THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

5 posts from July 2020

30 July 2020

Andrew Salkey and the first Publishing Houses for Black Writing in Britain

By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310), working in collaboration with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and the British Library. This blog is part of a series looking at Salkey’s literary works and involvement with publishing houses for black writing in Britain. 

Andrew Salkey was a man of many hats; a novelist, poet, editor, broadcaster, academic, cultural promoter and activist but, his main passion in his life was writing. Salkey’s love for writing began as a young boy in Jamaica writing short stories in school exercise books and he continued to write almost daily until his death in 1995. His back-catalogue of literary work boasts a range of adult and children’s novels, short story collections, poetry collections and long poems. His archive reflects the sheer variety of his literary works and the characteristic political undertones of all of his writing.  Salkey is often remembered for his role as a presenter of the BBC’s seminal programme ‘Caribbean Voices’ and as a leading figure in the diasporic consciousness of Caribbean artists and intellectuals in the UK through his role as co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM). However, he also had a significant influence on the development of Caribbean literary activism in London during the 1960s and 1970s through his unwavering support of two of the first black publishing houses in London New Beacon Books and Bogle L’Ouverture (BLP).

Salkey became involved with New Beacon books through his friendship with the founders, John La Rose and Sarah White. Salkey, La Rose and Kamau Brathwaite were the co-founders of CAM; a movement set up for Caribbean artists to get to know each other, and their work, as well as get to know their readers in the Caribbean diaspora. The CAM meetings were the first place La Rose and White sold their own publications. New Beacon Books was founded in 1966 as the UK’s first black publisher, specialist bookshop and international book distributor. The company was named after a journal, The Beacon, which ran from 1931-1932 in La Rose’s native Trinidad. New Beacon’s publishing and distribution was originally ran from La Rose and White’s flat until they were able to take over premises in Finsbury Park and begin functioning as a book store. The shop became the epicentre of many campaigns, movements and organisations Salkey was involved with including: CAM (1966-1972), and the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books- organised jointly with BLP and Race Today Publications (1982-1995).

Two of Salkey’s works were published by New Beacon Books: Georgetown Journal: a Caribbean writer’s journey from London to Port of Spain to Georgetown, Guyana 1970 (1972) and the second edition of Salkey’s critically acclaimed first novel, A Quality of Violence (1978). Georgetown Journal is an account of Salkey’s 1970 trip, with La Rose and Samuel Selvon, to Georgetown. They were guests at events organised by President Forbes Burnham marking the founding of the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana and the Caribbean Writers and Artists Conference. Salkey’s archive includes a letter from Trevor McDonald relating to the trip offering Salkey advice on who to target for interviews. McDonald was a producer on the Caribbean Service, he suggested President Forbes Burnham, Willy Demas and Clyde Walcott as interesting interviews but signed off his letter to Salkey with ‘I am leaving the rest to your impeccable judgement’.

In 1974 Salkey was given a directorship in New Beacon Books with ten shares. Salkey gave New Beacon Books all of the rights and proceeds from Georgetown Journal in a personal effort to ‘strengthen and consolidate’ the company. Despite this, Salkey was very aware of how financially draining the publishing endeavour was for La Rose. He laments in his diary about how much debt La Rose incurred printing Georgetown Journal, he goes on to say that apart from free manuscripts ‘I must also find a way to keep them with money or its hard-edged equivalent, in some way’.

Bogle L’Ouverture (BLP) was founded in London in 1968 by Guyanese couple Eric and Jessica Huntley. They were friends of La Rose and met Salkey through him. Although the Huntleys were never official members of CAM they were friends with many of its members. BLP was named after the Jamaican hero of the Morant Bay uprising, Paul Bogle, and Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture. When the Huntleys opened their bookshop in Ealing, they did so with the help and backing of La Rose. Salkey supported their endeavour in the same way he had with New Beacon Books. He was a Director and shareholder in the company and supported the organisation through the rights and proceeds of his manuscripts. He sent them other Caribbean writers’ works, and he offered them business and literary advice. In his diaries Salkey refers to BLP as ‘our publishing firm’, he was determined to be an active supporter of Caribbean writing and ‘keep the faith as a writer with my two Caribbean publishers in Britain’.

Salkey’s first novel published by BLP was the children’s story Joey Tyson. This was the third publication in BLP’s children’s series (which also included the writings of Bernard Coard), which was aimed at educating children in Britain about African and Caribbean history, politics and culture. Salkey’s ability to convey adult issues and themes to children in a way they can understand, and feel an affinity with, made him the perfect author for BLP’s literary activism. Joey Tyson depicts the exile of a fictional character, Dr Paul Bogle Buxton, from the perspective of a young boy. Dr Buxton, described as ‘the radical lecturer in African history at the university’, was a fictional imagining of Walter Rodney and his expulsion from Jamaica in 1968. One review of the novel retained in Salkey’s archive states: ‘Teachers looking for something new or something more and who appreciate that literature cannot be divorced from life will recognise the merits of Joey Tyson’. This work embodies the Huntleys’ and Salkey’s endeavour to create children’s literature that educated and rallied the new generation, encouraging grassroots activism and highlighted the counter-hegemony in Britain and the Caribbean. The launch for the novel was held at the Keskidee Centre in Islington, once used regularly for CAM functions, by Jessica Huntley on Salkey’s 47th birthday, 30 January 1975. In his diary he wrote that this day ‘symbolised an acceptance of my small contribution to our community, which I never thought I’d receive’.

Sources and Further Reading

David Austin Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal, Between the Lines, (Toronto: Canada, 2013)

Edited by Verner D. Mitchell, Cynthia Davis, The Black Arts Movement, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019),

The George Padmore Institute: Why Publish Independently (online) Accessed: 29/03/2020: https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/the-pioneering-years/new-beacon-books-early-history/why-publish-independently

28 July 2020

Two Inches of Ivory: A New(ish) Jane Austen Acquisition

by Zoe Louca-Richards, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. Please note that due to work-flow restrictions resulting from Covid-19 action this material may not be accessible via the reading rooms until later in the year.

 

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“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of variety and Glow? – How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much Labour?” Jane Austen

After being on long loan to the British Library for over 80 years, the letter in which Jane Austen made the above famous remark has been acquired for permanent addition to the nation’s literary collection. The letter to Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh, was originally placed on loan to the British Library in 1936 by Austen’s descendants as part of Loan MS 19, and has now been purchased through a generous grant from The Collections Trust. It is one of approximately 160 surviving letters by Austen, of which only a small portion are addressed to those other than her sister Cassandra. The remainder of Austen’s life correspondence is thought to have been destroyed by Cassandra shortly after Austen’s death. The surviving few are a meagre remnant of this literary great: they offer only the faintest glimpse into the life that produced so many of our best known classics. Each of her extant letters has been repeatedly scrutinised and discussed. However, this letter in particular, previously published as Letter 146 in Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen's letters (1995), is perhaps one of the most widely referenced of them, on account of the above quote, making it a valuable addition to the British Library’s literary collection.

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  Above: James Edward Austen Leigh. Below: Portrait of Jane Austen produced for the Memoir by James Edward Austen Leigh.

James Edward Austen Leigh, known by family and friends as Edward, and addressed here by Austen as ‘E’, was the son of Jane Austen’s eldest brother, also James. James (Jr.) had recently turned 18 when he received this letter from his aunt, and her opening line, ‘One reason for my writing to you now, is that I may have the pleasure of directing to you Esqre’, offers a playful quip on his recent transition into manhood. James was an aspiring novelist himself, and at the time of the letter had just left Winchester College to begin as an undergraduate at Oxford. James would later publish A Memoir of Jane Austen (1869) the earliest biographical account of his aunt, and the only one to be written by someone who knew her. It wasn’t published until 50 years after Austen’s death, and James himself had concerns as to his ability to do justice to such a task. You can learn more about James’ memoirs of his aunt through the British Library’s Online Exhibition Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. 

James is often referenced as Austen’s ‘favourite’ nephew. Letters to her sister Cassandra, indicate her active support and encouragement for his writing ability from a young age. James too spoke fondly of Austen. In his memoir of her he notes that she ‘was the delight of all her nephews and nieces’ and ‘that there was scarcely a charm in her most delightful characters that was not a true reflection of her own sweet temper and loving heart’. 

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Austen's quote comparing her work to the art of miniature painting. Add MS 89437

Early in the 4 page letter Austen notes that she is dismayed to learn that two and a half chapters of James’ own work have gone missing; extending a witty relief that her recent prolonged absence from Steventon cannot render her under suspicion of theft. Her famous remark comparing her work to the delicate and intricate art of miniature painting follows. This introspective comment from Austen regarding her craft has been the subject of much speculation and interpretation by scholars and Austen fans alike. In bashfully attesting to what little value such a theft would have, the fruits of which baring no possible benefit to her own works, Austen seems simultaneously to rib and praise both James’ work, and her own. The quote’s jocular undertone is often read as a subtle reminder to James that compared to her he was but a novice of the pen. Furthermore, ’so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much Labour’ has been suggested to indicate Austen’s own anxieties about the laborious nature of her art. The quote is frequently highlighted as a rare use of metaphor by Austen, a literary device often seen lacking in her published works.

The remainder of the letter goes on to discuss family concerns, particularly those of ‘Uncle Henry’, Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1859), and ‘Uncle Charles’, Charles John Austen (1779 – 1852), two of Austen’s six brothers. 

 

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“But I was forced to decline it, the walk is beyond my strength (though I am otherwise very well)". Add MS 89437

Austen wrote the letter on her 41st birthday, which would sadly be her last. Whilst she does make a brief comment on her poor health, noting the decline of an invitation as ‘the walk is beyond my strength’,  the cheerful, light-hearted tone of the letter gives little impression that Austen had been battling with illness throughout the year, or indeed of an awareness that she would not last her 42nd birthday. A later letter written in January 1817 to her sister Cassandra notes that she had gained strength throughout the winter of 1816. Never the less, Austen died the following July. The exact cause of her death is still a matter of contention; Austen’s biographies alternate most frequently between a posthumous diagnosis of Addison’s disease and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – neither of which were recognised during Jane Austen’s lifetime – both also unfortunately untreatable, and both ultimately fatal.

This letter (Add MS 89437) joins another, also formerly from Loan MS 19, to her sister Cassandra (Add MS 70625) - accessible online on Discovering Literature - which was purchased by the British Library in in 1990. Five of the original seven letters loaned to the Library have now been sold (including the two purchased by the Library), and the remaining 2 letters are still on loan as Loan MS 19.

In addition to the aforementioned letters, the British library also holds Austen’s writing desk and a number of other fascinating Austen manuscripts, including:

 

Further Reading:

Jane Austen's letters /​ collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 3rd ed., Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1995.

James Edward Austen Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-memoir-of-jane-austen

Joan Austen Leigh ‘Jane Austen's Favourite Nephew’, Journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Persuasions #18, 1996.

15 July 2020

Mervyn Peake’s scariest drawings saved for the nation

By Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts

Drawing of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Drawing of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Today we are announcing the acquisition of over 300 drawings from the pen of one of the 20th century’s greatest illustrators, Mervyn Peake. The archive includes fearsome and funny illustrations for classics such as Treasure Island, The Hunting of the Snark and Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm, as well as illustrations for his own books including Gormenghast, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor and Letters From a Lost Uncle. This newly-acquired archive – also containing juvenilia and unpublished work - joins his literary manuscripts already held here at the British Library, together forming the largest public Mervyn Peake collection anywhere in the world. From completion of cataloguing in 2022 you will be able to research the Mervyn Peake Visual Archive for yourself and there will be opportunities to see the illustrations in upcoming British Library exhibitions, but for now here are a few highlights to whet your appetite and stimulate those research ideas.

Treasured islands

One of the undoubted gems of this new collection is Peake’s series of illustrations for Treasure Island, which were published in 1949 and are regarded as some of the finest examples of his illustrative work. It probably helped that Treasure Island was his favourite book from childhood and that he had been poring over the drawings of others, including the anonymous original illustrator, and drafting his own versions since he was a schoolboy (as evidenced by the fact that two watercolour illustrations survive in the archive executed when Peake was only 15). But Peake’s familiarity with the illustrators who went before him was not purely down to childhood fandom. On receiving one of his earliest commissions to illustrate Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark in 1941 he set out to learn everything he could from the artists he most admired – from Hogarth and Blake to Cruikshank and Bewick. As a writer himself, he maintained a healthy respect for the authors whose work he was reinterpreting, ‘sliding into another man’s soul’ as he put it and subordinating himself to the story, which perhaps explains why he often chose to show us characters divorced from their setting, leaving it to our imaginations to conjure the action of the story. The results have been highly praised and Peake is credited with reimagining the story and showing us the true evil potential of the pirates (see John Lewis’ The 20th Century Book: Its Illustration and Design).

The pirate crew

The pirate crew from Treasure Island, 1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

These Treasure Island illustrations are also a particularly fine example of Peake’s mastery of the technique of cross-hatching, as you can see from the above drawing of the Hispaniola’s shipmates as they approach Skeleton Island. Elsewhere, his innovative use of closely-drawn broken lines results in the incredible image of Israel Hands falling from the mast with a swirling sea behind him. Part of the rich research potential in this new archive lies in the many preliminary drawings and annotated proofs for Treasure Island which Peake retained, allowing us to trace his creative process in detail as he carefully honed each picture.

Israel Hands falling from the mast. Treasure Island  1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Israel Hands falling from the mast, Treasure Island, 1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Too scary for bedtime?

Once dubbed by critics ‘eerie’, ‘sinister’ and ‘quite unsuitable for sensitive children’, it is Peake’s children’s book illustrations that are at the heart of this archive. Peake’s work has thrilled and unsettled children since he started publishing in the later 1930s, sometimes with an outcry from adults who have worried about nightmares and the ‘indelible mark’ left on their offspring. Here is an example from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm (1946), which again uses cross-hatching to evoke the dark, foreboding atmosphere.

Illustration for ‘Our Lady’s Child’ from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm  1946. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Illustration for 'Our Lady's Child' from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

For older readers, Peake will be best-known as the author of the Gormenghast books which earned him the status as one of the best fantasy writers of the 20th century. Fans of the series will find ten illustrations of Gormenghast characters in the Visual Archive, including depictions of its hollow-eyed anti-hero Steerpike, the grotesque chef Arabiatha Swelter and the delightfully-named doctor’s sister, Irma Prunesquallor.

Early Peake

The earliest item from the Visual Archive is a drawing by seven-year-old Mervyn, sketched on a Sunday afternoon in China, where he spent his childhood as the son of a missionary doctor. The Peake family returned to England for good when Mervyn was 11 years old but the sights and sounds of his early years were never forgotten. The sense of being an outsider came from living in a walled missionary compound looking like a miniature version of Croydon set down in a distinctly different culture, and it continued on his return to England where there seemed to be no thread linking his two very different lives. Peake’s perspective on Chinese culture and this sense of isolation have both been consistent influences on Peake’s later work, from the ritualised world of Gormenghast to the stylised brushwork of some of his drawings. In the Visual Archive, the Chinese influence can be seen in his juvenilia and also in his exquisite illustrations for an early unpublished book of nonsense, ‘The Moccus Book’, which he produced in the late 1920s from an idea developed with his best friend, Gordon Smith.

A Sunday evening walk in China. Earliest surviving drawing by Mervyn Peake  aged 7  circa 1918. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

A Sunday evening walk in China. Earliest surviving drawing by Mervyn Peake, aged 7, around 1918. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

The pirate who never grew up

The thread running through the entire archive is Peake’s piratical spirit. He was obsessed with pirate stories from childhood, cultivated a piratical appearance and was very fond of jokes and pranks. It is not surprising therefore that Peake went on to write his own pirate tale in the form of his 1939 children’s book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. Although Peake’s early literary influences reflect the colonial society in which he grew up, it is notable how he could turn these tropes upside down. The bloodthirsty Captain Slaughterboard, for instance, gives up his piratical ways and sets up a cosy, domesticated life on a foreign island with an ambiguously-gendered ‘Yellow Creature’ in what appears to be a very happy queer relationship – marking the picture book out as ‘way ahead of its time’ in the opinion of former Cambridge Professor of Children’s Literature, Morag Styles. The Visual Archive holds the complete set of all 45 final illustrations for this book and you can see a glimpse of an early version of the Slaughterboard story in this beautifully illustrated manuscript from the collection which is available in full on our Discovering Children’s Books site.

The pirate Charlie Choke sporting a tattoo of Mervyn Peake’s wife Maeve on his arm. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor  1939. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

The pirate Charlie Choke sporting a tattoo of Mervyn Peake's wife Maeve on his arm. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, 1939. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Words and pictures

Utlimately, in the fashion of other great writer-artists from Blake to Wyndham Lewis, it is impossible to separate Peake’s art from his writing. To understand his imagination and his synaesthetic creative process as a whole, we need to consider his writing and drawing side by side, and this acquisition will enable researchers to do just that. You can read more about the Mervyn Peake Visual Archive in our press release.

Funders

The Mervyn Peake Visual Archive was acquired by the British Library with the generous support of the Art Fund with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation and a contribution in memory of Miranda Stonor, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the British Library Collections Trust and the Friends of the National Libraries.

Further reading

  • G. Peter Winngton, ed., Mervyn Peake The Man and his Art (London: Peter Owen, 2006)
  • G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London: Peter Owen, 2009)
  • Maeve Gilmore, A World Away (London: Gollancz, 1

13 July 2020

Blazing a trail for Black British writing: Jacaranda's Twenty in 2020

It seems fitting to open our series on small publishers who make the work of Black writers central to their mission by featuring the first publishing house to commit to publishing 20 titles by 20 Black British writers in one year.  This initiative aims to amplify the voice of Black Britons as valued members of British culture and society and to increase the range and presence of work by diverse writers. The books include adult fiction, nonfiction and poetry.  The publisher is London-based Jacaranda Books, who have just picked up the British Bookseller Award for Best Small Publisher 2020.

Leopard's Gaza

Through the Leopard's Gaze, by Njambi McGrath.

Jacaranda Books is an independent publishing house that aims to create a platform for under-represented voices from a wide cultural heritage, but with a particular focus on works related to Africa, the Caribbean and the Diaspora. It was founded in January 2012 by Valerie Brandes. In an interview with literature website Afrikult, Brandes spoke of her desire “to revive and add to the rich tradition of black female publishing in the UK [and] to honour and continue the tradition of black publishers who came before us, figures such as Margaret Busby and Verna Wilkins.”   Valerie Brandes placed her publishing work in the same context when she spoke to 5 News recently about why diverse literature is important to tackle racism.

Referring to two inspirational figures in black British publishing, Valerie Brandes is signalling Jacaranda’s aim to make change through publishing and to continue a tradition of collective activism.

As the founding editor of Allison & Busby in 1967, Ghana-born Margaret Busby has long been a pioneer of Black British publishing. Last year she edited 'New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent', as a follow up to the original anthology she compiled in 1992. Born in Grenada and living in London, Verna Wilkins is the author of a wide range of picture books and biographies for young people, including ‘The Life of Stephen Lawrence’. Verna Wilkins and Margaret Busby worked together to establish Independent Black Publishers, a trade association aiming to increase the impact of progressive Black publishers within UK publishing.

Jacaranda’s all-women staff includes Jazzmine Breary as sales, publicity and marketing manager. Jazzmine has been part of Jacaranda’s story since it began, and she was among those who spoke at the Library’s Bringing Voices Together networking event in 2017.  She has been named as one of The Bookseller’s ‘Rising Stars of 2020’.  The Bookseller notes Breary’s involvement in all aspects of developing and defining Jacaranda’s list, ethos and brand identity.  At the British Library, Jazzmine Breary spoke about the way black writers are often pigeon-holed by mainstream publishers. She has noted too that although Jacaranda may be driven by positive aims and passion, that’s not enough to sell books.  The quality of the writing is the key to Jacaranda’s success, and has never been compromised by its commitment to inclusivity.

Butterfly Fish

The Butterfly Fish, by Irenosen Okojie

If one thing stands out about Jacaranda, it is the wide range of books on offer.  That range stretches from award-winning novels of writers like Irenosen Okojie to the contemporary honest and emotional love stories of Maame Blue and Frances Mensah Williams.

Jacaranda has also published translated fiction such as 'Seven Stones' by Venus Khoury-Ghata, the Man Booker International Prize-listed 'Tram 83' by Fiston Mwanza Mujilaand, and 'A Girl Called Eel' by Ali Zamir, which was gained the English Pen Translates Award.  Books such as 'The Marrow Thieves' by Cherie Dimaline are aimed at young adult readers.

Tram 83

Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Beyond fiction, Jacaranda’s list includes history and biography, from Stephen Bourne’s fascinating study of the life of jazz and caberet singer and actress Evelyn Dove, to the memoir of feminist and activist Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith, ‘The Space between Black and White’.

Screen Shot 2020-07-13 at 15.33.57

The Space between Black and White, by Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith

Jacaranda also published Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin narrated alternately by Trayvon’s parents Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin.  Paramount’s award-winning documentary television series was based largely on this book.

Where mainstream publishers tend to avoid risks by sticking to what they know, smaller publishers such as Jacaranda play a vital role in showing that there is a market for diverse fiction.  Offering a range of books of different styles allows Jacaranda to cater for readers with very different interests and tastes. Readers may find recognition in these stories or they may be challenged by encountering the individual dimension of shared and troubled histories connecting Britain and Africa. Either way, these are books that entertain, forge understanding, and make a difference. 

The books featured here are available in bookshops or direct from Jacaranda.

In the coming weeks we will continue to cast a spotlight on small and independent publishers with a focus on black writers and other writers of colour in order to aid wider awareness of the quality and quantity of this work.

 

08 July 2020

New Blog Season: Anti-Racism and Excellence in Our Collections and Beyond, editor's comments

by Callum Bartolomeu McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives and editor of the English & Drama Blog.

Our new season, Anti-Racism and Excellence in Our Collections and Beyond runs from July-September 2020. If you'd like to get in touch with comments or suggestions, please do so using Twitter with the handle @BLEnglish_Drama.

Owing to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, some blog posts may be delayed. We hope to stick to a Monday, Wednesday and Friday schedule as outlined below as far as possible, but please bear with us if we're a little bit late.

In response to the murder of George Floyd and recent worldwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, the Library issued a statement yesterday committing itself to becoming an anti-racist organisation, urging colleagues to push beyond what Chief Librarian Liz Jolly described as a passive ‘non-belief’ in racism towards an active struggle against it in our corporate structure, our collecting policies or our own interpersonal relationships. This is, and must be, a long-term commitment. From the perspective of a blog-editor — attempting to plan out a season of content which reflects on, sustains and even pushes beyond this statement — its commitment to change is encouraging.

The Library has vast collections and deep expertise, but I’d be lying if I said that the task of writing and programming content around these issues wasn’t intimidating. The pressure to get it right is huge — not only, as you might suspect, because of highly-charged social media discourse — but more-so because there is a genuine desire amongst colleagues to do good work. The trepidation around mis-stepping stems mostly from a fear of letting our audiences down. But we can’t be silent either. In the current climate especially, discussions about the value of cultural heritage run a real risk of being hijacked by politically motivated sophistry and bad faith arguments in favour of ‘preservation’. Cultural Heritage professionals, as experts in this area, have a role to play. As statues around the country fall, questions about what constitutes real history — about which monuments and narratives are worthy of prominence, promotion and preservation in our culture —  become more urgent. We should be wary of those who would use calls to ‘preserve our history’ in order to smooth over their own conscience or ignorance; of arguments in which the definitions of ‘our’ and ‘history’ are made narrow enough that nothing except the status-quo might pass through them into posterity. 

As custodians of a national collection it is our job to go beyond these calls to preserve totems to existing power structures. We need to engage with our own institutional and national histories in ways that deepen, enrich and complicate our understanding of history. The British Library, like many cultural heritage institutions in the UK and abroad, suffers from a kind of institutional double-sidedness: we are both fundamentally open yet perceived as elitist; progressive yet founded on complex histories of exploitation and exclusion; a nominally gentrifying force in our traditionally working-class district of London yet still one of the few places in the city where you’re permitted to sit without purchasing something. We must face these contradictions head-on and resist the urge to smooth them over.

So what about this blog? It is my conviction as its editor that an anti-racist appraisal of the Library’s literary collections would consider not only the representations within them — how, for instance, people of colour are used as literary devices and symbols across time — but also the material histories of these collections and their standard interpretation: how they were built, by whom, through what means, and to what end. In academic and activist circles this process has been referred to as ‘de-colonising’ the archive, and although much work remains to be done, colleagues are already making these links more visible to our users through clear signposting on the home-pages of some of our most prominent foundational collections. Yet more than this, anti-racism, despite its name, requires positive intervention. We should work to highlight excellence; to emphasise that history is not something that is ‘done to’ people of colour — or to any marginalised group for that matter — but is rather made manifest by their struggles, rebellion, and creativity, which are very often reflected in and enacted through literary and other artistic works.   

Black jACOBINS

MS 10310: Typescript of CLR James's play 'The Black Jacobins' in which he re-tells the history of the Haitian Revolution in order to foreground the role played by enslaved people, popular alternative leaders and lower-ranking soldiers.

Copyright © Estate of CLR James, reproduced courtesy of the Curtis Brown Group. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

This emphasis is brought to the fore by the celebrated novelist Andrea Levy, whose brilliant essay on Discovering Literature, ‘Back to My Own Country’, reminds us, speaking of Caribbean immigrant communities (and immigrant communities in general) that, ‘their ideas, their creativity and their ways of life have helped turn this country into a sophisticated multi-culture. This windfall of talent and variety is one of the great unforeseen benefits to Britain’. Levy's final call in the piece, that ‘my heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history’ should remind us that, far from being an effort to erase history, contemporary anti-racist struggle emerges from a long and proud tradition of protest and agitation by communities of colour working to broaden history against efforts by the powerful to control the ‘main narrative’. It’s vital that we call upon our collections to draw out these and other continuities, as a recent post from the Library’s America’s Blog has illustrated. I hope we can continue this crucial work over the next few months on this blog with a new long-form post each Wednesday.

Andrea-levy-draft_of_small_island_p002

Manuscript draft of Andrea Leavy's Small Island (2004), a novel which interweaves the stories of Jamaican migrants Gilbert and Hortense, their white English landlady, Queenie, and her husband Bernard. The book was partly inspired by Levy’s parents: her father Winston who came to Britain from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush and his wife Amy who followed in November 1948. 

Copyright:© Small Island 2004 by Andrea Levy. Usage terms: You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

As a curator and archivist it was interesting to see how the reaction to the extreme violence of George Floyd’s murder was initially one of reflection and and self-education, through the black-square social media campaign (we will have to forego criticism of its disingenuous co-option by corporate interests for lack of space, though). The Library, as a repository for ‘The World’s Knowledge’ has a responsibility to contribute to these discussions, through the sharing of its vast resources for wider community interpretation, inspiration and enjoyment. Each Friday, this blog will share resources, links and digitised materials with its readers so that we all might better understand the work that each of us needs to do.

But more than this, as a national Library operating under the legal deposit act, we are a repository for the UK’s small-presses, independent publishers and other community groups. Now more than ever, it is important that we act as an amplifier for these voices. Each Monday we hope to highlight a small publisher whose imprint focuses on black writers and other writers of colour in order to aid wider awareness of the quality and quantity of this work.

Black-britain-pubs

A selection of some of the Library's collection of printed material.

There’s much more to do so if you have suggestions or comments, please get in touch either through the blog or on Twitter. If you have a small-publisher you’d like to nominate for a highlight, please get in touch, or if there’s a particular British Library collection item which you’ve found useful, inspiring or interesting, let us know.