THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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78 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

21 November 2019

'Anything But Petering Out' - celebrating Peter Nichols at Trafalgar Studios

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by Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives

In tribute to Peter Nichols who sadly died in September, Trafalgar Studios is staging an afternoon of readings on 27 November to celebrate his theatrical legacy, generously supported by the British Library Collections Trust. Directed by his grandson, George Nichols, and starring Roger Allam and other special guests to be announced, the event will take a look at Peter Nichols’ vast literary contribution with excerpts from his much-loved television and stage plays including Promenade (1959), The National Health (1969), Forget-Me-Not-Lane (1971) and Poppy (1982), as well as passages from his personal diaries and rare unproduced plays from Nichols’ archive at the British Library.

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Peter Nichols, photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios

Also on show in the Trafalgar Studios’ bar is a display about the evolution of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Nichols’ most famous play which is currently being revived by the Trafalgar in a new production by Simon Evans. You can see reproductions from Peter Nichols’ archive in the Studio Bar, tracing the play’s difficult birth from initial doubts over the first draft, to wranglings with the Lord Chamberlain’s censors and its ultimate glowing reception at its premiere in 1967.

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'The Evolution of Joe Egg', display curated by the British Library for Trafalgar Studios' Studio Bar, until 30 Nov. Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios. 

If that has whetted your appetite for further research, the wider archive is available to consult at the British Library. Acquired 20 years ago this month, the Peter Nichols Papers comprises 256 volumes of personal and professional papers from 1945 to the 2000s. You can listen to Peter Nichols reflecting on his career on BL Sounds, and various other interviews and theatre recordings are available to listen to onsite at the Library (search our Sound & Moving Image catalogue for details).

In light of Peter’s recent passing, it’s difficult not to read fresh significance into his words. In the programme for the current production of Joe Egg, Jamie Andrews from the British Library recalls one particular email exchange amongst many:

I see that at one point, feeling the physical challenges of ageing, his subject line was a typically self-deprecating ‘Petering Out’; but that a few emails later, it had changed to ‘Anything But Petering Out’…. A far more accurate assessment of his later years.

Just as Peter’s words will live on in all who knew him, his work survives in the archive he left behind and the potential it holds for many more revivals to come.


Peter Nichols: A Celebration will take place next Wednesday 27 November at 3pm. Tickets are available from ATG Tickets.


Peter Richard Nichols CBE, playwright, born 31 July 1927; died 7 September 2019, aged 92.

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

08 November 2019

Digital Literature and Emerging Media: 10 Years of the New Media Writing Prize

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by Giulia Carla Rossi Curator of Digital Publications @giugimonogatari. Find out more about the New Media Writing Prize here. For more information about the Library's Emerging Formats project, click here.

On 18 July, The British Library hosted a Digital Conversations event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the New Media Writing Prize. Digital Conversations is a series of events that explores the way in which technology is changing how we experience our life and how we communicate. New media writing perfectly fits within this theme as an example of the impact innovative technologies have on how we tell stories and express ourselves.

Now in its 10th year, the if:book UK New Media Writing Prize (NMWP) started as a one-off event in a literary festival in Poole. After realising its great potential, the event was moved to Bournemouth University (where it’s based today), with the help of co-founder and organiser Jim Pope. The 2019 prize is now comprised of five strands: the if:book award is the main award and the Dot Prize is an award for project proposals connecting literature with the digital; both are sponsored by if:book founder Chris Meade. The Unicorn Training Student Award, the Journalism Award and the Skylab innovation award round out the compliment, making 2019 the first year where these groups and mediums will be explicitly and separately recognised.

In ten years of the prize, words have always been at the centre of these works, combined with all sorts of new media, in constantly changing and innovative ways. New media writing is not identifiable with a single practice: it’s a whole range of forms that happens across disciplines and cultures. Genres have also been extremely varied since the beginning of the award: journalism, poetry, games, fiction, non-fiction, digital connected to non-digital. The constant element throughout the years has been the different way of writing (and reading) which this combination of digital and literature creates, giving the reader new agency and allowing for things that cannot happen in print. 

New media writing to engage diverse audiences and preserve obsolete technologies

The event kicked off with a presentation by Andy Campbell, Co-Director of arts organisation One-to-One Development Trust, and judge of the NMWP since its inception. Andy talked about working with technology and people from a variety of backgrounds to tell stories both fictionally and factually. One-to-One Development Trust is involved in a range of different projects – some of the most ambitious ones are created in their in-house digital fiction studio, Dreaming Methods

The studio began as a personal exploration on writing and new media; with the rapid changes in technology, Dreaming Methods has now shifted into the realm of playable narratives and immersive experiences. The studio produces works that use game mechanics to improve readers’ engagement and draw them to new forms of storytelling. One example of this is Wallpaper (2015), a VR sci-fi ghost story that explores reading and immersion. Following game dynamics, readers will get a score once they finished the story, depending on how much of the narrative they managed to uncover – this encourages readers/players to come back to the narrative to try and improve their score. Another example is All the Delicate Duplicates (2016): defined as literary videogame, it explores family relationships and mental health. 

1All the Delicate Duplicates. © One to One Development Trust - Dreaming Methods and Mez Breeze

New media writing, like any discipline dealing with emerging technologies, is closely linked to the question of digital preservation. Some of the submissions entered in the first years of the NMWP have been successfully preserved by the Internet Archive thanks to their Wayback Machine, while others have now vanished. The latest Dreaming Methods project stems from this very issue: Digital Fiction Curious is a virtual museum created to house and preserve Flash works in VR. Flash will disappear in 2020, which makes the risk of loss very real for a great number of interactive narratives. Digital Fiction Curious uses three early Flash literary works created by the founders of One-to-One Development Trust and Dreaming Methods as a proof of concept. The access to all source code made possible to retain all the original Flash features and interaction patterns in VR. 

The virtual museum was conceived as an archive, but it has become more of an artwork in its own right. It gives its audience the possibility to not just experience obsolete works in their originality, but to also explore them in new ways: Digital Fiction Curious includes a VR-within-VR function, which allows us to imagine the different shape these work could have taken had VR technology been available at the development stage. 

2Digital Fiction Curious © One to One Development Trust – Dreaming Methods in association with Sheffield Hallam University

This project has proven that a VR environment can successfully support Flash technology – the aim is now to create a comprehensive archive of different authors. Flash appears quite frequently among the submissions to the NMWP, especially in the early years – in 2010, 70% of the entries were created using this tool, and they’re now at risk of becoming inaccessible. 

New media writing to represent the multitude of our emotional landscape 

One example of new media writing that uses Flash, is the very first winner of the NMWP, Underbelly, by Christine Wilks. Underbelly revolves around a woman sculptor working on the site of a former colliery in the North of England. The work mixes audio and video, overlapping the inner dialogue of the sculptor (expressing her most hidden desires and fears) with the sepulchral voices of 19th century women who used to mine on the site. The result is a haunting of voices, reflecting on womanhood and on how much control can women have over their own lives.

Revealing what is hidden under the surface is one of the main concerns of Underbelly – there is a variety of themes and historical remnants buried within the work, as layers for the reader to excavate, mirroring the mining process as well as the sculpting itself. Readers search the map for elements that trigger narrative events: historical images of mine workers inhabit the same space of old anatomical drawings of dissected bodies. Gynaecological imagery is also recurring as yet another example of excavation, in the anatomical sense of cavity in the human body. The map itself is reminiscent of a anatomical drawing, an adaptation of the medieval Hereford Mappa Mundi, with the colliery tunnels and cavities taking the shape of the womb of Mother Earth.

3Underbelly © Christine Wilks

Christine also discussed a few of her new projects.Writing New Bodies is an international research project on bibliotherapy, currently in the process of being developed. It’s a work of interactive digital fiction which aims to address body-image issues, where her own  text-driven game engine works to develop interactive narratives focused on the characters' psychology through a rich vocabulary of emotional states.

New media writing to democratise language and escape censorship 

Amira Hanafi won the main prize in 2018 with A Dictionary of the Revolution. This work was driven by Amira’s desire to understand the language that was developing around her in Cairo during the Arab Spring: people were talking politics in the streets, openly expressing themselves in a way that hadn’t been possible before they took control of public spaces in 2011. Originally conceived as a book, A Dictionary of the Revolution took almost 5 years to reach its current form.

The writing of this work can be divided into two main steps: the first step consisted of collecting the words people used when discussing politics into 320 cards. Cards allowed for a fluid narrative that could be shuffled and recombined and were the perfect tool to spark conversation around how the meaning of words can change after great social and political events. The second step was to interview people interacting with the cards, and then use these recordings (of almost 200 interviews) to form a dictionary of language as a process – the aim was not to define terms, but to represent language as something that’s alive, pliable material that we revise and remake as collective. Amira’s process involved listening to interviews by term, not by interviewee, so that different voices could mix and provide multiple perspectives.

The final step was to assemble the text to understand the collective language, and find a way to organise the data and show the hidden patterns. Amira wanted her work to be available in Egypt first, but by the time she finished transcribing her audio archive the political atmosphere had changed, and it was hard to imagine the text would make it through censorship unchanged (if at all). Online publishing began to seem the best option, especially in terms of making the book accessible. Digital tools also opened up new possibilities for analysing the text and organising the narrative. She chose to visualise data through a core diagram, which represents connections between nodes (words) in a circular layout, using line weight to indicate the closeness of the relationship.

4A Dictionary of the Revolution © Amira Hanafi

Machine reading found connections between words that weren’t obvious in print, and the website structure allows readers to explore the dictionary in a non-linear way, through a web of connected concepts, events, and characters. Although analytics tools for one-page websites tend to not be precise, it looks like people only spend a short amount of time on the website. This seems to suggest that most users are interacting with the diagram more than reading the full text. The project has translated into its visualisation; it has ‘gamified’. With the shift to visualisation as the main narrative, the act of reading has also transformed into navigating the web of relationships between words.

New media writing to own your narrative and renew civic identity

The 2018 Dot Award for a digital literature project proposal was won by Kayt Lackie (Burgess) for her VESSEL Project, a transmedia storytelling project and pervasive game set in her hometown of Elliot Lake, Ontario, Canada. The project is supported by the Vessel Transmedia Storytelling Lab, an initiative that uses new media storytelling to explore the history and culture of a community.

Elliot Lake was hit by a tragedy in 2012 when the roof of the local shopping mall collapsed causing a number of casualties. Suddenly the town jumped to the front of the news, with this story ending up defining the community to a national audience (and to the town itself), as well as negatively impacting its economy. Kayt’s project seeks to use counter narratives to re-appropriate media representation and progress community renewal and civic identities through multimedia writing and storytelling.

The VESSEL Project (Virtual Experience & Superimposed StoryWorld in Elliot Lake) is a transmedia story set in a fictionalised version of Elliot Lake, mixing folklore, science and environmental conservation. It draws upon the town history, as well as the cultures and languages of its community, bringing people together in a unified story world. The transmedia story will represent the first act of the VESSEL Project, created by a collective of writers through a series of new media and digital writing workshops (like the Ephemera Storytelling Box) and further developed by other participants to the project (artists, creators, schools, etc.) The transmedia story will be hosted online and unfold through a variety of art pieces, such as social media accounts, photos, blogs, art installations, videos and audio file.

5The VESSEL Ephemera Storytelling Box © The VESSEL Transmedia Storytelling Lab

The transmedia story will culminate in an alternate-reality festival weekend (scheduled for summer 2021), which will introduce the project to a wider audience. Elliot Lake will become the physical setting of a real world video game, where people can solve puzzles and overcome challenges while experiencing the story created and performed by the local community. A location-based app will also be developed as part of the festival, and hopefully help to preserve it and give it a long afterlife after the festival is over.

This pervasive form of new media storytelling is effective in bringing people together to create counter narratives and tell the story of a place and a community. It allows participants to recognise that powerful stories are all around them and not just controlled by the media – people feel seen through storytelling, which strengthens their sense of civic identity.

The Emerging Formats Project

The British Library, together with the other five Legal Deposit Libraries, is currently researching how to manage collections of innovative digital publications. For this purpose, the Emerging Formats Project was set up, looking at collection management requirements for complex new media.

Many of these publications present challenges linked to their software and hardware dependencies, which might affect long-term preservation as well as access to content. The rapid pace at which new technologies emerge and become obsolete also presents a risk to born-digital publications with no print counterpart. 

The British Library is looking into different collection methods for different formats: we have recently collected files for inkle’s 80 Days, including contextual information that could aid preservation and future access. We are also testing web archiving tools for capturing online interactive narratives: Rhizome’s Webrecorder has proven effective in capturing some examples of early Flash works, and the British Library’s own Annotation and Curation Tool (ACT) has allowed us to create an Interactive Narratives collection on the UK Web Archive, with the option of nominating yours or someone else's work for inclusion.

 

29 October 2019

Andrew Salkey: A Man of Many Hats

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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. The catalogue will be made available in Autumn 2020. The British Library, in collaboration with The Eccles Centre and Goldsmiths, University of London, are also planning a conference celebrating Andrew Salkey’s legacy and exploring the Caribbean diasporic networks of today. Details of this will be released soon. 

Andrew Salkey, who was born in Colón, Panama, brought up in Jamaica, and later relocated to both the United Kingdom and the United States, was instrumental in developing and refining a diasporic consciousness among Caribbean artists and intellectuals at home and abroad in the latter half of the twentieth century. As a novelist, poet, editor, broadcaster, academic, promoter and activist, he presented the BBC’s hugely important ‘Caribbean Voices’ program, where he was also writer-in-residence; he co-founded the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM); taught Creative Writing at Hampshire College in Amherst Massachusetts; and supported influential publishers Bogle L’Ouverture and New Beacon Books. His archive, acquired by the Library in 2005, sheds light on the sheer variety of these roles, and the characteristic intensity and humanity which he brought to each of them.

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Photograph of Andrew Salkey, from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310. With kind permission of Jason Salkey.

The Archive is comprised of 158 boxes of correspondence, manuscripts, typescripts (including Salkey’s poem Jamaica), and ephemera from various events documenting the literary, academic, and political spheres of the Caribbean diaspora, as well as Salkey's important place within them. The diversity of Salkey's correspondence is striking. Notable inclusions range from political figures -- even world leaders like Michael Manley and Cheddi Jagan -- all the way to literary stars such as E.R. Braithwaite, C.L.R. James, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Beryl Gilroy to name a few. Throughout all of these conversations, though, we see how well respected and regarded Salkey was professionally and personally; as a founding member of the Caribbean Artists Movement, a leading academic, a literary figure, a friend and a mentor.

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Storage of the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310, showing the scale of the papers at the British Library. With the kind permission of Jason Salkey. 

20191025_145313-2A selection of archival material; typescript of ‘Jamaica’ poem by Andrew Salkey, manuscript of ‘Joey Tyson’ by Andrew Salkey and correspondence from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310. Reproduced with the kind permission of Jason Salkey.

A Friend

The largest body of correspondence in the collection comes from Austin Clarke [1934-2016] a Barbadian novelist, broadcaster, and academic who spent most of his career in Toronto, Canada. The long distance correspondence was so prolific that Clarke asked Salkey whether he could publish their letters together in 1976, referring to it affectionately as a “frivolous and comical correspondence between two writers who said things that the rest of the world did not feel disposed to know”. Clarke’s letters  to Salkey offer an insight in to his own working methods, his relationship with his publishers, and his opinions on Black Power movements around the world, but they are also notable for their evocation of the  the deep and personal friendship which the two men shared. “I want to apologise to you my great friend for depressing you with all my sensations and problems", Clarke writes after a characteristic outpouring "but there is no other with whom I can share these feelings. I value your undying friendship and love”. Similar currents run through Salkey's correspondence with other leading Caribbean writers and intellectuals, including George Lamming and Jan Carew, and Sam Selvon.

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A letter written by Austin Clarke to Andrew Salkey 10 January 1976 from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Austin Clarke.

 

A Founding Member of the Caribbean Artists Movement

Salkey played a key role in the community element of the Caribbean Artists Movement. He would respond to correspondence about CAM’s work and maintained contact with CAM members after the movement ended in 1972. He was known for his prompt and courteous replies to anyone that contacted him. He could nurture friendships through his letters and act as a buffer between opposing personalities. He stated in an interview to Anne Walmsley for her book on CAM that “I was the one that most of them got on with. I also made sure that I was of service to friendships.”[1] Many CAM members frequently appear in his general correspondence files including Marina Maxwell, Orlando and Nerys Patterson, and Horace Ové -- all of whom reminisce with Salkey about past CAM meetings and continue to exchange ideas and creative endeavours. Correspondents from the broader world of publishing are also present, perhaps most notably, Salkey maintained close links with John La Rose and Sarah White through his continued support of New Beacon Books. Salkey’s correspondence also includes a selection of letters with Kamau Brathwaite, one of the co-founders of CAM , which spans the period between 1965-1989. The early letters reveal a close professional and personal relationship between the two men, where Bajan forms and Standard English interact and blend in interesting ways: “For Christssake, man, they've got my TS [typescript]”, Braithwaite writes in one exemplary letter, ‘and I can't get a word out of them. Give them a lil ring fuh me, nuh man?’, blending the intimate and the professional, the formal and the informal.

A Mentor

Salkey’s role in CAM often extended to that of a mentor, especially to the younger members of the movement, including people like Michael Anthony.[2] “I would like to take this opportunity to say how grateful I am for all that you have done for me" Linton Kewsi Johnson writes in one letter,  “you have been of tremendous help to me and I couldn't have done without your encouragement”. Salkey was naturally fitted to the more pastoral aspects of his role as Professor of Creative Writing at Hampshire College, then, as he advised students taking credits in creative writing, particularly poetry. Through his role as an advisor, Salkey was able to foster great friendships through his personal encouragement and professional criticism. In one of his letters to a friend, he called teaching “a sacred profession, akin to the priesthood.” His correspondence illustrates how encouraging Salkey was with the students on his courses, particularly women. This was because he knew that women writers faced greater obstacles getting their work noticed and he wanted to help. Paule Marshall thanked him in a letter for “his encouragement, help and general all around prime-movership.” Toni Morrison thanked him in one of her letters for his praise of her novel “I am so pleased about your pleasure. Particularly because several men…have had hard things to say about it.” His students’ opinions of him illustrate a nurturing spirit and indicate the depth of trust he created in his friendships, one student wrote in a letter “your love and encouragement have really nurtured the poet in me”.

[1] Anne Walmsley, The Caribbean Artists Movement, 1966-1972: A Literary & Cultural History, (London: New Beacon Books, 1992), p.44

[2] Ibid, p.44

 

11 October 2019

Beyond the Unfortunates

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by Laurence Byrne, Curator Printed Heritage Collections. The archive of B.S Johnson is available to consult in our Reading Rooms at Add MS 89001, as is the Eva Figes archive at Add MS 89050. All of the books listed here are available to consult, too. 

50 years ago, in 1969, B. S. Johnson published a novel about a sports writer assailed by memories of a deceased friend as he attempts to report on a football match. The Unfortunates was Johnson’s fourth novel and was not as well received as his previous work, getting a ‘fine clobbering’ in the press, according to Hugh Hebert’s sympathetic appraisal in the Guardian (13 March 1969). The novel comes in a box with 27 removable chapters of which only the first and last are marked – the reader must choose which in which order to read the 25 chapters in-between – and much of the criticism apparently centred on the novel’s formal experimentalism. Perhaps taking this criticism to heart, at some point, the first edition held by the Library had each chapter numbered in pencil by a librarian seeking to shelter readers from the novel’s aleatoric possibilities.

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First edition of The Unfortunates (1969) by B.S Johnson with numbered annotations held at British Library shelfmark: Cup.900.b.8

Reprinted in 1999 with an introduction by Johnson’s biographer Jonathan Coe, the work found a more favourable audience. William Leith wrote: “In its way, this is brilliant - it is the best evocation of small- time misery I have ever read.” (The Daily Telegraph, 23 October 1999). Thanks to the efforts of supporters such as Coe, Johnson has since gone from being a largely forgotten (and out-of-print) author to occupying a central place in the history of British experimental (a term he regarded as ‘the dirtiest of words’) fiction, with The Unfortunates now regarded as a seminal achievement. In 2008, the British Library acquired a large archive of B. S. Johnson’s papers.

Although welcome, Johnson’s re-evaluation has been so comprehensive that his legacy now obscures somewhat the writers with whom he was once associated. Figures such as Christine Brooke-Rose, Alan Burns, Jeff Nutall, Stefan Themerson and Reyner Heppenstall are perhaps still amongst the better known experimental writers of the time, but during the late-1960s up until the mid-1970s a much wider range of authors than is commonly cited were producing novels which were experimental in different ways. *

Of course the definition of ‘experimental’ is of very much up-for-grabs, and many of the writers included here had a difficult relationship with the term. However, all of these works in some way foreground innovative techniques, both in terms of their form or narrative, and often both. Several of the authors mentioned contributed to the ‘group novel’ London Consequences [RF.2012.a.147] (which Johnson co-edited with Margaret Drabble). The fact that they were able to call on 18 contributors is further evidence that there was a keen interest in experimental writing in Britain during the period. Indeed, Drabble herself published arguably her most innovative work The Waterfall [Cup.410.g.596] in 1969.

London Consequencescover for London Consequences published by Greater London Arts Association for the Festivals of London 1972

Eva Figes contributed to London Consequences and is perhaps one of the authors (along with Drabble) who is most familiar to readers today. The BL acquired an archive of drafts and working papers relating to Figes’s fourteen novels in 2009. In the same year as The Unfortunates, Figes published Konek Landing [Nov.14015] a work which, like Johnson’s, utilises intertextuality and temporal confusion to represent the trauma of memory – like Figes herself, the protagonist Stefan Konek is a holocaust survivor.

Another notable contributor to the group novel was Wilson Harris. In his writing during this period – and particularly the 1970 novel Ascent to Omai [Nov.14851] – Harris continually works to destabilise novelistic convention in order to subvert what he the “novel of persuasion” – that is a form of literature which makes use of common sense and “fashionable judgements” to both reflect and maintain a particular fixed perspective on the world. In Ascent to Omai, Harris employs unexpected combinations of words and ideas in order to allow for binary judgements to be dissolved and new associations to occur.

The malleability of time and space in Harris’s work brings to mind the genre of science fiction, or slipstream. Indeed, during this period, Brian Aldiss (Barefoot in the head, 1969 [Nov.14184]) Angela Carter (Heroes and villains, 1969 [Nov.14699]) and Anna Kavan published works which consciously utilised innovative literary techniques within a science fiction framework. The setting for Kavan’s Ice [Nov.10580] is an apocalyptic world encroached upon by a monolithic ice-shelf. It is an intensely experimental work which seeks to question the inevitability of patriarchal violence through repeated shifts in narrative perspective, leaving the reader to question the ‘reality’ of what is being described to us.

Published two years later, Passages (1969) [Nov.13283.] shares a number of similarities with Ice. Ann Quin’s third novel takes place in an unspecified country, apparently under the control of a violent military government, where the novel’s nameless protagonists (a man and a woman) seem to be searching for the woman’s missing brother. Quin’s writing is stark and elliptical and, like Kavan, the narrative often shifts perspective mid-paragraph – an experimental technique which conveys an intimate sense of disorientation and upheaval.

A similar sense of puzzlement pervades In Transit (1969) [Nov.14383], which finds the unreliable narrator trapped in an airport and in a state of uncertainty about their gender. Brigid Brophy employs a dense interior narrative, full of puns and language games (in several different languages) and formal experimentation – including multiple-choice sentences and pages divided into columns. The novel is an acerbic examination of the structures of both personal and political identity, where linguistic trickery works to disturb a number of assumptions and certainties on which these structures are founded.

In transit1Excerpts from In Transit (1969) by Bridgid Brophy, illustrating her textually experimental critique of conventional novelistc forms.

Beryl Gilroy’s Black Teacher (1976) [X.529/31034] is often considered a work of autobiographical writing. However, Sandra Courtman’s Discovering literature article argued that the work is “an experiment with an intermediary form – somewhere between fiction and autobiography, with a distinct non-linear structure.” Indeed, the narrator voice of the text moves between first and third-person at different moments, perhaps reflective of the way in which Gilroy’s own identity was formed and re-formed in the midst of the challenging circumstances she faced.

All of this is not to say that The Unfortunates does not deserve to be seen as a landmark of experimental writing in Britain, rather it is the case that Johnson was writing within a context in which experimental / innovative techniques were being more widely employed than ever before.

*Other works which for the sake of space could not be included were Bogies (1972), Rosalind Belben [Nov.18729]; Run, come see Jerusalem (1968), David Coxhead [Nov.12845]; Langrishe, go down (1996), Aidan Higgins [X.908/13486]; The Gasteropod (1968), Maggie Ross [Nov.12300]; All the usual hours of sleeping (1969) Penelope Shuttle [Nov.13304]; and Vacation (1972) Alan Sheridan [Nov.18928]

Further reading

Booth, Francis Amongst those left: the British experimental novel 1940-1980 (London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2019). [Shelfmark forthcoming]

Friedman, Ellen G., and Miriam Fuchs, eds. Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction. (London: Princeton University Press, 1989). [YH.1990.b.128]

Jordan, Julia, and Ryle, Martin, eds. B.S. Johnson and Post-War Literature: Possibilities of the Avant-Garde (London: Palgrave, 2014). [YC.2014.a.11127]

05 July 2019

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Archive: A Human Connection

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by Sarah Ellis, Archivist and Cataloguer of the Penelope Fitzgerald Archive (Add MS 89289). The archive is now available to consult, for free, in our Reading Rooms.

In 2017, the British Library acquired the archive of Penelope Fitzgerald (née Knox), English novelist, biographer and essayist (1916-2000). Her 1979 novel, Offshore, won the Booker Prize and the work acclaimed as her masterpiece, The Blue Flower, secured a National Book Critics Circle Award in the USA in 1997.

Penelope Fitzgerald by Jane Bown

Penelope Fitzgerald, by Jane Bown: copyright of Jane Bown Estate

Audiences loved Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels for the worlds they conjured into being; drawn – at least at first – from her own life experiences. Her biographical writing is similarly grounded. In one revealing note in her papers she outlines the necessary preconditions for beginning a work of biography: "if it's not possible to have had personal contact with the subject”, she writes, “then at least I need contact with someone who once knew him or her, however long ago." [1] Such an emphasis on personal connection was no doubt informed by the varied social contexts which make up Fitzgerald’s own biography. (A houseboat community at Chelsea Reach; the BBC during the Second World War; and a Southwold bookshop, to name but a few.) The archive reveals an artistry fuelled by human connection but informed and supported by wider documentary evidence gathered during intensive periods of research. As the two approaches collide, we can see how the rich worlds of her fiction and the sensitive portraits in her biographical writing become possible.

Behind the Silence
One of the qualities most frequently ascribed to Fitzgerald is that of 'reticence'. Terence Dooley, in his introduction to Fitzgerald’s posthumously published letters, tells how she could convey what she wanted in letters in a way she didn’t feel able to in person [2]. If the written word was where Fitzgerald’s communicative gifts lay, then her archive represents a relative wellspring of expressive power. Far from displaying reticence, Fitzgerald’s personal writings – from her earliest letters written to her parents from Wycombe Abbey School, to diary entries in her later years – reveal a voice free from constraint. Hers was a growing, industrious and expansive mind, constantly observing, recording and expressing itself through the written word, rather than through speech.

Add MS 89289-2-17_My China Diary & Small Memo Book

Add MS 89289/2/17 ‘My China Diary’ and ‘Small Memo Book’
© With kind permission of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Literary Estate

However expansive the archive might seem, though, Fitzgerald’s papers are fragmentary: the largest part is at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas and the British Library holds a smaller but significant portion (170 files). Tragically, some material was lost when her houseboat sank in the 1960s. The extant parts being dispersed in this way has resulted not only in a physical but also an intellectual disunity – but what we have here in London is both delightful and revealing. As with any archive, partial or not, Fitzgerald’s papers are mere glimpses of the author and her work – never a complete picture but perhaps as close as it’s possible for us to get.

Add MS 89289-6-2&1-11_Typewriter

Add MS 89289/6/2 Fitzgerald’s Silver Reed typewriter operating instructions &
Add MS 89289/1/11 Review of A N Wilson’s biography of C S Lewis (verso)
© With kind permission of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Literary Estate.

So, What's in This Archive?
The archive covers the period of 1965-2012, extending beyond Fitzgerald’s lifetime and including materials captured posthumously by her children and Literary Estate. The contents of the archive include research, draft and proof materials for a number of her works, 26 of her notebooks, correspondence (business and personal), her annotated library and collected writings about her life and literary endeavours.

In addition to illustrating aspects of her professional life and working practices as an author, the archive provides insights into her personal life, relationships, interests and other involvements outside, or predating, her writing career. For instance, Fitzgerald involved herself with literary societies and campaigned to support the local library in the face of funding cuts, channelling energy not just into her creative output but also into her local community.  

Further to the many facets of Fitzgerald’s personal and professional life, her papers reflect a selective cross-section of Knox family history in various documentary forms. Knox family members whose stories feature prominently are the subjects of the group biography which she composed about her father, ‘Evoe’, and his three brothers, published in 1977. Remarkable in their own rights, papers once belonging to those individuals now sit integrated with Fitzgerald’s papers, much gathered in research for The Knox Brothers. Another notable component of the archive is the material relating to Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child (1977), in her original notebooks. Initially called ‘The Golden Opinion’, the work was extensively cut by Duckworth Publishers.

Add MS 89289-2-1_Knox Book 1

Add MS 89289/2/1, Knox Book 1, from Fitzgerald’s notebooks.
© With kind permission of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Literary Estate

So much in the archive holds the potential for researchers to garner rich insights about the working practices, creative processes and day-to-day engagements of Penelope Fitzgerald during the period when she was a published author. These are complemented by items pre-dating that period which show the vital preparation building up to it, such as her committed studies of literature and art or copious notes relating to her teaching work.

An Invitation
“How does she do it?” asked Julian Barnes over a decade ago [3], about Fitzgerald’s ability to paint the vivid and entirely believable worlds of her novels, so succinctly. Come and see for yourself – the archive is now available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, Writing about Human Beings (London, British Library, Add MS 89289/1/15, undated; 1993?).

[2] Terence Dooley (ed.), So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), p. xiv.

[3] Julian Barnes, 'How did she do it?', Guardian, 26 July 2008, Culture - Books Section <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jul/26/fiction> [accessed 5 July 2019].

 

27 June 2019

Shame Deferred and Shame Transcended: Literary Reflections at the End of Pride Month

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by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts. To learn more about LGBT works and issues in the Library's collections, take a look at our web space, LBTQ Histories. To learn more about E.M Forster's gay fiction, click here. All British Library items are available to view, for free, in our Reading Rooms. 

After the success A Passage to India (1924), it appeared to almost everyone that E.M Forster had stopped writing. In fact, he had merely stopped publishing. From 1913 onwards Forster had been working on a manuscript about same-sex love – sparked by a titillating encounter with the poet Edward Carpenter, who secretly touched Forster on the backside at a party. Forster showed typescripts of his novel, Maurice, to close friends, including Christopher Isherwood, who implored him to find a publisher. But Forster – convinced that attitudes towards homosexuality had shifted only from ‘ignorance and terror to familiarity and contempt’ – was reluctant to publish: on the cover of a typescript draft found in a drawer after his death, Forster famously scrawled in pen, writing to himself or to the world, ‘Publishable – but is it worth it?’

This tension between the public and private realms – between what belongs to the world at large and what belongs to a small, highly controlled audience – runs throughout Maurice. Images of darkness abound: Maurice’s desire for his classmate Clive Durham leads him to grope his way down unlit college corridors to find his room; his first night alone with the under-gamekeeper Alec Scudder takes place at night, secretly, away from the main house, with the two lovers fumbling their way across a dark field. Similarly, the tight societal gaze which Maurice feels all around him is punctuated by fantasies of a life outside it – France, Italy, where the rules persecuting same-sex relationships are more lax – or self-exile to some imagined place outside of society, outside of a world which Forster increasingly felt, as he wrote in a post-script to the same draft, offered ‘no forest or fell to escape to […], no cave in which to curl up’.

Maurice

Typescript of the 1932 version of Maurice by E M Forster, with autograph manuscript alterations and additions made c. 1959 © The Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge and The Society of Authors as the E.M. Forster Estate. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Shelfmark: vol. 4/1

But fiction, unlike life, can offer respite, and it is precisely to this kind of impossible place of escape that Forster sends his two lovers; to live out a rural secluded existence as woodcutters. ‘A happy ending was imperative’, Forster writes, ‘I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood’. Sarah Ahmed, in Shame and Its Sisters (1995) describes the peculiar allure of this turning away from society into seclusion as a reaction to traumatic shame: ‘The individuation of shame — the way it turns the self against and towards the self’, Ahmed writes, ‘can be linked precisely to the inter-corporeality and sociality of shame experiences. The “apartness” of the subject is intensified in the return of the gaze; apartness is felt in the moment of exposure to others, an exposure that is wounding’. But Forster’s ‘greenwood’ –  like all utopias – exists in the shadow of its own limits. Forster’s original ending sees Maurice and Alec pursued by Kitty, Maurice’s hateful sister. In its final scene they discuss moving on from the home they have built in order to avoid being seen and discovered by her, echoing Ahmed’s formulation. Suddenly this world outside of 'the world' is revealed to be something else entirely: a marginal fantasy teetering on the edge of catastrophic collapse at the hands of a hostile host culture. That such a fantasy could approach the upper limit of what Forster could imagine as a ‘happy ending’ is unsurprising given the violent homophobia of the time and place that he lived, but nevertheless this apartness – at least now, for us – becomes untenable; it is a shame deferred, rather than transcended.

And it has a long history.  Early modern manuscript culture also sought refuge against the vulgarity of the printing press and the public view by valourising certain kinds of apartness, by distributing sensitive manuscripts amongst their enlightened peers. The poetry of John Donne, perhaps the most famous example of a writer in this mould, returns again and again to images of clandestine mixing in the interstices of his host culture: the body of his famous Flea ("It sucked me first, and now sucks thee/And in this flea our two bloods mingled be") is precisely this kind of space – a parasitic, almost invisible chamber where the vital fluids of ambiguously gendered speaker and addressee can mix in undisturbed, fluid freedom, even whilst the the human beings themselves remain at an ‘appropriate’  distance from one another.  

FleaA folio volume of works in verse and prose by John Donne, Ben Jonson, Dr Richard Andrews and others, showing 'The Flea' by John Donne. Compiled for Sir William Cavendish. Public Domain in most countries other than the UK. Harley MS 4955

Shakespeare’s ‘Fair Youth’ sonnets were similarly addressed directly to the object of the speaker’s desire, a handsome young man, and although they were written in the 1590s they weren’t published until 1609 (perhaps, it has been argued, without the author’s permission). Oscar Wilde’s employment of these Sonnets at his public trial – as an example of a kind of same-sex love which was permissible and even instructive – failed to persuade the public, though, and this most famous of literary figures was himself forced into a brutal and violent exile in Reading Gaol, as Forster – then just sixteen years old – watched on in horror. Wilde’s letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, which would become De Profundis (1897), was a literary work composed under enforced isolation. Wilde's guard offered him three sheets of paper at a time to write a letter which he was not allowed to send, as a kind of therapeutic exercise which could contribute to his ‘rehabilitation’. Our image of Wilde – one of the most public of public figures – consigned to Reading Gaol, writing a letter to himself ‘from the depths’ about a ‘love which dare not speak its name’ provides a shadowy counterpoint to the ‘apartness’ of Forster’s idyllic ‘greenwood’, where Maurice and Alec live out their isolated lives. For both the gaol and the idyll, it is the logic of shame, secrecy and a life apart from the world that are the driving force.

Wilde-oscar-deprofundis-B20146-19

'De Profundis', the letter addressed by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas from Reading Gaol Add MS 50141 A

Contemporary popular culture and literature has worked to transcend this logic in its representations of same-sex love. Pride as a proper noun, beginning in the mid-twentieth century and gaining momentum ever since, has become a worldwide phenomenon. If E.M Forster’s adolescence was marked by Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment, today’s adolescents – in some of the world at least – watch thousands of brightly dressed and exuberant people march in their name; delighting at being seen. This is not to say that work is done, far from it, only that the move from ‘Shame’ to ‘Pride’ – however partial -- has been hard won and should be celebrated. In researching this blog, I became curious about the kinds of narratives which LGBT adolescents are exposed to today, and so stumbled across a Young Adult anthology – out this year from Stripes Publishing and compiled by Juno Dawson – which was recently taken into the Library through Legal Deposit, titled Proud (2019).

Proud

Cover image for Proud, from Stripes Publishing compiled by Juno Dawson. 

The anthology is peppered with 'coming out' stories which detail the turmoil and anxiety which can arise, even in relatively ‘progressive’ households for children of mostly well-meaning parents. One such story is ‘Penguins’ by Simon James Green, in which the protagonist, Cameron, has his attempts to come out overshadowed by a public furore around a pair of gay penguins at the local zoo. Cameron reluctantly visits the penguins’ enclosure with his friends and winces at the spectacle which surrounds them, regretting that something like this still represents an ‘event’ at all. A parallel plot follows his budding crush on a schoolmate as they approach their end of year prom, and both plot lines converge in a secret kiss inside the now-private penguin enclosure (with the gay penguins having been placed out of the way to avoid adding to their stress as they attempt to raise an abandoned egg together). At this moment some readers may expect a quick closure, with both same-sex loves safely contained within their enclosure, hidden from the world. But it is Green’s willingness to push beyond this moment of apartness, perhaps more than anything else, which marks the story as of our particular historical moment. After the revelation that Cameron’s feelings are shared by his crush, and their first kiss, the couple emerge from the sealed enclosure and return – holding hands – into the most public of teenage arenas, the prom. The prevalence and importance of these motifs are clearly related to our networked, public lives, where privacy is increasingly eroded in favour of display, revelation and performance. But technological contingencies aside, it is difficult -- especially in this context -- not to feel this story as heartening; to feel the relief and release of shame transcended and not deferred; and to feel that to have stories like these in the hands and minds of young people is a step in the right direction.

 

 

03 May 2019

Off the Page, Chapter 2

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by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. More details about Off the Page, with a full list of speakers, can be found here

As part of London’s Game Festival Fringe on Saturday 13th April, the British Library hosted Off the Page: Chapter 2, a sequel to the hugely popular original event exploring the increasingly porous boundaries between literature and games. The speakers came from a variety of backgrounds, reflecting the amorphous and interdisciplinary practices which continue to inform and push the medium(s) –including game designers, poets, writers and academics.

Emily Short’s fascinating discussion of metamorphic texts, focusing particularly on her interactive narratives based on Classical stories (Endure, a game about translating four lines of Homer and Galatea, a game based on the Pygmalion story ‘where how we treat somebody changes who they become') were challenging equally in terms of game design – questions of how to design systems that can engage people meaningfully with a feeling of interaction, and also in terms of literary theory questions – what status does the author/reader have in this dynamic? And what is the status of the text? Her comparison between these two areas was an incredibly fertile starting point for both: “Reading is very much a creative act, creating a relationship’, Sort said, ‘A process of constantly building a bridge between the present and the past. Games look at systems and structures, a great medium for inviting the reader and player into their work’.

Thryn Henderson’s exploration of the ‘video-game vignette’ struck a different note, and opened up another critical intersection between literature and game design. Henderson’s conception of the Vignette as a short experience without narrative context evoking a kind of mood is more akin to the experience of poetry, where the reader is asked to observe the often complex and contradictory responses that emerge from highly ambiguous stimulus. ‘Vignettes are difficult in ways that rules aren't’ Henderson said, ‘they take away specificity in a way’. They invite the participant to ‘play with a feeling’. Rather than being about protagonists, proxies, or witnesses, camera perspectives or bodies in space, the Vignette is about the immediacy of the space, the feeling or the narrative.

There is a tension in the Vignette between the highly personal – almost inscrutably idiosyncratic – world of feeling evoked and the form’s reluctance to engage in traditional modes of identification created by structures like character, plot and perspective. It is interesting, then, that short games are often strongly – if obliquely – autobiographical. Becky Lee, in her talk, described making what she affectionately terms ‘trashgames’, which are weird often single-mechanic experiences hosted on itch.io which she describes as ‘journal entries’. As autobiographical writings they are strange but also highly evocative of emotional landscapes, or playful day-dream like flights of fancy.  

This is not to say that the personal is restricted to these short, ‘poetic’ experiences though. Fragments of Him by Mata Haggis-Burridge aims for mimesis and narrative immersion within an autobiographical narrative space; drawing on photo research of real places; real period-specific objects and experiences with real people to draw out the subtleties and particularities of a personal and emotional process -- grief.

Often, though, the variety which is this area of practice’s strength – and the strength of the Off the Page event series -- presents challenges when trying to fit these textual objects into already well-established structures of funding, distribution, and study: are these objects games or literature? The answer (sometimes neither and sometimes both) is confusing for publishers, distributors and the academy. Emma Joy Reay’s talk on the intersection between children’s literature and video games, and her work towards her PhD at the University of Cambridge on the topic, elucidated some of these struggles. Her final invitation and assertion – that Childrens’ Literature departments had their arms open even when traditional English departments run scared – was an interesting and encouraging way to think about the event in general; as an invitation to praise, accept and celebrate ambiguity.