant culture is quick to dismiss the veracity of these spiritual communications, but what happens when we see them in a material form accepted by dominant culture? Perhaps changing the material encounter with an archive can shift our thinking and cultivate space for alternative accounts of experience.
I came to the work not knowing what I would find, expecting to be a bit disturbed. After all, years of watching horror films had taught me to be afraid of voices from the beyond. But what I found was a recording that documented a gathering of people working toward the common end of love, understanding, and community. Joyful messages rise above the static of the record. Fight the good fight. You’ll have all the help you want. Bless you. The 564 people in the London audience laugh and gasp, as do the 36 people participating in the séance on Aeolian Hall’s stage. At one point unexplainable piano chords drift through the recording; the sound is soothing, not haunting.
If contemporary attitudes towards séances and mediums are shaped by fear and othering, the same is true of past attitudes. The shadow of skepticism looms large in the history of Spiritualism, and I glimpsed it often in my research. In the catalogue listing of the Zerdin archive, for example, spirit voices are noted with the grammatical equivalent of a raised eyebrow, the scare quote. In contrast, the Zerdin archive includes a document that lists the people in spirit who communicated through the medium as attendees alongside the living, no distinction whatsoever.
I wonder about these subtle frames of doubt, how they shape our encounter with the archive. I repeatedly saw scare quotes in my research into other mediums, especially with the American medium who went by the name of Margery. In the decade before the Aeolian Hall séance, Margery visited London and became the subject of an extensive investigation by the Society for Psychical Research. Malcolm Bird, an American parapsychologist, authored a portion of the investigation’s outcomes, including the book “Margery”. Seeing her name on the cover and title page in quotation marks—regardless of how Bird or the publishers intended to use them—primes the reader to approach the material through the lens of doubt.
It's hard not to see the skepticism of Spiritualist experience as tethered to gender. Male mediums existed but women were the majority. Male mediums were investigated, but the archives are not filled with that documentation; instead we have accounts of vaginal searches that preceded Margery’s sittings, of photos of her in various restraints that would test her validity. Let’s not forget this was a religion, a belief system. Imagine an archive documenting Catholic mass, the priests required to prove transubstantiation as empirical, scientific fact!
The desire for proof is understandable, but can be limiting and misguiding, especially in the case of connecting with the dead. By rejecting an aim to falsify Spiritualist practices, we might create room for observation and insight that opens rather than shuts down possibility. British Library holding C1080/21 offers a practical tip.1 Here the medium of the Aeolian Hall séance, Florence Perriman, is asked to describe what it felt like to channel spirit voices. Her reply: “It’s a peculiar sensation at the back of my neck. It seemed to come both from the back of my neck and from the throat—can you imagine a tooth being drawn? Well, it’s just as though something was being drawn out of the back of my neck.” Being alive to sensation, to the peculiar, to our own processes of drawing out—Perriman’s note on communing with the dead sounds like research advice to live by.
Interview with Florence Perriman. 1934?. British Library, Sound and Moving Image shelfmark: C1080/21.
07 February 2023
Cassie Quarless is a filmmaker was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
As a documentary director, a large part of my job is mining my mind and my experiences for subjects that I am excited about and that I want to share with others. One such subject is the connection and exchange that exists between the music and musical cultures of the Caribbean, United States, United Kingdom and West Africa. During my time at the British Library I sought to research this further.
I was really struck by the British Library's collection and its wealth of Black British music, which spans a wide range of genres and styles, from early blues and jazz to contemporary grime and hip hop. The collection holds a wealth of resources for researchers, including sheet music, recordings, and concert programmes, as well as a range of scholarly publications and academic works on the subject.
One of the main issues that I had at the British Library - coming from the film/moving image space and having had a background as a DJ - was that I really wanted to be able to riffle through the Library’s collections like one would in a friend’s home or in a record store. After having spoken to and met with various incredibly knowledgeable members of the British Library staff, I ultimately got the hang of the different systems that the Library uses to catalogue its extensive collections and was able to navigate them in a more natural way.
One particular non-recorded music gem for me was the unpublished collection of correspondences by Andrew Salkey, a Caribbean-born writer and publisher who played a crucial role in promoting Black art and literature in Britain during the 1960s and 70s. These letters offer a unique perspective on the experiences and thoughts of one of the leading figures in the Black arts movement, and provide valuable insights into the cultural, political, and artistic context of the time.
I was particularly struck by Andrew Salkey’s correspondences with the Jamaican poet and academic Kamau Braithwaite and what they suggested about the expressed sharing of knowledge and thoughts about art (whether they be visual, literary or musical). Much of the correspondence that I read was dated from the mid-60s and onward into the 70s.
Both sides of my family are from the Caribbean (Grenada to be precise) and I was always regaled with stories of family ties and friendships that were lost through migration to the United Kingdom, other Caribbean islands or to Latin America. It had basically become a foregone conclusion for me that within the context of the Caribbean and its diaspora, the distance of the sea meant the death or at least serious atrophy of social connections during the 60s and 70s. When it came to music, it was felt that records from the Caribbean came to these shores with much of their context and intellectual intention removed - after all, only the most successful acts actually got to travel to the UK to perform and to spread their messages.
What Salkey’s correspondence with Braithwaite underscored was how much conversation was happening between interested parties across the Atlantic. People were not only exchanging art critique but also referring to their cross-nationally intermingled lives and social connections.
I am sad that my time as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library will end before the launch of its landmark exhibition centred on Black British music presented in collaboration with the University of Westminster. I was, however, definitely impressed by the British Library's collection and the breadth of materials that it contained. The collection not only documents the music itself, but also the broader cultural and social context in which it was created. This includes a range of materials that shed light on the experiences of Black musicians in Britain, including recordings of live performances, interviews with musicians and industry professionals, and articles and essays on the subject.
As a filmmaker and as a fan of music, my time at the British Library has definitely given me some new and valuable insights, but more importantly it has gotten me thinking even more deeply about the connections that I was looking to elucidate. I will be back here often as my project progresses.
19 May 2022
Diederik Oostdijk is Professor of English and American Literature at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
The British Library is an excellent place to do cross-media research. During my research stint, I intended to study the working relationship between poets and visual artists, especially Ted Hughes (1930-1998) and Leonard Baskin (1922-2000). As a consequence, I spent most of my time in the Manuscripts Reading Room where papers of both are held. In addition to finding many relevant letters and manuscript drafts that reveal how the English poet and American artist collaborated, I found plenty of doodles and drawings that showed the genesis of several books on which the two worked together. The detailed finding aids on the British Library website often describe these, but they cannot do justice to the experience of seeing this visual material in person. In order to take photographs or have scans made, it is necessary to acquire permission from the copyright holders, so it is advisable to seek this before making the trip to the British Library. It is much more of an ordeal to do that after visiting.
The British Library’s holdings of fine press materials was equally relevant for my research, but to check these out I needed to go one floor down, to the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.1 Hughes and Baskin collaborated on many books that were published by their own publishers, Eremite Press and Gehenna Press, respectively. The leather bindings containing the richly illustrated books printed on handmade paper are sights to behold. Some of the fine presses were short lived and have remained obscure, but they often presented young authors with their first opportunity to publish, or gave established writers the chance to try out new approaches for their work. It allowed Hughes, for instance, to express his grief about Assia Wevill and Sylvia Plath in poems hidden in limited and sumptuously designed editions, years before this became public knowledge with his more public Birthday Letters, which he issued through a commercial publisher.
In a different corner of the same reading room, I listened to many interviews with poets, painters and photographers. These recordings are not accessible from outside the British Library, but through a few desktop computers of the Rare Books & Music Reading Room. They include radio recordings, footage made at and by the British Library, and assorted other tapes that were digitized. I was able to listen to dozens of digitized cassette tapes that Ian Hamilton recorded for his biography of the American poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977). He only used a tiny fraction of these interviews for his book. This raw material will undoubtedly give researchers new leads, insights, and ideas, as Hamilton could obviously not pursue all angles, and there are always unexpected pronouncements in these interviews that are waiting to be explored further. Not all links that I clicked on worked, but the reference staff encouraged me to fill out forms when that occurred, so that they could help repair the broken links.
The physical papers of the Ian Hamilton collection are still largely unprocessed, and so not readily accessible. Yet the curators are interested in making portions of them available if scholars can specify what exactly they are looking for. I was lucky to be able to peruse some transcripts of interviews and some correspondence from that collection that are not yet detailed in finding aids, but that I can now use for my research. The joy of searching through boxes and folders of unsorted material is the distinct pleasure of being like a kid in a candy store. Every time you open a folder or box you don’t know what it will contain, and I discovered nuggets that I know will become part of articles or essays that I will write down the line. I was allowed to look at these unsorted papers in the Maps Reading Room, yet another reading room that I could add to my tally at the British Library.
My favorite research experience was looking at Fay Godwin’s contact sheets and photographs in the Visual Arts Reading Room. Tucked away in the much larger Asian and African one, this tiny reading room is only open from 10.30am to 12.30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you need to make an appointment before going there. Godwin (1931-2005) was an English photographer who collaborated with Hughes on a book, Remains of Elmet, about the area of Yorkshire where Hughes grew up. Godwin, however, also took photographs of many poets and writers, including of Lowell. The contact sheets and developed prints held in the Visual Arts Reading Room allow one to retrace the photographer’s steps. The sequence of shots helps you to see how she conceived of several images, and decided which one to single out to develop as a photograph. Godwin clearly wanted to showcase chess pieces in her photograph of Robert Lowell, for instance, when she visited him and his wife Caroline Blackwood at Milgate House in Kent in 1971. He stares intently and bemused into her camera, and as viewers we are interested in observing the next move in his life, and also Godwin’s next move as photographer.
The limited access time and spacing in the Visual Arts Reading Room made me value the opportunity and experience of viewing this unique visual material even more. Like visiting the other reading rooms, it deepened my interest into how poets and visual artists collaborated together. To make the most of your research time at the British Library, it is surely important to plan ahead, but also to allow for chance to occur. Allow some time to wander around, and to inspect some of the other reading rooms that you were not intending to visit. You never know what you will find.
1. A guide to the British Library's post-1945 US fine press holdings may be found here (fourth item down).
10 November 2021
Music and migration, environments and spiritualties – introducing the new Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship programme
This week the Eccles Centre is relaunching its Fellowship programme, which has been running in various versions and iterations since 2007. The programme has expanded considerably since its inception. First, the Centre’s geographical remit has expanded over the thirty years since it started, spreading from the USA to include Canada, then the Caribbean and now Central and South America. Second, we have attempted to embrace a more capacious notion of who a researcher is, what they do and what they make with their research. These changes reflect, we hope, both the rapidly changing landscape of higher education (including increasing precarity in the sector) and to acknowledge that meaningful reading, listening and thinking about the Americas can take place within and beyond academic institutions. Because the geographical scope and eligibility criteria have expanded, for this next round of Fellowships we wanted to offer some shape and coherence to the programme by introducing four research themes that applicants are invited to apply to. This new structure aims to bring researchers working across scholarly and creative disciplines into fruitful conversation with one another, building a cohort of Eccles-supported research coalescing around some of the most pressing questions in Americas studies.
But what are these four themes and how did we come up with them? For the past few months we've been asking far and wide, canvassing opinion from colleagues throughout the Library and having a series of conversations with Eccles Centre networks across academia and the creative industries. As a result of this process we have landed on four topics which we hope will encourage use of often underused but rich British Library collections, and which are exciting areas of current social and cultural enquiry.
Although none of the themes specifically invite explorations of ethnicity and race, gender, sex and sexuality, or dis/abilities in Americas studies, we consider such perspectives to be foundational approaches to the study of the Americas and anticipate that they will be a central focus of many Fellowship projects. We look forward to receiving applications that explore the experiences and identities of the Americas in all their diversity and complexity.
Below are the four themes for the Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowships, 2022-24.
Sound and Music of the Americas
This theme centres on sound and music as both subjects and sources in studying the Americas. In particular, we encourage use of the sound archive and the collections of printed and manuscript music. The Library’s music collections are among the finest in the world, and have many resources for the study of the Americas. Recent or ongoing Eccles-supported projects include musical performance in eighteenth-century Jamaica, the folk songs of Henry Clay Work, and the politics of nineteenth century US sheet music.
The sound archive is also an untapped trove for studying the Americas. Home to over 6.5 million recordings including speech, music, and wildlife and the environment recordings, there is still much to be discovered about the Americas through this material. Current or ongoing Eccles-supported projects include the creole music recordings of Jamaican ethnomusicologist M G Smith, and recordings of James Baldwin from British broadcasters and cultural organisations. As mentioned above, this theme encourages investigations into the sonic and musical aspects of the cultures of the Americas, and methodological innovations that use sound and music.
Americans Beyond the Americas
This theme seeks to flip the script on prevailing narratives which define the Americas by inbound migration – of invading armies, of free settlers, of bonded and enslaved workers. Not only can such narratives end up erasing the vitality of Indigenous presences before, during and after such waves of migration, but they can also encourage insular perspectives on the Americas which ignore the significance of Americans’ movement and action in the world (we use the word ‘Americans’ very much in the hemispheric sense here!). This theme invites researchers to consider how various American experiences and identities have been forged through military and colonial enterprise, travel and tourism, emigration and exile, to lands beyond the Americas.
The Eccles Centre has supported a number of projects in this vein over the past few years including the experience of Native American and First Nations travellers to England during the eighteenth century; Black American loyalists and the settlement of Sierra Leone; African American abolitionist activism in the British Isles during the nineteenth century; the making of Caribbean community and identity in Britain during the twentieth century; and Latin American political exiles in London. These are just a few of the ways this theme could be approached and supported by the British Library’s collections, and we would be very excited to hear from researchers working on similar projects.
This theme seeks to support researchers exploring the role of the environment and the natural world in the making of the Americas, and their futures. Environmental humanities has been one of the most dynamic intellectual fields to emerge over the past generation, and we are excited to support researchers asking new questions of the British Library’s collections from an eco-perspective . The Centre has recently supported researchers investigating ecological change in eighteenth-century Barbuda; the colonial origins of climate change in Canada through King George III’s topographical drawings; and an artist exploring the relationships between pigments and dyes and Jamaican identity. We also very much welcome projects that will apply eco-critical methodologies and insights to the Library’s literary print and manuscript collections, and which use collections such as the Library’s newspaper and government document collections to trace the development of environmental thought and policies in the Americas.
As well as artists, creatives and academics working with environmental humanities and associated perspectives, the Eccles Centre is keen to support social scientists, policy makers and natural scientists who feel they could productively develop their work on the Americas through a month at the British Library. As well as the historic collections for which the British Library is famous, the Library’s social science and science collections offer world-class resources to complement researchers’ field work or lab work, and we’d be excited to support that library work by anyone working on the environment in the Americas.
Religion and Spirituality in the Americas
The British Library has an outstanding collection of sacred texts and objects which bear witness to religious encounters and experiences in the Americas. Many of these items - the Library’s collections of Bibles and Psalters in Indigenous American languages, for instance - are not only of historic importance but are also highly contested items. This theme invites researchers to interrogate the British Library’s collections and ask often difficult questions about the role of religion and spirituality in the making of the Americas. The Centre has supported a number of projects in American religious studies, including studies of enslaved Africans’ spirituality in North America; Muslim identity and the Nation of Islam in twentieth-century Jamaica; and Indigenous spirituality at the Guyana-Venezuela borderlands.
Religion in the Americas is of course not only a question of historic significance, but remains an issue of ongoing social, cultural and political concern. We are therefore also keen to hear from researchers interrogating recent and future religious trends in the development of the Americas, including (but of course not limited to) such issues as the rise of white evangelicalism in the USA and Latin America; religion and Indigenous activism; or the character of American secularisms and atheisms.
Finally, for those whose projects fall outside the scope of these four themes, don’t worry – you can still apply to fifth strand of the programme, an ‘open call’ for any project that demands the unique research materials or context of the British Library. But we particularly encourage potential Fellows to apply to one of the four themes, as Fellows will be appointed in equal number to each of the five strands.
20 May 2021
This is the fourth in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.
*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***
This blog is about Sandra Agard, a storyteller and author who is currently based at the British Library. Sandra’s parents travelled from Guyana (British Guiana at the time) in the early 1950s and infused their London home with the flavours of Guyana. A life-long Hackney resident, this blog focuses on memories of her parents’ cooking and trips to Ridley Road market but you will soon be able to listen to her full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.
‘Delicious, magical, sumptuous … it’s about stories, journey, tradition … a melting pot of so many influences coming together to make the Caribbean, and that’s what Caribbean food is, it’s history, it’s us, it’s me’
Capturing the magic of Caribbean food, Sandra connects her own life to that of her parents, and the wider history of Guyana and the Caribbean, through recollections of freshly baked bread, chow mein and Guinness punch with hot milk. Dishes like chow mein speak to what Sandra calls Guyana’s ‘melting pot’ history. Those fried noodles stretch back to the period of indentureship, when Chinese labourers transported ingredients, tastes and cooking techniques, as they arrived on ships from Hong Kong, to supplement labour shortages following the abolition of slavery.1
Sandra’s sumptuous memories of delicious and comforting meals speak to nourishment as a form of community building. Throughout the interview, Sandra spoke tenderly about her parents, Evelyn and Cecil Agard. She thanks them for instilling the family with a strong sense of Caribbean identity. From Cecil’s Black Cake – which he laboriously made at Christmas time – to Evelyn’s curries, duffs and roti, interspersed with parties and trips to Speakers’ Corner, the family was raised on a diet of Guyanese delicacies, culture and politics. Families like the Agards are revealing of a bigger story about food, migration and identity. A storyteller herself, Sandra avows the importance of maintaining stories and legacies because these ‘mothers and fathers, grandparents, they sacrificed too much to become invisible’. Her memories of Ridley Road market are just one part of this legacy, and they echo Hackney’s working-class and multicultural heritage.
‘Ridley Road Market, as a child, it was the boom’
Sandra remembers when Ridley Road Market was so busy that ‘you couldn’t move … it was just chock-a-block’. She would go on Saturday mornings with her mother, Evelyn, who was constantly bumping into friends, stallholders and fellow nurses – you could not go ‘two seconds without meeting somebody and standing up for years and talking and talking’. These memories capture the community spirit of one of London’s oldest markets. Whilst official records of Ridley Road date back to 1926, Freddie Sherrif – who was once the market governor – explains that this date refers to the time when stallholders asked the council to regulate it and that the market long predates this. Recorded for the Millennium Memory Bank, Sherrif traces the history of the market, from his grandfather who fought against Oswald Mosley (founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists, 1932-40) to the changing demographics of the surrounding area in the post-war period.
‘that’s why this market’s survived, basically we’ve got a catchment of customers that come from cultures that are market-based … we realise that and we’re very grateful. Where other markets, great markets within London have failed … Ridley Road’s still thriving because of that one reason … The whole world meets here and there’s never any trouble … no more than you would in Harrods’
Freddie Sherrif interviewed by Matthew Linfoot - Millennium Memory Bank BL Shelfmark C900/05075
Both of these interviews – with Sandra and Sherrif – depict the market as a hub of trade, nourishment and comradeship, with its comparative success and longevity resulting from the rich composition of Hackney’s population.
Markets have existed for millennia, to provide goods and services to the surrounding locality and as a space for farmers and artisans to sell their wares. Commissioned by William the Conqueror, in 1085, the Great Domesday Book (1086) recorded details of 13,418 settlements in England – including 50 market towns. From the 12th century, the number of market towns in England increased rapidly; between 1200 and 1349 thousands of new weekly markets were licensed by the Crown.2 These markets are a part of our national heritage, that speak to the everyday histories of food, trade and of family life. Even as the prevalence of street markets decline (in the UK), they continue to be an important part of daily life for many people and cultures across the world. In fact, ‘The Market’ was one of the topics included in Going to Britain?, a guide for prospective Commonwealth voyagers from the Caribbean. Published by the BBC in 1959, the pamphlet was authored by a combination of Caribbean men who were already living in London (including Samuel Selvon, the Trinidadian novelist), political figures and civil servants. It covered several topics, such as the journey, housing and work, in a sometimes humorous but generally stern and condescending tone.
A.G. Bennett’s section on shopping warned future settlers that ‘Fruit dealers hate buyers handling and squeezing things on display.’ This reminds me of Sandra’s anecdote about nurses shopping for provisions – ‘plantains, sweet potatoes and yams’ – on Ridley Road after they had come off the night shift. When the shopkeeper told the nurses off for touching the produce, Sandra thought ‘how dare he?!’ These feelings of anger prompted her to tell ‘him what’s for’ and demand that he show these women, nurses, mothers and customers more respect. These were women that had been recruited by the newly-formed NHS to come to Britain and train as nurses in order to meet the health needs of post-war Britain.3 Sandra remembers that everyone else started to join in, which ‘was just so brilliant’ – it was part of a process of ‘finding their own voice and standing up for themselves’. This is why recording and archiving stories like Sandra’s is so important, because it speaks back to the archive and, in this case, to the politics of assimilation that publications like Going to Britain epitomised.
Nostalgic for the market’s ‘vibrant’ and ‘electric’ feel, Sandra explains that there is now ‘something missing’, which has only been intensified by the global pandemic. Acutely aware of the forces that have intensified the market’s decline, she comments on the fact that Ridley Road is ‘prized land’, as much of Hackney is now. Listing some of Hackney’s diminished or lost markets, like the Waste along Kingsland Road and Roman Road Market, in comparison to thriving Broadway Market, Sandra provides a window onto the fast-changing gentrified landscape of Hackney, through the lifecycle of the market. Much like the Save Ridley Road campaign – for which you will see beautifully painted and printed signs on display in the surrounding area – Sandra proclaims ‘We need our markets’!
Thank you Sandra Agard for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.
Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim
Read the next blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Ranette Prime: food and identity in Britain
Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Charlie Phillips: The Story Behind Smokey Joe's Diner
References / further reading
- 'Great Domesday Book', Anglo-Saxons Collection Items, British Library
- BBC Caribbean Service, Going to Britain? (London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1959) British Library Shelfmark Andrew Salkey Archive Dep 10310. Box 17
- ‘Black and white photos of pre-gentrification Hackney’, Huck, 12 February 2020
- Flamingo, October 1961, British Library Shelfmark P.P.5109.bq.
- Freddie Sherrif interviewed by Matthew Linfoot - Millennium Memory Bank British Library Shelfmark C900/05075
- Future Hackney
- H. Britnell, ‘The Proliferation of Markets in England, 1200-1349’, The Economic History Review, 34 (1981). 209-221
- Linda McDowell, 'How Caribbean migrants helped to rebuild Britain', Windrush Stories, 4 October 2018
- 'Local storytelling collective to stage public exhibition celebrating Ridley Road', Hackney Citizen, 13 October 2020
- William Lobscheid, Chinese Emigration to the West Indies. A trip through British Guiana undertaken for the purpose of ascertaining the condition of the Chinese who have emigrated under Government contract. With supplementary papers relating to contract labor and the slave trade (Demerara: Royal Gazette Office, 1866) British Library Shelfmark Digital Store 8155.ee.9.(6.)
- P. Lee, Chinese Cookery. A hundred practical recipes with decorations by Chiang Yee (London: Faber & Faber, 1943) British Library Shelfmark 7946.df.32.
- Sandra Agard interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
- Save Ridley Road
- William Lobscheid, Chinese Emigration to the West Indies (Demerara: Royal Gazette Office, 1866)
- R. H. Britnell, ‘The Proliferation of Markets in England, 1200-1349’, Economic History Review, 34 (1981). 209-221
- Linda McDowell, 'How Caribbean migrants helped to rebuild Britain', Windrush Stories, 4 October 2018
30 July 2020
This blog by Grzegorz Kosc is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.
The British Library has a truly unique collection of recorded interviews with friends, associates, and spouses of the celebrated American confessional poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977) (the collection can be most effectively searched through the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue, C939/01–53). The interviews were conducted and recorded in 1979 by poet and editor Ian Hamilton in preparation, first, for a BBC2 television programme about Lowell in the Lively Arts series, broadcast in February 1980, and, second, for Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982). The interviewees include, for instance, Frank Bidart, his close friend and assistant who was to become a famous poet himself; his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith; Jonathan Raban, Frank Parker, William Alfred, and Eugene McCarthy. The subjects even include Mrs Dignam, a cleaner in Castletown House where he and his third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, moved shortly before they broke up, and who was the last person to see Lowell before his death. Two interviews Hamilton conducted with Lowell’s two wives, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Blackwood herself, crown the collection.
The interviews have never been published or transcribed for a print publication. It’s unclear how their revelations informed or impacted Hamilton’s final narrative for, when one listens to them, they continue to sparkle with surprises. They can be accessed only by visiting the Library. Though they are fully digitized from original compact cassettes, they can be heard out only from the Library’s computers and therefore are not easily accessible to Lowell scholars usually swarming on the other side of the Atlantic where all the major Lowell archival collections are housed—that is, at the Houghton, Harvard and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. Hamilton’s tapes in London remain largely unexamined. Lowell scholars make a mental note of their existence but few seem to have made the journey. Only the most painstaking of researchers—like Saskia Hamilton, the editor of Lowell’s letters, or Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of his psychobiography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire—got around to listening to them.
The continuing neglect of the recordings by researchers is regrettable because they are rich in more ways than one. It’s a trove of portraits of people from Lowell’s circle and of revelations about the poet’s late life in England. One is struck, for instance, by the personality and the peculiar, odd conversational talent of Francis Stanley Parker, one of Lowell’s closest and oldest friends, a Cambridge, Mass.-based artist who did all of the frontispieces for Lowell’s volumes. One is drawn into Jonathan Raban’s detailed and intimate account of his days he spent with the Lowells at Blackwood’s mansion Milgate Park in Kent.
However, the most haunting are the monologues, of several hours each, by Elizabeth Hardwick and Lady Caroline Blackwood. Blackwood is very casual, matter-of-fact, dividing her attention between Hamilton and her daughters, very honest about the divorce deal Lowell made with Hardwick and about her growing realisation of the terrors she would have deal with in Lowell’s manic phases. Convivial and perhaps slightly lubricated with a drink, Elizabeth Hardwick, too, is forthright and unreserved in her conversation with Hamilton. One wants to listen to the recordings for hours for her personality, her special mood that day, and most importantly, for her complex attitude to “the real [. . .] Aspern Papers”--that is, despairing letters which she was sending to Lowell in the early 1970s when they were breaking up and he was turning his attention to Caroline and which he versified into sonnets for The Dolphin (1973). The story has recently received a full treatment in The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 and The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1971–1973, both volumes edited by Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). And yet Hardwick’s rich monologue continues to be fresh and surprising. She monologizes at length about the letters, telling Hamilton, among other things, that what really angered her was that her husband had misrepresented her words and tone, making her letter seem “flat and dull.” She was most irritated by the sonnet “In the Mail” intoning lame decencies, allegedly coming from under her pen, about her daughter being “normal and good because she had normal and good parents.” She also told Hamilton an unknown story which I think is a research lead, about how one day she and Lowell went over the Selected Poems in hardcover and she made him review the selection and tweak the Dolphin sonnets once again to address her complaints. How the paperback edition of the Selected differs from the original hardcover will be the next step in my research.
The recordings of Ian Hamilton’s interviews at the British Library remain a rich resource to the students of Lowell’s late career. They offer memorable portraits of Lowell’s loved ones and of several talented writers and intellectuals from his circle. Whilst the Hamilton tapes are only accessible in the Reading Rooms, a later interview with Elizabeth Harwick is available on the British Library Sounds webpages, as part of the ICA talks series. In this interview she discusses her life and works. Interestingly, she comes across as a little haughty and blasé in this public forum, quite different in her manner from the way she behaved with Hamilton.
Grzegorz Kosc (University of Warsaw) was an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2018. He is co-editing, with Steven G. Axelrod of the University of California Riverside, Robert Lowell’s Memoirs to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021. He is also a co-editor, with Thomas Austenfeld of the University of Fribourg, of Robert Lowell in Context for Cambridge University Press, slated for 2022. His own research work is focused on the question of how Lowell’s late financial problems affected his poetics.
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