English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

3 posts from May 2023

19 May 2023

Andrew Salkey Archive – Mapping the Caribbean Diaspora through Letters

Natalie Lucy talks about their project mapping the Caribbean Diaspora through the letters of Andrew Salkey. 

I am a PhD student at UCL. I started a part-time placement at the British Library in September which finished at the end of February. I was supervised by Eleanor Casson, who, until recently, was working on the Andrew Salkey archive and Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator. The aim of the project was to map the Caribbean diaspora through the correspondence of the writer, broadcaster and poet Andrew Salkey. Well-known both as a meticulous chronicler and a prolific correspondent, the many fascinating and frequently poignant, letters in Salkey’s extensive archive reflect a network of Caribbean writers and academics for whom Salkey served not only as something of a nexus but also as a facilitator in their careers. More importantly, though, the correspondence shows the movement of these writers within a wider context of the diaspora, a feature which we have visually presented through the digital applications, Gephi and Kepler.    

Why did I apply for this project?

My thesis explores the way that the trickster character, Anancy, has historically been reinvented, primarily at key political points, to say something about heritage and identity and how he emerges in the literature of British writers and artists, particularly those with Caribbean heritage. A significant part of my research concerns the ways that Anancy was appropriated in the writing of the Caribbean Arts Movement, a dynamic group of artists and writers formed in London in the mid-1960s. Andrew Salkey was one of the three founders of CAM, along with John La Rose and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. He had been in London since the early 1950s and had already demonstrated his potential influence as something of an ‘enabler’, both through his immense generosity towards his fellow writers and his connections both within the writing world and at the BBC. The project offered an exciting opportunity. Not only would I be able to access Andrew Salkey’s archive, which would undoubtedly enhance my research, but the project had the potential to explore the dynamics between the writers and to bring to life something of the networks, which were so key to the establishment of a literary and cultural foundation.

What are Gephi and Kepler?

Gephi is an open graph visualization platform. It has been used in a variety of projects, to illustrate both social networks, which are evidenced within correspondence, and historical patterns of movement.  In these projects, Gephi has been used as a way to make data more accessible and, by visually animating it, more engaging.

Salkey network
Static visualisation of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files, using Gephi Visualisation Platform. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

Kepler is an open source geospatial analysis tool, which was originally created by Uber to map Uber drivers around the world. This offered a useful application through which to map the movement of the Caribbean writers in Salkey’s correspondence during key periods. 

Kepler visualisation
Static visualisation of the movement of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files using Kepler. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

Gathering the Data

The first stage of the project was to acquire the data that would ultimately be used in the visual map of the diaspora. Salkey was a meticulous archivist, retaining a significant quantity of the letters he received; he was also a diligent and attentive correspondent. Salkey’s friends were prominent Caribbean writers and publishers and Salkey’s archive contains the letters of Samuel Selvon, his distinctive language reminiscent of his groundbreaking novel The Lonely Londoners, George Lamming and Jan Carew.

A selection of letters from Sam Selvon to Andrew Salkey, Add MS 89377/7/54. Credit: CC-BY Samuel Selvon Estate

The initial data was limited to the date and location of the correspondence, information that could suggest the patterns of movement within the diaspora. The idea was that it would provide a framework with which to start to explore the potential of the project. 

The letters were so rich in detail, however, that other information was also recorded. I was able to note when correspondents mentioned other countries that they were planning to visit or when they spoke about other writers within the network. This provided an additional layer of information, which helped to broaden the analysis of the Caribbean diasporic network, linking people with each other as well as with Salkey.

Static visualisation of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files with biographical information. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

One of the recurring themes of the letters was the evident impact that these writers had on each other, not only as a network through which to promote their work, but also to seek some form of solidarity. In numerous letters, Andrew Salkey is asked for advice or practical assistance. Sometimes this is a request for a review of their work, or a recommendation for a lecturing post, or his opinion on a piece of writing. Further clues are revealed by the fact that some of the letters also contain Salkey’s additional notes, handwritten in the margin or a penned tick beside a request.

What did I Learn?

In addition to the fascinating insight into the important work that the British Library does, I have discovered something about Andrew Salkey himself.  What evolve within the letters are essentially a series of stories of friendships, between remarkable writers and artists. Sometimes, the extent of appreciation for Salkey’s generosity in helping so many other writers and friends can also be glimpsed within the, frequently poetical, words on the page. Samuel Selvon’s letters to Salkey are habitually humorous, but occasionally he steps outside his mocking, affectionate style, and says something that is profoundly moving. In one letter to Salkey on 15 March 1975,  he writes: ‘you have a great gift, Andrew, so great, that even with those few words, and my inability to express myself as you do, you will understand and appreciate what I am trying to say. That is the quintessence of your genius - that behind the ballad and the episode that other human beings will laugh kiff-kiff at and enjoy you can see with the inner eye and analyse with the unique power that God gave you.'

A letter written by Sam Selvon to Andrew Salkey 15th March 1975, from Add MS 89377/7/54. Credit: CC-BY Samuel Selvon Estate

Natalie Lucy was a PhD placement at the British Library from September 2022 until February 2023. In this blog, Natalie explains her interest in the project, development of the project through the content of the correspondence, as well as what she learned from the placement. This blog is linked with another post on the Digital Scholarship Blog, which gives more detail on the digital visualisation applications used for this project.

Linked Blog:

Mapping Caribbean Diasporic Networks through the Correspondence of Andrew Salkey

12 May 2023

The William Maskell Chapbook Collection

In 2022, the British Library received a selection of rare books and manuscripts from the Honresfield Library, originally collected by industrialist William Law (1836–1901). This collection was purchased by the Friends of the National Libraries and shared across a number of UK institutions. The Honresfield Library contains several items of significant historical and literary importance.

Title-page of The life and death of Jenny Wren, illustrated with a woodcut depicting a bird and young girl reading from a book to a woman. The image has been very crudely coloured in blue and there is a type error on the imprint.
The life and death of Jenny Wren, for the use of young ladies and gentlemen, Hon.129.(12) Many chapbooks were decorated with simple woodcuts, sometimes coloured, either by the seller or the owner.

Among the items that were allocated to the British Library are a collection of curiously small volumes in uniform brown watered silk bindings with green spine labels betraying their contents: “Chap Books”. This collection comprises of 764 individual pamphlets, bound together in seventy parts. The volumes are numbered on their spines, and suggest three distinct series: 1-48, 1-19, and four un-numbered. This division is reflected, and expounded, in the 1891 Sotheby sales catalogue listing them:

“48. Chap Books. A collection of numerous small popular work for children, with woodcuts arranged in 20 vol. uncut, v. y. – An extensive collection of chap-books, garlands, children’s books, &c. with woodcuts arranged in 49 vol. 12mo, uncut, v.y. – Manuscript catalogues of both series by W. Maskell. 70 vol.”[1]

Comparing the current British Library holdings with the 1891 catalogue entry reveals a few discrepancies. Notably, one volume is missing from each numbered series: neither no. 49 nor no. 20 feature in the present British Library holdings. Furthermore, the remaining four unnumbered volumes are not accounted for here. However, item 49 in the sales catalogue includes a further eight volumes of “Chap and Toy Books”, sold to Maggs, which may suggest the origin of these additional four volumes.

The Sotheby entry also mentions a manuscript catalogue, which is dated 1872 and survives in the present collection. It further introduces us to the original compiler of the collection, the Rev. William Maskell (1814?-1890). Maskell was a liturgical scholar and collector who was in the habit of building up collections of books and works of art and selling them to public institutions[2]. The British Museum Library acquired a large number of liturgical works from Maskell within his lifetime, with a major portion of his collection being sold to the Museum for £2,240 in 1847[3]. However, these chapbooks remained in Maskell’s private collection until his death in 1890 and were sold by Sotheby in the following year. Contemporary annotations in the sales catalogue suggest the volumes were purchased at auction by Bain (possibly the London booksellers James Bain) and were likely acquired by William Law not long after this.

A two-page spread opening of a hand-written catalogue containing entries of chapbooks, belonging to William Maskell.
Manuscript catalogue of chapbooks, children's books, garlands; &c. &c., Hon.112.(1) William Maskell kept a detailed manuscript catalogue of his chapbook collection. The catalogue is organised alphabetically, with entries relating to the numbers which can be found on the spines of the bound volumes. For each entry, Maskell provides the volume number, short title, format, place and year of publication (where available).

The sales catalogue also attests to the impressive scale of the collection: “so complete a collection of chap-books would occupy many years even if possible to procure them in the different towns of England and Scotland in which they were printed.” The collection represents examples of printing from 53 different towns and cities in England, Scotland and Ireland, spanning c.1770-1865. These imprints include the names of printers whose body of work is largely absent from research library catalogues.

Title-page of The misfortunes of a bad boy, with a decorated border, small woodcut illustration depicted the eponymous bad boy and an imprint of Alnick, W. Davison. Not dated.
The misfortunes of a bad boy, Hon.134.(5) Some chapmen, such as W. Davison of Alnwick, produced multiple series of popular tales to be collected. This printing of The misfortunes of a bad boy was no. 21 in a series of halfpenny chapbooks produced by Davison in the early 19th century.

The collection also varies enormously in the nature of its content. ‘Chapbook’ is an infamously slippery term used to describe abridgements, alphabets, ballads, cries, dreadfuls, fables, garlands, histories, rhymes, songsters and morals, among other things. Their physical appearance and cheap, sometimes crude, production are also defining marks. Chapbooks of this period were often illustrated with woodcut blocks, which were typically re-used across publications, sometimes even being shared by different printers[4]. The indeterminate status of the chapbook is well illustrated by the sheer variety of size, shape, theme, and tone of the pamphlets represented in Maskell’s collection. Most of the collection is in remarkably pristine condition, with only a small selection bearing markings of former owners[5]. Some volumes include pencil inscriptions, possibly by William Law, generally commenting on their contents. In addition, there is one chapbook titled, A pleasant and delightful dialogue between honest John and loving Kate. Part the first.” (1791) which has been loosely inserted alongside a copy of the second part of the same story[6]. This title does not appear in the 1872 manuscript catalogue.

Title-page of The wonderful advantages of drunkenness, with a small woodcut illustration and an imprint of Paisley, 1823.
The wonderful advantages of drunkenness; to which is added, Protest against whisky, Hon.163.(11) Chapbooks were produced on various subjects, from popular children’s tales, to more serious moral works. This early 19th century Scottish chapbook was a pamphlet decrying the dangers of excessive drinking.

The Maskell collection provides a useful resource for study into the production of British and Irish chapbooks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is also an interesting example of chapbooks being collected, rather than used, and provides the opportunity for further study of Maskell and Law as collectors of cheap printed materials. This collection complements substantial holdings of chapbooks and cheap print already in the British Library collections. The Maskell collection has been fully catalogued online and can be found within shelfmark range Hon.112.(1) - Hon.183.(14).


[1] Sotheby’s, Sales Catalogue for the Late William Maskell, 26 February 1891.

[2] de Ricci, S.M.R.R., English Collectors of Books and Manuscripts 1530-1930 and Their Marks of Ownership, 1930, p.143.

[3] Harris, P. R. “The development of the collections of the Department of Printed Books, 1846-1875.” The British Library Journal 10, no. 2 (1984): 114–46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42554204.

[4] Dutta, A., Bergel, G., and Zisserman, A., ‘Visual Analysis of Chapbooks Printed in Scotland’. In The 6th International Workshop on Historical Document Imaging and Processing (HIP '21). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, (2021) 67–72.  https://doi.org/10.1145/3476887.3476893

[5] See Hon.119.(2), Hon.121.(8), Hon.124.(4), Hon.129.(5), Hon.129.(11), Hon.129.(12), Hon.138.(4), Hon.138.(5), Hon.140.(6) and Hon.169.(6).

[6] See Hon.156.(6).

05 May 2023

Randall Couch's 'Peal' and other literary bells

This weekend, bells in towers up and down the country will be ringing to mark the Coronation of King Charles III. Since the Coronation was announced there has been a concerted effort, ‘the ‘Ring for the King’ campaign, aimed at recruiting new ringers to learn the fascinating and absorbing hobby of change ringing and join the celebrations.

The art of change-ringing – the ringing of tower bells in mathematical patterns known as methods – originated in 17th-century England and, although practised in other countries today, remains a primarily English phenomenon. As such, it is perhaps strange that it is so little reflected in English literature. While poets such as Tennyson in ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’ or A.E. Housman in ‘On Bredon Hill’ no doubt had the sound of change-ringing in mind, their work does not evoke or describe its specific patterns, although George Butterworth’s musical setting of ‘On Bredon Hill’ does capture it to some extent. Bells are a regular theme in the poetry of John Betjeman, who comes closer to reflecting change-ringing specifically and in one poem, ‘Bristol’, even speaks of ‘the mathematic pattern of a plain course on the bells’. In his Collected Works the pattern is printed below the poem.

John Betjeman’s poem ‘Bristol’ with  the pattern of a bell ringing method printed at the end
Bells Betjeman X.989-6365. Caption: ‘Bristol’, from John Betjeman’s Collected Poems. 3rd ed. (London, 1970) X.989/6365.

The most famous literary bells in fiction are probably those in Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective novel, The Nine Tailors . Crime writers seem to have an affinity with ringing – it features in two of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin books and an episode of the long running TV series Midsomer Murders – but Sayers’ novel captures it most (if not entirely) accurately, and ingeniously uses the pattern of a ringing method as the basis of a cipher that is a key to the mystery.

A recent British Library acquisition uses ringing methods in an equally ingenious and intriguing – though very different – way. The American author, poet and critic Randall Couch, like Sayers, was fascinated by this ‘tradition of algorithmic composition’ and the result was the unusual and beautiful book Peal (RF.2021.a.5), published in an edition of 300 copies by the Tipperary-based Coracle Press in 2017.

Couch uses the construction of various ringing methods to play with English syntax. The books starts with a ‘Cento’, a poem composed from other writers’ lines. The lines Couch uses, chosen from a wide range of literary, philosophical, musicological and scientific sources, almost all relate in some way to bells, numbers, pattern, syntax or melody. He then turns each line into a ringing method by moving the words as the bells move in the chosen method, creating juxtapositions that range from the poetical to the nonsensical. In keeping with the conventions of writing out ringing methods, the path of the last word in the original line, corresponding with the heaviest working bell in the method, is printed in blue, and the first word, corresponding to the lightest bell (the treble, which may follow a different pattern to the other bells) is printed in red.

Here’s a simple example, using the line ‘Every text is a cento’ from French linguist François Rastier’s Meaning and Textuality. The method is Plain Hunt on five bells, the same as the ‘plain course’ quoted in Betjeman’s ‘Bristol’, although Couch better follows convention by writing the rows out in horizontal rows rather than vertical columns.

Sentence ‘Every text is a cento’ written in the pattern of Plain Hunt on Five Bells
Plain Hunt on Five Bells from Randall Couch’s Peal, (RF.2021.a.5). Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

For a work that plays with ideas of syntax and meaning, an obvious line for Couch’s cento is Noam Chomsky’s famous example of a grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical sentence, ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’. Couch turns this into a plain course of Grandsire Doubles ‘Grandsire’ is the name of the method, and ‘Doubles’ means it is being rung on five bells. (You can read more about how methods are named here.)

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’ written in the pattern of Grandsire Doubles
Grandsire Doubles from Randall Couch’s Peal. Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

While Plain Hunt and Grandsire are among the easiest methods and the first that ringers tend to learn, Couch also uses more complex ones which he says were ‘chosen with an eye to the associations created by juxtaposing their names with the corresponding opening lines.’ Here is a line from a work by the earliest writers on change-ringing, John Duckworth and Fabian Stedman, set to a course of London Delight Bob Triples.

‘And every bell is a Wit’s Common-wealth’ written in the pattern of London Delight Bob Triples
London Delight from Randall Couch’s Peal. Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

Couch also includes the method that bears Stedman’s name with a quotation from Gertrude Stein, ‘Money is what words are.’ Among the less familiar methods he uses are Bobby Dazzler Little Alliance Major (to Alan Turing’s words ‘Machines take me by surprise with great frequency’), Titanic Triples (John Cage’s ‘Every something is an echo of nothing’) and some with deliberately amusing names such as Ursa Minor (poet John Cleveland’s ‘I like not tears in tune’).

Couch’s cento and its variations may not have the instantly catchy appeal of Tennyson’s, Housman’s or Betjeman’s poems, but they are a unique and fascinating reflection on the structures of both change-ringing methods and the English language itself, with a lasting appeal for anyone with an interest in either.