THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

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

Introduction

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

03 May 2019

Off the Page, Chapter 2

by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. More details about Off the Page, with a full list of speakers, can be found here

As part of London’s Game Festival Fringe on Saturday 13th April, the British Library hosted Off the Page: Chapter 2, a sequel to the hugely popular original event exploring the increasingly porous boundaries between literature and games. The speakers came from a variety of backgrounds, reflecting the amorphous and interdisciplinary practices which continue to inform and push the medium(s) –including game designers, poets, writers and academics.

Emily Short’s fascinating discussion of metamorphic texts, focusing particularly on her interactive narratives based on Classical stories (Endure, a game about translating four lines of Homer and Galatea, a game based on the Pygmalion story ‘where how we treat somebody changes who they become') were challenging equally in terms of game design – questions of how to design systems that can engage people meaningfully with a feeling of interaction, and also in terms of literary theory questions – what status does the author/reader have in this dynamic? And what is the status of the text? Her comparison between these two areas was an incredibly fertile starting point for both: “Reading is very much a creative act, creating a relationship’, Sort said, ‘A process of constantly building a bridge between the present and the past. Games look at systems and structures, a great medium for inviting the reader and player into their work’.

Thryn Henderson’s exploration of the ‘video-game vignette’ struck a different note, and opened up another critical intersection between literature and game design. Henderson’s conception of the Vignette as a short experience without narrative context evoking a kind of mood is more akin to the experience of poetry, where the reader is asked to observe the often complex and contradictory responses that emerge from highly ambiguous stimulus. ‘Vignettes are difficult in ways that rules aren't’ Henderson said, ‘they take away specificity in a way’. They invite the participant to ‘play with a feeling’. Rather than being about protagonists, proxies, or witnesses, camera perspectives or bodies in space, the Vignette is about the immediacy of the space, the feeling or the narrative.

There is a tension in the Vignette between the highly personal – almost inscrutably idiosyncratic – world of feeling evoked and the form’s reluctance to engage in traditional modes of identification created by structures like character, plot and perspective. It is interesting, then, that short games are often strongly – if obliquely – autobiographical. Becky Lee, in her talk, described making what she affectionately terms ‘trashgames’, which are weird often single-mechanic experiences hosted on itch.io which she describes as ‘journal entries’. As autobiographical writings they are strange but also highly evocative of emotional landscapes, or playful day-dream like flights of fancy.  

This is not to say that the personal is restricted to these short, ‘poetic’ experiences though. Fragments of Him by Mata Haggis-Burridge aims for mimesis and narrative immersion within an autobiographical narrative space; drawing on photo research of real places; real period-specific objects and experiences with real people to draw out the subtleties and particularities of a personal and emotional process -- grief.

Often, though, the variety which is this area of practice’s strength – and the strength of the Off the Page event series -- presents challenges when trying to fit these textual objects into already well-established structures of funding, distribution, and study: are these objects games or literature? The answer (sometimes neither and sometimes both) is confusing for publishers, distributors and the academy. Emma Joy Reay’s talk on the intersection between children’s literature and video games, and her work towards her PhD at the University of Cambridge on the topic, elucidated some of these struggles. Her final invitation and assertion – that Childrens’ Literature departments had their arms open even when traditional English departments run scared – was an interesting and encouraging way to think about the event in general; as an invitation to praise, accept and celebrate ambiguity.

26 April 2019

The Book of Hours

a guest blog by Lucy English, spoken word poet and Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She has two collection published by Burning Eye Press. The most recent, The Book of Hours, is the poetry from the online poetry film project. The project was completed in 2018 and was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize in 2019. 

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Screenshot from is 'From This Train' by Kathryn Darnell

The Book of Hours is an online poetry film project which contains forty eight poetry films made in collaboration with 27 film-makers. Through the process of creation I have explored how to bring the immediacy and vibrancy of spoken word  into the delicate poetry film form, which is a growing but niche area of poetry. I have created a project which is experimental in its use of spoken word in poetry film, and also innovative in its approach to creating a themed collection of poetry films. 

Inspired by the medieval Books of Hours, I wanted to create a contemporary compendium of images and text which could evoke contemplation and thought. In our modern world we may that God constantly rewards or punishes our behaviour, but we still have a need for quiet moments, reflection and emotional awareness often associated with religiosity. Poetry continues to be a medium through which we can experience this, so the text in The Book of Hours is in poetic form, rather than prose, and because I am a spoken word poet most of this poetry is presented as voice-over rather than text on screen.

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Screenshot from 'Sheltering from the Rain in a Country Church' (after Larkin) by James Norton

A medieval Book of Hours was a collection of religious readings and accompanying images.  By the fourteenth century these had become highly decorative works of art and many were produced by craftsmen for wealthy patrons.  They were created so that those outside of the religious orders could follow the monastic life. The book began with a calendar illustrated by images of activities connected to each month, such as sowing crops, harvest and feasting. The subsequent texts were divided into sections and one of these sections was the ‘Hours’, a series of prayers and readings spanning a complete day and night and changing with the religious season. This reflected the Hours of the Divine Office, a code of religious behaviour adopted by St. Benedict in his sixth century guide to monastic life. Each ‘hour’ was roughly three hours apart, and was the time for prayer and reflection. The first was Vigil, at midnight, followed by Lauds, then Prime first thing in the morning, then Terce, then Sext at approximately lunchtime. After this was None followed by Vespers and finally Compline, after which the monks went to bed. The ‘Hours’ were therefore a template for religious devotion, spirituality, reflection and connection to God.

There were variations in the format of a Book of Hours but a typical collection contained: a calendar and The Hours, (as described above); a selection of penitential psalms, expressing sorrow for the committing of sins; The Office for the Dead, (a prayer cycle for the repose of the soul of a deceased person); and the Litany of Saints, which were prayers for the intersession of the Virgin Mary and the martyrs and saints.  Books of Hours represented a layperson’s handbook to Christian devotion and were created in a portable size so they could be carried by the owner and referred to on a daily basis. They reveal a glimpse into the medieval relationship between humanity and God and are important compendiums of religious reflection.

In the modern secular society of the U.K we can underestimate the importance of the Christian calendar in medieval times. This was an unwavering structure in an uncertain world where the progression from Christmas to Easter to Ascension would be embedded in the minds and habits of everyone.  The monastic life was seen as the epitome of  proper behaviour and for an ordinary person to possess access to the religious life, in book form, was highly desirable. It was common in medieval art, and also in the pages of the Books of Hours, for the patrons to be depicted in religious scenes, such as witnessing the birth of Christ or worshiping at the feet of the Virgin, thus placing themselves directly into the holy narrative. In the medieval mind, saints could be ‘talked to’ through prayer and requests to God, Jesus and Mary were as common as our ‘wish lists’ of shopping needs.

A Book of Hours can also be seen as an interactive text as these books were not intended to be read chronologically. The reader chose which readings to refer to according to time of day, season and spiritual mood. The most noted example of a Book of Hours created for a wealthy patron is the Tres Riches Heures commissioned by John the Duke of Berry between 1412-1416 and illustrated by the brothers Limbourg. This is currently held in the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.

The Duke of Berry was a passionate collector of books and his library contained more than fifteen Books of Hours. In Tres Riches Heures the illuminated pages are exquisitely illustrated; they depict a calendar of the month, the signs of the Zodiac and scenes from life, according to the seasons. In the page for October a white clad horse pulls a harrow and a farmer sows seeds over which crows and magpies are already fighting. In the background is a magnificent white castle. The pages of this book offer a detailed insight into the lives of the various strata of medieval society, from aristocratic hunters to peasants in rags.  This keen depiction of everyday detail is also a feature of other Books of Hours, where scenes from the Bible are set against a backdrop of recognizable scenes of medieval life.

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Screenshot from 'Mr Sky' by Sarah Tremlett

What I learned from my understanding of the medieval Books of Hours and what I felt I could translate into my project were the following aspects: the text, (in my case the poems) would be an embarking point for reflection. This reflection would not be a religious one but a contemplative one, offering responses to the modern world. It would be presented in a calendar format, following the months of the year, times of day and the seasons. It would contain a linear structure  (a calendar year) but the reader/viewer could choose when and where they accessed the films. My final aim was to somehow replicate the everyday quality of the medieval Books of Hours, and to depict the ‘illustrations in the margins.’ By creating a digital project which utilizes our accessibility to screens and downloads, I could also replicate the portability of the medieval books. I wanted the colours and sounds of the films to compliment the total experience just as the illustrated pages in the medieval manuscripts compliment the texts in the book. The themes which link the whole collection are reflections on the passage of time; reflections on the impact of urban lifestyles on rural landscapes and the transience of memory.

Each poetry film was created ‘in conversation’ with the film-maker rather than me ‘giving’ them a poem to adapt. Sometimes we started with an idea, sometimes we started with a sound track, or static or moving images. So all the poetry films in The Book of Hours have been created in collaboration with other artists.

Individual films from this project have been screened at many short film and poetry film festivals: ‘Things I found in the Hedge’ won first prize in the Atticus Review Videopoetry competition. and ‘Que Es El Amor’ won second prize.

 

All screenshots reproduced with the kind permission of the creator. 

15 April 2019

‘What Do I Know About Beckett?’: B.S. Johnson’s Beckett Notebook

a guest blog by Patrick Armstrong, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.The Papers of BS Johnson are available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room (Add MS 89001).  Learn more about some of the Libraries collections related to Beckett and Johnson here

B.S. Johnson’s Samuel Beckett notebooks perform an act of remembering. Principally, Johnson wonders what it is possible for him to know about Beckett, an epistemological problem he tries to work out through writing. The scraps of paper and notebook entries show Johnson trying to remember all he can about his onetime friend and major influence: when he read his work, who he was with, what it meant to him at the time.

Johnson’s idea of writing a literary biography of Beckett aligns with his famous authorial declarations. In The Unfortunates (1969), for example, he writes ‘in general, generalization is to lie, to tell lies’, while similarly, in Albert Angelo (1964), the narrator states that ‘telling stories is telling lies’. The notes, written mainly between 1971 and 1973, show Johnson instructing himself on how to write truthfully, without 'generalisation': 'Work conversation into this – as exactly as I can remember – use as interludes in conjecture material, in different type – that is, it is part of the “no generalisation” idea, which […] stated very carefully – somewhere – It was in MURPHY […] that I first saw the word SOLIPSISM'.

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A page from Johnson's small pocket-book detailing his first encounter with 'solipsism' (Add MS 89001/8/8). All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.


In philosophical terms, solipsism is the theory that one’s own self or consciousness is all that exists or all that can be known. Initially encountered in Beckett’s witty early prose (Murphy is described as a ‘seedy solipsist’), the word offers Johnson ‘a mode of being’ and, crucially, ‘a mode of GOING ON’ (a reference to Beckett’s later, post-war prose). The evocative term is then connected with the process of biographical writing, as Johnson states:

'Experiment/Venture into BIOGRAPHY
What do I know about BECKETT?
Solipsistically
i.e. only what he told me/what I saw for myself CAN BE ACCEPTED as true.'

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A page from Johnson's small pocket-book where he thinks through the limits of the biographical form (Add MS 89001/8/8)All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.

 The confessional mode seems to have become the only truthful method of writing, as for Johnson all that can be known about Beckett is what he himself saw and heard. Thinking about Beckett sharpens Johnson’s own conception of his literary project; it allows him to work out his own position, offering a means of finding an acceptable form, as Beckett put it, ‘to accommodate the mess’. The ‘idea’ (one small green notebook purchased in Paris is simply entitled ‘Beckett Idea’) of writing a biography becomes an expansive, Proustian process of remembering one’s own life: ‘How everything gets tied in with everything, how here I am trying to write about Sam, and it is [he lists other friends] - just to get it down before I forget it, for some bits of it no one else could get down, obviously. […] All is digression’. The potential biography becomes a kind of autobiography, a project in both solipsistic remembrance and Sternean digression. Does Johnson genuinely consider writing a biography of Beckett, or does he instead use the ‘venture’ and ‘experiment’ of doing so as a prompt for memory and material, as a mode of ‘going on’?

Evidently, Johnson had a deep affinity with Beckett’s thought, and the Irish writer’s life and work seems to intimately intertwine with Johnson’s own. The latter even associates space with Beckett’s company: ‘The way B came to the Hotel […] the way I associate that little waiting room with him – no, with his PRESENCE.’ The writing is self-corrective, as ‘him’ becomes the more impressive and aggrandizing ‘his presence’. As Jonathan Coe writes in his biography of Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson (2004), ‘the friendship of Beckett, his unfailing kindness and supportiveness, would become one of the cornerstones of Johnson’s life’. On several occasions, Beckett’s work uncannily ‘fitted’ Johnson, connecting to his own experiences in unexpected ways. On seeing Waiting for Godot for the first time in Autumn of 1955, Johnson modestly recalls how it ‘echoed (+ said more + better than I could) things I had been talking […] about before we went in’. Another time, when he telephones his girlfriend to say that it is ‘all finished’, Johnson remembers holding his colourful copy of Watt in the phone box, describing its ‘splendid purple/blue/pink’ jacket and ‘bloodred cut paper’. In reference to his separation, Johnson declares: ‘Beckett’s solipsism/stoicism fitted! […] I read him with an intensity to try to shut out what she had done’. The two ‘isms’ separated by an oblique stroke, stoicism and solipsism, are arguably two of the most important concepts that Johnson takes from Beckett.

A year after first seeing Godot,Johnson remembers being in a Parisian bookshop unable to afford a copy of Molloy. Still drawn to the book, he sifts through the first few pages in the bookshop: ‘read and felt the first few pages’. Like the memory of holding his copy of Watt, the experience seems both tactile and emotional. This emotive episode is ironic given that the notes reveal how Beckett, well-off after winning the Nobel prize, later offered and sent money to the struggling writer in London. This is the same kind and generous Beckett that we find in his letters, and in André Bernold’s portrait of the author in Beckett’s Friendship (2015). Johnson’s note that Beckett ‘again offered financial help’ are eerily the last words recorded in the notebook. In fact, when reading through these notes, their temporal closeness to Johnson’s suicide in November of 1973 is hard to ignore. Of a notebook with 144 leaves, just ten are written on, and there is a sadness about the mostly empty book. Johnson and Beckett eventually fell out after the former assured his publishers that they could use some of Beckett’s enthusiastic comments about his work (‘a most gifted writer’) as an endorsement on the dust jacket of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973).

Yet, Beckett’s influence permeates Johnson’s notes - one loose scrap of paper could be mistaken for one of Beckett’s mirlitonnades, an irregular small poem. In addition, there are notes (something about Joyce and Yeats) on the back of receipts from French restaurants, specifically ‘Le Moulin Noyé’ in Glénic (Creuse), which is, appropriately, a ‘Hôtel isolé’: a solitary, solipsistic residence. On another scrap of paper Johnson reveals how significant he finds Beckett’s ‘idiosyncratic’ use of words: 'once when I rang him about 11.30am he said “Could you ring back? I’m trying to wash myself” Am I alone in finding that idiosyncratic? Or does all he say seem significant for me in the light of what I know he is, of what I believe him to be?'


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A collection of receipts and loose-leaf scraps on which Johnson recorded his thoughts about the biography of Beckett (Add MS 89001/8/8)All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.

Again, there is the sense of doubt about what Johnson knows of Beckett, as he corrects himself with the verb ‘believe’. Yet, it is arguably this belief in the significance of Beckett’s language and thought that provided Johnson with a fitting mode of writing.