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

21 March 2019

World Poetry Day – listen to new readings from Michael Marks Awards

To celebrate World Poetry Day, and 10 years of the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets, we have added four new readings to our Michael Marks playlist.

Michael Marks Image

The judges and shortlisted poets and publishers for 2018 Michael Marks Awards. Photograph by Jonathon Vines

The readings are from four of the five shortlisted poets for the 2018 Michael Marks Poetry Award. In each of the recordings, our poets read from their pamphlet and also talk about the poems and the pamphlets.

Carol Rumens reads from ‘Bezdelki’, winner of the 2018 Michael Marks Award for Poetry. The title of the pamphlet, meaning ‘small things’, refers to a poem by Mandelstam, and the poems in the pamphlet are written in memory of Carol’s partner, Yuri Drobyshev. In this recording, Carol describes the pamphlet, and reads the poems ‘Vidua’, ‘Shapka and spider’, ‘He drank to naval anchors’, and ‘King Taharqa’s Last Thoughts’.  ‘Bezdelki’ is illustrated by Emma Wright and published by the Emma Press.

‘If Possible’, by Ian Parks and published by the Calder Valley Press, is a collection of translations of Constantine Cavafy, and poems inspired by Cavafy’s understanding and engagement with the stories and literature of Classical Greece. In this recording, Ian Parks reads, ‘Candles’, ‘Windows’, ‘Ithaka’, ‘The god abandons Antony’, ‘Come back’, and ‘The shades’.

‘The republic of motherhood’ records Liz Berry’s experience of becoming a mother, and the support from other women during the early weeks and months of motherhood. In this recording, Liz Berry talks about the pamphlet form as accessible, a ‘passport to this strange new Queendom’. Liz reads her poems, ‘Horse heart’, ‘The visitation’, and ‘Placenta’. ‘The republic of motherhood’ is published by Chatto and Windus.

Gina Wilson reads from her pamphlet, ‘It was and it wasn’t’, published by Mariscat Press. Gina explains that the poems in the pamphlet reveal the ‘rich uncertainty of all things’, with the poems often being about more than one thing at the same time. Gina reads, ‘Grit’, ‘Child’s play’, ‘I haven’t seen this boy before’, and ‘Reunion’.

These new readings join our recordings from the past four years of the Michael Marks Awards, including from past winners Richard Scott, Gill McEvoy and Charlotte Wetton.

15 March 2019

My Life is a Book: Escape from Coney Island at the British Library

a guest blog by Rafael Klein, a native New Yorker and artist.  For more information about Klein and his work, click here, and to learn more about the upcoming event at the Library, where Rafael looks back on Lost Americana - artist’s books and short films with Dr.Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections British Library, click here. The Story of a Family Man is available to read here

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Coney Island book, 2002. Silkscreen hand printed

Who doesn’t love a book? How great to lose yourself in the inner world of an author. Turning the pages and revealing previously unknown thoughts and dreams.Turning more pages and finding surprises, unexpected emotions, unimaginable plot twists. Such pleasure also in the tender physicality in holding a book, in finding the corner of the delicate page, leafing over trying not to fold or tear. But this tiny physical movement is all in service of the thoughts being formed. A book is a journey for the reader as well as the writer. We are connected with someone else’s experience and therefore connected in a new way with our own experience.

Alphabetland
Alphabet Land, 2001

The Artists Book

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il benzinaio, 1992, Hand-tipped colour photocopy, cutouts, bronze embeddd in cover

Art is full of seductive surfaces, enticing details, intriguing techniques – but you mustn’t touch! However the appeal of a book is that it asks to be held, touched, for its pages to be turned for its ‘skin’ to be peeled back and to look inside. Not really surprising then that artists are drawn to the book as a form of expression.

Plus for an eclectic artist like myself, it is an opportunity to cross disciplines and unify very diverse approaches into a single entity. I am someone who makes sculpture, painting, prints and films. In the artist book, all of these impulses can be effortlessly combined and given voice. I have always seen the branches of my art as chapters in a book. The gentle physical reality of the book form is outweighed by the much large interior intangible aspect of its meaning. There are echoes of the nature of art itself. The artist book has has a physical form. But unlike the sometimes large, heavy and impressive form say, of a massive sculpture in heavy metal, the book has a tender physicality, and its meaning lives solely within our minds. The perfection of a brilliantly realised painting, exhibiting great skill, can feel closed and uninviting. But the artist book always has a more tender living aspect, the continuous invitation to ‘open me, fondle me’.

The Story
And who doesn’t love a good story. Not necessarily a story with the scope and grandeur of a Tolstoy novel. But maybe just the weird occurrences of everyday life, soon forgotten but sometimes narrated to friend or lover, maybe even entered in a diary. These insignificant fragments are the stuff of life. Are they connected, do they add up to a tale of grand wealth and power? Maybe not, but they are true to life.

Fun fair sketchbook

Tales of New York, 1998

A trip to the supermarket
A holiday trip
A visit to the fun fair
Visiting my parents in Florida
A walk in the country
Getting robbed while driving a taxi cab in New York.

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Tales of New York, 1998. Silkscreen print

Maybe not earth shattering events, but when lodged within an artists book they have resonance and seem like the stuff of personal myth.

The Book
And then there are the seductive techniques which make the artists book richer visually than a simple catalogue or ordinary book. The range of approaches are endless, but I have followed my own instincts. I have used cutouts, which coerce the reader into interacting and reveal hidden threads of story beneath. The popups, which hint at a third dimension. Diverse printing techniques – screenprint, monotypes, digital print, hand colouring, lithography. So many approaches are possible, many more than I myself have explored. And then there are the sculptural elements. This is a great pleasure to me as a sculptor. The tactile physicality of the production is an added satisfaction. The cover might have a small bronze sculpture inset, or a supermarket trolley embedded in it. The paper will be robust, textured, and rich. And the colours – none of that simple offset reproduction. No, it will be hand printed and hand bound, giving just that extra sense of an occasion.


It is simply the best medium an artist could choose to work in!

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Ruckus Rodeo by Red Grooms

The British Library Collection
In addition to rare and historically important works, the British Library has a wonderful collection of artists’ books. Here are some desk references for some suggestions.

  • Lexicon is an altered antiquarian Latin-Greek dictionary by South African artist William Kentridge – General Reference Collection YF.2012.a.4228

  • Nine swimming pools and a broken glass by Edward Ruscha does exactly what the title says, with the artist’s usual wry humour.  General Reference Collection RF.2017.a.56

  • Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, gets the artists’ book treatment by Peter Blake  -  General Reference Collection LC.31.b.13492

  • and a personal favourite, full of pop-ups and cutouts, is Ruckus Rodeo by Red Grooms  –  General Reference Collection YD.2005.b.1635

  • and two of my own works –  Coney Island  –  General Reference Collection YD.2007.b.1355 Florida – or you can’t fight progress  –  General Reference Collection RF.2007.a.68

19 February 2019

Remembering Andrea Levy

By Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts

It was with great sadness that I heard the news of Andrea Levy’s death on Friday. She had been very supportive of our Windrush exhibition, for which she leant the Library a number of items including drafts of her novel Small Island. It was a pleasure to meet Andrea several times over the course of the exhibition planning period. Even sitting in her kitchen last December over cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, knowing she didn’t have much longer to live, there was still a warm atmosphere and plenty of laughter.

Not that Andrea hadn’t been a little reticent about her manuscripts being shown in the exhibition. ‘What archive? Are all those boxes of papers in my cellar an archive?’ she asked me initially. And the idea of letting anyone see a first draft sent a shudder through her. As she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs in 2011, for her those first attempts were embarrassing. ‘I write absolutely the first thing that comes into my mind… longhand. And they’re bad. The first things I write down, ooh no, they’re not good.’ But as any literary archivist knows, the fascinating thing is to see the progression of successive drafts as a novel takes shape, to be able to pinpoint where the magic happens, the key decisions where things fall into place. In the case of Small Island, the drafting process brought her gradually closer to her four protagonists Hortense, Gilbert, Queenie and Bernard:

I love writing in the first person. I did actually start the book in the third person but it felt like I was writing behind a screen. It was only when I let the characters speak themselves and saw the world entirely through their eyes and I wasn’t anywhere present in the book (and I hope I’m not present) [that] they really came to life for me. It’s like acting. Trying to take historic generalities and make it about humans. (Radio 4 Bookclub)

This for me is Levy’s overwhelming talent. Her knack for embodying and inhabiting her characters so completely. To walk in other people’s shoes, to see things from multiple perspectives. To appraise people clearly, with an uncompromising and unsentimental humour which nevertheless finds the strands and sinews of humanity that make everyone’s lives of interest, however modest. This talent is present as much in her three early novels (Every Light in the House Burnin’, Never Far From Nowhere and Fruit of the Lemon) as it is in Small Island and The Long Song, though it’s in the latter two that she really stretches her imagination to weave plots on a much larger canvas encompassing the broad sweep of history from slavery to the aftermath of World War II.

It’s difficult to face the truth that there will be no more novels from Levy’s pen and that she is no longer with us, but we do have those five novels and a handful of short stories to return to (plus the essay ‘Back to My Own Country’ which can be read on the British Library website Discovering Literature), and also the excellent Imagine documentary which aired for a second time last night (and which features Andrea getting the better of Alan Yentob on more than one occasion, and Rufus Norris for good measure).

For more on Andrea Levy, the British Library collection includes her interview for the Authors’ Lives series, which you can read more about on our Sound and Vision blog. Our Discovering Literature site offers Hannah Lowe’s ‘An introduction to Andrea Levy's Small Island’ which discusses Levy’s role as a second-generation migrant bearing witness to the trauma which had silenced her parents’ generation. There are also teaching resources for secondary students, and digitised images of the objects which were displayed in Windrush: Songs In a Strange Land – selected pages from the manuscript of Small Island, Winston Levy’s ‘Jamaica shirt’, his postcard of the Empire Windrush bought on board ship, and a family photograph of the Levys on a rare trip to the British seaside.

I will leave you with this clip from the Imagine documentary in which Andrea visits the Library to see the Windrush exhibition. Here she points out her father in the Pathé news footage playing in the gallery - though she confessed to me later that she wasn’t sure it really was her father. More likely it was his twin, the more attention-seeking of the two brothers, whom she’d never met but had clearly been the inspiration behind the character of Kenneth in Small Island.

Like her father, Andrea did not seek the limelight but she was proud to find herself there, proud to be telling the story of the Caribbean and the Black British experience, and proud to represent Black writers in a society that has too often overlooked others like her.