English and Drama blog

6 posts from January 2014

30 January 2014

In Berlin...

News from Jamie Andrews at the Unlocking Sources First World War conference in Berlin (follow the conference on Twitter at #usww1)

The last time I was in Berlin, it was just under three years ago. It was a glorious spring; sun shining on concrete. We were there to begin a major EU-funded project with partners from seven other European countries to digitise several hundreds of thousands of collection items relating to the First World War. Almost three years—and several million digitised images—later, the same partners are back in Berlin to launch Europeana 1914-1918. This time we’re in the middle of a typical Berlin winter: fingers freeze on contact with the air, every bus we take apparently doomed to crash on the ice.

Film berlin

From the digitised film footage shown last night in Berlin to launch the portal

But nothing could disguise the warmth of the occasion last night when the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, Frau Professor Monika Grütters, officially declared the Europeana 1914-1918 portal live. The portal provides access to 400,000 rare documents digitised by our 10 library partners, as well as 660 hours of unique film material , and the personal papers and memorabilia of some 8,000 people involved in the war, held by their families and digitised at roadshows in 12 countries.

Europeana Collections 1914-1918 from Europeana Collections on Vimeo 

The British Library has been leading the UK’s contribution to the site, and has contributed 10,000 items from our own First World War collections to the site, including trench journals from foreign troops, iconic war poetry, and London schoolchildren’s accounts of Zeppelin raids that are featured by Buzzfeed.


From the new British Library World War One site

Especially significantly, we have also produced an amazing new website http://www.bl.uk/world-war-one offering curated access to over 500 digitised historical sources from Europeana 1914-1918, as well as newly commissioned films, contextual information and teacher’s notes (read more here). The importance of the site is its pan-European, comparative approach to the War, as well as its incorporation of material from the British Library relating to the immense part played by the British dominions and colonies.

Key themes explored on the site  include:

  • Origins and Outbreak
  • Recruitment of Conscripts and Volunteers
  • Daily Life on the Battlefield
  • The War Machine
  • Race, Empire and Colonial Troops
  • Gender Expectations and Roles
  • Propaganda on a Global Scale
  • Aftermath – Redrawing Europe’s Map

The site is free to use, and will be added to over the forthcoming weeks and months.


24 January 2014

Hanif Kureishi on why he deposited his archive at the British Library

       On Wednesday we announced the acquisition of Hanif Kureishi’s Archive at the British Library’s Cultural Highlights preview for 2014.

  Hanif Kureishi diary2
   Hanif Kureishi Archive. © Hanif Kureishi

        Hanif kindly agreed to join us for the press launch. An early start meant an improvised breakfast in the staff canteen, but over eggs and hash browns he shared his thoughts with me on how he thinks his archive will be used in the future and why he was so keen for it to find a permanent home at the Library. Click on the link below to hear the interview:

Hanif Kureishi interview at the British Library 

        The archive includes drafts and working material relating to all of his major novels, as well as over 50 notebooks and diaries spanning four decades. The collection also includes electronic drafts of his work in the form of Word files, including some relating to his new novel, The Last Word, which will be published by Faber next month. The Last Word tells the story of the relationship between an eminent writer and his biographer. It raises some interesting questions about identity, posterity and the inter-dependence of the writer and those who attempt to write about him, both of them being re-made in the process.

        The first diary in the collection dates from 1970 when Kureishi was just 15 years old. As well as recording everyday events and reflecting on his writing projects, the diaries are deeply philosophical in places and highly introspective. They give some fascinating insights into the workings of a restless, questing mind which is always driven to know more; as he records of his friend and hero David Bowie, at one point, his is a mind that’s “interested in everything”.  

Hanif Kureishi archive 2
Entry from a diary of Hanif Kureishi’s describing a meeting with Shabbir Akhtar, 13 May 1992. After the controversy following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, Akhtar acted as spokesperson for the Bradford Council of Mosques. © Hanif Kureishi

        Along with the drafts of Kureishi’s best known writing, such as My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia, are those of some lesser known ones and some surprises. The archive holds, for example, a draft of his adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage (written for the 1984 production at the Barbican with Judi Dench in the leading role) along with an adaptation written with his long-time collaborator, Roger Michell, of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was never realised.

        We’ll be starting work to catalogue the collection in the next few weeks and expect to be able to make it available in the Library’s Reading Room by the end of the year. Hanif Kureishi will be headlining the Library's Spring Festival at the end of March which this year focusses on the art of screenwriting. You can find more details on the Library's Events web pages at www.bl.uk/spring

20 January 2014

Recording the Future of Theatre

In 2005 the British Library began videoing shows at Battersea Arts Centre as part of the Library’s live theatre recording programme. So far we have documented more than a hundred and fifty performances at the venue.


For those of you who don’t know, Battersea Arts Centre is a monumental Grade II listed Victorian building at the top of Lavender Hill SW11, which celebrated its 120th anniversary last November.

It opened as Battersea Town Hall in 1893, became a community arts centre in 1974, and was established as an independent theatre in 1980.

According to Artistic Director David Jubb, ‘the organisation’s mission is to invent the future of theatre’. It does so by:

  • Producing and showcasing new work from scratch to final product.
  • Providing rehearsal space and accommodation to non-London based companies.
  • Inviting theatre-makers from across the UK and abroad.

The results currently manifest themselves in a diverse programme of all sorts of experimental shows and performances run simultaneously through a trinity of strands or seasons called ‘Cook-up’, ‘Tuck in’ and ‘Take out’.

The flexibility of the venue allows the staging of challenging projects often involving audience interaction with performers and other forms of participation.

For example in a 2012 show by Unfinished Business, Only Wolves and Lions, the company invited the audience to bring raw ingredients to the show, plan a menu, and cook and eat together.

Shows can take place at the Council Chamber, the Grand Hall, the Committee Room, the Assembly Room or any other chosen space in the 80-room building.

Besides the shows, BAC offers a unique architectural experience, full of atmospheric corners, often lighted with candles, with vintage armchairs, temporary installations in the common areas and a bohemian looking bar.

You can find out more about BAC’s 120th anniversary, the ongoing development of the building and all the community engagement that takes place in it here. In addition you can check their newly born digital archive online. And last, but not least, if you fancy something new, unpredictable, perhaps adventurous, and above all affordable, their new season of shows is about to start.

As I mentioned in a previous post the Library’s videos are shot with a single digital camera and are made available for viewing by appointment at the Library’s Reading Rooms. For details of the productions see the Library’s online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Type C1179 (which is the BAC collection number) into the search box.

To finish up I leave you with some images of the shows recorded. If you would like to see other collections featured in this blog please leave a comment or contact us on Twitter.

Alice Bell by Lone Twin Theatre 20060510b

Alice Bell by Lone Twin Theatre, 2006

Once and for All...20081026

Once and For All We Are Going To Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen by Ontroerend Goed, 2008

Handbag by Geraldine Pilgrim 20091019

Handbag by Geraldine Pilgrim, 2009

Dash Dash Dash by David Gale 20100513

Dash, Dash, Dash: The Onmibus by David Gale, 2010

The Red Shoes by Kneehigh Theatre 20110331

The Red Shoes by Kneehigh Theatre, 2011

Etudes. Amsterdam by John Moran 20120901Etudes: Amsterdam by John Moran, 2012

Gym PartyGym Party by Made in China, 2013

17 January 2014

Do you know the real Anne Brontë?

 First page (3)
'Self-Communion' by Anne Brontë, November 1847-17 April 1848, Ashley MS 154

Anne Brontë was born on this day in 1820. Fated to be the lesser-known Brontë sister, her more famous siblings spoke of a gentle and reserved young woman — but is it really fair to see her purely through other people’s eyes?

If we want to understand how Anne thought of herself, the long poem ‘Self-Communion’ (pictured above) is one of the most important surviving sources (read the poem here in full). The original manuscript in the British Library is one of the Ashley Manuscripts sold to the British Musuem on the death of collector (and notorious forger) T J Wise. ‘Self-Communion’ is one of the last poems Anne ever wrote, it was completed in April 1848 when she was 28 (a year before her death). The poem takes the form of a dialogue between competing internal voices in which Anne reflects on the passing of time, lost love and death.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, since her mother died when she was only two, Anne describes her childhood self as in need of protective love and easily upset by something as small as a sparrow’s death. But as she grew up she describes how unhappy experiences toughened her up, ‘I see that time, and toil, and truth/An inward hardness can impart’.  It has been suggested that one of the difficult experiences alluded to in the poem may be the death of Haworth curate William Weightman. The flirtatious and somewhat unreliable (according to Charlotte) Weightman had arrived in Haworth in 1839 where he lived for the next years until his death in 1842. A number of Anne’s love poems point to him as the likely subject of her affection, though there is no evidence to show that he was aware of her feelings — as she says in the poem, ‘Such speechless raptures I have known,/But only in my dreams’.

Another turning point in Anne’s life that appears to be recounted in the poem is the cooling of her relationship with sister Emily in 1845. Formerly they had been like twins, collaborating over the creation of their fictional world of Gondal and writing diary papers addressed to each other, but by the end of 1845 something had changed. In ‘Self-Communion’ Anne tells of ‘jarring discords’ with a former friend, and the painful realisation that ‘What my soul worshipped, sought and prized,/Were slighted, questioned, or despised’.

Revisions (2)
Revised passage from 'Self-Communion'. Anne tempers one of the lines thought to be about her relationship with Emily, 'My fondness was not half returned', became 'My fondness was but half returned'.

From this point in Anne's life she struck out on her own, no longer playing Emily’s Gondal games but concentrating instead on her own poetry and the beginning of her first novel Agnes Grey. In these lines from ‘Self-Communion’ she seems to resign herself to the new situation with Emily,


And as my love the warmer glowed

The deeper would that anguish sink,

That this dark stream between us flowed,

Though both stood bending o’er its brink.

Until, at last, I learned to bear

A colder heart within my breast;

To share such thoughts as I could share

                                And calmly keep the rest.

I saw that they were sundered now,

The trees that at the root were one:

They yet might mingle leaf and bow,

But still the stems must stand alone


‘Self-Communion’ isn’t just important as an autobiographical source, it is typical of her writing in its preoccupation with themes of identity, self-knowledge and devout dedication to Christian pilgrimage. More rational than her sisters’ work, and less influenced by the Romantics, her poetry and prose deserve to be read for their own merits. In fact, even if you didn’t think you knew any of Anne Brontë’s poetry you may have been unwittingly familiar with it as a number of her poems have been used as hymns and are still sung today. The original manuscript of her best-known hymn ‘The Narrow Way’ is also in the British Library and is bound into the same volume as ‘Self-Communion’.

If you’d like to honour Anne Brontë’s birthday by reading more about her, here are a few recommendations to start you off:

09 January 2014

Arthur Conan Doyle and The Adventure of the Executed Knight

Guest post from Charlotte Dickerson, Cataloguer and Metadata creator, Europeana 1914-1918 project.

In 1916 former knight of the British Empire and celebrated humanitarian Roger Casement stood on trial for treason. His friend Arthur Conan Doyle tried to rally support for his defence and put together a petition for his release, signed by figures such as W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and John Galsworthy. This petition, as well as Conan Doyle’s correspondence on the subject, has been digitised by the British Library as part of Europeana Collections 1914-1918, a project to provide access to material from national library collections across Europe, and will be available online from 2014. The trial of Roger Casement caused a media storm but Conan Doyle’s efforts were unsuccessful and Casement was hung on the 3rd of August 1916.  

  Casement_doyle - Copy
Roger Casement c. 1910 and Arthur Conan Doyle, 1914.
Image of Arthur Conan Doyle by Arnold Genthe

Roger Casement was born in Ireland in 1864. In 1895 he took a job with the British Foreign Office in Africa who, responding to reports of the exploitation of the indigenous people and human rights abuses, asked Casement to investigate conditions in the Congo Free State.

The Casement Report confirmed the truth of the alarming stories, such as that rubber workers who didn’t work hard enough were having their hands cut off, which shocked the public and caused international outcry.

The Casement Report lead to the establishment of an independent commission of enquiry, the arrest of many officials involved and eventually to the relinquishing of personal control of the area by the Belgian King Leopold II. Casement undertook similar work in the Putumayo basin in Peru and created a precedent for the British Embassy to intervene on behalf of indigenous people.

Whilst campaigning to improve conditions in the Congo he met Arthur Conan Doyle.  Conan Doyle had a history of using his status to champion the causes of those he believed were victims of injustice. In 1907 he had helped overturn the conviction against George Edalji for animal mutilation, a case now widely seen as being brought about through the racial prejudice of the police. In 1912 he campaigned for the release of the somewhat insalubrious Oscar Slater, arguing that he had not committed the murder he had been arrested for, despite being well known as a pimp and petty criminal. A firm believer in the English justice system, Conan Doyle thought that it did not matter what your background was, no one should be punished for a crime they did not commit.

Casement and Conan Doyle became good friends as well as supporters of a mutual cause and even went together to see ‘The Speckled Band’, a play based on a Sherlock Holmes novel of the same name, in 1910. Conan Doyle admired Casement’s belief in justice and based his character of the brave and idealistic Lord John Roxton on Casement in his novel ‘The Lost World’.

Casement was an ardent Irish nationalist and when war between England and Germany broke out in 1914, he saw an opportunity to gain support for Irish independence. He travelled to Germany to request military and political support to end British rule, returning to Ireland in 1916 aboard a German U-boat shortly before the Easter Rising. On arrival he was arrested by the British government, charged with high treason and sentenced to death.



Conan Doyle could not believe that a man whom he knew so well and who had done so much in the service of the Empire could behave in such a way and blamed Casement’s actions on “severe strain” and “tropical fevers”. However, ever the pragmatist, Conan Doyle also argued that executing Casement would make a martyr of him and give more support to the Irish Nationalist cause as well as being a useful tool of German propaganda.

After his execution, Casement’s body was buried in quicklime but his remains were eventually repatriated to Ireland in 1965 where he was given a state funeral and buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin.

The British Library holds a large collection of papers belonging to Arthur Conan Doyle, including his correspondence with his family, correspondence with his friends such as J.M. Barrie and James Ryan as well as his papers on Spiritualism and several of his literary manuscripts.


Casement grave

The grave of Roger Casement in Glasnevin Cemetary

06 January 2014

‘The most influential radio programme ever’? Charles Chilton, P J Harvey, and soldiers' songs

Fifty years after its first production—and marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War—Oh, What a Lovely War! returns to its original home at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in February.

Described by critic Michael Billington as ‘one of the seminal events of modern British theatre’, this ‘musical entertainment’ drew on soldiers’ songs to expose both the ‘absurdity’ and the ‘vulgarity’ of war (the former every bit as important to Theatre Workshop’s presentation as the latter).

The musical was inspired by Charles Chilton's ‘The Long, Long Trail’, first broadcast on the BBC Home Service in 1961, and which told the story of the War through bleakly ironic (and yet strangely uplifting?) soldiers' songs. Chilton had collected the songs from a book called Tommy’s Tunes (the first edition of which is in the Library) and from former soldiers he met in pubs around St Pancras.

Chilton died a year ago in January 2013, and on Saturday the BBC broadcast a tribute to 'The Long, Long Trail' described by one contributor as ‘the most influential radio programme ever’.

The original recordings of 'The Long, Long Trail' were not retained by the BBC, but Chilton kindly donated a copy to the British Library; we also hold original recordings and sound effects from the original production of Oh, What a Lovely War!, equally generously donated by Theatre Workshop's Murray Melvin (talking here as part of the Theatre Archive Project).

By coincidence, before Christmas we hosted a reception to share news of the forthcoming launch of our Europeana Collections 1914-18 project, which will make hundreds of thousands of newly-digitised materials—from the UK and our partners in eight European countries—relating to stories and events of the war available online for free. (See more at last month's blog). One of our readers that night was the singer, musician and artist P J Harvey, who chose to read the lyrics of soldiers’ songs (as well as her own lyrics from the album Let England Shake, and a new poem).


Her choice to read three soldiers' songs—all of which featured in 'The Long, Long Trail'—was a stunning one. Stripped of the accompanying music, the cold absurdity of their lyrics was laid bare. It may be a weakness or a strength, but one of the singularities of Oh, What a Lovely War! is the hummability of its tunes about death and destruction; indeed many of the early audiences for this anti-War production were former soldiers who apparently enjoyed reliving memories of comradely cheer. But when you listen to the lyrics—really listen—they are jaw-dropping in their calm horror.

The biggest revelation among the lyrics that Polly read was the song 'We're here because': originally sheltered behind the tune of 'Auld Lang Syne', that night the lyrics opened up a Beckettian no-man's land of senseless repetition. 'Here because we're here because we're here because we're here': on it went, that tortuous, clinically neat, anti-logic.

We're pleased to include the video of Polly's reading below; our Europeana project launches at the end of the month.

Polly Harvey at the British Library from Europeana Collections on Vimeo.


P J Harvey reads:

Lyrics from soldiers’ song ‘I Want to Go Home (I Don’t Want to Die)’

Lyrics from soldiers’ song ‘When This Bloody War Is Over’

Lyrics from soldiers’ song ‘We’re Here Because…’

Lyrics from ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ by P J Harvey, from the album Let England Shake

‘The Guest Room’, a poem by P J Harvey

The Charles Chilton audio collection, including tapes of 'The Long, Long Trail' can be found on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue under reference C1186

Murray Melvin's  audio collection, including tapes of the original production of Oh, What a Lovely War! and sound effects can be found on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue under reference C1502

The first edition of Tommy's Tunes can be found on the British Library catalogue under reference 011604.g.16