English and Drama blog

4 posts from February 2021

25 February 2021

Thinking about Alasdair Gray and Lanark, forty years since

a guest blog by Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature, University of Glasgow. 25th February 2021 is the first GRAY DAY, a celebration of the writer and artist ALASDAIR GRAY, on the 40th anniversary of his masterpiece Lanark.

Lanark Day

I’ve been wondering about Lanark as the work of a physical human being, a man, about how it was thought of, imagined and planned, and then how it was made, literally, written with paper and ink and pens, leaning on a desk, and its transformation and creation as a book, published, launched at an event, and bought and taken away and read by other individual human beings, women and men, in the forty years between then and now.

I’ve been thinking about Alasdair’s hands, how he would handle things like pens, brushes, books and easels, how the touch of his fingertips and the hold of his fingers enabled the contact between pages and eyes and minds, between what ink is made of and the phenomena of words, how language works in writing and in speech. How his eyes would move from object to object, or look at you with curiosity and penetration, defensive yet open, curious yet respectful. How his voice worked, how sometimes something would trigger a wild guffaw and paragraph after paragraph of unpredicted verbal extrapolation, exhilaration, exaggeration, arms moving in all sorts of directions. Then also how intense and concentrated he might be, and at the same time, self-reflective, thinking about his own experiences and the words he was using to describe them as he was saying them, as he was talking to you. How brush and paint, the sweep and precision of nib and line and point, full stop, the division between chapters, the spaces between sections, the indent signifying new paragraphs, how all these are deployed. And the way separateness and connection are both represented, and consequently the way inter-dependence and independence are related.

I’ve been thinking about how his voice worked, how and what he valued, and how these things are made evident, both in his writing and his painting and drawing and in his understanding of the archive, the phenomenon of the good labyrinth. Some labyrinths are always good to be lost in. Some you might never wish to come out of. But you must, for the world is the greatest of them all. Then you can go back in.

There is a lasting firmness in his vision, his drawing a line, his sense of how perspective changes, depending on where you stand. His work and life hold a lasting clarity. Above all, he helps you to see. Which is also why he wanted independence for Scotland. Not only for social justice, which is true, but also to keep the lines clear, between what’s valued and what’s hostile to such value.

Like Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair in the 1930s, and James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still in 2010, Lanark was a planned work. The Quair takes us from farm to small town to industrial Scotland. It starts in prehistory and ends in Gibbon’s contemporaneous early 1930s. And the Land Lay Still covers half-a-century of Scottish life, from regeneration just after the Second World War to the affirmation of the potential for Scotland’s self-renewal, circa 1999. The historical chronology was determined and planned. The structure in both works was designed. So was that of Lanark. The three works are epic visions of Scotland, past, present and possible.

It’s well known that Lanark was deliberately planned as four ‘books’, two written in realist form, depicting a young artist growing up in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s, two in a parallel universe in which Glasgow and its characters are transformed into a dystopian, nightmare vision of an industrial city named Unthank, where all the vicious liabilities of capitalist exploitation are highlighted or exaggerated and portrayed in non-realist, nightmarish, sometimes surrealist forms. And more than this, Lanark was designed to be read in a deliberate sequence, beginning with the non-realist ‘Book Three’ then following that with the realist ‘Book One’ and ‘Book Two’ and then ending with ‘Book Four’. Thus the bewilderment of Lanark (the character) at the beginning (Where is he? Where am I?) is ‘explained’ in the central Books before returning the reader to the strange world of Unthank for the conclusion. The proposition that the novel makes and delivers so powerfully is that life is a constant renewal and renegotiation of imagination and reality, connected by a Moebius strip of twisting, turning consequence. This structure was deliberate and intended.

Signed Lanark - Finals
My signed first edition of Lanark from the launch event at the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow

The word ‘epic’ is one of the woolliest of literary terms. It usually just means a long poem with some fighting in it. It’s often also used to describe a foundational narrative which depicts events leading to the creation of something new, a city, a society, a confirmation of belief and development, a rising from ruins. And it also suggests scale: something big.

Well, Lanark is an epic novel.

Read it in its era, in the aftermath of 1979, when a referendum on Scottish devolution was confirmed by a majority in favour but the result was torpedoed by the Westminster government, and when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected by a majority of voters in England, not Scotland. In the 1980s, Lanark (1981) in prose fiction, alongside Edwin Morgan’s collection of poems Sonnets from Scotland (1984), and Liz Lochhead’s play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987) might be taken as one of three literary paradigms of self-determination, each enacting the same principle that reality cannot do without imagination and imagination helps transform reality.

Towards the end of his great play The Last Days of Mankind, Karl Kraus depicts himself, ‘The Grumbler’ or ‘Kraus the Grouse’ at his desk, reading this: ‘The desire to determine the exact amount of time it takes to convert a tree in the forest into a newspaper prompted the owner of a paper mill to conduct an interesting experiment. At 7:35 A.M. he had three trees felled in a nearby forest and, after the bark was removed, had them shipped to his pulp mill. The trunks were converted into pulp so quickly that the first roll of newsprint left the machine at 9:39 A.M. The roll was taken by truck to the printing press of a daily paper, four kilometers away, and at 11 A.M. the newspaper was sold in the streets. Thus it had required only three hours and twenty-five minutes before the public could read the latest news on material made from trees in which the birds had sung that very morning.’

Kraus’s work is a condemnation of the debasement of language, the corruption of information and the deliberate spread of contagious misapprehension at unstoppable velocity in the modern world, through newspapers. His play was first published in 1922. One hundred years later, the cost and purpose of the production of newspapers is an even more urgent question: Is it for this the trees grow tall? But in the 2020s, the production of bad news is much more quickly made and its rates of infection far higher, more widespread. Kraus was talking about consequences like the First World War. We have much more serious consequences to anticipate in the 2020s. And the arts of Alasdair Gray are an antidote, a permanent prescription for what good can be made of languages and paper.

Gray’s voice comes through in the words spoken to Dante in Canto 17 of his version of the Paradiso:

    The light from which my grandsire smiled now blazed
    like golden mirror in the brightest sun.
    He said, ‘Consciences dark with their own sin
    or shame at another’s guilt will indeed
    feel pain, but do not nurse hypocrisy!
    Make the truth plain! Let them scratch where they itch.
    Your verses may taste bad at first; digested
    they will be nourishing. Write like the wind,
    hitting high mountains hardest. What more
    can poet do? That is why you have been shown
    only the famous down below in Hell
    and up Mount Purgatory. Folk ignore
    examples set by those they don’t know well.

That’s the question, and the command: ‘What more can poet do?’ It’s at the heart of the famous line from Lanark about Glasgow being a place where many people live but ‘nobody imagines living’: that leads us to a universal human truth, and poetry – all the arts – is the answer. The closing lines of Gray’s rendition of Dante’s Paradiso deliver the vision of a world we’re always trying to make:

    As my eyes dwelled in it I seemed to see
    a human form. Like the geometer
    battering his brain in vain to find how
    circles are squared, I tried to see or feel
    how such a human form could live in light
    eternally. The wings of my fancy
    could not fly so far, until in a flash
    I saw desire and will: both are a pair
    of finely balanced wheels kept turning by
    love that revolves sun, sky and every star.

When I first met him, at a party given by friends, Italian translators, in a Glasgow flat, we were standing next to the drinks table, saying hello in a hesitant way as you do when you’re in a company you don’t know very well. For some reason our conversation quickly arrived at the prospect of China and we both somehow lit up, speculating on what that country was once long ago, what it was now and what it might yet be, what its ethos might mean, what we knew of it, how we could imagine it. Neither of us had ever been there. We talked of translations, their extent and possibility, their necessity and limitation. Of all writing as translation of some sort. Of Ezra Pound and Hugh MacDiarmid, cabbages and kings. We paused after three hours. Almost everyone else had left. It seemed no time had passed. I knew him over those forty years since then, not as a close friend but as one with whom I could pick up the conversation wherever it had last been left, and he’d remember it as well as I.

Diary from pHd finals

Diary from my days as a PhD student, playing cards, watching cowboy films -- and visiting the Third Eye Centre 

And I remember the launch of Lanark at the Third Eye Centre, in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, on 25 February 1981. The book stays with me, a hard fact, a symbol of its era, always ready to be returned to, and advanced from once again. It’s Yeats’s stone ‘in the midst of all’, Stevens’s Tennessee jar, Frost’s glimpse of white at the bottom of the well: ‘For once, then, something’?

Something, for sure.


Third EYe Centre Exhibition Program finals

Program 2 Program 3


19 February 2021

Weetabix and beans: a linguistic take

by Elliot Sinclair, Web Editor in the Content and Community Team


With the latest phenomenon of baked beans on Weetabix triggering heated debates all over the internet, we thought we’d take a look at combinations of things which definitely do not belong together, or are completely different from one another, in idiomatic expressions from across the globe.

And where better to find such a rich mix of languages than among our own staff? So just ahead of International Mother Language Day, we put the question to them…

A few of our favourites...




Amharic (Ethiopian)

ሆድና ጀርባ
"hodena Ǧäreba"

stomach and back

Arabic (Iraqi)

مثل الحية والبطنج 
"mathal al-ḥayah w'al-baṭnaj"

like a snake and betony [a plant]

British English

like chalk and cheese

like chalk and cheese

Chinese (Mandarin)

"fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí"

horses and cattle won't mate with each other


jako nebe a dudy

like heaven and bagpipes


Hvad er højest, Rundetårn eller et tordenskrald?

What is highest, the Round Tower or a thunderclap?


nagu päkapikk ja maja

like an elf and house


مثل فیل و فنجان 
"misle feel va fenjan"

like an elephant and a teacup


Äpfel mit Birnen vergleichen

comparing apples and pears


כרחוק מזרח ממערב 
"ki-rehok mizrah mi-ma'arav"

as far as the east from the west


"tsuki to suppon"

moon and a soft-shelled turtle


piernik do wiatraka

gingerbread for the windmill


comparar alhos com bugalhos

comparing garlic with oak apples


ca baba si mitraliera

like a grandmother and a machine gun


Путать Божий дар с яичницей 
"putat’ Bozhii dar s iaichnitsei"

confusing God's gift with scrambled eggs


поредити бабе и жабе 
"porediti babe i žabe"

like grandmothers and toads


como un huevo a una castaña

like an egg to a chestnut


dağlar kadar farklı

as different as the mountains


як свиня на коня 
"yak svynya na konya"

like a pig on a horse


mor wahanol â mêl a menyn

as different as honey and butter    


ווי בוידעם און ציבעלעס 
"vi boydem un tsibeles"

like a loft and onions

Poles apart

How many of you are familiar with the phrase like chalk and cheese? It’s used primarily in British English to imply that two things are an odd match (e.g. ‘that married couple are like chalk and cheese’). Probably soon to be overtaken by Weetabix and beans.

Variants include like an elephant and teacup (Farsi), an elf and a house (Estonian) (both of which contrast the size of one against the other), and the rather dramatic grandmother and a machine gun (Romanian) or grandmother and a toad (Serbian).

Meanwhile the Marmite reputation of bagpipes is unfortunately confirmed by the Czech expression contrasting heaven and bagpipes.

Speaking of Marmite, food, unsurprisingly features a lot in these idioms. For example the fairly ubiquitous apples and oranges (known in various other forms such as apples and pears), the Welsh honey and butter, the Polish gingerbread for the windmill and the Yiddish loft and onions, where the inference is that the items cannot be compared.

Never the twain shall meet

Other variants point to the fact that the two items will never cross paths with one another, such as oil and water, night and day and heaven and earth, which are widespread across many languages.

An equivalent in Iraqi Arabic is like a snake and betony [the plant]. In folklore snakes are repelled by the plant and it is also said to be a remedy for their bite (however nowadays it is more commonly used to flavour Iraqi dishes).

Meanwhile, it has been suggested that the origin of the Mandarin expression horses and cattle won't mate with each other lies in the traditional belief that cattle normally follow the direction of the wind, while horses go against it, so even if they get lost, they would never meet. It was originally used in Zuo zhuan (The Commentary of Zuo) to describe two States in the Spring and Autumn period (771 to 476/403 BC) that were so far apart geographically that they would never have anything to do with each other.

Perhaps you can compare this to the more surreal pig on a horse in Ukrainian, or earrings on a pig in Yiddish?

Other variants include stomach and back (Amharic) (where the connotation is that despite the two being connected, they will always be facing different directions) and as far as the east from the west (Hebrew).

Same same but different

Many variants have an implication that although the items being compared are completely different from one another, it may be possible to mistake them.

In Portuguese we have comparing garlic with oak apples (similar in texture and size), while a Spanish equivalent is eggs and chestnuts (similar in size and shape).

We can also see this in the Japanese expression moon and soft-shelled turtle: both are round, although if you really are guilty of confusing them, you should probably book yourself an eye test.

With the alliteration in chalk and cheese, you might say that even the British idiom draws our attention to their similarities (even only in pronunciation).

The outliers

Of course there are also exceptions to these three neat categories by other languages which take slightly different approaches. In Turkish for example as different as the mountains speculates that the difference between two items is so great that there might as well be a mountain range between them, while the Danish rhetorical question What is highest, the Round Tower or a thunderclap? contrasts the size of the former against the sound of the latter.

What is the equivalent in your language?

17 February 2021

“Slow” Biography and the Ted Hughes Collection

a guest blog by Heather Clark, Professor of Contemporary Poetry at the University of Huddersfield, whose book, 'Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath' is available now from Penguin Books. If you have recently used the Library's literary collections in your published research, please get in touch at @BLEnglish_Drama on Twitter to be featured in another guest blog.

Plath Red Comet

When I set out to write a biography, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, nearly nine years ago, I knew I would need to devote a significant amount of time and space to another great twentieth century poet: Ted Hughes. Plath and Hughes were married for nearly seven years, during which time they produced some of the most important works of the postwar period, including The Hawk in the Rain, The Colossus, Lupercal, The Bell Jar, and Ariel. I have long been fascinated by the creative dynamics of this literary partnership, which I explored in my second book, The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Writing Red Comet gave me the chance to dig even deeper into the British Library’s Ted Hughes archive, which, along with Emory University in Atlanta, holds the world’s most important collection of Hughes’s papers.

The many unpublished sources in this archive enriched my biographical narrative of Plath. Hughes’s 1957-59 letters from America to his sister Olwyn, for example, reveal his disdain for American culture, and, paradoxically, its stimulations. He wrote in detail to Olwyn about his impressions of New York City, Cape Cod, Wellesley, Northampton, and Boston in letters full of cynicism and humor. He described the impact of philosophical and literary ideas by Lorca, Crowe Ransom, Baudelaire, Graves, and Lawrence on some of his most well-known poems, such as “View of a Pig,” “Hawk Roosting,” and “Pike,” as he wrote Lupercal. Hughes’s letters from this period also shed light on some legendary contemporaries. He writes of meeting Robert Lowell, with whom he felt an immediate kinship, and his first impressions of Lowell’s watershed collection Life Studies, which Hughes read before its publication in spring 1959. Hughes made rough journal entries, too, in Boston: I learned that he wept with relief when Plath told him he had won a Guggenheim fellowship. These were important years in Plath and Hughes’s literary lives, made more vivid by the materials in the British Library.

Hughes’s unpublished notebooks were another rich source of detail (that is, if one can decipher his notoriously difficult handwriting). Some of these notebooks contain unpublished poems by Hughes about Plath that are less well-known to the public than those of his bestselling, elegiac collection Birthday Letters. Perhaps the most interesting poems, from my biographical perspective, are in the “Trial” sequence that Hughes wrote in the 1980s when he was involved in a U.S. libel lawsuit over a film adaptation of The Bell Jar. In these poems, Hughes remembers visiting Plath at her new London flat to celebrate the publication of The Bell Jar; conversations about the novel’s heroine, Esther Greenwood; Plath’s anxiety surrounding the book’s reviews; his own decision not to read The Bell Jar until after Plath’s death; and his promise to Plath’s mother never to publish the novel in America. Hughes struggles to understand why Plath wrote The Bell Jar, and to what extent the act of writing and publishing it exacerbated her depression in 1963. The “Trial” sequence, scrawled with changes and excisions, offers a rare glimpse of Sylvia Plath as Ted Hughes remembered her in 1962 and early 1963. It confirmed, for me, the value of “slow” biography—of long weeks spent in the archive, sifting through layers of the writing left behind.

02 February 2021

The Library acquires Theatre Royal Stratford East and Theatre Workshop archive

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. You can read more about the Library's existing collections of Joan Littlewood material online at Discovering Literature 20th Century, and more about the new acquisition in our latest press release.

I am delighted to announce that the Library has acquired the archive of Theatre Royal Stratford East and Theatre Workshop for the national collection. Comprising 140 boxes of scripts, correspondence, posters, flyers, audio visual material and props the archive provides a wonderful insight into the work of the award winning theatre and the highly innovative theatre company which was based there from 1953 until 1979.

 Watch this film made by Theatre Royal Stratford East about the archive with Murray Melvin, actor, Theatre Workshop alumnus who for nearly thirty years was the honorary archivist of this collection, and my former colleague, Zoë Wilcox, to find out more.

The archive is an exciting addition the Library’s rich theatrical collections and fits particularly well with Joan Littlewood’s archive which we acquired in 2015. Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) was an internationally-renowned theatre and film director who has been described as ‘the mother of modern theatre’ for her radical vision and her innovative working methods. The archive documents her work at the theatre including a number of significant productions such as A Taste of Honey, The Hostage and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be. It also includes some early material relating to the predecessor of Theatre Workshop, Theatre of Action (later known as Theatre Union) which was set up by Littlewood and her then husband, Ewan MacColl (1915-1989).

Theatre Royal Stratford East first opened its doors to the public in 1884 and the archive includes material from those early days, through Theatre Workshop to the tenures of the artistic directors, Ken Hill, Maxwell Shaw, Clare Venables, Philip Hedley and Kerry Michael, taking us right up to 2017. The depth and breadth of the archive mean that its contents will allow research on a wide range of subjects from agit prop theatre of the 1930s and the work of the dance artist and theorist, Rudolf Laban, through to Black and Asian theatre, and ideas of urban geography explored in Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace project. With such a wide ranging archive it is not possible to describe everything here so I will just highlight some of the interesting items I’ve discovered so far.

Material from the earliest years of the theatre includes flyers for productions and a fragile pencil draft of a ballad entitled ‘Babes in the Wood’ which is believed to have been written by A.E. Abrahams in 1907. The archive also offers a fascinating insight into the workings of Theatre of Action/Theatre Union, the socialist theatre cooperative set up by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl in Manchester in 1934. The company followed the principles of agit prop theatre that were developed in Russia following the Revolution. Agitprop used popular media such as theatre, literature and film to disseminate an explicitly political message and was performed in the street to audiences who might not go to traditional theatres. The archive includes scripts for a ‘Living Newspaper’ production from 1939, a reading list for the company and costume sketches. The company were trailblazers of new techniques such as their use of back projection for

MacColl’s adaptation of Hašek’s Good Soldier Schweik, the first time the effect was used in Britain. Excitingly the archive includes the original gobos used to create the distinctive effect.


A selection of notes programmes and other papers relating to theatre unions work in the thirties

Theatre Union montage: selection of notes, programmes and other papers relating to Theatre Union’s work in the 1930s

Correspondence in the archive also points to the experimental nature of Theatre Workshop. Littlewood was very interested in the work of the dance and movement theorist, Rudolf Laban, and his first assistant in England, Jean Newlove, later become a member of the company and taught the them his methods. The archive contains a fascinating collection of letters from Laban to Newlove in which he outlines his theories that have since became an important foundation for dancers and actors alike. Letters also highlight how the socialist outlook of Theatre Workshop affected all aspects of its work as in this letter from Gerry Raffles to a prospective member of the company shows.


Letter sent by gerry raffles theatre workshops manager to a prospective member of the company

Gerry Raffles letter: Letter sent by Gerry Raffles, Theatre Workshop’s manager in 1948 to a prospective member of the company © Joan Littlewood Estate

Raffles explained that “all new members are expected to undergo a fairly rigorous training in the Company’s methods of work, and there is little point in applicants attending auditions unless they are prepared to accept the obvious hardships and financial disadvantages which work in a group such as ours involves.”

As you can see the archive is particularly strong for anyone interested in Theatre Workshop and Joan Littlewood. One final thing to flag is the material relating to Oh What a Lovely War! Littlewood and the company devised the groundbreaking musical which was a satire on WW1 and war in general in line with their usual working practice. The archive includes a wide range of material on the subject from annotated scripts, lighting plots and costume lists to recordings of music for the production and photographs. One of the most interesting parts is a series of the cast notes that Littlewood wrote after each performance. These handwritten notes were pinned up on the wall providing detailed feedback for individual cast members as well as the ensemble as a whole –


Joan littlewoods detailed notes on a performance of oh what a lovely war

Oh, What A Lovely War! cast notes: Joan Littlewood’s detailed notes on a performance © Joan Littlewood Estate


Theatrical innovation continued to be a cornerstone for the Theatre Royal Stratford East long after Littlewood’s departure in the 1970s. In particular the directorships of Philip Hedley and Kerry Michael saw the development of Black and Asian theatre with highly significant productions such as D’yer eat with your fingers (1998), a satirical state-of-the-nation production derived by a company that included Shobna Gulati, Syreti Kumar and Nina Wadia and directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and The Big Life (2005) the highly successful directorial debut of Clint Dyer, which became the first All Black British Musical in the West End. Other recent examples of innovation under Kerry Michael and documented in the archive include Home Theatre (2013 and 2015), which saw bespoke one person performances in the homes of members of the public and the musical, Tommy, which was performed by Deaf and Disabled artists from Ramps on the Moon in 2017.

I would like to use this blog to pay tribute to Murray Melvin, actor and Theatre Workshop alumnus who for nearly thirty years was the honorary archivist of this collection. Murray’s careful organisation, preservation and curation of the archive mean that it is in very good condition. He also played a key role in the development of the archive as a large number of items within it were donated by former members of the theatre company and their families. This means that the archive really is a collaborative record reflecting the myriad of different groups and individuals whose lives were interwoven with the theatre over the years. I think that the archive is a fitting tribute to all of them.