THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

20 posts categorized "Biography"

15 April 2019

‘What Do I Know About Beckett?’: B.S. Johnson’s Beckett Notebook

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a guest blog by Patrick Armstrong, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.The Papers of BS Johnson are available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room (Add MS 89001).  Learn more about some of the Libraries collections related to Beckett and Johnson here

B.S. Johnson’s Samuel Beckett notebooks perform an act of remembering. Principally, Johnson wonders what it is possible for him to know about Beckett, an epistemological problem he tries to work out through writing. The scraps of paper and notebook entries show Johnson trying to remember all he can about his onetime friend and major influence: when he read his work, who he was with, what it meant to him at the time.

Johnson’s idea of writing a literary biography of Beckett aligns with his famous authorial declarations. In The Unfortunates (1969), for example, he writes ‘in general, generalization is to lie, to tell lies’, while similarly, in Albert Angelo (1964), the narrator states that ‘telling stories is telling lies’. The notes, written mainly between 1971 and 1973, show Johnson instructing himself on how to write truthfully, without 'generalisation': 'Work conversation into this – as exactly as I can remember – use as interludes in conjecture material, in different type – that is, it is part of the “no generalisation” idea, which […] stated very carefully – somewhere – It was in MURPHY […] that I first saw the word SOLIPSISM'.

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A page from Johnson's small pocket-book detailing his first encounter with 'solipsism' (Add MS 89001/8/8). All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.


In philosophical terms, solipsism is the theory that one’s own self or consciousness is all that exists or all that can be known. Initially encountered in Beckett’s witty early prose (Murphy is described as a ‘seedy solipsist’), the word offers Johnson ‘a mode of being’ and, crucially, ‘a mode of GOING ON’ (a reference to Beckett’s later, post-war prose). The evocative term is then connected with the process of biographical writing, as Johnson states:

'Experiment/Venture into BIOGRAPHY
What do I know about BECKETT?
Solipsistically
i.e. only what he told me/what I saw for myself CAN BE ACCEPTED as true.'

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A page from Johnson's small pocket-book where he thinks through the limits of the biographical form (Add MS 89001/8/8)All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.

 The confessional mode seems to have become the only truthful method of writing, as for Johnson all that can be known about Beckett is what he himself saw and heard. Thinking about Beckett sharpens Johnson’s own conception of his literary project; it allows him to work out his own position, offering a means of finding an acceptable form, as Beckett put it, ‘to accommodate the mess’. The ‘idea’ (one small green notebook purchased in Paris is simply entitled ‘Beckett Idea’) of writing a biography becomes an expansive, Proustian process of remembering one’s own life: ‘How everything gets tied in with everything, how here I am trying to write about Sam, and it is [he lists other friends] - just to get it down before I forget it, for some bits of it no one else could get down, obviously. […] All is digression’. The potential biography becomes a kind of autobiography, a project in both solipsistic remembrance and Sternean digression. Does Johnson genuinely consider writing a biography of Beckett, or does he instead use the ‘venture’ and ‘experiment’ of doing so as a prompt for memory and material, as a mode of ‘going on’?

Evidently, Johnson had a deep affinity with Beckett’s thought, and the Irish writer’s life and work seems to intimately intertwine with Johnson’s own. The latter even associates space with Beckett’s company: ‘The way B came to the Hotel […] the way I associate that little waiting room with him – no, with his PRESENCE.’ The writing is self-corrective, as ‘him’ becomes the more impressive and aggrandizing ‘his presence’. As Jonathan Coe writes in his biography of Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson (2004), ‘the friendship of Beckett, his unfailing kindness and supportiveness, would become one of the cornerstones of Johnson’s life’. On several occasions, Beckett’s work uncannily ‘fitted’ Johnson, connecting to his own experiences in unexpected ways. On seeing Waiting for Godot for the first time in Autumn of 1955, Johnson modestly recalls how it ‘echoed (+ said more + better than I could) things I had been talking […] about before we went in’. Another time, when he telephones his girlfriend to say that it is ‘all finished’, Johnson remembers holding his colourful copy of Watt in the phone box, describing its ‘splendid purple/blue/pink’ jacket and ‘bloodred cut paper’. In reference to his separation, Johnson declares: ‘Beckett’s solipsism/stoicism fitted! […] I read him with an intensity to try to shut out what she had done’. The two ‘isms’ separated by an oblique stroke, stoicism and solipsism, are arguably two of the most important concepts that Johnson takes from Beckett.

A year after first seeing Godot,Johnson remembers being in a Parisian bookshop unable to afford a copy of Molloy. Still drawn to the book, he sifts through the first few pages in the bookshop: ‘read and felt the first few pages’. Like the memory of holding his copy of Watt, the experience seems both tactile and emotional. This emotive episode is ironic given that the notes reveal how Beckett, well-off after winning the Nobel prize, later offered and sent money to the struggling writer in London. This is the same kind and generous Beckett that we find in his letters, and in André Bernold’s portrait of the author in Beckett’s Friendship (2015). Johnson’s note that Beckett ‘again offered financial help’ are eerily the last words recorded in the notebook. In fact, when reading through these notes, their temporal closeness to Johnson’s suicide in November of 1973 is hard to ignore. Of a notebook with 144 leaves, just ten are written on, and there is a sadness about the mostly empty book. Johnson and Beckett eventually fell out after the former assured his publishers that they could use some of Beckett’s enthusiastic comments about his work (‘a most gifted writer’) as an endorsement on the dust jacket of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973).

Yet, Beckett’s influence permeates Johnson’s notes - one loose scrap of paper could be mistaken for one of Beckett’s mirlitonnades, an irregular small poem. In addition, there are notes (something about Joyce and Yeats) on the back of receipts from French restaurants, specifically ‘Le Moulin Noyé’ in Glénic (Creuse), which is, appropriately, a ‘Hôtel isolé’: a solitary, solipsistic residence. On another scrap of paper Johnson reveals how significant he finds Beckett’s ‘idiosyncratic’ use of words: 'once when I rang him about 11.30am he said “Could you ring back? I’m trying to wash myself” Am I alone in finding that idiosyncratic? Or does all he say seem significant for me in the light of what I know he is, of what I believe him to be?'


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A collection of receipts and loose-leaf scraps on which Johnson recorded his thoughts about the biography of Beckett (Add MS 89001/8/8)All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.

Again, there is the sense of doubt about what Johnson knows of Beckett, as he corrects himself with the verb ‘believe’. Yet, it is arguably this belief in the significance of Beckett’s language and thought that provided Johnson with a fitting mode of writing.   

 



05 January 2018

Diaries: Recording History in Many Voices

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Guest blog by Travis Elborough author of  Our Twentieth Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters, published by Michael O’Mara.

 TravisElborough author photo (c) David X Green - croppedDiaries and journals as we know them now have been with us since at least the 16th century. But it wasn't until 1812 that the stationer John Letts first began selling a yearly almanack from his shop at the Royal Exchange in London – at that time home to numerous booksellers and coffeehouses and an area previously haunted by Pepys. The Letts Diary was an immediate success, attracting such devoted users as William Makepeace Thackeray who favoured the 'three shillings cloth boards' No 12 model, and continues to be published in a multitude of formats to this day.

I’ve never really kept a diary. But I am an inveterate reader of other people’s. For me, the appeal has always been their immediacy and intimacy. That unique sense of being addressed directly, and sometimes extremely candidly, by someone, perhaps from an age other than our own, is intensely seductive. At the British Library there is the added thrill of being able to consult the original diaries of the likes of Laurie Lee, Kenneth Williams, Alec Guinness, Beryl Bainbridge and Shiva Naipaul in the archives, their personalities coming across here in pen stroke and paper stock as well as in choice turns of phrase.

It has been an enormous pleasure and a real privilege to be able to consult such documents and the Library’s unparalleled collection of published diaries while putting together my latest anthology, Our History of the 20th Century. In this book I’ve used extracts from over a hundred different diarists, both the great and the good and the completely obscure, to present a kind of top down and bottom up account of Britain during the last century. My diarists range from politicians, heads of state, novelists, playwrights and celebrities to ordinary people and the largely unknown and unsung contributors to the Mass Observation Project.

But in any case, as an historian and author of books on vinyl records and the British seaside, diaries are where I go to try and find as instantaneous or unvarnished a reaction to events as possible. First impressions count because they tend to get superseded by the collectively agreed verdict of history. Take for example the funeral of Queen Victoria, an event which we condescendingly assume must have been greeted with great solemnity by the general public. And yet here is Arnold Bennett’s impression of the occasion from his journal on 2 February 1901:

This morning I saw what I could, over the heads of a vast crowd, of the funeral procession of the Queen. The people were not, on the whole, deeply moved, whatever journalists may say, but rather serene and cheerful.

Afterwards, Legge, Fred Terry and Hooley lunched with me at the Golden Cross Hotel, and all was very agreeable and merry.

Diaries are, of course, often far from authoritative and have no commitment to tell the truth or record incidents accurately. They are by their very nature subjective, and so subject to the egos, whims and biases of their writers. Bennett may, perhaps, have nursed a particular antipathy toward the old Queen, who knows? Elsewhere in his journals he denounces cocktails, admires Lyons Corner House restaurants and records meeting T S Eliot and asking the American-born poet if The Wasteland was intended as a joke.

This is another joy of diaries, they can often supply frank (and sometimes amusingly wrong-headed) assessments of artworks long since judged canonical. It is in her diary that Virginia Woolf famously confessed on reading James Joyce’s Ulysses to feeling ‘puzzled, bored, irritated, and disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. In turn Beatrice Webb writes off To the Lighthouse in her diary, deeming the ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative of Woolf’s 1927 novel ‘objectionable’ on the grounds that ‘even one’s own consciousness defies description’.

Our History Cover final - Travis elborough Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman might well have won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 and is widely regarded as a classic of post-war American theatre. One that continues to be studied and regularly performed all over the world but after seeing its first London run, Malcolm Muggeridge judged it ‘a wholly sentimental affair’, concluding in a diary entry for the 27 September 1949 that it was little more than ‘a glorified hard-luck story.’ He was similarly damning of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger too.

Anyone familiar with the work of the film and theatre director Lindsay Anderson, leading light of the Free Cinema movement who produced politically-charged movies like If and Britannia Hospital, might have expected him to take a rather dim view of Star Wars. And indeed he does, with the robots C3P0 and R2D2 in George Lucas’s cinematic space epic coming in for particular criticism. But it is also in the pages of his diary we learn, rather surprisingly, that in 1978 he was a committed viewer of the American television series The Incredible Hulk.

Armed with this knowledge is it tempting to imagine what Anderson, who late in his career worked unhappily with the 80s pop group Wham! on a documentary of their tour of China, might possibly have done himself with a Marvel comics movie.

Anderson died in 1994, the year Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party. And there is, if anything, nothing more distant than that recent past. What seems like yesterday remains a period when news of Princess Diana’s death, for instance, reaches all the diarists in my book via landline telephone, radio, terrestrial television and inky newsprint rather than by text, the internet or social media.

Today, of course, many more people choose to document their lives with pictures on Instagram and comment publicly on events, personal and political, on Facebook or Twitter rather than privately in the leaves of a diary. It will be interesting to see what future historians might then use to construct a similar volume about our current century. 

Travis Elborough’s new book Our Twentieth Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters is published by Michael O’Mara.

26 December 2017

Marking the centenary year of the death of the poet Edward Thomas.

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Edward Thomas believed poetry to be the highest form of literature, yet it wasn’t until late in his life that he became a poet. For the greater part of his creative life he was a reviewer, critic and the author of a number of books on nature.  He was born on the 3 March 1878 in Lambeth to Welsh parents who instilled in him a strong sense of his Welsh heritage.  He was educated at St Paul’s School and then Oxford University. In 1899, while still an undergraduate, Thomas married Helen Berenice Noble, the daughter of an early mentor, James Ashcroft Noble, who had encouraged Thomas to publish essays based on the copious notes he took on his long country walks.  After Oxford, Thomas made a precarious living working as a reviewer on the Daily Chronicle much to the dismay of his father, who had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps by joining the Civil Service.  Thomas’s determination to earn his living as a writer was to cause a major rift between father and son.

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Edward Thomas photograph circa 1905 Wikimedia Commons

In order to support his growing family Thomas had to take on more and more reviewing – leading him to declare to a friend that “I am burning my candle at three ends”, despite his dislike of what he referred to as his “hack work” he became a prominent and influential literary critic. It was through his growing status as a reviewer that Thomas became acquainted with Harold Monro, whose Poetry Bookshop was the centre for an emerging group of poets who became known as the Georgian Poets. The key members of the group at the time were Lascelles Abercrombie, W W Gibson, Rupert Brooke and John Drinkwater.

In 1911 Abercrombie moved to ‘The Gallows’ a house at Ryton, just outside the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire; he was soon followed to the area by Gibson who, with Abercrombie, persuaded the American poet Robert Frost to move to a house in Ledington called ‘Little Iddens’. The three of them formed what became known as the Dymock triangle.  The Dymock colony is looked back on today as an idyll, a short-lived golden time, brought to an end by the First World War.

Thomas first met Frost in October 1913 and was subsequently a frequent visitor to ‘Little Iddens’, often staying with Frost until he too rented rooms for his family in a nearby farmhouse. Other visitors to Dymock included Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater, Eleanor Farjeon, Ivor Gurney and W H Davies.  Thomas’s friendship with Frost was to prove a pivotal moment in Thomas’s life.  The two men would go for long walks in the surrounding countryside discussing poetry and life.  Frost has been credited as the catalyst in Thomas becoming a poet.  He suggested that Thomas take his prose and turn it into poetry. In the final two years of his life, Thomas was extremely prolific, writing over 140 poems.  One of his most famous is ‘Adelstrop’, written on the 24 June 1914, on a train journey to visit Frost.  The poem recounts an unscheduled stop that captures a moment of peace and tranquillity on a summer’s day, which later took on an extra poignancy for those about to be slaughtered in the coming war

There has been much speculation as to why Thomas enlisted in the army. Certainly we know he spent many hours deliberating over whether he should join up.  As a married man in his late thirties with three children to support he would not have been expected to enlist.  But enlist he did, on the 19 July 1915 as a private in the Artists’ Rifles.  A little over a year later he was promoted to corporal and worked as a map reading instructor, an occupation for which he was entirely suited and a position he could have retained for the duration of the war.  Ironically, it was the army that gave him the freedom to write, free from the financial worries of how to provide for his family.  In November 1916 he was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant, the following month he volunteered for active service.

Thomas arrived in France a few months before the commencement of a major Allied offensive, aimed at breaking through the German defences at Arras. The day before the battle, a shell landed near Thomas but failed to detonate.  That evening he was toasted in the Officers’ Mess for being blessed with luck.  The battle began on Easter Monday 9 April 1917, within the first hour Thomas was dead.  Some biographical accounts suggest he was killed by the concussive blast of a shell which left his body unmarked.  However, a letter from his commanding officer, which lay undiscovered in the New York Public Library for many years, reveals that he was killed by a direct hit through the chest.  The poems that were to make his name were published a few months after his death.

Perhaps his work has been overshadowed by the dominance of modernism, but many poets point to Thomas as an inspiration and he is seen by some as the bridge between Thomas Hardy and Ted Hughes. Hughes described him as “the father of us all”.  On Armistice Day in 1985, Hughes unveiled a memorial to First World War poets in Westminster Abbey, which included Edward Thomas among those commemorated.

 

Duncan Heyes, Curator, Printed Heritage and Contemporary British Publications.

14 October 2016

Angela Carter and the Visual Imagination

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I was too young to see The Company of Wolves when it first came out in 1984. Consequently, until the film appeared on video, I had to make do with reading the reviews in newspapers and admiring the stills reproduced in film magazines. The stills were remarkable, full of fairy-tale imagery run riot. One shot showed a banqueting scene in which ornately dressed guests had developed lupine faces; another showed a cluster of eggs lying in a nest, one of which had cracked from top to bottom to reveal a baby. Perhaps most memorably of all one still depicted a wolf’s snout, all sleek and furred, emerging from a man’s mouth - the beast within made manifest. Inspired by the lush Gothic imagery of the film (I’ve always believed that if Gothic is worth doing it’s worth over doing, it’s a genre that thrives on excess – I’m all for velvet drapes, icy-mists and all round spectacular flamboyance when it comes to Gothic) I sought out The Bloody Chamber, the volume containing the short story that provided the inspiration for the film. And so I discovered the world of Angela Carter – 'Feminist', 'Magic Realist', 'Gothic author', 're-worker of fairy tales' and generally someone to whom a seemingly endless stream of labels have been applied over the years, all of which tell part of the story but none of which do the breadth of her work and her imagination justice.

Angela Carter

(Angela Carter by Fay Godwin © British Library Board)

Perhaps as a result of this early exposure to Neil Jordan’s film adaptation Angela Carter’s work has always, to my mind, possessed something of a cinematic quality. Jean Luc Goddard and Frederico Felline were clearly influences but I often like to imagine that there is possibly a dash of Hammer Horror lurking in the shadows behind some of her stories. In her final novel, Wise Children, Carter had explored the way in which high art and low, Shakespeare and music hall for example, often become entwined. Given such an outlook surely it’s possible to speculate that films like The Curse of the Werewolf, The Brides of Dracula and The Kiss of the Vampire might have played a part in the genesis of stories such as ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and ‘The Lady of the House of Love’. I like to think so, no matter how fanciful such a notion may be on my part. Still, true or not, I’ve always been pleased that I came to Carter’s work via film.

Company-of-wolves-02

(Poster for The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and with a screenplay by Neil Jordan and Angela Carter)

‘Dying’, as Gore Vidal once gloomily remarked, is often ‘a good career move’ and in the year following Carter's death in 1992 the British Academy received over forty proposals for doctoral research into her work. Sadly, in art as in life a person’s influence and worth often only really become apparent once they have gone. Angela Carter’s tragically early death propelled her work into the limelight. Almost twenty five years later, and with Edmund Gordon’s eagerly awaited The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography now in the bookshops, the fascination and admiration surrounding her work continues to grow from strength to strength. In a sense Carter’s work achieves that rare but perfect balance – simultaneously adored by academia for its insight, depth and invention but maintaining popular appeal due to its fabulous characters, storylines and sheer exuberance.

The British Library holds Angela Carter’s archive, a resource that consists of a wealth of manuscript material including diaries, notebooks, letters, drafts of novels, outlines for short stories and research notes. Each part of the archive offers a fascinating glimpse into Carter’s life and work but, for those with a love of her fiction, perhaps the most revealing items are the notebooks in which she recorded her research and worked on ideas that later became fully developed episodes in her books.

Fevvers 02

(Above Add. MS 88899/1/11, a page of Angela Carter’s notes for Nights at the Circus. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter).

Shown above, by way of example, is a page from one of her notebooks in which she outlines her initial thoughts about the character of Sophie Fevvers from the novel Nights at the Circus (1984). It is fascinating to see the character in embryo, and to be able to explore how layer upon layer of idea, imagination and imagery is built up until Fevvers, a six-foot-two trapeze artist with wings, emerges complete in the published book. The genesis from notebook to novel took many drafts and, as can be seen below in this page of an early draft of the opening chapter the re-workings of the text continually grow and evolve rather than emerge fully formed.

  Carter - Nights 01 (3)

(Add. MS 88899/1/12. Early draft of the opening scenes from Nights at the Circus. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter).

Carter’s notebooks are a continual delight, and looking through their pages offers a unique insight into the creative process. In a way it is the literary equivalent of siting in a studio with an artist as they work on a painting, seeing the successive sketches and layers of paint as they are applied until the finished portrait appears. You don’t often get the chance in life to see creative genius in action, but Carter’s archive does give us one such opportunity to see exactly that.

Much more about Angela Carter’s archive and work can be found on the Discovering Literature: 20th Century website, with examples from her notebooks relating to Nights at the Circus being available, together with examples of the early drafts of the novel . The British Library, in partnership with the Royal Society of Literature, will also be hosting an event - Angela Carter: A Celebration - on November 24th 2016. Nearly 25 years after her death Angela Carter is more relevant than ever.

25 May 2016

Discovering Literature: 20th Century is launched!

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We are delighted to announce that the 20th century phase of the Library’s free educational resource has been launched today! The website which is aimed at A-level, undergraduate students and the general public, uses archival and printed sources to shed lights on the historical, political and cultural contexts in which key literary works were created. The launch of the 20th century phase follows on from the very successful 19th century module, ‘Romantics and Victorians’ that was launched in 2014 and the Shakespeare module which came out in March of this year.

The 20th century phase sees over 300 literary treasures being made available online for the first time. High resolution images of literary drafts, first editions, letters, notebooks, diaries, newspapers and photographs from Virginia Woolf, Ted Hughes, Angela Carter, J.G. Ballard and others provide a wonderful insight into the creative process of some of the most influential and innovative writers and poets of the 20th century. The site focuses predominately on 15 key literary figures of the 20th century - Wilfred Owen, E.M. Forster, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Daphne du Maurier, George Orwell, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Angela Carter, J.G. Ballard, E.R. Braithwaite and Hanif Kureishi.

I am sure that people will be excited to see the original handwritten literary drafts many of which differ from later published editions. These include drafts of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf under its original title ‘The Hours’ and George Orwell’s literary notebook in which he recorded his ideas for what would later become Nineteen Eighty-Four . An earlier title for Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters ‘The Sorrows of the Deer’ can also be found in successive drafts of the poet’s work on one of his most famous poetry collections.

Manuscript-drafts-of-St-add_ms_88918_1_6_f14v

Draft of 'St Botolph's' from Add MS 88918/1/6 © Ted Hughes Estate and reproduced with their kind permission. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

Alongside these original drafts you will be able to read letters and diaries of the period, and look at old photographs and newspaper cuttings that provide a real context for the literary creations broadening our understanding of the world in which the writers were living and working. The innovative ways in which the works were created often challenged contemporary audiences whether those audiences were made up of other authors or the general public. A good example of this is George Bernard Shaw’s letter to Sylvia Beach in which he gives his not altogether flattering opinion of James Joyce’s Ulysses. As well as commenting on the work of others letters and diaries also illustrate the hopes, doubts and aspirations of writers, particularly early in their career. In his letter to Sydney Schiff whilst he was working on ‘The Waste Land’ T.S. Eliot writes to thank Schiff for his comments saying -

‘You could not have used words which would have given more pleasure or have so persuaded me that the poem may possibly communicate something of which it intends’.

Similarly in a diary entry from 1959 Ted Hughes writes of waiting nervously to find out if he has received the Guggenheim prize for this first poetry collection, Hawk in the Rain. Whilst we can look back with hindsight on such events it is a real privilege to be able to read of the poet’s own feelings so early in his writing career.

This blog can only go some way to whet your appetite about the website but please don’t take my word for it do have a look for yourself! In addition to having everything from Wilfred Owen’s poetry drafts and Woolf’s travel writings to J.G. Ballard’s evocative Crash! manuscript and Hanif Kureishi’s drafts of My Beautiful Launderette the site also has a series of articles on the writers, their work and wider 20th century literature, short documentary films and teachers notes all free and available for everyone.

24 May 2016

Punk fanzine ‘Oh Cardiff... Up Yours!’ donated to the Library

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The Library’s current exhibition Punk 1976-78 is an opportunity not just to look back at the early years of punk, but also to make new connections and to build on the legacy material that the Library holds.  The exhibition showcases examples of the fanzines inspired by punk’s DIY spirit and energy.  Forty years on, zinesters are still busy writing and drawing, cutting and pasting, stapling and sticking their creations, and the Library is as keen to collect zines now as it was during the first stirrings of punk. Publicity around the exhibition has also inspired some of the individuals who produced fanzines at the time to donate them to the Library so that they can be conserved and made available in our Reading Rooms.   We are delighted to have received a donation of the full run – all two issues – of a punk fanzine produced in Cardiff in 1978, Oh Cardiff… Up Yours!, from Paul Davies who was one of its creators. One of the hardest things for the exhibition is to convey the diverse meanings of punk for the fans who espoused its ethos and participated in it through their own expression and activism.  The fanzines we hold allow access to the voices of some of those involved in the heady days of punk.  I asked Paul to say something about what motivated him and his friends to produce a fanzine.  Paul’s account is reproduced below – in his own words. As a curator I’m delighted that Paul has written this piece, both for its interest now and for anyone looking at the zine in years to come to understand how it came into being. 
 
I’m also struck by the way that producing a fanzine was a starting point for a whole range of creative endeavours for those involved. While I was thinking about how to present Oh Cardiff… Up Yours!, I came across a reference to it  from another of its co-creators, for whom it also remains significant, in a post on the urban75 blog. One aspect of my work in the Contemporary British Publishing team is to identify websites for inclusion in our web archiving programme, as part of the Library’s mission to capture a wide range of contemporary cultural and political expression. For me, it is inspiring to see this link between the punk activism of 1976-78 and contemporary social activism. Just as punk fanzines challenged the music coverage of the mainstream press,  the urban75 website was a pioneer of online activism providing an alternative to mainstream media, and it remains vital and vibrant today. It’s not always easy to explain the significance of zines and fanzines alongside the Library's more prestigious holdings. But whether for students of print journalism and the flagship magazines that have mediated Britain’s popular music and youth culture, or for future students of alternative and DIY culture, punk fanzine Oh Cardiff… Up Yours! marks the beginning of a journey into creativity and activism in print, film, and on the web, and from the record shops and venues of Cardiff to a global reach.  Paul’s account of its creation is no mere nostalgia trip: those two issues from 1978 are relevant for their part in a punk legacy that shapes cultural and political expression today, and I’m thrilled to have them in the Library.
 
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Oh Cardiff... Up Yours! issues 1 and 2.
 
Paul Davies writes:
 
Oh Cardiff... Up Yours!
 
The tendrils of punk rock began to wrap themselves around my flares-festooned ankles at a precise moment in time in the winter of 1976. If I had been partial to breakfast cereals, it would have been a splutter-the-cornflakes-across-the-room moment. Preparing for another tedious day at school, as we breakfasted in our small kitchen the necessity to engage in early-morning familial badinage was scuppered by the incessant drone of the local radio station.
 
On this particular morning the apoplexy count was in overdrive, as the Anarchy in the UK tour was about to hit the hot and happening Valleys enclave of Caerphilly – a desolate urban outcrop as far away from the bondage trousers of the King’s Road as it is possible to be, and yet, in its own malodorous, disenfranchised and truculent way, absolutely perfect to welcome the burgeoning social and political tornado that was Punk Rock.
 
As the New Musical Express was my bible, handbook and calling card, I was clearly prepped about this swaggering new musical movement emanating from that London, but had yet to experience the sonic thrills that were allegedly on offer, and was still hanging on, rather apprehensively, to my copies of Frampton Comes Alive, Deep Purple’s Made in Japan, my RAF Greatcoat and my luscious shoulder length hair.
 
Anarchy in the UK changed all that, and left me gasping for more. Four decades later the opening 20 seconds of that song still sound as feral, exhilarating, revolutionary as they did back then – the crunching powerchords just softening you up before Rotten grabs you by the throat and demands that you listen up “Right Now!” and then announces and introduces himself formally as the Antichrist and the Anarchist that an army of suburban home-owners would soon be threatening to garrotte, castrate and behead.
 
You didn’t hear this stuff on the radio, ever. To hear it on a local news radio station dealt an unstoppable knock-out punch to the solar plexus. If you were 17 and of a certain disposition, you responded in only one way – you embraced it, instinctively – you didn’t quite get what was going on (yet), but you wanted in – and you wanted all your friends in as well. Year Zero was here – time to reassess everything.
 
Like the most addictive drugs, the fired-up elation of the first hit sent you reeling in all sorts of directions as you sought and consumed anything related. The Pistols and the Clash were primo Class A stuff, but we were so hungry for cheap dirty thrills we even dabbled in Class B/C/D zones – from the Lurkers to 999, Eater to The Cortinas – all with a provincial charm of their own and a happy filler.
 
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Musician turned environmental activist, John Evans of South Wales punk band the Tax Exiles
 
Cultural movements bring people together and punk was no different – a small circle of friends gravitated towards each other as we fell deep into this dizzying, angry, intoxicating maelstrom. 1977 was a great time to be 17/18. We were a gang of sorts, we hung out all the time, went to gigs religiously and inspired by punk, we plotted how we would vent our energy creatively. It had to be a fanzine.
 
Cardiff was ill-served by fanzines, we were going to resolve that and make our mark on a stultifying provincial scene, which needed a cultural rocket up its jacksy. We were more than happy to oblige. Being teenage wannabe punk warrior wordsmiths, the first step seemed to be finding appropriate noms de plume – that’s what punks did, didn’t they?
 
So we became, shamelessly, Mal Function, Cess Pitt, Rick O’Shea and Dai O’Rhea. Our photographer was already called Slug, so he didn’t need one. Then we needed a name for the fanzine. It had to be current, mildly inflammatory, a call to arms. We hit upon Oh Cardiff... Up Yours! Genius. With a respectful nod to the great Poly Styrene and X Ray Spex, we were on our way.
 
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Rick O’Shea, Cess Pitt and Mal Function with the first issue
 
 As most of us were happily unemployed we had plenty of time for our editorial meetings – fanzine content was shaped by the gigs we went to, the records we bought. We reviewed the gigs, singles and albums, interviewed the bands, then hastily typed it all up on an antique typewriter – with some assistance from one of our friends who could actually type. Ours was by no means a Stalinist punk manifesto – the uneasy mix of bands we covered reflected the transitioning of our musical tastes – we’d cover local punk oiks The Tax Exiles as well as bands like Thin Lizzy.
 
We devoured the ethos of punk greedily, if not the haircuts – contemporaneous photographs provide damning evidence of shoulder-length hair and inappropriate clothing not approved by the Punk Politburo. Wearing a Thin Lizzy tshirt and customising jeans with a ripped and burnt Union Jack with stencilled Sex Pistols lettering seemed somehow more punk than buying a pair of tartan bondage trousers from Paradise Garage in Cardiff.
 
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Bette Bright of influential Liverpool art rock / new wave band Deaf School
 
Our prehistoric approach to desktop publishing amounted to cutting out pictures from the NME, cutting out the typed reviews and messily gluing them to sheets of A4. Page titles were hand-crafted, a few cartoons thrown into the mix, and then off down the printers to whack out a hundred copies of issue 1. This figure was later inflated when we got our first press coverage in the staid local rag – fiercely competing with a couple of other ’zines which had sprung up since we published, we brazenly bumped up our circulation to 250.
 
The thrill when we picked up those first boxes of actual fanzines was intense. We’d done it!. A few hours of stapling and we were ready to hit the streets. There were plenty of gigs taking place in Cardiff, at the Top Rank, the University and two local arts centres, so we just hung about before and after gigs, and miraculously sold the lot.
Emboldened by this, we doubled our print run, and the cover price, and did it all over again, hitting up a couple of local record shops which agreed to stock the fanzine. The reaction was almost universally positive – fearless truth-tellers that we were, we gave an uncomplimentary review to a local punk band, who seemed hell-bent on giving us a good kicking until we managed to persuade them that we didn’t actually write the thing, we just sold it.
 
And then that was it. Like all the best things that came out of punk, we blasted in for two issues and then burnt out. Circumstances conspired to separate us geographically, punk was blowing itself out and we all moved on to other things.
 
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Coverage in the Western Mail, February 25th 1978
 
Mal Function (Paul Davies @longtimelurker ) – worked as a freelance journalist for Jamming! and Q magazine during the 1980s and 90s. Now works as a Business Analyst.
Cess Pitt (John Brewer) – became a firefighter, rose through the ranks, retired at 50. Still going to see Stiff Little Fingers gigs.
Dai O’Rhea (Mike Slocombe @urban75 ) – moved to London in 1978, drummed in bands for years. Now runs Urban75 website and Brixton club nights.
Rick O’Shea (Pete Salmi) – went to film school, directed movies and TV films – now works in advertising.
Slug (Andy Rees @Andrew0145 ) – studied photography, now working as a freelance photographer in the Cotswolds.
 
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Oh Cardiff... Up Yours! banner at anti-National Front demonstration
 
Creative Commons License Paul Davies 2016
 


14 May 2016

International Dylan Thomas Day: New Acquisition

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The British Library is delighted to announce the acquisition of manuscript items relating to Dylan Thomas from Professor John Goodby. We are grateful to receive this contemporaneous memoir and copy of a letter by Dylan Thomas to the publican Phil Richards. These items will enrich our research resources for Dylan Thomas, which already include early manuscripts, correspondence with fellow poets such as Vernon Watkins, and other papers relating to his poetry, prose and dramatic scripts. We are excited to be able to add these items to our collections, adding a further voice to our understanding of Dylan Thomas.

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Dr. Charles Barber, Prof. John Goodby, Abe Osborne and BL Curator of Performance and Creative Archives, Joanna  Norledge at the donation of the manuscripts (left to right)

Prof.  John Goodby and Ade Osborne, PHD student at Swansea University, have kindly written about the research value of these items:

A memoir, by the local G.P. to Dylan Thomas and his family during his years in Laugharne (1938-40 and 1949-53), and a copy of a letter by Thomas, are being donated by Professor John Goodby to the British Library on 13th May 2016. The memoir is hitherto unknown, and the letter does not appear in the 1985 or 2000 editions of Thomas’s Collected Letters and is not known to other Thomas experts. Both items have been transcribed by Ade Osbourne, a Ph.D. student supervised by Professor Goodby and funded by Swansea University to work on the Dylan Thomas notebook the university acquired in 2014.

The 26-page memoir is by Dr David Hughes, the St Clears-based G.P. for the Thomas family, and was written in 1961 for Charles Barber who had recently become interested in literature and was due to give a paper on Dylan Thomas to the Literary Society; his father, a friend of David Hughes, asked him to help his son, and the two MSS were his response, the memoir being handwritten by Hughes himself, the letter being a copy made by his wife Phyllis Hughes from the original, which was addressed to Thomas’s friend Phil Richards, the publican at the Cross House Inn, Laugharne, and dated 8 December 1950.

David Mendelson Hughes was himself a man of culture, an accomplished painter and a friend of Philip and Richard Burton. His relationship with Thomas was a doctor-patient one only, but his cultural interests tinge his account in places. Thus, he admits that his first impression of Thomas, in 1938, was of someone acting as a Chelsea bohemian in order to give the impression of being an artist. But this jaundiced view had changed by 1949; Hughes stresses Thomas’s ‘shy & self-effacing’ demeanour, habit of drinking only in moderation, and dedication to his parents, on whom he called every day before visiting Brown’s Hotel (‘before the Pint, the Parents’) where he would have a drink before heading to the Boathouse to work all afternoon.

For Hughes, whose attitudes to women were the patriarchal ones of his era, Caitlin is the villain of the piece; ‘fast’ is the kindest word he uses to describe her, and he speculates that she was responsible for driving Dylan to his death in New York in 1953. To some extent, Hughes’s account is also that of a local man determined to defend Dylan’s reputation against the lurid accounts given in John Malcom Brinnin’s Dylan Thomas in America (1957) and Caitlin’s Leftover Life to Kill (1958). He finds Dylan sad rather than humorous and adopts a protective attitude towards him.

For all the limitations of its time and place, however, this is a striking first-hand account of the poet which adds colour and detail to the others we possess, from the Thomas’s packing-case furniture to Dylan’s taste for pork pies and fear of the dark. For all that Hughes’s Dylan ultimately cuts a sad figure, his account is insightful and full of humorous incident.

The short letter is in typically whimsical vein; it refers to Thomas’s forthcoming trip to Persia of January 1951, and to a pig named Wallis, bought by Thomas with his friends Bill McAlpine and Phil Richards to fatten up for Christmas. The memoir references the letter, and tells us that when the time came to slaughter Wallis, Thomas found ‘Wallis’s dying words’ too much to bear, and sought refuge in the Cross House.

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The documents were kindly donated to Professor Goodby by Charles Barber at the suggestion of His Grace Rowan Williams during a Marlborough College reunion in 2015. They were exhibited at Swansea Museum until 12 May, and are the basis of a feature article to mark International Dylan Day in The Times on Saturday 14 May by Hilly Janes, the daughter of Fred Janes, Dylan’s close friend, and author of The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas.

Discover more about Dylan Thomas, including his work and life here: www.discoverdylanthomas.com

Photograph of David Hughes and David Hughes and his wife Phyllis Hughes, with kind permission of Frances Hughes.

  David Hughes David and Phyllis Hughes

28 April 2016

From poets to punk: Who is Barry Miles?

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Key counterculture figure, bookshop manager, editor, publisher, author, music journalist, archivist, biographer: all of this, and more, is Barry Miles, or just ‘Miles’, as he is better known.

His archive, acquired by the British Library in 2013 and recently catalogued, is a rich and unique source of information not only to anyone interested in Miles himself, but also to those researching the Beat Generation, and the ‘60s and ‘70s culture and music.

Miles organised and arranged his papers thoroughly. Divided into correspondence, projects files, folders relating to his publications, and reference material, the archive reflects all stages of Miles’s life and career, from his time as a student at Gloucestershire College of Art in the early ‘60s to the present day.

At the centre of the London underground scene, as manager of Better Books, co-founder of Indica Gallery and Bookshop and International Times (IT), and organiser of many events, Miles developed an extensive network of contacts, within and outside the UK, many of whom were also good friends. Jim Haynes, Peter Asher, Pete Brown, Victor Bockris, Caroline Coon, Piero Heliczer, Richard Neville, Gordon Ball, Simon Vinkenoog, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Urban Gwerder, to name but a few of his correspondents.

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Flyer on Indica Books limited headed paper advertising The Ginsbergs at the ICA, a recording of the reading given by Allen and his father on 22 August 1967. Reproduced with kind permission from Barry Miles.

With the same people, Miles collaborated on numerous adventures: there are over 100 files in the collection relating to projects in which he was involved, for example his work as editor of Horde and Long Hair, as London correspondent of East Village Other, as co-founder of Lovebooks, Miles, Asher and Dunbar Ltd., and ECAL, as Time Out editor, as manager of Zapple, and as music journalist for New Musical Express. The files include letters, publicity material, press cuttings, newsletters, photographs, reports, notes, press releases, events programmes, draft articles and unpublished material. 

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Trial proof of the cover of Long Hair magazine, Lovebooks second poetry publication, 1965. Miles edited the issue and contributed to the cover drawing. Reproduced with kind permission from Barry Miles.

The first interview Miles did, published in IT on 16 January 1967, was with Paul McCartney, a friend of Miles - the two had met through Peter Asher, whose sister, Jane, was Paul’s girlfriend at the time. Later interviews that Miles did with, amongst others, John Lennon, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Ed Sanders, and The Clash, feature in the archive, either on tape or as transcripts.

After a period as a freelance editor for Omnibus Press, Miles became a prolific writer, publishing 50 books, some of which have been translated into foreign languages. Not to mention the over 400 articles he wrote and his numerous contributions to other authors’ books. For his writing, Miles conducted meticulous research and many interviews, as it emerges from the number of research files and tapes he produced. Also included amongst the material relating to his publications are various drafts, notes, correspondence with editors, letters from fans and colleagues, publicity material, royalty statements, press reviews, and cover proofs.

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Handwritten notes by Barry Miles, on airline napkin. The material from these notes was used for many articles written by Miles, for magazines such as International Times, Hot Ratz, Changes. Reproduced with kind permission from Barry Miles.

His first ‘proper book’ was the biography of Allen Ginsberg, which took him five years to complete and for which Miles recorded 40 tapes of interviews with Ginsberg, his friends and family, now part of the British Library sound collection.

Biographies of other influential figures in Miles’s life followed including William Burroughs, Paul McCartney, Frank Zappa, and Charles Bukowski. His two memoirs, In the Sixties and In the Seventies, together with his London Calling, are detailed accounts of the London underground life and his major and minor players.

Included in the archive are also some rare, limited, special or signed editions of Miles publications, including an unauthorised reprint of his article 1970 ‘The Rebirth of Joy’, the 1973 catalogue of Lilia Aaron exhibition in Switzerland, a 1963 clipping of Miles's article How To Undress a Painting in Slate 2, the magazine of Gloucestershire College of Art, and a typed copy of Horde number 1, 1964.

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Unused ticket for Poets of the World / Poets of Our Time, Albert Hall poetry reading, 11 June 1965. Miles was involved in the organisation of the event.

Miles created files of reference material for items he used most frequently, mainly for publications or exhibitions. Amongst these are a Better Books paper bag, designed by John Sewell; an unused ticket for Poets of the World/Poets of Our Time, the first large-scale Beat generation reading in Europe at the Albert Hall poetry reading, on 11 June 1965, which Miles helped organise; Indica Gallery and Books photographs and flyers; and a leaflet for the party at the Roundhouse for the launch of International Times, 15 October 1966.

A few items from the Barry Miles archive, including a leaflet for The Roxy club and the first interview with the Clash, will feature in the forthcoming free exhibition Punk 1976-78, which opens on the 13th May 2016.

The catalogue of the Barry Miles archive is available online from Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

by Silvia Galotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer