English and Drama blog

8 posts from May 2012

30 May 2012

Sweeney Todd - a heart warming tale?

The Cockney Visions section of Writing Britain features arguably the most legendary barber of all time - Sweeney Todd. Famous for slitting his customer’s throats and covering his tracks by sending the bodies to be made into pies, Todd made his debut in 1846 in a penny blood story called The String of Pearls: a romance. The story begins with the disappearance of a sailor who was bringing a memento to the sweetheart of a man lost at sea. The sailor's faithful dog alerts his friends to his disappearance, whereupon it is discovered that he was last seen entering Sweeney Todd's Barbers. Romance, bravery and carnage follow. This first incarnation, although gruesome, did at least bear the hallmarks of a love story - albeit one peppered with savage murders and the unintentional consumption of human flesh.

An expanded version of the story was published in 1850, this time with the more telling subtitle ‘The Barber of Fleet Street. A domestic romance’. It is this edition that is on display in the exhibition (at a page depicting the ominous barber’s chair and the imminent demise of the unsuspecting man sat in it) and not the 1846 version, in which the illustrations are rather tame [see below]. 

String of Pearls 2String of Pearls 1

Later incarnations of Sweeney Todd (of which there are many) tend to gloss over the romantic aspects and more openly embrace the monster lurking behind the barber shop doors.

The idea of a murderer turning their victims into pies would not have been new to many of Sweeney Todd’s original readers. There were several stories and urban legends around at the time that ran along similar veins, which would have provided perfect inspiration for a penny blood story – writers of the genre were never afraid of ‘borrowing’ the odd story line or two. Penny Bloods were serialised fiction that provided cheap, entertaining reading for the working class population of 19th century Britain. The colourful stories full of unsavoury characters and sensational plots were accompanied by gruesome illustrations. They were the violent video games of their day; perceived as corrupting influences that would inevitably pervert the minds of their readers towards depravity and crime. While there is no evidence to suggest that he inspired a generation of amateur butchers, Sweeney Todd’s character has certainly endured - he has become embedded in our culture so deeply that one can almost smell the stench from his abattoir when passing St. Dunstan’s Church in Fleet Street.

Lead Curator of Writing Britain Jamie Andrews can be heard talking about the Writing Britain exhibition during his interview for Radio 4.

Further information about the British Library's world-class literature collections can be found here.

Andrea Lloyd, Curator Printed Literary Sources, 1801-1914

16 May 2012

"I went to a marvellous party..."

“On Wednesday Thursday night
I went to a marvellous party”

Britain’s finest writers (and curators?) gathered together in one room last Thursday, to celebrate the launch of Writing Britain.


No "Dubonnet and gin", and to my slight disappointment, Will Self did not hop off his foldy-bike "wearing armour,some shells and a black feather boa"


"I couldn't have liked it more!"

Looking back at the photos, I realise how many people I didn’t manage to talk to - or just harried-ly flapped my arms at; in fact, there were so many people I wanted to say hello - and thank you – to, that we might have to do it all over again before the exhibition’s over. Maybe, like the Olympics, we'll have a Closing Ceremony?

The formal part of the evening was as brilliantly eclectic as I’d hoped- the gravitas of a Baroness (our Chair); giving way to folk singer Chris Wood’s interpretation of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, and a collaboration with Dizraeli on a song that took in the riots and shopping trolleys; and then a dizzying tour d’horizon of writing and space by Will Self, with a few thoughts on the Olympics lobbed in too (not, perhaps, the Lord Coe line, is all I’ll say).

And, for followers of internal politics, much anticipation at the appearance of our future Chief Executive - whose appointment had been announced that morning, and who was caught here by Bill Thomson alongside the current incumbent.

And, best of all, the writers; including many who had generously loaned their own manuscripts to appear in the show - Jonathan Coe, James Berry (whose poem on Big Ben was picked up in a new Economist podcast today), Ian McEwan, and many many more.

A team

My personal highlights: giving Will Self a sneak-preview private tour of the exhibition, before debouching him nervously (me, not him) into the main hall, not quite knowing what he was about to say about the show.

And my best Malapropian Moment?: Being dragged off (can't say by whom) to be introduced to "Justin Timberlake" (it turned out- by far an improved prospect for me- to be the great playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, below, whose archive we are delighted to hold...)



Artist in Residence Christopher Green invites you to meet the mesmerists from ages past

Copy of ChriswithteaOur Artist in Residence and cabaret-act extraordinaire Christopher Green will be sharing his work-in-progress in a FREE lunchtime event on Wednesday 30 May. Thanks to the Leverhulme Trust, Chris has been investigating his dual interests of stage hypnotism and hypnotherapy in the Library's collections, riffling through our rare books, music and ephemera for inspiration for new material. His show-and-tell is an oportunity to see collection items relating to the mesmerists that have most intrigued him. He will also be singing specially composed songs and revealing a glimpse of a new character. There is more information on our Events page - please email me at zoe.wilcox@bl.uk to reserve a place.

13 May 2012

Grands projets…petits souvenirs

Finally a proper day off, and a chance to go ambling again round East London, fuelled by the kiss of the sun - and some Bloody Marys - on my face.

There seems to be less fencing by the Olympic Stadium now- from the Lea-side anyway – but I’m still struck by how something so monumental can seem (to me)  so underwhelming.  I remember when I first came across it a year or so back: I assumed it was a particularly enlightened local council’s new  community stadium, and took a while to be convinced that This was It. It’s been fun watching the Mittal Tower wend its way upwards; now complete, it’ll be interesting to see if it elbows its way into the familiar London skyline in the way the Shard definitely has. 

Turning off the Lea a little further North, we headed across to Clapton Pond.


Seeing the pond - a mix of young mothers and older special brew aficionados – reminded me of a poem by Harold Pinter that we’ve included in Writing Britain.  Brought up off the Lower Clapton Road, Pinter memorialises this part of London in many of his early plays. The Homecoming is rooted in childhood memories of Hackney, while The Caretaker proposes any number of extraordinary London journeys: from Davies’s navigation of the North Circular in search of shoes, to Mick’s absurdly aggressive detailing of bus routes passing through the Angel Islington.

However, for the exhibition we chose a handwritten draft of a poem that recalls an inspirational childhood teacher: ‘Joseph Brearley 1909 – 1977'. Pinter would tramp across East London with Brearley, declaiming Webster and Shakespeare into the wind. The poem is rooted in detailed place markers, mapping Pinter’s emotional and topographical past:

From Clapton Pond to Stamford Hill
And on,
Through Manor House to Finsbury Park,
And Back
On the dead 653 trolleybus.

The trolleybus is dead, as was Jospeh Brearley at the point of composition, but Pinter recalls his youth in what, for me, is one of his most emotionally engaging poems- small, accumulated memories marking the landscape in a way grander projects don’t always manage. In the draft displayed, Pinter lists the real names of his childhood friends, deleted from the published version- the ghosts that Pinter encourages us to face in the great speech from No Man’s Land.

You might see faces of others in shadow or cheeks of others turning or jaws or backs of necks or eyes, dark under hat, which might remind you of others whom you once knew, whom you thought long dead but from whom you will still receive a sidelong glance if you can face the good ghost.
Allow the love of the good ghost.

I was glad that the Times Higher review picked up on this exhibit, and a recording of Pinter reading his poem was played on the end of a Financial Times podcast that I recorded on Friday, along with poet Owen Sheers and art critic Jackie Wullschlager. I know the poem well, but had never heard Pinter’s reading. The staccato start suggests the violence of his War poetry, but makes it all the more affecting as the walk, and memories, progress.

09 May 2012

Buddha of Suburbia and other loans

It’s been an exciting antepenultimate Writing Britain day – in the afternoon, Tanya and I went to pick up the manuscript of Buddha of Suburbia (in which suburban Bromley is ‘a leaving place’) from Hanif Kureishi’s house- or to be precise from Hanif’s Sainsbury’s shopping bag in which the drafts of Buddha were hitherto residing (see pic of the draft).


Along with the earliest drafts of the novel, Hanif has also kindly lent us his diary recording a meeting with fellow Bromley-ite David Bowie, who did the soundtrack for the BBC adaptation, at Bowie’s studio.

This is one of many loans coming directly from writers- Jonathan Coe, Ian McEwan, Posy Simmonds… never-before seen for the very good reason that they’ve never before left their owners’ houses/desks/attics/or sheds.

When we brought Hanif’s manuscripts in, we ran into Declan from the Morgan, with Dickens’s manuscript of Our Mutual Friend (see previous post by Tanya); and also the oldest manuscript in the exhibition, the 10th-century Exeter Book with the poem ‘The Seafarer’ very kindly - and rarely - lent by Exeter Cathedral.

All this and more will be unveiled to the press launch tomorrow morning- which is anticipated by tonight’s edition of BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves, which I recorded earlier.

For more on Writing Britain, see the major Guardian preview at the weekend by Blake Morrison; and a BBC audio slideshow with commentary and images of some of the highlights of the show.

Some advice for Boris

It’s been quite a psephological few days… Boris vs Ken; Hollande vs Sarko; Greece vs the EU.

Nothing, however, being new under the sun, writers have been considering the rights and responsibilities of elected officials for quite some time, and a nice example features in Writing Britain.

In our Cockney Visions section, we’re displaying a late 14th-century manuscript of William Langland’s allegorical poem ‘The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman, together with Dowell, Dobet and Dobest’, commonly known as ‘Piers Plowman’.
William Langland (c.1325 - c.1390), was born and raised in Herefordshire but lived for many years in London.  Although his poem famously opens with a vision, dreamt ‘on a May morning on Malvern Hills’, 'Piers Plowman' contains many detailed topographical descriptions of London streets and life in the capital. Indeed, his vision of the capital is already a lively one - a portrait of living in the poor London district of Cornhill, ‘among London’s lollers and unlettered hermits’.

As part of the poem, Langland describes the duties and obligations of the Mayor of London- as one academic has written, ‘in the community in which Langland lived, it was the Mayor, rather than the King, who really mattered and exercised authority over the inhabitants of the city.’ Something Boris would, I'm sure, be cheered to read.

The Mayor is exhorted in the poem first of all not to ‘overcark the comune’ – not to overburden/exploit the common people (seen here in this late 14th-century manuscript copy).

But the Mayor is also given exceptionally detailed instructions in the poem - to punish ‘on pillories and pining stools/bakers, brewers and cooks’ for their fraudulent behaviours- these men ‘harm  most the common and poor’ by cheating them: not giving full measures on the goods they sell, letting out properties at extortionate rates to build themselves grand houses. 

Against the handwritten reference to ‘bakers, brewers, bartenders’ in our manuscript, a later 16th-reader has added, punningly, “3 bees that sting the poor and needy’.

William Langland. 'Piers Plowman' 28v

The poem suggests that the Mayor has been turning a blind eye to these practices –and, worse, in an early cash for honours scandal, suggest that the mayor needs to be careful not to allow people to buy themselves freedom of the city as a freeman ‘for any price’ - he accuses Mayors of granting freedom of the city in return for silver or gifts.

Cash for honours, watered down beer, exploitative landlords… all things for the 14th-century Mayor to crack down on; and, we might feel, advice as valid 600 years ago as today.

08 May 2012

Our Mutual Friend: Dickens, Staplehurst and the Thames

There are only three days to go before Writing Britain opens to the public on Friday morning, and our exciting loan items have started to arrive. It was great to see JRR Tolkien’s watercolour illustration of ‘The Hill at Hobbiton’ arrive from the Bodleian on Friday and be safely installed into one of the display cases in the Rural Dreams section of the exhibition. This week our two loans from New York arrive, parts of the manuscripts of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend.

Our Mutual Friend was a really key work for me when planning the Waterlands section of Writing Britain. It’s famous for being Dickens’s last completed novel, and is an enormous tome covering many themes that are still topical today, such as the corrupting influence of money. It’s also notable to us at the British Library because Dickens situated the Boffins’ dust heap (a sort of primitive recycling plant which mysteriously generates a massive income) in the St Pancras area, near the BL site.

Derelict Warehousing, Battle Bridge Road - geograph.org.uk - 976963

Warehouses on Battle Bridge Road - near the site of the Boffins' dust heap, behind St Pancras Station. Oxyman [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

But the main importance to the exhibition of Our Mutual Friend is that it is such an influential depiction of the River Thames. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote in 1902 “the real protagonist… is the river… the genius of the author ebbs and flows with the disappearance and reappearance of the Thames”. Dickens presents the Thames as a menacingly gothic place which brings about death and yet sustains and transforms life, repeatedly using a drowning motif. Lizzie and Gaffer Hexam make a living by trawling the river for victims of drowning, emptying the pockets before passing the corpse on to the police; John Harmon fakes his own death by drowning in order to avoid marrying the fortune-hunter Bella Wilfer; whilst Eugene Wrayburn’s near-drowning makes him willing to ignore the class divide and marry the woman he loves.

We’re borrowing two pages from Dickens’s original manuscript of the novel, from the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, where they’ve been since 1944. One is the very first page of the novel, the sinister night-time river scene where Gaffer Hexam pulls a corpse out of the river and chides his daughter, It’s my belief you hate the sight of the very river… As if it wasn’t your living! As if it wasn't meat and drink to you!”.


Image:  © The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.  MA 1202. Photography, Graham S. Haber, 2012.

The other page describes the rural part of the Thames, upstream near Shepperton in Surrey, and is from the instalment of the manuscript which Dickens rescued from the Staplehurst rail crash in 1865, an accident in which 10 passengers were killed and which made the shaken-up author a national hero for his role in rescuing the injured.

Above Shepperton Lock - geograph.org.uk - 948841

Shepperton Lock. Graham Horn [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The crash occurred when Dickens was returning on the boat train from Paris to London (via Folkestone), the time of which varied according to the tide. Due to some confusion over the timing of the train, part of the track had been lifted for routine repairs and the train was going too fast to stop, instead jumping over the gap in the rails, breaking apart and partially hanging over the stream running below. Dickens’s carriage (which also contained his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother) was left hanging over the precipice. Our Mutual Friend, like most of Dickens’s novels, was written in instalments according to a tight publishing deadline, so the loss of an instalment would have been very problematic. After doing what he could to assist the injured, Dickens climbed back into the precarious carriage and retrieved his manuscript.

Dickens made light of the incident in the postscript of the novel, stating

“On Friday the Ninth of June in the present year, Mr and Mrs Boffin (in their manuscript dress of receiving Mr and Mrs Lammle at breakfast) were on the South Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage—nearly turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn—to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt.”

However, the Staplehurst incident undoubtedly had an effect on Dickens. Four days after the accident he wrote to a friend, Thomas Mitton: “Suddenly I came upon a staggering man covered with blood (I think he must have been flung clean out of his carriage), with such a frightful cut across the skull that I couldn’t bear to look at him. I poured some water over his face and gave him some drink, then gave him some brandy, and laid him down on the grass, and he said, “I am gone,” and died afterwards… No imagination can conceive the ruin of the carriages, or the extraordinary weights under which the people were lying, or the complications into which they were twisted up among iron and wood, and mud and water… I instantly remembered that I had the MS. of a number with me, and clambered back into the carriage for it. But in writing these scanty words of recollection I feel the shake and am obliged to stop.”

Dickens’s friend and biographer John Forster believed that the Staplehurst disaster had an ultimately fatal effect on the author, and that he never fully recovered from it. Dickens died exactly five years later.


Image:  © The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.  MA 1202. Photography, Graham S. Haber, 2012.

You can see the manuscript in Writing Britain at the British Library from this Friday! Hope to see you there.

03 May 2012

Sneak Preview - Keith Waterhouse in Writing Britain

The writer Keith Waterhouse had what some may consider an unusual lifelong obsession with the urban environment. As a boy he started the Middleton Hiking Club (membership: one) and launched many expeditions across Leeds (crawling through storm drains and navigating the ‘Murder Woods’) to relocate the suburb of Hunslet where he was born – and which he thought far more interesting with all its grimy liveliness than the characterless council estate to which the Waterhouses had moved. He also played truant frequently, drawn to the landmarks of Leeds city centre which he would regularly treat to a ‘good long stare’ (his favourite being the lights of the OXO sign which he believed to be operated by a man continuously flicking the switch on and off day and night). A strange pastime for a young boy, perhaps, but all those hours of staring really paid off when it came to his writing.

In the Suburbs section of the Writing Britain exhibition (alongside works by J G Ballard and Angus Wilson) we will be displaying a notebook for Waterhouse’s third novel Jubb. The novel is set in the fictional New Town of Chapel Langtry, built according to a ‘Master Plan’ which renders it a safe yet sterile environment for its inhabitants. Given his appreciation of mixed-use communities, it may be surprising to learn that Jubb was inspired by Waterhouse’s own move to the New Town of Harlow (though he admits in his memoirs that this decision was based on a passing resemblance to Helsinki which soon faded on closer acquaintance).

In Jubb the inhabitants of Chapel Langtry are ‘leading what we call a conformist existence, up to the arms in never-never for the car and the telly, working hard at their jobs… and then of course at night they can’t let off steam in the pubs as they did in Stepney, Knees Up Mother Brown, because all the public houses in Chapel Langtry have composition floors’. To peeping tom Jubb’s delight these pent up feelings lead to outbreaks of exhibitionism and Jubb makes use of his local knowledge to go walkabout at night hoping to catch a glimpse:

The streets themselves are mainly cul-de-sacs, so naturally you can’t go dodging up and down them at this time of night, peering up at the front bedrooms – you’d be run in under an Act of Parliament going back several hundred years. What you have to do is go round the back, along Grand Avenue, hoping to see what you can in the back bedrooms.


This page from the Jubb notebook is an example of Waterhouse’s tendency to sketch out the settings for his novels. Here we have a diagram showing Chapel Langtry, which, like Harlow, was divided into self-contained neighbourhoods each with their own shops and pub. For Waterhouse’s characters it is often only when they cross town boundaries – to the caravan site in Jubb or Stradhoughton Moor in Billy Liar - that they gain a certain freedom from social strictures.

Image © The British Library Board/Keith Waterhouse Estate. Quotations © Keith Waterhouse Estate.