THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

2 posts from November 2020

18 November 2020

What Have We Been Reading?

This week marks the second in our blog series What Have We Been Reading? where the English & Drama Blog canvasses a broad range of British Library departments and curators to pick their brains about what they've been reading in their spare time. Views -- as always in this series -- are their own.

Christian Algar, Curator of Printed Heritage Collections

There must have been a good few people separated from cherished books left on their office desks during lockdown. My Desert Island, or my “Stuck-on-the-Top-of-a-Tor” book, was amongst these: Charles Causley’s Collected Poems, 1951-2000.

Photograph of front jacket for Collected Poems by Charles Causley next to a British Library envelope

Charles Causley (1917-2003) was a Cornish poet and writer. Causley - who apart from the time he spent in the Navy during World War Two, lived all his life in the ancient Cornish capital, Launceston - captures the distinctive mind-set of the Devon & Cornwall borderland. There is an irresistible magnetism to and a connection with the Sea and with the meditations that its presence brings. Causley makes me think of my own Grandad, his brothers, sisters and friends of their generation. He keeps me in touch with my roots, he feeds and sustains my sentimentality for the otherness of the other side of Dartmoor.

Folklore, legend, traditions, close attention to characters and places, all feature in Causley’s poems. He took especial care to speak about the vulnerable, the damaged, the needy and the outcast. He admired the strengths of “the good” in people. He liked ballads and is well-known for his children’s poems. I read his poems to my young daughter; ‘Diggory Prance’; ‘Mrs Malarkey’, ‘Three Green Sailors’ are amongst our favourites. She laughs because my Westcountry accent is at its most sing-song and piratey when I read to her.

My personal favourite is perhaps ‘Dan Dory’:

    ‘Still spins the water and the land,
    I said, ‘as yesterday’ –
    And leaned to take his hand. But he
    Had vanished away.’

It makes me shudder every time I read it. I’m uncomfortable with showy and staged acts of Remembrance, but I always think about how those who survived remember their young comrades who died. How profoundly difficult to just carry on getting older when they did not, could not. My Pop (Grandad) was in the Navy for 36 years and I wonder how many a Dan Dory he saw every time he looked out over Plymouth Sound.

I read fewer and fewer books from cover to cover “these days”, books of poetry are perfect repose from reading heavy history that comes with the job. So I was very grateful when a kind co-worker, among the first back to the office, carefully packaged my book and sent it on to my home.

Eleanor Dickens, Curator of Contemporary Politics and Public Life

For work I have been reading my way through the works of Beryl Gilroy, which actually doesn’t feel like work at all. Sometimes the subjects of her books are difficult but at the same time she has a beautiful, frank way of writing that I really enjoy. At the moment I am on Gather the Faces. I was looking forward to visiting the London Metropolitan Archives before the end of the year to read a manuscript of Black Teacher which is out of print and hard to read elsewhere. Sadly, lockdown two has paused that for now. I have also just finished Richard Ryder’s Victims of Science. It is a tough read but a thought provoking one. Ryder is a psychologist and animal rights campaigner. Written in 1975, this is his first full length book exploring the ethical issues in contemporary animal rights debate. Our department holds a growing collection of archives on animal rights including the archives of Richard Ryder and Kim Stallwood.

Photograph of front jacket for Gather the Faces by Beryl Gilroy

Photograph of front jacket for Victims of Science by Richard Ryder

Outside of work, I tend to read Wuxia and Xianxia novels or Fantasy YA and during lockdown I’ve mostly read on online platforms like Wuxiaworld and Wattpad. I think there can be a bit of snobbery about this kind of writing but for me I love the vibrant community that comes with reading in this way, particularly in a time of isolation across the world. Often, the writers on these platforms are just big nerds for their subjects rather than writing to sell books and I find that a really joyful and unpretentious thing to be part of. In a year like 2020 sometimes you just need to be transported to a mad fantasy world or enjoy a bit of teen escapism. Or I do anyway!

Artwork for I Shall Seal the Heavens a Xianxia fantasy novel

Zoe Louca-Richards, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts

I believe there are two types of person in this world, those who intently focus on one book at a time, and those who flit between many … currently I’ve four on the go. I recently added to the pile the incredibly fun, and monumentally pertinent, Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen by Horrible Histories historian Greg Jenner – and no, this one isn’t for kids! With an eclectic cast of 125 (according to Jenner) intriguing characters - from Pliny the Elder to David Attenborough – it teases out the definition of ‘celebrity’, what one is, and why they exist. I particularly enjoyed reading about the 18th century sensation Clara, who toured Europe for 18 years – SPOILER ALERT: She was a Rhinoceros. In today’s world, where celebrity is commodified, and often fleeting, and its influence so frequently affects activism and politics, it’s important we understand the social constructs and media channels that facilitate and create them. It’s also a pertinent discussion for the Library’s Modern Archives and Manuscripts collection too, which is filled with records of the illustrious and the lionized – for good and for bad.

Front jacket for Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

Cristian Necsulescu, Library Assistant, Manuscripts Reading Room

For me, Adam Kucharsky is our man in these strange times. A Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, he works as a leading epidemiologist and analyst on infectious disease outbreaks. In his most recent book, he tries to understand how a virus transmits into the mass population and how we can get better at predicting what happens next. For this he looks for 'the hidden connections' between apparently unrelated phenomena such as epidemics, mob violence, financial crises and viral tweets. Plus, he focuses on the meme process of how the false media and false information spread online as much as a virus. A contagious book.

Front jacket for The Rules of Contagion by Adam Kucharski

One of the great novels of the post-war years, The Plague, written in 1947 by the Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, is a timeless modern classic masterpiece. Suddenly decimated by a plague announced by rats, the coastal city of Oran has to confront the looming danger in apprehension and quarantine. The stoic doctor Bernard Rieux and his friends decide to stay in the city in order to help the people and alleviate their suffering. But their way will not be an easy one and everyone in the city will have to confront their fears and interrogate the human condition. The Plague is a compelling book about human beings and their endurance, their solidarity and their sense of responsibility. A timeless book for today and tomorrow.

Front jacket for The Plague by Albert Camus

Ralf Dobelli is a Swiss author and entrepreneur best known for his bestselling non-fiction book The Art of Thinking Clearly, where he describes 99 of thinking most common psychological errors – from cognitive biases to envy and social distortions. In his most recent book, Stop Reading the News, he analyses the decision-making mechanism and comes up with examples on how to filter the important and the relevant news around us and why it is important to have a good grasp in understanding the form and content of information. His astute conclusion, though, could be read as a warning: 'News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.'

Photograph of Stop Reading the News by Ralf Dobelli

02 November 2020

Carmen Callil, Cats and Feminist Generations

by D-M Withers, Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and collaborator on the Business of Women's Words Project, which explores the dramatic story of the feminist publishing revolution that unfolded during the UK Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 80s. The exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights -- which includes material from the Callil Archive and elsewhere, is now open at the British Library.

"I remember, when I was still writing the PhD, going to Carmen’s home in Chelsea, the little jewel of a flat with these two magnificent white cats kind of, stalking around, you know, scrutinising us. I remember it being painted deep lime green […] like a jewel, but that could be a misremembering." [1]

Virago author Barbara Taylor’s memory of visiting Carmen Callil’s flat in the late 70s is one of many references to Callil’s cats that litter the feminist publisher’s history. In her recently published memoir A Bite of the Apple, Lennie Goodings – clearly not a cat person – offers another account of visiting Callil’s home for a Virago meeting. Upon entering the ‘jewel’ like flat, John or William – one of two grey half Siameses given to Carmen as kittens by Germaine Greer and named after two ‘lovely men’ she had worked with in her early publishing career – boldly jumped on Goodings’s shoulder, and proceeded to curl around her neck. ‘I protested weakly’, writes Goodings, ‘until it was removed by Carmen, who declared that not liking cats “showed a defect in your personality.” [2]

Many photographic portraits of Callil and her feline companion exist from the 70s and 80s, and were often used as illustration for newspaper and magazine features. I encountered these sources while working on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing, a partnership between the British Library, the University of Sussex and the University of Cambridge. Callil was profiled alongside several other ‘go it alone’ entrepreneurs, including a freelance management consultant, wine exporters and a restauranteur, in a feature for one of the final issues of glossy lifestyle magazine Nova that ran between 1965-75. Callil explained that the entrepreneurial route was attractive because she ‘had the wrong temperament to work for an employer, I think […] I just cannot tread the daily tightrope of compromise and gritting your teeth.’ [3] In a full-page portrait of Callil and her fabulous white Persian Mary – named after Mary Wollstonecraft (who else?) – taken by John Ferrara, both figures pose seductively, shooting forth an arresting look that doubles up the feminine gaze for the viewer, a celebration of fur, feminism and self-possession.

Joan Bakewell’s 1980 article ‘The feminist publisher’, published in Illustrated London News, offers a different configuration [4]. Here Callil is sat at home, crossed legged, adorned with knee-length boots that show she means business. Behind her is a desk strewn with books. In her arms is one of her grey half Siamese cats that, as soon as the shutter clicks, will likely struggle from her loving grasp, avoiding the burn of a cigarette held imperiously in the publisher’s right hand. The restless energy captured in the image seems appropriate for a domestic portrait in which the feminine interior, the private home, has been faced out, now transformed into a public space of work.

An article for the Telegraph Weekend Magazine from 1989 is more playful. We are introduced to two new additions to Callil’s household, sourced from a Sussex farm, the six-month old Augusta or ‘Gus’, named after friend Gus Skidelsky who bequeathed the kittens to Carmen, and Jessica or ‘Jess’, named after Carmen’s godchild, the daughter of the influential literary agent, Deborah Rogers. The article describes how the cats conquer ‘the 15-foot-high fence, entangled with greenery’ that frames Callil’s London garden ‘with ease. “I wish I could,” she smiles. “I locked myself out last week. I tried to scale the fence from a neighbour’s garden but fell off and bruised myself.”’ [5] The accompanying photograph is warm, with a comedic touch: Callil, wearing a dashing multi-coloured, pin-striped blouse, holds a tortoiseshell with white paws barely outstripping its kittenhood in her palms; her face reveals an irrepressible smile, the cat looks askance from the camera, stuck out tongue, insubordinate, naughty. 

These photographs evoke the fascination with feline imagery in the work of twentieth century female surrealists Maya Deren, Leonor Fini and Leonora Carrington (Carrington’s Seventh Horse & Other Tales and The Hearing Trumpet were of course recovered by Virago as Modern Classics, in 1989 and 1991 respectively). In the portraits, cats become Callil’s familiars, their co-presence conducting the power of feminine independence, metamorphic mischief, sensuality and self-sufficiency. The surrealist imagery, in Callil’s case, is not of the subversive artist, but the businesswoman: the self-styled entrepreneur who chose comradeship with a host of feline friends, and to do business with other women.       

In the Virago papers held by the British Library, we sometimes catch glimpses of Callil’s cats in her correspondence with publishing colleagues. Cat-lover Paul Berry, the literary executor of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, wrote to Callil to express his delight upon reading about her cats in an article published in the Sunday Telegraph. Callil responded, with exuberance: ‘I can’t believe I never told you I had three cats: my best friends for the last twelve years; you must meet them one day, each a remarkable personality.’ [6] Cats were also important to an author who kickstarted the Virago Modern Classics (VMC), Antonia White. White wrote two children’s books about her cats, Minka and Curdy (republished by Virago in 1992) and Living with Minka and Curdy. White was one of a number of living authors Virago published in the VMC that Callil befriended. Given their common interest in feline companionship, it seems likely that cats – and Catholicism – animated their conversations.

If, like me, you have a strange fascination with the who, what, where and why of other people’s grocery shopping, you’ll love the extensive collection of receipts and invoices held in Carmen Callil’s archives at the British Library. Among a host of other things (including the companies Virago used to print their books, where they sourced images for the VMC, membership receipts for the London Library, the Chinese restaurants they regularly frequented, the calculators they used in the office, among others) you’ll learn that in the late 70s, Callil bulk-bought her groceries from the wholesaler, Makro [7]. Alongside food and various items for the Virago office – circled or marked with an asterix to ensure specific items were included in the company’s accounts – are entries for tins of cat food and litter! A busy woman, such as she was, very wisely did not get bogged down by the regular need to shop for life’s essentials. Bulk-buying was a far more efficient choice.

Photograph of Receipt from Callil Archive Showing Entires for Cat LitterReceipt taken from the Archive of Carmen Callil showing entries for cat supplies

To close this feline circuit, I want to share one, further, Virago-themed cat story. As an undergraduate at the end of the twentieth century, I studied English Literature at Swansea University, where I had the good fortune to be taught by Professor Ann Heilmann. I was captivated by Ann’s teaching and the source material she presented to us, especially for her course on Victorian Women Writers, which included books by many authors she had first encountered – Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the ‘New Women’ Olive Schreiner, George Egerton, Sarah Grand – through Virago’s Modern Classics. Ann is also a cat lover (when I was studying at Swansea, she had a cat called Sweetie, named after the Jane Campion film). Fast forward twenty or so years: Ann now has two cats. Their names are Angelica and Diavolo – inspired by the gender bending ‘Heavenly Twins’ in Sarah Grand’s 1893 novel (incidentally, Sarah Grand – whose The Beth Book was a VMC, and the biography Darling Madame: Sarah Grand and Devoted Friend by Gillian Kersley was published by Virago in 1983 – also chose to be photographed with her cats).

Photograph of two cats on cushions

Photograph of two cats standing at doorway window

Angelica and Diavolo at work and play

If it wasn’t for Virago, Ann’s cats would not be named after characters in The Heavenly Twins because her contact with Grand came through Virago’s reprint publishing. Without Ann’s academic study of niche Victorian women writers, in turn, I never would have studied them as an undergraduate, an experience which indelibly shaped my relationship to feminism. Ultimately, this is a story about how feminist knowledge is transmitted across generations, visible in the delicate details, of who we can name our favourite companions after. Callil after Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann the fictional characters popularised by a writer Virago plucked from obscurity and republished. Cats, as home-working companions, intrude upon Virago’s history in many different ways; their feline influence extends in a web of associations and references that give meaning to feminist life. 

DSC00367My own cat, Sanjay, looking over collection of Virago Modern Classics.

In recent years, Callil’s public companions are more likely be dogs rather than cats (proof, if ever it was needed, that one needn’t be forced to choose in life between such things). Indeed, you can hear current companion Effie barking enthusiastically in this episode of Backlisted, where Callil discusses The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor, one of her favourite novels. Discernible, too, is Callil barking back with fervour: ‘Shut. Up. Effie!’ Given my own penchant for cats, though, I will close this short article with Callil’s thoughts on these remarkable creatures. ‘I like them simply because they are not human. And I really love the shapes they make. My old cat was like a walking painting.’ [8]

Thank you to Ann Heilmann for feedback on this article and for the photograph of Angelica and Diavolo. Thanks also to Eleanor Dickens of the British Library for supporting my research into the Callil archives during this project. Finally, my thanks to Carmen Callil for article feedback and permission to quote from her letter to Paul Berry.

[1] Barbara Taylor interview by Margaretta Jolly (2011) Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project, British Library Sound & Moving Image Catalogue reference, C1420/38/05, p. 141 © The British Library the University of Sussex.

[2] Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple: A Life With Books, Writers and Virago, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 42.

[3] ‘Fresh start: make the break and go it alone, Carol Dix talks to four people who did’, Nova, August 1975, 57-59, 59. Add MS 89178/1/166.

[4] ‘The feminist publisher,’ by Joan Bakewell, Illustrated London News May 1980, 67-69. Add MS 89178/1/166.

[5] Sally Richardson, ‘Animal Passions’, Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 1 October 1989. Add MS 89178/1/166.

[6] Carmen Callil to Paul Berry, 28 Oct 1981, Add MS 88904/1-194

[7] Add MS 89178/1/124-165, Virago receipts, 1974-81

[8] Richardson, ‘Animal Passions’.