THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

5 posts from August 2020

24 August 2020

The Manuscripts of Thomas Chatterton

A guest-blog by Daniel Brass, Kings College, London. The British Library houses many items of significance with regard to Chatterton’s life and works. These include autograph manuscripts of his poetry, written correspondence between Chatterton and Walpole, and letters and articles from the 1770s documenting the Rowley manuscripts controversy, all of which are available to view, for free, in our Reading Rooms.

Thomas Chatterton was just seventeen years old when he took his own life on 24 August 1770. This year, 2020, marks the 250th anniversary of his death. Whilst some of his poetry was published during his lifetime, Chatterton received little remuneration for his efforts and he was impoverished at the time of his suicide. His writing gained a newfound recognition in the years directly following his death, however, and exerted a considerable influence upon the Romantic Movement as well as sparking academic controversy.

 

Painting: 'The Death of Chatterton' by Henry Wallis (Tate Britain, London) dated The Death of Chatterton, 1856, by Henry Wallis 1856

The Death of Chatterton, 1856,
by Henry Wallis (Tate Britain, London)

Born on 20 November 1752, Chatterton was an incredibly well-read child who began composing original works at the age of ten. Inspired by his reading, Chatterton soon invented the persona of Thomas Rowley – a fictional 15th-century monk. Chatterton claimed that his poetry, which adhered to a faux-medieval style, was actually the work of his imagined Rowley. So convincing was Chatterton’s deceit that, following his death, his poetry was included in an anthology of medieval writings, with Thomas Rowley’s name gracing the work’s title. An academic debate regarding the origin and authenticity of these poems raged throughout the 1770s, with the deceit eventually being discovered and Chatterton’s ‘Rowley’ works eventually seeing publication under Chatterton’s own name.

Manuscript draft of 'A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents, chronicling the history of Bristol

Add MS 24891 “A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents, chronicling the history of Bristol

Chatterton also supplied the antiquarian William Barrett with forged documents. Barrett, believing the manuscripts to be genuine, relied heavily upon them when compiling his work The History and Antiquities of Bristol. Published in 1789, long after Chatterton’s death, Barrett’s work was poorly received due to the embarrassing inclusion of the poet’s fabrications.

During his lifetime Chatterton sought patronage on several occasions and used his literary fabrications to gain access. Horace Walpole expressed an interest in Chatterton’s writings, which the poet stated were transcriptions of Rowley’s work. Walpole was not convinced and ultimately rejected the young poet as he suspected that the manuscripts were of a more modern origin than Chatterton claimed.

Manuscript draft of 'A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents, chronicling the history of Bristol, including architectural scketches.

Add MS 24891 “A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents. Chatterton’s fictional account of Bristol’s history includes several architectural sketches.

At the age of seventeen, Chatterton moved from Bristol to London with the aim of supporting himself financially through his writing. His time in London was short – he lived there for just four months prior to his death – but he wrote voraciously during that period. He composed journalistic pieces, political satires and poetry. Writing under his own name and a series of pseudonyms, Chatterton successfully achieved publication for many of his works in literary journals and magazines. Yet, despite his increasing success as a writer he continued to struggle financially. Chatterton died from an overdose of arsenic and opium on 24 August 1770. It is generally accepted that suicide was Chatterton’s intent though some have argued that the overdose which resulted in his death may have been accidental. 

Although branded a literary fraud, appreciation for Chatterton’s works grew significantly in the years following his death. The talent he showed in the composition of the Rowley manuscripts was later properly appraised and appreciated and he began to be taken seriously as a gifted artist in his own right. In particular the Romantic poets venerated him as a misunderstood, tragic genius. He was praised by the likes of Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, and Scott who all cited him as a poet of exceptional talent.

Sources and Further Reading:

The British Library holds a number of manuscripts created by Thomas Chatterton, some of them he passed off as by the fictitious Thomas Rowley. These include:

Add MS 12050, The Revenge, 6 Jul. 1770

Add MS 24890, Eclogues and other poems, eighteenth century

Add MS 5766 A, B and C, Poems drawings and papers including Rowley originals, c. 1762-1770

Add MS 24891 A Discourse on Brystowe, by Thomas Rowleie, eighteenth century

Add MS 39168 A-V, ff. 79-84, contains the letters of George Catcott in defence of the Rowley poems, 1774-1776

William Wordsworth: From This Green Earth

The year 2020 saw the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet William Wordsworth who was born in Cockermouth, on the edge of the Lake District, on 7 April 1770. To mark this anniversary the British Library hosted a small exhibition on the poet and the role that the natural landscape and concept of ‘place’ played in his poetry. On display were Wordsworth’s original manuscript drafts, books connected with the poet and related artworks of places he visited. I wrote a blog to complement the opening on Untold Lives, which you can read here.

Sadly, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the British Library was forced to close the display and cancel the anniversary celebrations. Yet, as the exhibition closed, and the pandemic spread, the themes explored were gaining a renewed importance. Throughout his life Wordsworth found comfort and inspiration in the natural world. The grandeur and beauty of nature – especially the landscape of his native Lake District – exerted a strong influence on his writing, which he imbued with a powerful sense of place. As the world slowed into lockdown and households began to self isolate many began to rediscover that same solace offered by the countryside and the peace of the wilder spaces near their homes.     

Inspired by this, we have developed six podcasts that explore the importance of the natural world using the Wordsworth exhibition as a point of departure. The series takes us on a journey across continents, along rivers, through forests, and into the heart of London to explore what nature meant to William Wordsworth and what it means to us now. On this audio voyage into all things Wordsworth, we’ll explore the role that family, friendship and collaboration played in the poet’s life and how they led to some of the most enduring lines in English poetry. We’ll delve into the power and potency that the simple act of walking had for the Lake poet, as well as considering the idea of childhood and imagination that Wordsworth and other Romantics held in such high esteem. In the final two episodes we’ll look at the legacy of Wordsworth, starting with a personal exploration of his native Cumbria and moving outwards, to consider international and post-colonial legacies of his poetry and personal myth.   

This page contains the six-part podcast series and pairs each episode with related items from our archives, which we hope you’ll explore as you listen. For an alphabetical list of all the speakers involved in the series, please see the bottom of the blog.

Episode 1 - Nature

This episode explores the revolution Wordsworth prompted in social attitudes to nature and the appreciation of the natural world. We’ll look at how this shifted in the poet’s lifetime with the growing popularity and industrialisation of his native Lake District and then consider how this shift in attitude still feeds our relationship with wilderness and the local park. We hear from environmental journalist and broadcaster Lucy Seigle who invites us along to her local green space by way of the River Thames, where she finds a strong affinity with Wordsworth’s wife Mary. Alongside Lucy is a report from naturalist and writer Pradip Krishen who speaks to us from the Central Ridge nature reserve in New Delhi, India. We also hear music from poet and plant whisperer Jade Cuttle.

Lucy Seigle’s new podcast series ‘So Hot Right Now’ is about trying to change conversations around climate change.

Pradip Krishen’s best-selling book on the trees of Delhi is available to purchase online.

Jade Cuttle’s new album ‘Algal Bloom’ is available online and can be purchased from her website.

'Kendal and Windermere Railway: Sonnet' by William Wordsworth from the Carlisle Journal, 26 Oct. 1844. © Sourced from the British Newspaper Archive. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

'Kendal and Windermere Railway: Sonnet' by William Wordsworth from the Carlisle Journal, 26 Oct. 1844. © Sourced from the British Newspaper Archive. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

Episode 2 - Family

This episode focuses on the close family bonds in the Wordsworth household and shines a light on the vital literary and practical contributions of Wordsworth’s wife Mary and his sister Dorothy. It features artist and researcher Louise Ann Wilson who created an installation and series of walking performances inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s Rydale Journals and we hear from poet Hannah Hodgson who reads from a new collection that addresses the strains lockdown has placed on family life. Also featured is acclaimed poet and writer Ruth Padel, who untangles the web of relationships that fed into Wordsworth’s life and lyrics, drawing from her award-winning poetry on science, nature and music. 

Louise Ann Wilson’s installation at Dove Cottage can be viewed on her website. 

You can find Hannah Hodgson’s poetry on Twitter and Instagram @HodgsonWrites and her website.

Ruth Padel’s new collection of poems, an elegy to a lost mother, is entitled Emerald

 

'I wandered lonely as a cloud' the original manuscript sent by Wordsworth to the printer for his Poems, in Two Volumes, 1807. The British Library, Add MS 47864. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

'I wandered lonely as a cloud' the original manuscript sent by Wordsworth to the printer for his Poems, in Two Volumes, 1807. The British Library, Add MS 47864. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

 

Episode 3 - Walking

This episode looks at an activity that humans have engaged with for millennia – walking. As in Wordsworth’s day this simple act still prompts creative thought and can often provide tranquillity in times of stress. Explaining the science behind the creative power of walking is neuroscientist and psychologist Shane O’Mara. The episode also features the poet and musician Jade Cuttle and award-winning author Guy Stagg, whose first book The Crossway traces his hike from Canterbury to Jerusalem along the old pilgrim paths of Europe.

Shane O’Mara’s book In Praise of Walking is available to order online.  

Copies of Guy Stagg’s book The Crossway can be ordered from his website.

Tintern Abbey from Frederick Calbert, Four Views of Tintern Abbey, 1815. British Library, Maps.K.top.31.16.k.2. © Public Domain. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

Tintern Abbey from Frederick Calbert, Four Views of Tintern Abbey, 1815. British Library, Maps.K.top.31.16.k.2. © Public Domain. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

Episode 4 - Childhood

In this episode we are looking at the Romantic notion of childhood, a loose philosophy of youth that stirred a revolution in the history of ideas and is still being felt in our attitudes today. Tracing this revolution back to the texts and thinkers that initiated it, Jonathan Bate explores the ideas of William Blake, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth. The episode also features emerging poets who have been directly influenced by Wordsworth’s thinking on youth and innocence as members of the Young Poets Network. Reflecting on their own relationships with Wordsworth through poetry will be Matt Sowerby and Hannah Hodgson, who are both embarking on their literary careers.

Jonathan Bate’s new biography Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World is available to order now.

You can read poems by Matt Sowerby at the Poetry Society’s website  and watch Matt perform his poem ‘Breadlines’.

You can find Hannah Hodgson’s poetry on Twitter and Instagram @HodgsonWrites and her website.

Autograph fair copy, with one correction, of 'A Poem of Childhood,' by William Wordsworth, 1842. British Library, Ashley MS 2264. © Public Domain.

Autograph fair copy, with one correction, of 'A Poem of Childhood,' by William Wordsworth, 1842. British Library, Ashley MS 2264. © Public Domain.

Episode 5 - Local Legacy

 

This episode includes a conversation with Melvyn Bragg about his life-long connection with the poetry of Wordsworth and the landscape that inspired them both. We also have the reflections of the writer Helen Mort, who spent a year as Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust, Cumbria. Both contributors explore the legacy of the famous Lake poet and what his influence means for the landscape of the Lake District and countryside more broadly.

A list of Melvyn Bragg’s books can be found online. 

Books and poetry by Helen Mort are available on her website.

 Manuscript of The Prelude, by William Wordsworth. Dove Cottage. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust

 Manuscript of The Prelude, by William Wordsworth. Dove Cottage. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust

Episode 6 - International Legacy

This episode tries to get a sense of the influence of Wordsworth outside of the Lake District and beyond the shores of Britain. An academic and a poet are invited to contribute their thoughts and research on the reception of Wordsworth outside of the Anglosphere. Featuring Ankhi Mukerjee, Professor of English and World Literatures at Oxford, who takes us back to hear how Wordsworth’s contemporaries in Bengal reacted to his revolutionary work. Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison explains her long and shifting relationship with Wordsworth and reads a number of specially selected poems. Also featured is music by award-winning poet and singer Jade Cuttle.   

Ankhi Mukerjee’s book What Is a Classic is available to order online.

Lorna Goodison’s collected poems are available on the publisher’s website, her collection entitled Redemption Ground Essays and adventures includes her essay on Wordsworth called ‘Daffodil Bashing.’

 

Autograph copy of 'The Solitary Reaper,' by William Wordsworth. British Library, Add MS 60580. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

Autograph copy of 'The Solitary Reaper,' by William Wordsworth. British Library, Add MS 60580. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

 

Contributor Bios:

Alexander Lock is Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library. He curated the Library's display 'William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place' and worked on the major British Library exhibitions 'Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy' and 'Harry Potter: A History of Magic'. His most recent book Catholicism, Identity and Politics in the Age of Enlightenment was published by Boydell and Brewer in 2016.

Ankhi Mukherjee is Professor of English and World Literatures at the University of Oxford. She is a Fellow of Wadham College. Her research and teaching specialises in Victorian literature and culture, postcolonial studies, and intellectual history. Mukherjee is the author of What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon (2014), which won the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize in English Literature in 2015.

Brett Walsh coordinates the cultural events programme at the British Library. He is a writer and artist who previously studied at the Royal College of Art, London. His writing was published in an anthology of essays on collective action, entitled Meet Me In The Present: Documents and their Afterlives. [] He also edits the literature and arts magazine Ossian, which publishes essays, fiction and journalism.   

Guy Stagg grew up in Paris, Heidelberg, Yorkshire and London. In 2013 he walked from Canterbury to Jerusalem. The Crossway, an account of this journey, was published by Picador in 2018. The book won an Edward Stanford Travel Award and was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, the RSL Ondaatje Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Deborah Rogers Foundation Award.   

Hannah Hodgson is a 22 year old poet living with life limiting illness. She writes about her hospice use, disability and family life, amongst other things. Hannah is a recipient of the 2020 Northern Writers Award for Poetry. She has had work published widely, in outlets such as Acumen, Poetry Salzburg, The Poetry Society and Teen Vogue. She is soon to begin a Masters in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in Creative Writing. Her debut pamphlet ‘Dear Body’ was published by Wayleave Press in 2018. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @HodgsonWrites and her website is www.hannahhodgson.com

Helen Mort is a poet and novelist. She is five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets Award, received an Eric Gregory Award from The Society of Authors in 2007, and won the Manchester Poetry Young Writer Prize in 2008. Her collection Division Street is published by Chatto & Windus and was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Helen’s first novel Black Car Burning was published by Random House in April 2019. She lectures in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Jade Cuttle is a Commissioning Editor (Arts) at The Times, a BBC Music Introducing singer-songwriter and award-winning poet. Jade released her debut album ‘Algal Bloom’ with funding and support from the PRS foundation and Make Noise in January 2020. Jade has been an editor at Ambit and was a judge for the Costa Book Awards in 2019. She has previously worked at The Poetry Society and tutored at The Poetry School.

Jonathan Bate is a biographer, critic, broadcaster and scholar. He is Foundation Professor of Environmental Humanities in Global Futures, the School of Sustainability and the College of Liberal Arts at Arizona State University. Jonathan’s latest book Radical Wordsworth: The Poet who changed the World, was published in 2020 to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth.

Lorna Goodison is the poet laureate of Jamaica and winner of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. Her collected works were published by Carcanet Press in 2017.

Louise Ann Wilson is an artist, scenographer and researcher who creates site-specific walking-performances in rural landscapes. Louise has made a number of works informed by Dorothy Wordsworth, including: Dorothy’s Room (2018) inspired by her Rydal Journals, and Warnscale: A Land Mark Walk Reflecting on in/Fertility and Childlessness (2015 and publication), a self-guided walking performance in the Warnscale Fells near Buttermere, inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals.

Lucy Siegle is a climate and environmental journalist and broadcaster. For many years she wrote the only sustainability column in a national newspaper (The Observer) but also contributes to The Times, Vanity Fair, Grazia and many other publications. She is also known as the ‘green’ reporter for ‘The One Show’ on BBC 1 and for ‘The True Cost’ on Netflix.

Matt Sowerby is a 19-year-old spoken word poet and activist. In 2018 he was named a National Youth Slam Champion and performed at the Poetry Society and the Houses of Parliament. In his role as a climate activist, Matt co-founded KASTLE (Kendal Activists Saving The Little Earth). He has led protests and has attended the EU Parliament in Brussels. Beyond this he runs poetry workshops and is a member of Dove Cottage Young Poets, a youth poetry training project managed by the Wordsworth Trust. He is studying at the University of Birmingham.

Melvyn Bragg is a broadcaster, writer and novelist. He is well known for his work on ‘The South Bank Show’ for London Weekend Television (LWT) since 1978, and has been Controller of Arts at LWT since 1990 (Head of Arts 1982-90). He presented BBC Radio 4's ‘Start the Week’ for ten years until he was made a Life Peer (Lord Bragg of Wigton) in 1998. He has presented ‘In Our Time’ on BBC Radio 4 since 1998 and was the president of the charity Mind from 1996-2011. He has been a lifelong fan of the poetry of William Wordsworth, sharing his Cumbrian heritage and often visiting the places mentioned in Wordsworth’s poetry. Melvyn’s discovery, at age 12, of ‘The Maid of Buttermere’ from The Prelude, was a great comfort to him while suffering from depression.

Pradip Krishen is an Indian film-maker and environmentalist. He writes about trees and plants and works as an ecological gardener (mostly) in Western Indian and the desert where he has re-wilded spoiled landscapes with native vegetation. He is the author of Trees of Delhi (2006) and Jungle Trees of Central India (2015).

Ruth Padel is an award-winning British poet whose work is inspired by her close links to Greece and interests in science, classical music and wildlife conservation. She has published eleven collections of poetry that have been shortlisted for all major UK prizes. She has published a novel featuring wildlife conservation and eight books of non-fiction. Her latest poetry collection is entitled Emerald.

Shane O’Mara is Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College Dublin and a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator. His work explores brain systems affected by stress and depression. Shane’s latest book In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How we Walk and Why it’s Good for Us takes a ‘brain’s eye’ view of this amazing human activity – walking.

19 August 2020

The Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets 2020 is Now Open

Logo for Michael Marks Poetry Awards 2020

The call for entries to the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets 2020 is now open. The Awards are for poetry pamphlets published in the UK, and entries are encouraged from any UK publisher.

The Awards celebrate the printed poetry pamphlet as an accessible and innovative form for new poetry. There are four Awards, for Poetry Pamphlet; Poetry Pamphlet in a Celtic Language; Publisher and Illustrator.

Each year, the Awards shortlist and winners demonstrate the vitality and range of poetry pamphlet publishing in the UK, and we have a mix of new writers and publishers alongside more established entrants. Our past winners have included:

Rowan Evans, for The Last Verses of Beccán

Carol Rumens, for Bezdelki

Charlotte Wetton, for I Refuse to Turn Into a Hatstand (Charlotte’s first pamphlet collection)

Richard Scott, for Wound

Winners of the Publisher Award have included: Verve Poetry Press, Guillemot Press, Smith Doorstop (the Poetry Business) and Emma Press.

We are very impressed by and proud of the quality of entrants that we get every year, and that is down to the continuing commitment of publishers across the UK to the Awards. It’s very important to us that our entries reflect the full diversity of both styles and forms of poetry and poetry publishing, but also the lived experience of the poets themselves.

If you are a publisher of poetry pamphlets, however large or small, we’d really love you to take part in this year’s Awards.

The closing date for this year’s Awards is 30th September. More details on how to enter can be found at https://michaelmarksawards.org/awards-2020/

The Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets is supported by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, in collaboration with the British Library, the Wordsworth Trust, the TLS and the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies, and in association with the National Library of Wales and National Library of Scotland.   

17 August 2020

Ted Hughes: A 90th Birthday Celebration

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives who catalogued the Hughes Archive (held at Add MS 88198) For more information about the Library's holdings of material relating to the life and work of Ted Hughes, see our collection guide and the relevant pages on Discovering Literature.

Photograph of Ted Hughes © Copyright Caroline Forbes.

Photograph of Ted Hughes © Copyright Caroline Forbes.

Today would have been the poet and writer, Ted Hughes’ 90th birthday. Born in Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire in 1930 Ted Hughes created a hugely diverse body of work from poetry and prose to theatre adaptations and non-fiction. The natural world and our relationship with it is one of the most abiding themes in his work from early poems such as ‘The Thought Fox’ and ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ through to his children’s story, The Iron Man. Hughes was also lauded for one of his last poetry collections, Birthday Letters, a series of 88 poems about his relationship with his first wife, the poet, Sylvia Plath.

We had hoped to mark 2020 with a small display of items from the Library’s rich collections on Ted Hughes in our Treasures Gallery, and an evening event. Sadly the Coronavirus pandemic meant that these plans have had to be put on hold at present although we hope to be able to celebrate Hughes’ life and work in a similar way in 2021 instead. In the meantime I would like to use this post to highlight the richness of the Library’s collections relating to Hughes and point to some of the online resources relating to him which can be accessed at the moment while the Library continues to reopen after the recent restrictions.

My own work at the Library began when I started cataloguing the Hughes archive which was acquired from the Hughes Estate in 2008. The archive contains literary drafts, diaries and notebooks, correspondence, professional papers and project files dating from throughout Hughes’ life and career from early notes made in the 1940s through to 1990s drafts of Birthday Letters and Howls and Whispers. The depth and breadth of the archive provide a rich insight into Hughes including both his creative process and the subjects that interested him which were as varied as astrology, fishing and poetry in translation. As my first proper job after becoming an archivist the archive was both a challenge and a joy as I looked through the boxes and marvelled at their contents. I think that all too often curators at the Library can forget how privileged we are to have access to such treasures. Having worked at home since March I have obviously missed meeting up with colleagues in person but I have also missed the collections. Being able to touch the paper on which an iconic work is written remains a privilege and a thrill which I am looking forward to getting back at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.

In addition to the archive which I catalogued we hold a number of smaller collections relating to Hughes often based around a series of correspondence between him and his friends, family and collaborators, including his sister, Olwyn, the artist, Leonard Baskin and the academic, Keith Sagar. Comments made in correspondence can often provide important context to works as well as useful information about an individual’s life.

Anyone looking for a Hughes fix would do well to look at Discovering Literature: 20th century which includes digitised highlights from across our Hughes collections including early astrological charts, notes on river pollution, drafts of Birthday Letters poems and sketches by Hughes. These can be found alongside articles on him by academics and others aiming to provide an introduction to his work.

I thought of Ted recently when out on my daily walk I saw a small pike in a river near my house. Getting out for walks has been important to me since I’ve been working from home and a good way of tiring out my small sons. You can’t spend as much time as I did reading about fishing when cataloguing the Hughes archive and not be enthusiastic about seeing one of Ted’s most iconic fish! Here is a photograph of the spot where we saw the pike.

Photograph of river showing where author spotted a pike

Needless to say I didn’t have a chance to photograph the pike when we saw it and we probably won’t see it again though we have seen chub and roach in the river too. Here are some roach in the same spot which seems to be a popular haunt for them!

Photograph of roach in river

Meanwhile you can listen to Hughes reading ‘Pike’ on the Poetry Archive and describing his pike which sound rather larger and more impressive than mine. Happy Birthday Ted!

05 August 2020

Imagining Aliens and Looking for the Invisible: Imperialist Legacies in Science Fiction

by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. 

Science Fiction can’t help but look backwards. Whether flying starships across the galaxy or warring with exotic extra-terrestrials, it struggles to escape the gravitational pull of the nineteenth century and the imperialist, expansionist logic from which it emerged. This shouldn’t surprise us. How could a genre which deals in technologically driven exploration, reportage of distant cultures, and ideas of the ‘alien’ escape such a pull? In many ways, nineteenth century exploration narratives which trade on their own realism actually pre-empt the bombast of modern and contemporary sci-fi: “In the same way one of you might believe there are inhabitants in the planet Mars”, wrote Conrad in Heart of Darkness — himself drawing upon the Dark Africa trope established by writers like Henry Morton Stanley in Through the Dark Continent (1878) —“We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet". Where does such a comparison lead? In the science fiction anthology Future Earths: Under African Skies (1993), editor Mike Resnick asserts that “while Africa has lost some of the mystery and romance […] it now provides thoroughly documented examples of some of the most fascinating people and societies any writer, searching for the new and the different and alien, could hope to find”. Resnick asks us at last, “is there anyone out there who still thinks Africa isn’t alien enough?” We might answer either way, depending on our personal background, but to imagine that Africa is fundamentally and not merely contingently 'alien' is surely a retrograde move for anthology purporting to show us 'Future Earths'.

Illustration titled 'Stanley safe out of the dark continent' commemorating Henry Morton Stanley's safe return from Africa, the 'Dark Continent' Shelfmark: PENP.NT152

Illustration titled 'Stanley safe out of the dark continent' commemorating Henry Morton Stanley's safe return from Africa, the 'Dark Continent' Shelfmark: PENP.NT152

It might seem obvious, but the ‘exotic’ is a feeling, not a quality inherent to any place, object or people. Everything is local and quotidian to some people and exotic to others. This is why there are two rivers in Heart of Darkness: the Thames, which is explicitly named and known, and the Congo, which is not and so remains radically unknowable. Through use of a frame-narrative, Conrad takes his readers on a journey through ‘Darkest Africa’ whilst bobbing quietly on a boat anchored securely to a London dock. This is the promise of all travel narratives, and possibly the promise of most science-fiction too; travel from the comfort of your own chair, or culture. “Nothing is easier for a man”, Conrad's narrator tells us, “than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea”. London’s great river is readable — dense with nouns, famous names and recorded battles. The unnamed Congo is its shadow, “like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest”. 

Pages from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad as it first appeared in Blackwoods Magazine 1899 Shelfmark: P.P.6202.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad as it first appeared in Blackwoods Magazine 1899
Shelfmark: P.P.6202.

 

But despite Conrad's imagination, the Congo is not a deeper past, it is not "the earliest beginnings of the world", but rather a coexisting — yet different— present. This idea of relativity is one that Chinua Achebe brings to the fore in his highly influential essay on Conrad's novella where, re-calling a discussion with a young American student about Africa, Achebe wonders why this young man “is obviously unaware that the life of his own tribesmen in Yonkers, New York, is full of odd customs and superstitions and, like everybody else in his culture, imagines that he needs a trip to Africa to encounter those things”. The Thames is a strange river too. Reading Achebe, I was struck by memories of my time spent working on the Library’s exhibition, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land (2018), where I was tasked with selecting oral history recordings of Caribbean migrants newly arrived in Britain (I wrote a blog about it). Among other things, speakers described their disappointment at Buckingham Palace’s drab grey exterior, how they thought houses with chimneys were factories, how they were disgusted by the truly alien practice of eating fish and chips from newspaper.

Watch the Windrush Community Project, a partnership project between the British Library, Caribbean Social Forum and Chocolate Films. Inspired by the British Library exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, members of the Caribbean Social Forum share their stories of journeying from the Caribbean to the UK.

Science fiction offers opportunities to explore these ideas of cultural relativity. Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, was keenly aware of the arbitrary relationship between the exotic and the everyday. She writes about her parents’ (both anthropologists) relationship with Ishi, the last known member of the Native American Yahi people from present-day California. Like Conrad’s Congo, Ishi has no true name, owing to a deeply held belief among his people that names were sacred and could only be shared by a third-party. As the last of his tribe, he took on the default name of the Yahi word for ‘man’ — Ishi. Le Guin describes learning about how her native California was made and unmade, named and unnamed by its successive inhabitants:

    What the Whites perceived as a wilderness to be ‘tamed’ was in fact better known to human beings than it has ever been     since: known and named. Every hill, every valley, creek, canyon, gulch, gully, draw, point, cliff, bluff, beach, bend, good     sized boulder, and tree of any character had its name, its place in the order of things. An order was perceived, of which the     invaders were entirely ignorant. Each of those names named, not a goal, not a place to get to, but a place where one is: a     center of the world. There were centres of the world all over California.

Questions about relative ‘centres’ have proved difficult but crucial for understanding science-fiction writing across time. Early on, as with the first chapter of H.G Wells’s seminal novel The War of the Worlds (1898), readers were called upon to engage in a kind of sympathetic de-centring, to ‘remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought […] upon its own inferior races’, and question whether we are, ‘such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?’ These kinds of rhetorical questions have not proved particularly useful in hindsight. In some ways they demand too little of us — they keep the strict hierarchies intact and merely add one extra rung on the ladder above us, without ever questioning the logic of inferiority and superiority itself, or ever forcing us to engage with the intricacies and complexities of any particular cultural difference. Even if we assume that Wells’s reference to ‘inferior races’ is loaded with enough irony that we can look past it (and I’m not saying we should), what we’re left with is a call to engage with injustice as solely motivated by fear: it could be us in the inferior position next, so our responsibility as a benevolent caretaker is to be kind-hearted, just incase.

Illustration: La guerre des mondes. Traduit de l'anglais par Henry-D. Davray. édition illustreé par Alvim-Corrêa   Shelfmark: L.45/3317

La guerre des mondes. Traduit de l'anglais par Henry-D. Davray. édition illustreé par Alvim-Corrêa  
Shelfmark: L.45/3317

 

Something else is at work in War of the Worlds too. There’s a strange kind of pleasure that that comes from witnessing the purely aesthetic obliteration of civilisation in fiction. Contemporary disaster movies — of which the modern re-imagining of War of the Worlds (2005) starring Tom Cruise is one —demonstrate this more clearly than any other medium. But even when skyscrapers are toppled, nuclear bombs are set off, and martians attack, not everything is destroyed. What’s left over is often more revealing than what’s lost. In J.G Ballard’s novel The Drowned World (1962), for instance, it is with the crew’s encounter with the submerged Leicester Square in the final chapters — exclaiming “But it’s all so hideous. I can’t believe that anyone ever lived here. It’s like some imaginary city of Hell” — that the decentring takes place. What survives beyond this drowned world are racial hierarchies and animalistic descriptions that call back to science fiction's origins. Big Caesar, a pilot for the protagonist Strangman, is variously described as a “huge humpbacked negro” a “grotesque parody of a human being”, and a “giant hunch-backed mulatto”. Should we believe that these descriptors, hierarchies and stereotypes are so fundamental that they can survive the end of the world as we know it?

Typescript draft of The Drowned World, by J. G Ballard

Typescript draft of The Drowned World, by J. G. Ballard © J. G. Ballard. Reproduced by permission of the J. G. Ballard Estate. All rights reserved. You may not use this work for commercial purposes and the copyright holder must be credited. Shelfmark: Add MS 88938/3/4

For black science fiction writers there is often frustration at this lack of imagination; exasperation that, as Charles R. Saunders writes “A literature that offered mainstream readers an escape route into the imagination and, at its best, a window to the future could not bestow a similar experience for black and other minority readers”. Recent efforts to collect and anthologise black science fiction have gone some way into helping us to interrogate these failures further — and to gesture towards ways in which they might be addressed. Unlike the aforementioned anthology, Future Earths: Under African Skies (1993) which took the idea of Africa as its exotic object, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) is an example of a contemporary anthology which attempts to amplify the voices of the African diaspora themselves, as subjects.

Front cover for Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora (Grand Central Press, 2000)
Front cover for Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora (Grand Central Press, 2000)

Other stories take on more personal concerns, especially in regards to the body as a highly politicised site of resistance and compliance. In Nalo Hopkinson’s ‘Ganger (Ball Lightning)’ (2000), for instance, the two main characters experiment with the use of a new kind of sex-toy wet-suit which is sold as ‘consensual aid to full body aura alignment’ but is dismissed as ‘Psychbabble’ and produces only a ‘dampened sense of touch […] like being trapped inside your own skin, able to sense your response to stimuli but not to feel when you had connected with the outside world.” After a terrifying ordeal where the suits become autonomous, it is only after they’re destroyed — building to a the moment of tenderness and clarity which concludes the story — that the characters can finally stop ‘talking around stuff rather than about it" and that ‘blackness’ is finally acknowledged, only to be embraced, ending in a moment of real, suit-less ‘touch’. Octavia E. Butler’s contribution, ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ (1987) is a strange kind of love story too, where a genetic ‘abnormality’ consigns its sufferers to a life of institutionalisation and self-destruction and the two protagonists — both of whom suffer from the condition — find their place among the sick, administering care.

Butler’s fascination with fatalism and genetics is, as she explains in the epigraph, no accident. The attention, complexity and tenderness with which she treats such questions, though, emerges from an awareness of the pernicious ways in which these concepts can be used and a determination to illustrate ways out of their seemingly incontrovertible bind. In this way Butler’s story is typical of Dark Matter as an anthology that revels in its own unwillingness to offer conclusions; that seeks to forego thematic and stylistic consistency in favour of variety, imagination and possibility. If the travel narratives of the nineteenth century endeavoured to chart, describe and report back on the exotic — to make it known to us in our own terms — Dark Matter, as the title suggests, is about gaps and invisible forces; about the strangeness that’s everywhere and that holds everything together. It's not a contradiction to say that science fiction can do that too.