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17 July 2024

One Love and Venceremos: Celebrating the Correspondence of Austin Clarke and Andrew Salkey

We are delighted to be working with McMaster University Library on a free virtual event One Love and Venceremos: Celebrating the Correspondence of Austin Clarke and Andrew Salkey, which will be held on Thursday, July 25 at 11 a.m. EDT or 4pm BST to mark the 90th birthday of the late Austin Clarke.


The free lecture will celebrate the correspondence and friendship between Austin Clarke and Andrew Salkey, two pivotal Caribbean diaspora writers. Though divided by oceans, borders, and distance, both writers were united by a sense of brotherhood rooted in shared origins, and the emergent Black political consciousness of the 20th century.

“This correspondence is a joy to read. As writers, language was the brush with which they painted their worlds,” said presenter Myron Groover, archives and rare books librarian in the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University Library. “Here we see them effortlessly moving between different registers of expression and dialect as they reflect on both the pivotal and mundane events of their lives.”

Austin Clarke was a Barbadian-born, ground-breaking, incendiary voice in Canadian and Caribbean literature. Andrew Salkey was an accomplished Jamaican novelist and a central figure of Britain’s Caribbean diaspora.

Clarke and Salkey’s poignant, furious, and funny letters reveal the inner lives, public triumphs, and private reflections of two very different men, both sustained by a sense of international community, deeply rooted in considerations of space, place, identity, exile, belonging, and transcendence.

The event will bring together scholars and archivists from McMaster University Library and the British Library to discuss this remarkable documentary legacy. Organizers say it is particularly meaningful to revisit these letters now that Clarke’s work, and the work of Caribbean diaspora writers more broadly, is receiving a long-overdue critical reappraisal.

McMaster University Library is proud to hold Clarke’s archive, which includes manuscripts, correspondence, personal files, audio tapes, unpublished novels, notebooks, and other material.

The British Library holds Salkey’s large and varied archive, which includes literary drafts, correspondence, research notes, diaries, photographs and ephemera that shed light on the different aspects of Salkey’s life and work in the literary, academic, and political spheres of the Caribbean diaspora in Britain and North America.

“The British Library is delighted to be part of this event, which will allow us to showcase the depth and breadth of the Salkey archive to a wider international audience,” said presenter Helen Melody, Lead Curator, Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives at the British Library. “Austin Clarke is the single largest correspondent within the Salkey archive, and it will be wonderful to work with McMaster to shed a light on two such significant figures in 20th century Caribbean Literature.”

This event is presented by McMaster University Library, the British Library, McMaster Alumni, and McMaster’s Department of English and Cultural Studies in the Faculty of Humanities and is part of a project titled Austin Clarke at 90 funded by the International Initiatives Micro-Fund and the Office of the President.

A conference will also take place in September 2024 at McMaster University and Toronto Metropolitan University. The conference, Austin Clarke, Black Studies and Black Diasporic Memory is being organized by Ronald Cummings, associate professor, Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University and Darcy Ballantyne, assistant professor in the Department of English at Toronto Metropolitan University. Registration will open once details are finalized.

Cummings says the initiative for this project grew out of a course he has been teaching in the department for the last two years titled Windrush Writing/Writing Windrush: Empire, Race and Decolonization.

“This project not only celebrates Clarke and Salkey’s correspondence, but also seeks to understand them in relation to a wider transatlantic public and networks of Caribbean diaspora,” said Cummings. “In keeping with the diasporic friendship of these men, it is fitting that this project connects archives on different sides of the Atlantic and will hopefully lay the groundwork for future collaborations.”

Register for the July 25th virtual event on Zoom

27 October 2023

A writer’s war: the correspondence of Dorothy L. Sayers

We take a look at the wartime correspondence of the writer, Dorothy L. Sayers, with cataloguing manager, Michael St John-McAlister. 

The first thing that strikes you about Dorothy L Sayers’s wartime correspondence is the sheer volume of it. The paper shortage seems to have passed both her and her correspondents by; the collection of her unpublished correspondence, acquired in 2013 and now catalogued (Add MS 89727) and available for consultation in the Manuscripts reading room, comprises thousands of letters. She even had sufficient paper to keep copies of her replies. The paper shortage only seems to have started to bite in 1944; by April that year her order for five reams could not be fulfilled in its entirety and many of her books were out of print.

The first hint in Sayers’s correspondence that dark days were approaching can be seen in the 1938 and 1939 applications for domestic service vacancies in her household from Germans, Austrians, and Czechs, some of whom explicitly stated that they are Jewish. There was no attempt to underplay the situation: applicants were adamant that they would face “the horrors of Hitler’s inhuman concentration camps” and “despair and a sinister fate” if they did not get out. 


A typed letter on white paper from Mrs S. J. M. Biggs asking if Sayers can assist refugees from Nazi Germany.
A desperate plea on behalf of two Germans, Add MS 89727/2/3.

Once the war started, up to the end of the first half of 1940, the ‘phoney war’ period, there was little indication in her correspondence that there was even a war on, save for the occasional stoic reference to “we must all try and carry on as much as possible” and a local whip round to pay for entertainment for soldiers billeted in Witham, Sayers’s home town, over Christmas.

The lull came to an end with the Battle of Britain followed by the Blitz. From September 1940 onwards her letters reported bombs near her London flat, the neighbouring property to her solicitor being “blown right down”, the destruction of her favourite milk bar near where she used to work and that of St Alban’s, Holborn, and devastation in Bloomsbury. She described Witham as “reasonably bomb free”, however. The only moment of interest was “a bit of a rocket, which sailed into the garden on Christmas Eve”. Even so, the uncertainty of the war still made it difficult to plan ahead: “I will put down the date and hope for the best” was a typical response to an invitation.

Much of the difficulty in planning was of course caused by travel difficulties. The radius of the area she could get to easily gradually contracted. The west and north were impossible almost from the start. By February 1940 she could not “truly say [she was] eager to travel to Derby on a Saturday under war conditions”. Given that it took “such a fearful time getting anywhere by train” she could not commit to “the loss of two or three days work in order to toil to some distant place with trains going through air-raids at 15 miles an hour”. Gradually, as the Blitz bit, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Surrey became beyond reach. She even had to think hard about engagements in London as that train journey could take two and a half hours each way. From 1943 she began to echo the government’s entreaties, asking herself whether her journey was really necessary, and usually answering in the negative. Given these travel difficulties, her lack of sarcasm in her response to a request to speak in Canada was commendable! 

A typed letter on white paper from Sayers’s secretary explaining why Sayers cannot attend an ICI function.
A typical Sayers refusal, Add MS 89727/2/16. © The Trustees of Anthony Fleming (deceased).

As a result of these difficulties Sayers had to turn down far more invitations to speak than she accepted, although she always did her best to meet invitations to talk to service personnel. Apart from travel, other reasons for her turning down invitations included pressure of work or being asked to speak on a subject she knew nothing about (gambling, missionaries, education, the Eastern Church, and writing for children, for example). She also increasingly turned down invitations to speak about religion: she felt that the surprise value of the arrival of an amateur in the field was long since lost once her appearances became commonplace and in the meantime her main job, which had brought her to prominence in the first place, was being neglected. She marked such letters NMR, ‘no more religion’, so her secretary knew to send out a proforma reply. What she called “difficulties on the kitchen front” also caused her to say no to many invitations. The war had left her “practically without domestic help”, such that “I cannot really leave my household completely in the lurch more than about once a month” – one wonders what state of rack and ruin she expected her household would fall into in her absence! She even had to do her own cooking and shopping (“endless time wasted trotting round the town with shopping-bags hoping for fish or biscuits”). 

A typed letter on white paper from Sayers describing her domestic difficulties during World War Two.
Sayers’s domestic difficulties, Add MS 89727/2/14. © The Trustees of Anthony Fleming (deceased).

She often said that as she had turned down invitations from the Ministry of Information and the Archbishop of York she could not very well agree to open a village fete or speak at a school prize day.

Apart from morale-boosting talks to servicemen and women, Sayers did much more for the war effort: she took in an evacuee from Stoke-on-Trent; she refused all requests from the general public to sell them duplicates of her books, instead donating them to be sold to benefit war fund charities or giving them to troop libraries; she refused payment for any books she sent to POW camps; she donated warm clothing, board games, and books to the men working the barrage balloon at Coram’s Fields; and she encouraged salvage in Witham and even knitted a single item using moth-ravaged wool found in a drawer. Sayers thought it “a cheerful little work” and hoped the Women’s Voluntary Service would “be able to find a youngster to fit it.” The WVS was so impressed they wanted to put it on display as an example of what could be done with even the poorest scraps of salvage. 


A typed letter on white paper from Sayers describing a jumper she knitted from salvaged wool during World War Two.
Sayers doing her bit for the war effort, Add MS 89727/2/7. © The Trustees of Anthony Fleming (deceased).


A typed letter on white paper from the Women’s Voluntary Services thanking Sayers for the jumper.
And is thanked for her efforts, Add MS 89727/2/7.

In addition, Sayers was part of a circle producing woollen clothing for nominated trawlers and naval vessels. Obtaining wool became increasingly difficult as the war progressed, but even so the ships companies of HMT Grimsby Town, HMS Caroline, and HMS Sussex, among others, benefitted from sea boot stockings, socks, and sweaters.

Sayers also took part in the 1940s version of crowdfunding. She contributed £2 2s to an imaginative scheme, for women called Dorothy, to pay towards the production of a Spitfire. The resulting Mark V model was named 'Dorothy of Great Britain and the Empire'. Sayers also contributed towards a locally-sponsored Hurricane and contributed to fellow author Ursula Bloom’s appeal for money for bullets for Spitfires (12s 6d per 100; Sayers contributed 30s). Interestingly, her papers contain a price list of components for fighter aircraft: subscribers could donate 6d for a rivet or six screws; £75 would pay for a petrol tank; £500 for a gun turret, and so on. 

A typed list, on white paper, of fighter aircraft parts and their cost.
Crowdfunding the war, Add MS 89727/2/7.

As a writer Sayers was far from idle during the war. Several of her plays were performed, she wrote a number of essays, had talks published, and her 12 part cycle of radio plays on the life of Christ, The Man Born to be King, was broadcast to a huge audience on the BBC to wide acclaim. However, she wrote no new novels or short stories and the hostilities did have an impact on her most famous character. To requests to write more Peter Wimsey stories she would mischievously reply that Lord Peter was engaged in secret work “somewhere in Europe”.

Surprisingly, the end of the war went, mostly, unremarked. Continuing travel issues and shortages were alluded to, but Sayers felt positive. Writing to a Dutch correspondent she expressed the hope that “we shall find the energy and enthusiasm enough to pull our weight in getting Europe on its feet again”. She clearly wanted to do her bit: despite being the grateful recipient of post-war food parcels from fans and well-wishers overseas, she herself sent food and clothing to German friends and acquaintances in the same period; a measure of the type of person she was.

Typed lists, on buff and white paper, of senders of post-war food parcels to Sayers, and recipients of parcels she sent.
Sayers as recipient and donor of post-war food parcels, Add MS 89727/1/5-6. © The Trustees of Anthony Fleming (deceased).


Written by Michael St John-McAlister, Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager, who has recently completed cataloguing the correspondence of Dorothy L. Sayers.

With thanks to David Higham Associates, London for permission to quote from the letters of Dorothy L. Sayers.


Further reading:

Add MS 89727

James Brabazon, Dorothy L. Sayers: The Life of a Courageous Woman (London: Victor Gollancz, 1981).

David Coomes, Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life (Oxford: Lion, 1992)

Catherine Kenney, ‘Sayers [married name Fleming], Dorothy Leigh (1893-1957)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/35966

Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993)

20 October 2023

Re-reading Ted Hughes' Lupercal

A black and white head shot portrait of the poet Ted Hughes looking directly at the camera with his chin on his hand
Ted Hughes, copyright Caroline Forbes

On the 7th November the British Library will host an event that celebrates and explores Ted Hughes’ second poetry collection, Lupercal. Published in 1960 when Hughes was only thirty Lupercal contains some of the poet’s best-known poems including ‘Hawk-Roosting’, ‘Pike’ and ‘Mayday in Holderness’. In Lupercal we see Hughes’ development from his first collection, Hawk in the Rain, and the beginnings of themes that are considered central to Hughes’ work such as his animal poems and his depiction of the Yorkshire landscape in which he grew up.

The event will be chaired by Ted Hughes’ widow, Carol, who will be joined by poets, Alice Oswald and Zaffar Kunial, and the novelist, Jane Feaver, who worked with Hughes at his publisher, Faber and Faber in the 1990s. Faber is now publishing a heritage edition to mark the 25th anniversary of Ted’s death, and this event brings together speakers with a deep connection to its verses.  

Please join us for an event of discussion and poetry readings, which will provide fascinating insights into Hughes’ work. Please book your tickets today via the Library’s events page.

Event sponsored by Ted Hughes Estate.