English and Drama blog

3 posts from July 2014

23 July 2014

'Goodbye to All That': Lavinia Greenlaw guest blog...

In a guest blog, writer Lavinia Greenlaw reflects on Goodbye to all that, an art commission to mark the anniversary of the First World War as part of the 14-18 NOW project. As part of the commission, next Monday the British Library will host readings and conversation with Ales Steger, Ali Smith, Daniel Kehlmann,Erwin Mortier, Kamila Shamsie and Xiaolu Guo, who will reflect on the loss and discovery of literary innocence and ideals, the question of artistic freedom and the freedoms that have informed their own artistic lives. For more information on the event, and to buy tickets, see the British Library event page.

One of my grandfathers was just old enough to fight in the First World War. Bill was the son of a Scottish railway clerk and the first of his family to go to university. He was at Aberdeen reading Classics when, along with three of his four brothers, he enlisted with the Gordon Highlanders. One was killed, one lost a leg, one was made deaf, and Bill had his lower lip shot off. Can you imagine a narrower escape?

On his return, Bill endured pioneering plastic surgery, which involved flesh from his chest being grown from a flap of skin into a pedicle, which was attached to his mouth in order to regenerate it. He was one of only two of his class to survive the war and both decided to become doctors, Bill undergoing the last of his surgery during the first year of his training. He died of pneumonia when my father, his youngest child, was 18 months old. My father became a doctor, too.

The First World War changed the course of life. It also changed the course of lives to come. A hundred years on it is still in sight but has slipped out of reach. The gap opening up between present and past is full of reverberations. What does it mean to have your life and your identity as an artist shaped by conflict? I didn’t want the writers selected to be part of ‘Goodbye to All That’ simply to return to the past, but to formulate and reinvigorate questions we should never stop exploring. They were asked to consider the loss of literary innocence or ideals, the discovery of new ones, the question of artistic freedom, and what it means to embrace new imperatives or to negotiate imposed expectations.

While we all know this conflict as a “world” war, few of us are aware of the true extent of global involvement that political repercussions, complex allegiances and colonial grip incurred. The countries listed as participants range from China to Liberia, Alaska to Romania. In order to reflect something of this, I decided to ask ten writers from different countries to contribute. Each has their own experience to bring to bear of the tensions – fruitful or not – between life and art,  how these are amplified by all kinds of conflict.

I have borrowed the title, Goodbye to All That, from Robert Graves's famously "bitter leave-taking of England" in which he writes not only of the First World War but the questions it raises for those who read it: how to live, how to live with each other, and how to write.

Lavinia Greenlaw


16 July 2014

Aleister Crowley on record

The British Library's summer exhibition Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK is the UK’s largest ever exhibition of mainstream and underground comics. Many of the works on display, particularly those published from the late 1960s onwards, uncompromisingly address political issues, gender issues, drugs, sex and violence, among other subjects.

A modest section located towards the exit acknowledges the interest in magic and mysticism of comics writers such as Alan Moore, who has famously stated that he regards himself as a magician first and a writer second.

Visitors can view Moore's work alongside the magic book (c. 1581-3) of Elizabethan occultist John Dee, and a notebook (c. 1899) kept by Aleister Crowley while in magical training with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose other members included the poet W. B. Yeats, and the writers of supernatural fiction Algernon Blackwood and Bram Stoker (more about them in the Library's next big exhibition - on Gothic literature).  

Born in Leamington Spa, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was a poet, writer and mountaineer (also, according to Somerset Maugham, 'the best whist player of his time'1).

He is best known however as the twentieth century's most influential exponent of the practice of 'magick' (Crowley added a 'k' to differentiate his practice from stage magic).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines magic as 'the use of ritual activities or observances which are intended to influence the course of events or to manipulate the natural world, usually involving the use of an occult or secret body of knowledge; sorcery, witchcraft'.

In his lifetime Crowley's activities attracted highly negative reports in the press: a front-page Sunday Express article from 4 March 1923, for example, painted Crowley as 'a drug fiend, an author of vile books, the spreader of obscene practices' and  'one of the most sinister figures of modern times'.

At around the same time the weekly journal John Bull ran a series of anti-Crowley articles with titles such as 'The King of Depravity' and 'The Wickedest Man in the World'. The latter phrase has stuck ever since, cropping up almost without fail whenever Crowley is mentioned in the mainstream media.


Should you be interested, the articles mentioned here can be consulted in microfilm format in the British Library's new Newsroom

Years after his death, Crowley's dictum 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law', and his rejection of conventional religious and societal mores, attracted the attention of the rock and pop generation: in 1967 the Beatles included an image of Crowley on the front cover of their Sgt. Pepper LP sleeve; the Doors posed with a bust of Crowley on the reverse of their 1970 compilation LP 13; Led Zeppelin had Crowley's 'Do what thou wilt' inscribed into the run-out groove of their third album; and unlikely followers Eddie and the Hot Rods used Crowley's image and the 'Do what thou wilt' quote on the sleeve of their 1977 single 'Do Anything You Wanna Do' (i.e. 'Do what thou wilt' rendered in rock'n'roll argot) .

Underground musical artists such as Psychic TV, Coil, and David Tibet's Current 93, have likewise made their interest in Crowley evident in various ways.

When the curators of the Comics Unmasked exhibition requested an audio sample of Crowley speaking, we thought it a good time to take a closer look at the recordings that circulate of his voice.

The first question, naturally, was: are they authentic?

Within the Library's sound archive, suspicions had been aired some years ago that a circa 1990s CD issue of the Crowley recordings (the same set of recordings has been issued over the years by various labels, as we shall see) was unlikely, for various technical reasons, to have been, as stated on the product, a collection of recordings originally made on wax cylinders.   

I sent a speculative email to David Tibet, who was the first person to produce an LP-length collection of the Crowley recordings ('The Hastings Archives', GOETIA 666, 1986). David replied immediately, explaining where he had sourced the tapes used for his release ('a Thelemite group run by Kenneth Grant'), and stating unequivocally that the recordings 'are absolutely genuine and absolutely Crowley'.

'The Hastings Archives' is an unusual record in many respects: there is no written information on the outer sleeve beyond the label/catalogue number and the handwritten limited edition number (the Library's copy is numbered 105/418); neither the title nor the name of the artist appears on the sleeve or label at all; one side plays at 45 rpm, the other at 33; and the paper label on mint copies covers the centre hole and has to be punctured so the record can be played. Finally, a contemporary promotional flyer/insert states that 'the plates for LP manufacture have now been destroyed'.

David Tibet put me on to William Breeze of the Crowley Estate who kindly shared with me some liner notes he had previously prepared towards a possible authorized release of the recordings.

These notes quote Crowley's diary entries of 1936 onwards, which make several references to recording sessions, and a letter to the HMV company, in which Crowley, trying to interest HMV in a commercial arrangement, mentions that his recordings were  made 'privately in Coventry Street', presumably in a walk-up DIY recording booth. The resulting products would have been 78 rpm lacquer discs (sometimes referred to as 'acetate' discs) not wax cylinders as has been claimed on some issues of the material.    

William Breeze says that the original discs are believed lost or possibly in a private collection, but that at least one copy (as in dubbing) of one of the original discs does exist in the Estate's holdings.

I don't know which titles are featured on this disc but it may perhaps have served as the source for the first commercial issue of a Crowley voice recording: a 7" vinyl disc (Marabo UPS 500, 1976), the A-side of which features Crowley reciting two poems, 'La Gitana' and 'Pentagram'. The sound quality here is slightly superior to any subsequent issue of these tracks. The disc is backed with 'Scarlet Woman', a spooky Leonard Cohen-ish rock song performed by a group called Chakra. An insert that comes with the disc (missing from the Library's copy unfortunately) suggests the Crowley recordings were made in the 1940s.


I asked British Library audio engineer Tom Ruane to compare four versions of the same recording, drawn from: (a) the Marabo 7";  (b) 'The Hastings Archives' LP; (c) 'Aleister Crowley' LP (OZ 77, 1986); (d) 'The Great Beast Speaks' CD (DISGUST 1, 1999).


The image above is a screen grab from Wavelab 7 software showing a comparison of the four sound waves. The top one (the Marabo 7") is the 'cleanest' and closest to the source; the next one down ('The Hastings Archives' LP) is a slightly quieter version - and the sound wave is now 180 degrees out of phase, as it is on version (c), which is probably a straight copy of (b).

Though versions (c) and (d) clearly come from the same source (or one that is a generation or two removed), they have had differing levels of compression and equalization applied, to bring out the 'top end' (higher frequencies).  All three later versions play very slightly faster than the Marabo 7".

Tom tells me that the noise profiles are in tune with the kind of groove distortion one expects from a 78 rpm disc.

In the world of sound archiving, final judgements on provenance and authenticity sometimes have to be suspended to a degree, especially if one does not have access to the original master copy of the recording under scrutiny. But the circumstantial and technical evidence in this case is fairly persuasive and there seems no reason to doubt that these are indeed recordings of the voice of Crowley.

Copyright regulations do not allow us to post any sound clips here but all the recordings discussed may be consulted at the Library free-of-charge by appointment. 


1. Crowley served as the model for Somerset Maugham's character Oliver Haddo in his 1908 novel The Magician

With thanks to William Breeze, David Tibet and Tom Ruane.

08 July 2014

Arthur Graeme West’s 'Diary of a Dead Officer' remembered.

In the run up to the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War the British Library has been involved in a number of projects including collaboration in a Europe wide initiative, Europeana. This project covered a range of activities one of which was the digitisation of thousands of books and documents.  Part of my involvement with the project was to put forward literary works to be digitised.  One book that had a particular impact on me was The Diary of a Dead Officer: Being the Posthumous Papers of Arthur Graeme West.  This slim volume comprises diary extracts written between 1915 and 1917 and a selection of West’s poems.

IMG_1186The Diary of a Dead Officer. British Library shelfmark 010856.de.16

The Diary was published posthumously in 1919 shortly after the end of the war and was edited by the pacifist campaigner C E M Joad who had been a friend of West’s since schooldays.  The Diary charts West’s growing sense of disillusionment as the reality of war takes its toll.  West had initially tried to obtain a commission in 1914 but had been turned down because of poor eyesight.  Undeterred, he enlisted as a private in the Public Schools Battalion in February 1915.  However, faced with the realities of army life and the way the war was being conducted, his sense of duty and patriotism gradually turned to disenchantment.  In 1916, after serving in France for several months, West was sent to Scotland for officer training, a period when West’s disillusionment reached crisis point.  Many of the instructors were soldiers who had not experienced life at the front making it difficult for them to gain the respect of the officer cadets who had served in the front line.  West felt that the training he received was ineffectual for the conditions faced in the trenches and at times he felt it bordered on the farcical.  During this period he became increasingly influenced by the writings of Bertrand Russell and the pacifist arguments of his friend Joad to the point where he decided he would write to his Commanding Officer resigning his commission and refusing to take any further part in the war.  In the end, West couldn’t bring himself to deliver the letter and reported for duty as instructed.  He went back to France in September 1916 on active service with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry and was killed by a sniper on 3 April 1917.

Along with the diary excerpts is a selection of West’s poetry.  The poetry section opens with ‘God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men!’ West’s angry reaction to the patriotic poetry of those idealistic young men who believed they were living through “epic days”.  The most well-known of West’s poems is ‘The Night Patrol’ a powerful and honest account of the atrocious conditions and horrific experiences endured by those living in the trenches and one of the first realistic war poems to be published.

Last year I was delighted to learn that the Old Stile Press were to publish a fine press edition of West’s work to commemorate the 1914 centenary.   This new publication, in a limited edition of 150 copies, contains newly commissioned linocut illustrations by the artist and print-maker John Abell who also provides an afterword.  The Illustrations, several of which are full-page, reinforce the sense of horror and outrage found in West’s narrative. The black and white images create a striking and haunting impression.  Hand printed by Nicolas McDowall this edition is a fitting tribute to West.  For more information about the creation of this work please see the Old Stile Press blog.

West’s frank and powerful writings deserve to be more widely known.  I hope the interest generated by the centenary of the First World War and publications such as the one from the Old Stile Press will go some way to helping his work reach a wider readership.

The Old Stile Press edition of The Diary of a Dead Officer is now available to consult in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room, shelfmark RF.2014.b.25.