English and Drama blog

7 posts from April 2012

24 April 2012

A chlorine hit, a monorail, and 12 First Folios

No let-up on the pace today; well a little let up, at least the time for a chlorine-starved swimmer to crash an elegant, penthouse hotel pool in Downtown. Never travel without goggles, is my traveller's rule of thumb.

After a morning of meetings, it was over to Meisei University, out to the West of Tokyo. Meisei is a private university, notable for the Shakespearean vision of its President who, from the 1970s, made dealers Bernard Quaritch's heart sing by systematically buying up a series of First Folios - not to mention F2, F3, and F4s. Today, their English faculty had kindly arranged for me to have access to their bank vault of a reading room (totally 'Goldfinger') - having first scrubbed up (am quite a fan of mandatory handwashing, in Reading Room, and indeed wider, contexts), and apply my mask.

And so, feeling like Sir Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, I set to examining their collection of 12 F1s - including annotated copies, one that had belonged to the Restoration playwright Congreve, and one through which a bullet had passed, at least as far as Titus Andronicus). As if that wasn't enough, we were taken to their student theatre - only an exact replica of the Globe.

The imagination and single-mindedness involved in building up such a collection from scratch, and building such a theatre, are stunning. But, like other collections, they're keenly aware of the need to enhance what is (I think they'd be the first to admit) necessarily limited access to the Folios. And so a programme of digitisation of the annotations is underway - external funding dependent, I was (in a funny way) pleased to hear. Even Meisei are reliant on external grants for this kind of work nowadays.

Having proved the trustworthiness of Meisei students on the Monorail back to the centre (did I mention they have a MONORAIL! Which is as brilliant as you'd hope) by unwittingly dropping a 10,000 yen bill on the floor - returned within seconds - I went for an early evening meeting with Martyn Naylor, MBE, Chairman of the preeminent theatre agents in this territory. And when you realise this territory includes S. Korea, China, as well as Japan, that's an awful lot of audience.

Among many accomplishments, Martyn introduced Yasmina Reza's work ('Art') to anglophone audiences, and he told great stories about his discovery of 'Art', Gnl Douglas MacArthur popping round to check he'd done the dishes when he was growing up, and I think Sean Connery featured somewhere too. He is good friends with Gordon Dickerson, the agent of the John Osborne estate, with whom we worked a year or so back to bring to performance two early Osborne plays I found in the British Library, and Martyn is over soon to check out the revival of one of those plays, The Devil Inside Him, at the White Bear in May. He also talked movingly about the reaction to the Disasters last year, and the way it has impacted on live theatre, and more generally, attitudes towards going out in the evening.

Tomorrow's a big day - an unexpected public viewing of the Holmes manuscript, arranged due to public demand, an HE conference addressed by the Perm Sec at BIS (explaining more about recent HE policy in the UK), and capped by an exclusive Ambassador's dinner. I'm looking forward to the Ferrero Rochers.

P.S. Photos from the British Council collaboration school event published

23 April 2012

A Detective not of an Age but for All Time

A full day at the Embassy and, after 90 minutes sleep, 20 separate group visits, a lecture alongside Sir David Warren, HM Ambassador to Japan, and Prof Dominic Shellard, Vice Chancellor of De Montfort University... and the repetition of the word 1623 approx 1623 times, I finally got to sit down with a glass(es) of white at 22h this evening.

And, some good news, we found out the Guardian had published my diary of Japan thus far.

Too tired to make much sense of today, but something very special about being able to communicate our enthusiasm for all things Shakespeare to such an amazing variety of guests invited to the wonderful British Embassy building by Sir David, our Man in Tokyo; from the Director of the New National Theatre, Tokyo, (who's doing a Richard III soon); colleagues from Meisei University (who, to be fair, have more F1s than we do); an old friend, Professor Tetsuo Kishi from Kyoto, who's just translated Harold Pinter's The Hothouse for the National Theatre here, and whom I last saw In Stratford when he donated his collection of letters from Harold to the British Library; and - looking at my business card booty - any number of Bardophile CEOs/diplomats.

Best of all, no question, the 150 local high school kids who filled the normally hushed Embassy with some hooting and hollering this morning - as well as some very challenging questions. Even better, they had the good manners to laugh at my jokes.

Interesting, especially among the school children, that Sherlock is holding his own against his illustrious forefather - he's proving quite a draw, and provoking astonishment that a Doctor (as ACD was by training) should have such legible handwriting.

We're off to Meisei tomorrow to hear more about their own F1 plans, and I'm hoping for some respite from the jet lag in the meantime.

Mister Shakespeare, Mister Doyle, and me


I’m sitting on a Tokyo-bound 747, flying through the night in good company.

In the run-up to our Writing Britain exhibition, The British Library is taking part in the Great! Celebrations, and bringing two of our greatest English literary treasures to display at the British Embassy in Tokyo. And so it is that my travelling companions are the handwritten manuscript of a 1904 Sherlock Holmes story, ‘The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter’; and one of the few extant First Folios, the first 1623 collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. If packing is never easy at the best of times, packing two priceless literary artefacts takes a bit of planning.

The customs implications of temporarily importing artworks into Japan have tested our wonderful registrar, Barbara, to the limits; while the security surrounding the transfer of such precious cargo needs to be impeccable. So, this time, no Piccadilly line from Turnpike Lane for me. Instead, precision support from our art handlers, who effortlessly negotiate the madness of 21st-century airports to deliver our precious cargo airside.

I’m in Japan for a week or so, and making the most of my time to take part in any number of celebrations of two iconic British literary icons. Under the Great! umbrella, and in partnership with our friends and colleagues at De Montfort University, the British Council, and the British Embassy Tokyo, we have a series of talks and events planned from Monday (a certain someone’s birthday, it might be noted): workshops with local schoolchildren, lectures on Shakespeare, a high-level reception at which to promote the Library’s summer exhibition… and - so I’ve been promised/threatened by Professor Dominic Shellard, Vice Chancellor of De Montfort - some karaoke.

There’s more information on the events on our press pages, and I’ll blog more about both of the collection items later. But for now, with 8 hours left to go, it’s time to decide between sleep or The Bourne Identity.

18 April 2012

Send in the Writers

Iain Sinclair, Jim Crace, Don Paterson, Stuart Maconie and Lauren Laverne (yay), Hanif Kureishi, Michael Rosen, Stella Duffy, Stewart Home (very Avant Bard), Colin McCabe and Tilda Swinton (assuming Jim Jarmusch lets her out on time)... and an event to mark (the first out of copyright??) Bloomsday. And lots more.

That’s the exciting line up for our events around Writing Britain - old friends of the Library, first-time appearances, something for everyone, all talking on the theme of space and place, all fabulous choices, and we’re pleased they are taking part.

For more information, see our press release; and there's also a special event with the Folio Society and the Telegraph: we’re hosting a free reader event on 21 May - I’m chairing a debate with Will Self and Craig Taylor on Landscape and Literature - and there’s entry to the exhibition and a glass of wine chucked in.

I did some initial recording for BBC R4’s Open Book today with Mariella Frostrup, and one of the questions she asked was about the inevitable effort of compression in any exhibition, but especially one that ranges as broadly as this.

As I told her, we’ve got 150 million items in the BL, and we’re displaying 150 of them in the exhibition - so whatever we choose will be partial, and it’s always subjective. And even for texts we’d like to include, there may not be an extant manuscript (or then again, it may be in Texas), or the printed book might not be especially visual .

But we shouldn’t just think of Writing Britain as being what’s in the cases in the exhibition. You can’t fit the whole of English Literature into our exhibition space (we tried), and nor can you fit every space and place in the British Isles.

And so the accompanying events, and other activities we’ll be announcing nearer the time, broaden the range of the exhibition, push some of its themes further than we can do in a gallery, and add to the debate and thinking that we hope Writing Britain will prompt.


17 April 2012

I became in secret the slave of certain appetites

Mr Hyde

…Not me, this time, but Robert Louis Stevenson’s creation, Henry (Dr) Jekyll. Or at least the first creation of the character in a draft he later censored.

We announced in a piece by Dalya Alberge in the Observer on Sunday that we’re borrowing the original manuscript of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (no definite article, PLEASE - somehow it matters, though I know it shouldn’t) from the Pierpont Morgan in New York.

The story of Dr J is complex- and uncertain. It was written in 1885 while RLS was living in Bournemouth, and under financial pressure to come up with a story - a ‘shilling shocker’ (or, - homophonically better - as the subs on the Observer had it, a ‘chilling shocker’).

The first version apparently came to Stevenson in a dream, but was burnt on his wife’s suggestion, and the two more versions were quickly produced. The version we’re displaying - from the most complete extant draft - has a number of sentences absent from the published version, which seems to hint at a more explicit explanation behind Jekyll’s background and what he calls his ‘Full Statement’: you can see RLS deleting the reference to ‘certain appetites’ on the draft we’re showing, as well as cancelling a confession of being ‘plunged… again into the mire of my vices’.

I’ve added an image at the top – with thanks to our good friends at the Morgan - and closer examination of these hidden appetites and vices will be possible when the exhibition opens on 11 May.

Credit: Manuscript for Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde © The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. MA 1202. Photography, Graham S. Haber, 2012

Writing about Writing Britain

Excitingly (actually, scarily too), our major summer exhibition, Writing Britain, opens on 11 May. It’s a showcase for our great Eng Lit collections: from a 14th-century manuscript of 'The Canterbury Tales' to the original handwritten versions of classic stories such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (or 'Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,' as it was originally called) or Middlemarch, to letters by Ted Hughes, Charlotte Bronte, or George Orwell.

We’re using all these - over 150 of the Library’s greatest literary treasures – to talk about how writers have described the changing and the eternal spaces and places of the British Isles… and more than that, how great texts shape our perception, and transform our spaces and places. 

It’s part of London Festival 2012: which, for all the early uncertainties around the Cultural Olympiad, is going to be (is already) an inspired mix of amazing arts events and exhibitions. 

The posters for our exhibition have already started to appear on the Euston Road. I’m biased, but they’re brilliant. I’ll add the image to this post - spot the quotes/images…

And more in a minute on loans…


16 April 2012

Hello from English and Drama

Alice 1 LG

Welcome to the British Library English and Drama Department’s new blog…

 We deal with collections and activities relating to the Library’s outstanding holdings of English literary treasures, spanning hundreds of years, and constantly growing...

The material we curate includes the national collections of literary printed and rare books, audio-visual materials, and archives and manuscripts.

A Shakespeare First Folio, a manuscript of Jane Eyre, specially commissioned live recordings of the best of London’s Live Art and fringe theatre, or the letters and notebooks of Ted Hughes:- all these and so much more make up our collections. The image above is from our archive of the writer and artist Mervyn Peake, which includes his amazing illustrations for Alice.

We’re active in a number of research and cultural projects- whether running Poetry Competitions, hosting our artist in residence Chris Green , or planning our community-curated World War One roadshows.

 We’ll blog on these, and much more over the coming months -  but for now, I'll start the next post with something on our major summer exhibition, Writing Britain, that opens in...three weeks (eek).