English and Drama blog

4 posts from December 2016

21 December 2016

Will Self’s archive acquired by the British Library

Rachel Foss, Head of Contemporary Archives, writes:

      The British Library has today announced its acquisition of the archive of Will Self. Probably Britain’s leading satirical writer, Self’s dystopian visions and outrageous scenarios hold up a distorting mirror to contemporary British society. Prolific as a writer of fiction and as a journalist, he is also prominent as a public intellectual, broadcasting at times controversial views in the mainstream media. The publication of his short story collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, brought him to public acclaim in 1991. Since then, he has written ten novels – among them Cock and Bull (1992), Dorian (2002), a re-telling of Oscar Wilde’s classic story set in late 20th century Britain, The Book of Dave (2006) and Umbrella (2012) which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – as well as novellas and collections of shorter fiction, and five collections of non-fiction including Perfidious Man (2000), an exploration of modern masculinity. After graduating from Oxford, Self initially worked as a cartoonist for the New Statesman and as a stand -up comedian. He currently holds the position of Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University.

Will typing

Will Self typing on his favourite typewriter

     Self’s work is predominantly set within London and the city’s location, colloquialisms and sub-cultures appear throughout his books. Drugs, addiction, aberrant psychology, dystopia, psychogeography and the politics of urbanism are also recurrent subjects in his writing. Along with William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson, Self cites J.G.Ballard as a mentor (the two men were good friends, particularly towards the end of Ballard’s life). Like Ballard, Self writes to shock and de-familiarize, deliberately to provoke and unsettle the reader. He has said: “I don’t write fiction for people to identify with and I don’t write a picture of the world they can recognize. What excites me is to disturb the reader’s fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving are unstable.”

     The archive that has recently arrived in the Manuscripts Store at the British Library consists of 24 large boxes of papers along with artwork, audio-visual material and the author’s computer hard drive. There are extensive successive literary drafts relating to all of Self’s major works as well as to his collaborations with Ralph Steadman and his journalism. The collection includes approximately 100 diaries and working notebooks: many of them used as commonplace books, which contain diary entries, research notes, literary drafts and sketches. Self’s correspondence is also included in the archive: highlights here include a series of letters from J.G. Ballard, in which Ballard discusses - among other subjects - the David Cronenberg adaptation of his novel, Crash, and his reading of Self’s re-working of the ‘modernist idea’. Other notable series of letters include those from John Banville, Iain Sinclair, Martin Amis and Oliver Sacks, revealing Self’s associations and networks and the ways in which his ideas and works have resonated outwards into the cultural landscape.

    Self’s archive joins the British Library’s extensive collections of the archives of contemporary writers, taking his place alongside the archives of his friends and contemporaries including J.G. Ballard, Hanif Kureishi, Graham Swift, Angela Carter, Beryl Bainbridge, B.S. Johnson and John Berger. It will offer a rich resource for future researchers, students and everyone with an interest in contemporary writing and culture. Work to catalogue the archive has already begun and we plan to make the collection available towards the end of 2017.

     Will Self said: ‘As a London writer I’m both honoured and pleased that my literary archive will be held at the British Library as a resource for scholars. Whether or not the jottings of a late twentieth/early twenty-first century novelist will be of much significance as the digital whirlwind continues to radically alter our culture and society, I don’t know – but there it is, and there it will remain, long after I myself have been pulped.’

Self notebooks

A box of notebooks from the Will Self Archive at the British Library

     Self’s archive, like most of the contemporary archives we acquire, is a hybrid archive containing both paper and born digital material. The collection includes his computer hard drive which holds a wealth of electronic manuscript drafts and approximately 100,000 emails along with a huge number of other files yet to be mined and identified (including downloads of his i-Tunes, which offer an intriguing line of investigation for future users of the archive).

     When Self came into the British Library recently to talk about his archive, he brought with him his favourite typewriter. His recent blogs and talks (which the Library has also preserved as part of the UK Web Archive) have frequently addressed the impact of digital culture on the future of writing. Self is a particularly interesting writer from the point of view of his working processes: earlier in his career, he wrote directly onto the computer; later on, he switched to writing long had and uses a vintage typewriter for earlier drafts. His shift to the typewriter is a creative strategy to address anxieties about the digital and its effect on the human mind and creative consciousness:  a deeply set need to feel the physical engendering of language and the weight of words upon the page. The opportunity for examination and analysis that Self’s born-digital traces offer are particularly interesting in the context of the cultural debate about the digital of which Self is at the forefront. The hard drive gives curators at the British Library an exciting opportunity to emulate the working environment of the writer as we continue to confront the challenges presented by these kinds of contemporary collections and work to make these valuable resources available for the future.

On Being Archived: Will Self, Hanif Kureishi and Guests, will take place at the British Library on 24th March 2017 at 7pm. Please see the Library’s Events pages for more details.

16 December 2016

P.G. Wodehouse Archive at the British Library

Recently, as part of our cultural preview for 2017, we announced that the personal archive of P.G. Wodehouse has come to the British Library on loan and is to be made publicly available for the first time.

P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) was a prolific writer and is one of the most widely read humourists of the twentieth century. Publishing over ninety books in his lifetime, he is best known as the author of the well-loved series of novels featuring Jeeves and Wooster. He also forged a successful career as an acclaimed lyricist, satirist and social commentator.

Sir Edward Cazalet, who has made the archive available to the Library, said:

“I am so delighted that the British Library is to provide a home for my P.G. Wodehouse archive. Given that Wodehouse is now ranked as one of the leading, if not the leading, humourist authors of the 20th century writing in the English language, I believe that this broad-based collection will not only bring much pleasure and laughter to its readers but will also prove to be critical to any serious study of 20th century humour and literature.  

PGW would have been so proud to know that he is now counted amongst his great literary heroes, headed by Shakespeare, Tennyson and so many others. This archive I have built up over a period of more than 40 years since Plum’s [Wodehouse] death in 1975. It contains many of his drafts and manuscripts, and has copious quantities of correspondence with composers, authors, relations and close friends, as well as a wide range of other interesting documents.”

The archive spans material dating from 1900-2005 and includes manuscript drafts and notebooks relating to Wodehouse’s fiction and essays, among them Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, the last novel in the Jeeves and Wooster books, and his final published novel, Sunset at Blandings.


“Keeping it from Harold”, story by PGW in the December 1913 issue of The Strand Magazine. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the P.G. Wodehouse Estate. 

The archive also contains material relating to his writing for theatre, film and cinema. While in America Wodehouse wrote the lyrics for a number of American musicals in collaboration with composer Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton, playwright and librettist. The collaborators were very successful and at one point had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway. Wodehouse also worked in Hollywood where he was one of the script writers of Those Three French Girls. The screenplay for this is also part of the archive.

Wodehouse’s correspondence reveals his conversations with family, friends, authors and fellow artists. These include letters from Evelyn Waugh - who described Wodehouse as his ‘revered master’ - and from the American lyricist Ira Gershwin. One of his letters to his wife, written while he was under arrest in France, has a rather interesting story.  The letter did not reach Mrs Wodehouse until it was rediscovered in a house in Frimley in the summer of 1977, and sent to her by Peter May, whose neighbour had discovered the letter when sorting through her late husband’s effects. 

T00102-72 T00102-73


Letter from PGW to his wife Ethel, 25 November 1944. Images reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the P.G. Wodehouse Estate. 

The archive also includes the handwritten manuscript of Wodehouse’s ‘Camp Diary’. Having been interned by the German Army in various temporary prison camps Wodehouse eventually arrived in a converted asylum at Tost, in Upper Silesia. During this time he kept a diary, which he turned into a series of talks with which he entertained his fellow detainees. With typical dry humour, these talks reflected the traditional code of honour of the detainees, their practice of making light of their discomforts and remaining stoic, and showed how they did their best to lift their spirits when faced with challenging and dangerous circumstances.

10 December 2016

Countdown to the 2016 Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets

With just a few days remaining before the winners of this year's Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets are announced, it seems topical to review the shortlists for the Pamphlets award and the Publishers award.  This year's Awards attracted 120 entries from nearly 50 publishers, along with five self-published pamphlets. The seven publishers with the highest number of entries submitted 48 pamphlets between them, and 24 publishers submitted a single pamphlet - giving an indication of the wide range of situations in which poetry pamphlets are being produced.  All these pamphlets will now be added to the Library's collections.

The five pamphlets shortlisted for the award of most outstanding poetry pamphlet were:

Polly Clark: A Handbook for the Afterlife, Templar Poetry


Judges’ comments

Playful poems, which grip and convince, they are unafraid to cast their gaze on the darker side of life. These are poems richly shot through with warmth and honesty.

Fiona Moore: Night Letter, Happenstance


Judges’ comments

A tender, reflective pamphlet, these are poems of shifting moods and clear eyed observations. Here the reader will find poems that engage with senses of place in a subtle and moving way.

Camille Ralphs: Malkin, The Emma Press


Judges’ comments

An engagingly inventive pamphlet bringing the Pendle story to life through innovative language, which dazzles and enthrals. Poems attuned at once to the rhythms and limits of language.

Richard Scott: Wound, The Rialto

Wound | The Rialto - the poetry magazine to read















Judges’ comments

A thrillingly innovative pamphlet, full of high life and low living, powerful, arresting and unflinching in its gaze. Poems where vulnerability and desire nestle side by side.

Lizzi Thistlethwayte : Angels and Other Diptera , Waterflag Press


Judges’ comments

A poised and balanced pamphlet, these delicate, intricate poems transport us to other landscapes. Haunting work of great poise and stillness.


For the Publishers Award, fifteen publishers submitted entries detailing the work they do to produce and promote poetry pamphlets, as well as their approach to working with poets.   The shortlist for the Award was as follows:

HappenStance Press


Judges’ comments

HappenStance shows a commitment to working with debut authors and submitted six pamphlets this year, including Fiona Moore's shortlisted pamphlet, 'Night Letter'. All share the same distinctive production features combining low-budget simplicity with care, shown in the richly coloured end-papers that contrast the cream covers, paired with line drawings and individually selected fonts.  HappenStance makes impressive use of carefully built networks to market the pamphlets, and this has been accompanied this year by brief 'one point of interest' reviews on the web, to promote the works. They won the Publishers’ Award in 2010.


Templar Poetry
























Judges’ comments

Templar Poetry's submission of eight pamphlets impressed us by their high standard, and included Polly Clarke's 'A Handbook for the afterlife', alongside other pamphlets that were contenders for the shortlist. They feature individual designs and varying sizes, so that each pamphlet can stand in its own right within a larger publishing offering.  Templar's commitment to poetry pamphlet publishing is shown through launches at Poetry Live Readings and an impressive selection of festivals across the British Isles.


The Emma Press


 Judges’ comments

 The Emma Press are again shortlisted this year, for the third year running, impressing us with the individuality and range of their seven pamphlets, as well as their high standard.  They included Camille Ralph's 'Malkin' and other pamphlets that were discussed during shortlisting, and range from 'action movie poems' to a poetic duet on the theme of travel.  The pamphlets' varying sizes and illustrations, with careful production values, convey an impressive level of ambition to make an impact through and on poetry publishing, by showcasing the work of deserving newer authors.


Shearsman Books


Judges’ comments

 Shearsman Books' attractive and distinctive pamphlets feature silky soft covers and a standardised layout with individual cover illustrations; these production values convey commitment to the poetry pamphlet.  We were impressed by the range of poetic styles featured in these high-quality pamphlets, including more risky ‘experimental’ styles within their offering.  The pamphlets submitted were contenders for the shortlist, and were launched together to gain greater impact.  They are promoted primarily through live readings and events as well as being sold online. Shearsman appear on the Publishers’ Award shortlist for the third time.

The winners, along with the winner of the Illustration Award, will be announced at a special dinner at the British Library on Tuesday 13th December 2016. The Awards are supported by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, in association with The Wordsworth Trust and the TLS along with the British Library.  

On a personal note, the quality of entries for the Awards was underlined for me last week when I was fortunate to see two of the poets who submitted pamphlets this year reading their poetry at the British Library Knowledge Centre.  Jay Bernard and Selina Nwulu were on stage as part of   'A Meeting of the Continents: International Poetry Night'  hosted by Linton Kwesi Johnson as part of a series of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding in London of New Beacon Books.   


The British Library will be recording readings by the poets shortlisted for this year's awards, and they will be made available on the Library's sound server, so watch this space to find out who the award winners will be.

07 December 2016

Cathy Courtney talks about Ken Campbell at the British Library

Earlier this year, the British Library completed its collection of the published works of the British artist Ken Campbell, with his most recent work You All Know The Words (2016). The British Library is the only Library in UK to hold all the works. At the end of October, the Library held a celebration of the work of Ken Campbell. Reprinted here is the text from Cathy Courtney’s introduction to the evening.


You All Know The Words (2016). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

I speak as one of the first beneficiaries of the British Library’s decision to augment its collection of Ken’s books, and was lucky enough to spend some time with a selection of them last week in preparation for tonight, and to re-encounter works I hadn’t seen for at least a decade as well as to meet more recent books for the first time.   I’m not a member of the British Library staff so I feel I can also pay tribute to the curators here for their commitment to Ken’s collection and their sensitive and excited response to it.

Beginning in 1983 I wrote a column on Artists’ Books for Jack Wendler and Peter Townsend’s magazine, Art Monthly, and it was Peter who led to my meeting Ken. The world of artists’ books is a hotly disputed one, full of splits and factions about what does and does not count as an artists’ book. At one extreme are the de luxe livres d’artistes, limited editions usually printed on fine paper, often images supporting texts and the two separated on different pages with masses of white space on the deckle edged sheet. At the other extreme are the much cheaper multiples, making use of new technology, often deliberately cocking a snook at the livres d’artistes, rejecting high spec values, usually costing little and often given away. In Britain, at least, the supporters of one school were always anxious to knock down the supporters of the other.

There were ten issues of Art Monthly a year, not much space therefore to cover the field, and I was determined to use the column for a broad range of work. The years writing for Art Monthly were ones in which I was heavily pursued by the book artists, not least by belligerent phone calls before 8 o’clock in the morning from Ken and from another artist who used to ring me at 11 pm and talk for an hour minimum. It’s not unconnected to this that I bought my first telephone answering machine.

Ken Campbell’s books are an outstanding achievement and his is one of the strongest voices we have in the field. His works are a compelling amalgam of erudition and violence, raw pain and refinement, anger and joy. In many ways he has created a place in the spectrum between livres d’artistes and multiples that is his ground alone.  

His books are remarkable for a number of reasons and I have only time to refer to a few.   One aspect is his professionalism. Ken trained as a printer and is rare in having come to make books with a deep intellectual and hands-on knowledge of the materials and how to control them. Skilled in how to manipulate the letterpress perfectly, nevertheless he chose instead to instigate a fierce and warlike dance with the process, courting accident and breakage, and this vitality is wonderfully captured in the results. You can feel the energy burning off the pages. The massive scale and solemnity of some of the works makes this even more of an accomplishment. Whilst there has been plenty of prior planning, many of his decisions were made in the heat of action on the printing bed and with relish at the semi-accidental richness thereby achieved.   He’s a risk taker backed by proficiency, too restless a soul to take the safer route.  

Knife15 copy

A Knife Romance (1988). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

He’s also an ad-libber with a learned tongue. Although some of the works are collaborations, another characteristic not shared by many other book artists is Ken’s repeated taking responsibility for both text and image, these two elements being distilled into a single entity, the content inseparable from the form.   His texts are an extraordinary synthesis of the personal and the learnt, the historical and the now. When he quotes from religious or historical texts he does so as if these are deeply felt, avoiding the tripwire of bathos, which is no easy feat. He is a poet with a natural and muscular brimming over of language from which to edit. Anger at injustice is a theme which runs through several of the texts, whether political in the wider sense or closer to home, and his engagement, conflict with and love of his family – his parents, his wife and daughters – bleeds into the works without veering into sentimentality.

Wearing another hat, I am speaking as Project Director for an oral history project, Artists’ Lives which National Life Stories, an independent charity based here at the British Library, runs with Tate.   Ken was recorded for Artists’ Lives in 2005 and his recording will go online shortly.   As with most National Life Stories recordings, it’s an in-depth life story, made over several sessions, covering biographical material as well as professional experience.   It was a perfect platform for Ken, and draws together the elements of his personal life which consume him alongside much detail about his work and how it has been made, and will be very useful for anyone wanting to know more about how the books in the British Library’s and about his sculpture and painting.

National Life Stories has to raise funds for all its recordings. Ken’s was supported by Yale Center for British Art, and I would like to include a message from Elisabeth Fairman, Chief Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Center. She emailed me to say

“how pleased the Center is to also have a complete collection of Ken’s work, someone whom we consider one of the greatest book artists of his time”.


Following on from the event in October, many of the Artists’ Lives recordings have now been made available on the British Library’s website. These can be heard at http://sounds.bl.uk/Arts-literature-and-performance/Art