THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

11 posts categorized "Black & Asian Britain"

08 July 2020

New Blog Season: Anti-Racism and Excellence in Our Collections and Beyond, editor's comments

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by Callum Bartolomeu McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives and editor of the English & Drama Blog.

Our new season, Anti-Racism and Excellence in Our Collections and Beyond runs from July-September 2020. If you'd like to get in touch with comments or suggestions, please do so using Twitter with the handle @BLEnglish_Drama.

Owing to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, some blog posts may be delayed. We hope to stick to a Monday, Wednesday and Friday schedule as outlined below as far as possible, but please bear with us if we're a little bit late.

In response to the murder of George Floyd and recent worldwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, the Library issued a statement yesterday committing itself to becoming an anti-racist organisation, urging colleagues to push beyond what Chief Librarian Liz Jolly described as a passive ‘non-belief’ in racism towards an active struggle against it in our corporate structure, our collecting policies or our own interpersonal relationships. This is, and must be, a long-term commitment. From the perspective of a blog-editor — attempting to plan out a season of content which reflects on, sustains and even pushes beyond this statement — its commitment to change is encouraging.

The Library has vast collections and deep expertise, but I’d be lying if I said that the task of writing and programming content around these issues wasn’t intimidating. The pressure to get it right is huge — not only, as you might suspect, because of highly-charged social media discourse — but more-so because there is a genuine desire amongst colleagues to do good work. The trepidation around mis-stepping stems mostly from a fear of letting our audiences down. But we can’t be silent either. In the current climate especially, discussions about the value of cultural heritage run a real risk of being hijacked by politically motivated sophistry and bad faith arguments in favour of ‘preservation’. Cultural Heritage professionals, as experts in this area, have a role to play. As statues around the country fall, questions about what constitutes real history — about which monuments and narratives are worthy of prominence, promotion and preservation in our culture —  become more urgent. We should be wary of those who would use calls to ‘preserve our history’ in order to smooth over their own conscience or ignorance; of arguments in which the definitions of ‘our’ and ‘history’ are made narrow enough that nothing except the status-quo might pass through them into posterity. 

As custodians of a national collection it is our job to go beyond these calls to preserve totems to existing power structures. We need to engage with our own institutional and national histories in ways that deepen, enrich and complicate our understanding of history. The British Library, like many cultural heritage institutions in the UK and abroad, suffers from a kind of institutional double-sidedness: we are both fundamentally open yet perceived as elitist; progressive yet founded on complex histories of exploitation and exclusion; a nominally gentrifying force in our traditionally working-class district of London yet still one of the few places in the city where you’re permitted to sit without purchasing something. We must face these contradictions head-on and resist the urge to smooth them over.

So what about this blog? It is my conviction as its editor that an anti-racist appraisal of the Library’s literary collections would consider not only the representations within them — how, for instance, people of colour are used as literary devices and symbols across time — but also the material histories of these collections and their standard interpretation: how they were built, by whom, through what means, and to what end. In academic and activist circles this process has been referred to as ‘de-colonising’ the archive, and although much work remains to be done, colleagues are already making these links more visible to our users through clear signposting on the home-pages of some of our most prominent foundational collections. Yet more than this, anti-racism, despite its name, requires positive intervention. We should work to highlight excellence; to emphasise that history is not something that is ‘done to’ people of colour — or to any marginalised group for that matter — but is rather made manifest by their struggles, rebellion, and creativity, which are very often reflected in and enacted through literary and other artistic works.   

Black jACOBINS

MS 10310: Typescript of CLR James's play 'The Black Jacobins' in which he re-tells the history of the Haitian Revolution in order to foreground the role played by enslaved people, popular alternative leaders and lower-ranking soldiers.

Copyright © Estate of CLR James, reproduced courtesy of the Curtis Brown Group. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

This emphasis is brought to the fore by the celebrated novelist Andrea Levy, whose brilliant essay on Discovering Literature, ‘Back to My Own Country’, reminds us, speaking of Caribbean immigrant communities (and immigrant communities in general) that, ‘their ideas, their creativity and their ways of life have helped turn this country into a sophisticated multi-culture. This windfall of talent and variety is one of the great unforeseen benefits to Britain’. Levy's final call in the piece, that ‘my heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history’ should remind us that, far from being an effort to erase history, contemporary anti-racist struggle emerges from a long and proud tradition of protest and agitation by communities of colour working to broaden history against efforts by the powerful to control the ‘main narrative’. It’s vital that we call upon our collections to draw out these and other continuities, as a recent post from the Library’s America’s Blog has illustrated. I hope we can continue this crucial work over the next few months on this blog with a new long-form post each Wednesday.

Andrea-levy-draft_of_small_island_p002

Manuscript draft of Andrea Leavy's Small Island (2004), a novel which interweaves the stories of Jamaican migrants Gilbert and Hortense, their white English landlady, Queenie, and her husband Bernard. The book was partly inspired by Levy’s parents: her father Winston who came to Britain from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush and his wife Amy who followed in November 1948. 

Copyright:© Small Island 2004 by Andrea Levy. Usage terms: You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

As a curator and archivist it was interesting to see how the reaction to the extreme violence of George Floyd’s murder was initially one of reflection and and self-education, through the black-square social media campaign (we will have to forego criticism of its disingenuous co-option by corporate interests for lack of space, though). The Library, as a repository for ‘The World’s Knowledge’ has a responsibility to contribute to these discussions, through the sharing of its vast resources for wider community interpretation, inspiration and enjoyment. Each Friday, this blog will share resources, links and digitised materials with its readers so that we all might better understand the work that each of us needs to do.

But more than this, as a national Library operating under the legal deposit act, we are a repository for the UK’s small-presses, independent publishers and other community groups. Now more than ever, it is important that we act as an amplifier for these voices. Each Monday we hope to highlight a small publisher whose imprint focuses on black writers and other writers of colour in order to aid wider awareness of the quality and quantity of this work.

Black-britain-pubs

A selection of some of the Library's collection of printed material.

There’s much more to do so if you have suggestions or comments, please get in touch either through the blog or on Twitter. If you have a small-publisher you’d like to nominate for a highlight, please get in touch, or if there’s a particular British Library collection item which you’ve found useful, inspiring or interesting, let us know.

17 June 2020

‘For it was the middle of June’: Dalloway Day

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By Laura Walker, Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. Discover more about the British Library’s Virginia Woolf collections on Discovering Literature and find the three manuscript notebooks containing drafts of Mrs Dalloway on Digitised Manuscripts. See the Royal Society of Literature’s website for more information on their Dalloway Day events.

Virginia Woolf is perhaps best known for her ground breaking novel, Mrs Dalloway, which follows the events of a single Wednesday in June. The novel uses a stream of consciousness to follow individual characters inner thoughts and feelings. The two main characters, the socialite Clarissa Dalloway and the shell shocked First Wold War veteran Septimus Smith often provide mirrors of one another, reflecting concepts of sanity and insanity and life and death.

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Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51044 front cover and f.5

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Unsurprisingly it took longer than a day for Woolf to write the novel. She wrote at least two drafts of Mrs Dalloway, originally called The Hours, in seven cloth bound notebooks. Three of these notebooks are now held at the British Library. Woolf kept a record of the dates on which she wrote particular sections of the drafts. The date on the first page of the first British Library notebook (Add MS 51044) is Wednesday 27 June 1923, and follows on from the draft in another notebook at the Berg collection at the New York Public Library.

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Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51045 f.113

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

The first notebook at the British Library begins with Peter Walsh, an old friend and flame of Clarissa’s walking in Westminster, which appears midway through the novel. This draft was completed over a year later on Thursday 9 October 1924 at 11.45 and runs into the second notebook (Add MS 51045) held at the British Library. Folio 113 is full of crossings out and changes to the text. It appears as though Woolf couldn’t get the ending quite right and, in this draft, it differs from the published version apart from the final line, ‘For there she was’.

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Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51045 f.114

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Woolf begins the novel again on the next page, folio 114, 11 days later on 20 October. It opens with the socialite Clarissa Dalloway who is leaving her house to buy flowers in advance of a party she is hosting later in the day. She is in a buoyant mood and takes delight in the city of London and its occupants.

In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

Woolf herself loved London, it was her ‘beloved city’ and she enjoyed visiting the landmarks, parks and gardens. In a diary entry from 29 March 1940 she describes ‘walking along the Strand and letting each face give me a buffet’.

The Royal Society of Literature are using London as the theme for a couple of their Dalloway events. From 10am on 17 June they will launch ‘“There We Stop; There We Stand” with S. I. Martin – author, artist and founder of 500 Years of Black London walks – on an aural tour of London, from the National Portrait Gallery to Tottenham Court Road, exploring the black cultural heritage of Clarissa Dalloway’s footsteps, and touching on the lives of those whose portraits hang in the National Portrait Gallery.’

10am There We Stop; There We Stand: Exploring the black cultural history of London with S. I. Martin – an aural walking tour

‘”I love walking in London”, said Mrs Dalloway. “Really, it’s better than walking in the country."

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London under lockdown — or gradually easing lockdown — is very different to the bustling metropolis that Woolf described in the early 1920s. However, she would have known too well the experience of living through a pandemic; the Spanish Flu of 1918 was not a distant memory. In an article in The New YorkerMrs Dalloway is seen as ‘at least in part, a novel devoted to influenza’ and although not connected directly to the pandemic Clarissa is described to have fallen prey to the virus. The literary scholar Elizabeth Outka believes that any mention of influenza in the early 1920s must have been a reference to the pandemic of the Spanish Flu.

‘Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza)’

The situation today ‘puts Clarissa’s pleasure in traversing the city in a new light. So does reading it in the midst of our own pandemic, which has temporarily dissolved the busy urban scenes Woolf describes so lovingly throughout her book.’ In the next event at 2pm the Royal Society of Literature have joined with the Literary Hub, whose managing editor Emily Temple will host a Zoom based book-group to explore how Mrs Dalloway affects readers lives during this pandemic. It will explore themes of ‘solitude, PTSD, societal progress, and autonomy and freedom, Mrs Dalloway reflects much of many readers’ lives, and offers a lot for other readers to consider.’

2pm Literary Hub and RSL book club discussing Mrs Dalloway

Hosted by Literary Hub’s Emily Temple

‘Moments like this are buds on the tree of life.’ —Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Most of the characters in Mrs Dalloway share their experiences of walking through the city. For Clarissa London is a playground and she has the wealth and the position to make the most of what the city can offer. However, Woolf uses the city to reflect Clarissa’s fading worth as an older woman, her loss of identity and the ‘gilded confinement’ of being ‘Mrs Richard Dalloway’.

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‘She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.’

Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth also explores London including a wander down the Strand, which she sees as an adventure. ‘For no Dalloways came down the Strand daily; she was a pioneer, a stray, venturing, trusting.’ The Dalloways wealth and privilege and the opportunities it brought was something many aspired to and could never achieve. ‘To many of her contemporaries, this ordinary day buying flowers and organising a party represented a freedom they could only hope for due to inequalities of class, gender and race.’

8pm The Pleasure of the Everyday – presented with Literary Hub, with authors Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Kate Young, chaired by Literary Hub’s Emily Temple

‘Everything had come to a standstill’ —Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

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These themes will be considered in a Royal Society of Literature event at 8pm, which will chaired by the Literary Hub’s managing editor Emily Temple, with authors Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Kate Young. They will also ‘explore the quotidian pleasures we’ve developed appreciation for since lockdown, how literature can support us in these confusing times, and how this experience compares to Clarissa Dalloway’s own cerebral journey’.

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Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51046 f.177v

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Contained within the cloth bound notebooks are other works and articles by Woolf that sit at the end of the notebooks and between sections of Mrs Dalloway. The second notebook, (Add MS 51045) contains a short story for children called Nurse Langton's Golden Thimble. The other two notebooks contain passages from essays published in the Common Reader including 'The Pastons and Chaucer' and 'On not knowing Greek' as well as other articles and reviews.

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Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting (1930, San Francisco) Cup.510.pb.30

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Woolf believed that a ‘good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out’. ‘Perhaps as loved as her fiction and letters, Woolf’s essays guide their reader through considerations of equality, the importance of literature, health, and pleasure. Many readers have discovered or re-discovered Woolf’s essays during lockdown, finding in them inspiration and solace in uncertain times. In her essay “Street Haunting” Virginia Woolf noted, “we are no longer quite ourselves”, which takes on new meaning almost a century later, when essays still help us make sense of the world around us. Join writers Mona Eltahawy and Sinéad Gleeson in conversation with Charleston’s Susannah Stevenson at 6.30pm as they discuss the power of modern essay writing, the potential of the form to progress feminism, and the legacy of Virginia Woolf’s work.’

6.30pm The Common Reader in Uncommon Times with authors Sinéad Gleeson and Mona Eltahawy, chaired by Charleston’s Susannah Stevenson

‘A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out’—Virginia Woolf, ‘The Common Reader’

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Perhaps Woolf’s most famous essay is ‘A Room of One’s Own’, a key text in feminist literary criticism where she examines the educational, social and financial disadvantages women have faced throughout history. It contains Woolf’s famous argument that, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ – although Woolf describes this as ‘an opinion upon one minor point’, and the essay explores the ‘unsolved problems’ of women and fiction ‘to show you how I arrived at this opinion about the room and the money’. 

 

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Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (Hogarth Press 1929), Cup.410.f.577
© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

 

In the essay Woolf remarks upon the nature of female relationships, ‘Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen.  Sometimes women do like women.’ ‘Almost the entire body of Virginia Woolf’s writing – her novels, essays and letters –have been interpreted from a variety of queer perspectives, and her work has inspired many modern interpretations across film, dance and theatre.’ At 10pm BBC Radio 3 will air Free Thinking: ‘Queer Bloomsbury’, in which ‘presenter Shahidha Bari, authors Paul Mendez and Francesca Wade will discuss and debate Woolf’s legacy for modern queer writing, as well as lesser-known queer histories of Bloomsbury.’

10pm BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking: ‘Queer Bloomsbury’with authors Paul Mendez and Francesca Wade , chaired by Shahidha Bari

‘Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen.  Sometimes women do like women.”—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

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The full programme for the events on Dalloway as well as details on how to join in can be found on the Royal Society of Literature’s website.

 

 

01 May 2020

Andrew Salkey and The Multi-Coloured Bear of Moscow Road

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By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310), working in collaboration with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and the British Library. This blog is the first in a series looking at Salkey’s literary works. The blog will be followed by more in-depth pieces on Salkey’s career in the Autumn, in the run up to the delayed launch of the Andrew Salkey Archive.   

What do you get if you cross Fidel Castro with Paddington Bear?

As more of us are stuck at home looking for ways to inspire and engage our children, I thought that I'd use the first blog in this series on Andrew Salkey as an opportunity to look at an unpublished children’s story from Salkey's archive, which he wrote with his two sons, Jason and Eliot Salkey. Written in the late 1960s, it’s a particularly impressive story as both of Salkey’s sons were under ten when they wrote it. It’s a fun children’s story about a larger than life bear and his adventures around London, influenced heavily by Salkey’s love of Cuba and Fidel Castro, and his own experiences as an immigrant in London.

The Multi-Coloured Bear of Moscow Road is about a large multi-coloured bear called Fidel or ‘McB’ to his friends. Salkey visited Cuba in 1968 for the Cultural Congress of Havana, which undoubtedly inspired his family with this story as the character of McB is, unsubtly, based on Fidel Castro. He lived on Moscow Road, the same road as the Salkey family home before they moved to the USA in 1976. The style of the story is similar to Paddington Bear and follows the exploits of McB as he visits London for a yearlong trip. McB is ’a warm weather bear’ born in Havana, Cuba ‘during the first week or so of 1959’. To differentiate him from any of the other bears found in children’s literature Salkey and his sons gave him a ‘unique’ style. He is described as having eyes that are ‘Caribbean blue’ and a brown fur coat ‘speckled all over with black, purple, green, yellow, Seville orange and red smudges’ and that he wore ‘a multi-coloured militia soft cap’ and chain-smoked cigars. I think it is fair to say he would not be the greatest role model for the children of today! Unfortunately, Salkey’s archive does not include any artist’s impressions or illustrations of McB, so I have put together my own interpretation of what he could have looked like on the jacket sleeve!

McB crop

The story follows McB as he explores London, stopping off at well-known landmarks such as Buckingham Palace, London Zoo and the Serpentine. Although the chapters do follow a conventional structure of a children’s story book Salkey is still able to inject his trademark satirical commentary into McB’s interactions, playing on his likeness to Fidel Castro. The bankers McB meets at the Royal Mint are wary and suspicious of him and he is not welcome, whilst the Dockers at the Pool of London wave and cheer when they see him.

Salkey and his sons are also able to create a subtle commentary on being an outsider in London. Written from the perspective of McB as someone who does not fit in anywhere in London, he stands out with an overly large body and vibrant fur. He is wary of the ‘red monster’, which turns out to be a red bus, he daydreams of ‘Spanish jars of logwood honey’, and he writes letters home to his brother. As he becomes more familiar with London, McB learns to love the ‘friendly red monsters’ and buys a fleet of buses to send home. He also builds friendships with his human neighbours, and throws a birthday party. McB finds a way to make London his temporary home as he buys a house and marries a lovely ‘lady bear’. Although only an assistant in the authorship of this story, Salkey’s experience of being an immigrant in London is clear to see.

Salkey did attempt to have the manuscript published; he sent it to the publishers of Paddington Bear, Collings Publishers, as well as Oxford University Press among others. Although some of the publishing houses were impressed that children so young had written the manuscript, the consensus was that the story was too much of an ‘in-family joke’ and that it did not fit with the rest of their book list. Salkey’s archive includes the correspondence from the publishers explaining their refusals, as well as a typescript and carbon copies of the story.

17 April 2020

To Sir With Love, a new appreciation for an old favourite

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by Helen Melody, Lead Curator, Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. Read more about E.R Braithwaite, and To Sir With Love on the Library's Discovering Literature pages, here.

How are you spending the lockdown? Being at home could mean a chance to read all those books that you have never quite got around to. Or then again it could be an opportunity to re-visit some old favourites which in my case includes E.R. Braithwaite’s To Sir With Love. Published in 1959 this semi-autobiographical book tells the story of Rick Braithwaite who finds work teaching in a tough East End school in the early 1950s. It is an exploration of prejudice, teenage rebellion and triumph over adversity which sees the teacher come face to face with racism and kindness in post-war London. This is a great book to read at any time, but the difficulties that Rick faces in trying to interest his teenage class in their education will probably ring especially true for anyone faced with home schooling their children at the moment. 

I feel very lucky that the Library has an annotated typescript of To Sir with Love in its collections, which forms part of the archive of the publisher Max Reinhardt, who managed The Bodley Head Press. Selected pages from the typescript have been digitised for Discovering Literature which means that you can enjoy reading an excerpt from the book, complete with E.R. Braithwaite’s handwritten annotations, even when the Library is closed.

 

Braithwaite

Typewritten draft, with copious manuscript amendments, of Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love, published by The Bodley Head, 1959. Add MS 88987/2/10

In this insert from Chapter IV, Rick goes to an interview for a job as a Communications Engineer only to be rejected because the interview panel feel that their white workforce would not wish to be managed by a black man. The incident highlights the racism that was present in Britain at the time but which Rick had not experienced whilst serving as an RAF serviceman during the war. His disillusionment is complete when he telephones the other companies to which he had applied for work to inform them that he is black, only to be told that the jobs (for which he had been offered interviews) have been filled. Rick reflects on his upbringing and the Britishness which he felt growing up but which he realises does not mean that he is British in the eyes of British people. His pain is palpable and upsetting, yet for the purposes of the story his decision to turn his back on his pre-war profession leads him to teaching, which forms the basis of the book.

I would whole heartedly recommend this book to anyone, along with its sequel, Paid Servant (1962), which Braithwaite wrote about his subsequent time as a social worker. Please do take a look at the Discovering Literature webpages and those relating to Beryl Gilroy, the pioneering teacher and writer. Gilroy’s autobiography, Black Teacher, was published in 1976 whilst her novel, In Praise of Love and Children written in 1959 and only published in 1996 was featured in the Library’s Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition in 2018. Hopefully it will provide inspiration for all those parent-teachers out there.

 

 

 

12 November 2019

Call for Papers -- Creative Activism Now!: Andrew Salkey and Today’s Diasporic Cultural Networks

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A celebratory conference placing Andrew Salkey’s legacy in the modern moment and exploring the Caribbean diasporic networks of today will be held at The Knowledge Centre, The British Library, London on Saturday 20th June 2020.

Keynote speakers:

  • Professor Robert A. Hill, leading scholar on Marcus Garvey and Research Professor, Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Professor Nadia Ellis, author of Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora, English Department, University of California, Berkeley

Writer and broadcaster Andrew Salkey became a central figure in a circle of Caribbean writers, artists and intellectuals when he moved to London from Jamaica in the 1950s, later co-founding the Caribbean Artists Movement and dedicating his life to literary activism across the Caribbean diaspora. While his achievements and influence were widely acknowledged in his own lifetime, his name is less-well-known today. Twenty-five years on from Salkey’s death, this conference seeks to retrieve his legacy and to open up questions about today’s Caribbean diasporic networks. How have they changed? Are the same questions from the past still important today?

Born in Panama in 1928 and raised in Jamaica, Andrew Salkey was a novelist, poet, editor, broadcaster and academic. He embodied the Black Radical Tradition as a member of the League of Coloured Peoples and the Movement for Colonial Freedom; as an author and folklorist; and in his support for revolutionary Cuba and the freedom struggles of Guyana and Chile. Salkey was the main presenter and writer-in-residence in the Caribbean section of the BBC World Service giving a platform for a generation of writers including Sam Selvon, George Lamming and V S Naipaul through its ‘Caribbean Voices’ programme. He was influential in the British publishing industry, recommending V S Naipaul and Wilson Harris to Andre Deutsch and Faber & Faber respectively, championing women writers such as Beryl Gilroy, and supporting Bogle L'Ouverture and New Beacon Books in their pioneering roles as the first publishing houses for Black writing in Britain. In 1966, he co-founded the Caribbean Artists Movement alongside Kamau Brathwaite and John La Rose. From 1976 until his death in 1995, Salkey lived in the US and worked as Professor of Creative Writing at Hampshire College in Amherst. His life and work have been seen as embodying the Black Radical Tradition.

Dubbed the unofficial archivist of the Caribbean cultural scene by his friend Sam Selvon, he preserved not only his own literary drafts, diaries and wide-ranging correspondence, but also rare printed ephemera, news cuttings, project files and sound recordings. The Andrew Salkey Archive will be open to researchers at the British Library from autumn 2020.

We are currently accepting abstracts for 15-minute papers from scholars and early career researchers with an interest in Caribbean diaspora studies. We encourage paper proposals from a wide variety of institutions. We also welcome papers from writers, artists, performers, activists and archivists.

Themes to consider:

  • The works of Andrew Salkey
  • Literary and cultural networks across the Diaspora – past and present
  • Women’s writing and activism
  • The Caribbean Artists Movement
  • Diasporic communication, languages and idioms
  • Expressions of home, belonging, exile, transnationality
  • Radical Politics, Black Radical Aesthetics, human liberation
  • The politics of the archive, memory and erasure, the ethics of dispersed and contested archives, Decolonising the Archive
  • New media, broadcasting, publishing, literary festivals

A British Library conference in collaboration with Goldsmiths Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, Goldsmiths MA in Black British Writing and The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

Access bursaries of up to £250 will be available to delegates not in permanent employment to help with travel and/or childcare costs. Details of how to apply will be shared with applicants once paper acceptances have been circulated.  The bursaries have been made available through support from the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.  Any enquiries about the bursaries should be sent to eccles-centre@bl.uk.

Abstracts for papers and enquiries should be sent by e-mail to Eleanor Casson, Eleanor.Casson@bl.uk

Deadline for abstracts: Monday 27th January 2020

Decisions announced: March 2020

19 February 2019

Remembering Andrea Levy

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By Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts

It was with great sadness that I heard the news of Andrea Levy’s death on Friday. She had been very supportive of our Windrush exhibition, for which she lent the Library a number of items including drafts of her novel Small Island. It was a pleasure to meet Andrea several times over the course of the exhibition planning period. Even sitting in her kitchen last December over cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, knowing she didn’t have much longer to live, there was still a warm atmosphere and plenty of laughter.

Not that Andrea hadn’t been a little reticent about her manuscripts being shown in the exhibition. ‘What archive? Are all those boxes of papers in my cellar an archive?’ she asked me initially. And the idea of letting anyone see a first draft sent a shudder through her. As she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs in 2011, for her those first attempts were embarrassing. ‘I write absolutely the first thing that comes into my mind… longhand. And they’re bad. The first things I write down, ooh no, they’re not good.’ But as any literary archivist knows, the fascinating thing is to see the progression of successive drafts as a novel takes shape, to be able to pinpoint where the magic happens, the key decisions where things fall into place. In the case of Small Island, the drafting process brought her gradually closer to her four protagonists Hortense, Gilbert, Queenie and Bernard:

I love writing in the first person. I did actually start the book in the third person but it felt like I was writing behind a screen. It was only when I let the characters speak themselves and saw the world entirely through their eyes and I wasn’t anywhere present in the book (and I hope I’m not present) [that] they really came to life for me. It’s like acting. Trying to take historic generalities and make it about humans. (Radio 4 Bookclub)

This for me is Levy’s overwhelming talent. Her knack for embodying and inhabiting her characters so completely. To walk in other people’s shoes, to see things from multiple perspectives. To appraise people clearly, with an uncompromising and unsentimental humour which nevertheless finds the strands and sinews of humanity that make everyone’s lives of interest, however modest. This talent is present as much in her three early novels (Every Light in the House Burnin’, Never Far From Nowhere and Fruit of the Lemon) as it is in Small Island and The Long Song, though it’s in the latter two that she really stretches her imagination to weave plots on a much larger canvas encompassing the broad sweep of history from slavery to the aftermath of World War II.

It’s difficult to face the truth that there will be no more novels from Levy’s pen and that she is no longer with us, but we do have those five novels and a handful of short stories to return to (plus the essay ‘Back to My Own Country’ which can be read on the British Library website Discovering Literature), and also the excellent Imagine documentary which aired for a second time last night (and which features Andrea getting the better of Alan Yentob on more than one occasion, and Rufus Norris for good measure).

For more on Andrea Levy, the British Library collection includes her interview for the Authors’ Lives series, which you can read more about on our Sound and Vision blog. Our Discovering Literature site offers Hannah Lowe’s ‘An introduction to Andrea Levy's Small Island’ which discusses Levy’s role as a second-generation migrant bearing witness to the trauma which had silenced her parents’ generation. There are also teaching resources for secondary students, and digitised images of the objects which were displayed in Windrush: Songs In a Strange Land – selected pages from the manuscript of Small Island, Winston Levy’s ‘Jamaica shirt’, his postcard of the Empire Windrush bought on board ship, and a family photograph of the Levys on a rare trip to the British seaside.

I will leave you with this clip from the Imagine documentary in which Andrea visits the Library to see the Windrush exhibition. Here she points out her father in the Pathé news footage playing in the gallery - though she confessed to me later that she wasn’t sure it really was her father. More likely it was his twin, the more attention-seeking of the two brothers, whom she’d never met but had clearly been the inspiration behind the character of Kenneth in Small Island.

Like her father, Andrea did not seek the limelight but she was proud to find herself there, proud to be telling the story of the Caribbean and the Black British experience, and proud to represent Black writers in a society that has too often overlooked others like her.

13 September 2018

Windrush Sounds

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by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts, who assisted on the sound selections for the exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, on display in the Entrance Hall of the Library until 21st October 2018. More details about the exhibition can be found here.

By some coincidence, Britain’s first boom in mass migration roughly coincided with the growing availability and fidelity of sound recording and playback technology. Because of this, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, the Library’s free exhibition which is now entering its final month in the Entrance Hall Gallery, is a story which must be told – that is, spoken, shouted, sung, recited and chanted – as well as shown, seen and read. Sound recordings in the exhibition range from a speech by Marcus Garvey, whose precision and force as a profoundly gifted orator has not diminished over time, to readings by poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah and James Berry, whose incisive socio-political commentary, linguistic and formal experimentation, and willingness to engage with emerging musical forms have built upon the deep oral tradition of the Caribbean and impacted British poetry immeasurably in the process. But beyond these famous and perhaps familiar voices, the exhibition also highlights a number of everyday speakers, drawn from the Library’s Sound Archive. These stories of arrival and work, education and family-building, integration, tension and everything in between and beyond, help to build a fuller picture and go a long way to helping us think about the exhibition’s key questions: Why did people come? What did they leave behind? And how did they shape Britain?

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Visitors use the exhibition sound terminals on opening night. 

These stories are told through the Library’s vast and varied oral history collections, which come in a variety of forms. The first, and most accessible form, is the pre-curated radio programmes which, through their edited structure and high production values, provide an invaluable introduction to the canonical issues surrounding the Windrush moment and its afterlife. Shows such as Changing Caribbean (1960), London’s Black Pilgrims (1965) and Passage to the Promised Land (1996) form the backbone of the exhibition’s sound offering, with roughly contemporaneous interviews and more recent reflections charting the shifting and complex attitudes of those who came and their decedents.

The second kind of oral history takes the form of a long question and answer session with an individual or a group of individuals, usually lasting a few hours, which is recorded and left completely unedited for posterity. In these recordings, interviewees often mumble, stumble, clip and talk around the questions they are asked; they evade and waffle, mirroring the rhythm of a real conversation. The first reaction, for a curator tasked with locating narratives in these unwieldy audio-files, is often frustration. Yet there’s a strange sort of intimacy too, which over time becomes not only disarming but – I think – actively imbeds you in the lived experience of the person to whom you’re listening. These collections are often focused around occupational groups – there’s one for nurses, for instance, as a group which was highly represented among those arriving from the Caribbean.  But many are also incidentally concerned with the diasporic experience, such as the Millennium Memory Bank project which aimed to record oral histories with a demographically representative section of the British population as a kind of time capsule at the turn of this century. This project interviewed people from the Caribbean living in Britain not as immigrants but as part of British society at a particular point in time. Interviews like that with Eunice McGee, a Caribbean-born homemaker from the Midlands, allow researchers to engage with social history in a more direct and intimate way, as the discussion tracks the minutiae of everyday life – of bringing up families and buying a house, of marriage and work, of cooking and speaking – and the interested listener can move beyond external narritavisation of racial and economic groups and allow the complexity of the everyday to show itself through the life of a particular individual.  

All of these encounters made at the sound terminal in the exhibition, or with headphones in the Reading Rooms, are valuable. They allow us to commune with the past; to hear stories which affirm and contradict what we already think we know, often in the same recording. But this is part of the point. The idea of Windrush generation has become monolithic; a mythology which, for better or for worse, represents an over-simplification. The Library’s job is to facilitate access and act as custodians for material which complicates this narrative and others like it. Oral history helps to make sure that the multifaceted past is preserved in order that we, in the present, can avoid misrepresenting those who lived through it. (Even if this means listening intently to someone’s unedited recollection of their day).

 

05 September 2018

'I into history, now': Andrew Salkey's Jamaican epic

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A Salkey mid 60s resized

Andrew Salkey in the mid 1960s. Photo courtesy of Jason Salkey.

This is a poem about Jamaica, about the experience of the slave trade and of colonisation and about a struggle for freedom and for identity which still rages today among Caribbean peoples. It deals with political issues, but is not simply a political poem. Rather it conjures up the swirling colours, the music, the moods, the atmosphere of a bustling, suffering, vital island community.

So says the blurb for the first edition of Andrew Salkey’s epic poem published in 1973, a typescript of which is currently on display in Windrush: Songs In a Strange Land. The poem had been 20 years in the writing. Its seed lay, presumably, in the poem of the same name that won Salkey the Thomas Helmore Poetry Prize in 1955, though nothing remains of this earlier effort in his archive here at the British Library. There are, however, records of the poem’s publication and reception among the fifty cartons of papers (and sound recordings) that make up the Salkey Archive. These boxes have been extensively mined for the Windrush exhibition: the number of items on display from this one archive is testament to Salkey’s importance as a central figure in the Caribbean arts scene and his tendency to act as its unofficial archivist.  He was jokingly labelled ‘Chief Recorder of Caribbean authors and their whereabouts’ by close friend Sam Selvon in recognition of his meticulous collecting and documentation activities. But more than that, Salkey played a crucial role in connecting and encouraging writers, influencing the decisions of British publishers and asserting the worth of Caribbean arts and cultures internationally.

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'Jamaica' poem by Andrew Salkey, from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310.

As a novelist, poet, broadcaster with the seminal BBC programme Caribbean Voices, activist, academic and co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement, Salkey’s importance is difficult to overstate. Born in Panama in 1928, brought up in Jamaica, resident in Britain from 1952 and later the US, Salkey was a truly diasporic figure. His political interests in revolutionary Cuba, newly-independent Guyana and Chile’s fight against the Pinochet regime are all evident in the archive, as is his stellar network of correspondents which include CLR James, Chinua Achebe and even a fan-letter from Maya Angelou. His own writing is well represented too, with manuscripts and correspondence pertaining to many (though not all) of his novels, poetry, children’s stories and non-fiction books.

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Salkey interviewing Ray Charles for the BBC, 1966. Photo courtesy of Jason Salkey.

When it came to deciding which example of Salkey’s own work to include in the Windrush exhibition, the decision was not easy and I wish we could have included more items. Whereas his novels exploring the Caribbean immigrant experience in Britain had previously been displayed in exhibitions at the Library, we felt that this time the poem Jamaica deserved a showing. For myself and my co-curator Elizabeth Cooper, Jamaica stands out for the power and directness of its language, and also because it was representative of many Caribbean writers and artists’ desire to possess their own understanding of Caribbean history and culture. Salkey explained this desire for greater knowledge to Anne Walmsley (quoted in her book The Caribbean Artists Movement):

I got a British Museum reading card, and I went to the Public Record Office nearby. And I really started learning about me and home and the history, because I damn’ well wanted to talk to Jamaicans about Jamaica in the long poem that I was hoping to write. And therefore for the first time I began to realise myself as a colonial and us as a colony, and our history, and the way that we were forever at somebody else’s beck and call. Our economy wasn’t ours. Even our language wasn’t really ours. We had to, at least I had to, relearn a great deal.

Present in the archive is the original (anonymous) reader’s report that was submitted to Salkey’s publishers, Hutchinson. The reader judged the poem to be ‘a work of imagination and originality’ - ‘always interesting, and often moving – nowhere more so than in the descriptions of what "freedom" means, when it consists only in abolishing licensed slavery.’ They noted some reservations about the symphonic structure (which Salkey removed prior to publication), but praised Salkey’s use of dialect:

The many dialect sections seem outstandingly successful to me: they capture a very rich human feeling and present no difficulty to someone unfamiliar with Caribbean speech, like myself. Within their terse and repetitive rhythms, there is a great deal of unforced poetry. This is the real language of ritual and as such it has a greater lyricism and power than the well-contrived but slightly stale formality of the other sections.

On publication Jamaica received a mixed response, both from critics and friends. The TLS (25 Jan 1974) described the poem as ‘a loud cry for the island to reclaim its identity from the wrongs and sorrows of imperialism, ancient and present, and reassert Caribbea in myth, history and current blood’, but did not find its execution entirely successful.  One friend, Judy Ruggles, wrote to say she had initially regarded it as ‘Andrew’s indulgence’ but had since changed her mind on visiting Jamaica for the first time. The Jamaican Daily News lauded the poem for telling the island’s pre-Columbian history, whereas the sharpest criticism came from the UK version of the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner (21 August 1974) which opened its review by quoting Samuel Johnson’s line: ‘Sir (it) is like a dog’s wailing on its hind legs. It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all’. Despite first impressions, the reviewer is not, actually, questioning the quality of the writing so much as the reason for publishing a 100-page poem that it says hardly anyone will read since Salkey ‘antagonises’ his middle-class readers with the inclusion of ‘four-letter words’, and ‘The masses who may approve of that sort of thing do not buy books, neither prose nor poetry’. But I will give the last word to Christopher Laird, publisher of the Trinidadian arts journal Kairi, who declared ‘Again I must tell you how successful your “Into History Now” has been and how much we all dig it. Hardly a statement can be made these days without fitting in a line from “Into History”’.

That influence has lived on, as demonstrated by Raymond Antrobus who read from the poem at Monday’s event on the sound of the Caribbean voice. He spoke about his appreciation of Salkey’s poetry and the importance of seeing a copy of Jamaica on each of his parent’s bookshelves – his English mother and Jamaican father - as he was growing up.

Part of the power of Jamaica lies in its refrain ‘I into history, now’ with its radical sense of embodying history in order to reclaim it. Salkey returns to this idea in the final movement of the poem. Starting with an invocation to ‘grab weself like we know weself’, it concludes with these lines:

Culture come when you buck up
on you’self.
It start when you’ body make shadow
on the lan’,
an’ you know say
that you standin’ up into mirror
underneat’ you.

I say to meself,
“Is how the mento music go?”

You say,

“Is how the river flow?”
or, “How the sea does lay down so?”

I done wit’ you.
I into history, now.
Is the lan’ I want
an’ is the lan’
I out to get.

The twenty years’ journey of self-discovery that Salkey embarked upon with this poem was a long one, but a necessary one given the gaps and silences that have dogged our understanding of Caribbean history, culture and identity. Elsewhere in the exhibition we feature the work of other cultural figures who embarked on a similar learning process, from poet James Berry who wrote about coming to terms with his Caribbean background only after witnessing racism in the southern states of the US, to novelist Andrea Levy who has written about her own revelation that she was part of the ‘black experience’ despite growing up in a light-skinned, middle-class family who had distanced themselves from the black community due to the legacy of colonial-era shadism. This flourishing of Caribbean literature is in evidence throughout the exhibition, so if you haven’t seen it yet there is still time as the display runs until 21 October.

As for Andrew Salkey’s archive - without which the exhibition would be considerably poorer - we are pleased to announce that cataloguing of the collection will begin early next year and will lead to a conference to be held here at the British Library in 2020, thanks to the support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.