THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

63 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

10 December 2018

‘Some little language of their own’: English and Scottish dialects, and the desire for a private language

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by Rahul Bery, Translator in Residence at the British Library for 2018-19. The British Library’s Translator in Residence scheme, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), offers a translator the opportunity to become part of the British Library’s multilingual community of staff, readers and visitors for one year.

Earlier this year, I found myself vigorously agreeing with a Guardian Long Read article which effectively argued that the English language was not so much a liberating lingua franca as a highly successful virus, an invasive species; the linguistic equivalent of a grey squirrel or cane toad. Around the same time, I was reading Olga Tocarczuk’s Booker-winning Flights, and reacted even more strongly to this passage:

“There are countries out there where people speak English…It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language. Oftentimes, their only language…How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions…all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures ­– even the buttons in the lift! – are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them…I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own…so that for once they can have something just for themselves.”

This is something I’d been feeling for a while, but I’d never seen it expressed so clearly before.  It encompassed so many of my frustrations: the experience (probably shared by many first language English speakers who speak another language) of being spoken back to in English when abroad, even when you’ve clearly demonstrated your competency or fluency; having to convince writers whose work you’re translating that, however good their English is, your choice of words *is* the best one; even my occasional sense of doubt that literary translation into English is something I should be doing. After all, does the world really need more English?

And yet, I’ve spent the vast majority of life in the UK, speaking English. I love the way the language looks and sounds, its idiosyncrasies, the way it sounds in Cardiff, Derbyshire, Birmingham, not to mention the wider Anglophone world. Given its status as an international language, as Tocarczuk suggests, it is easy to forget that English is just another West Germanic language, and the (only) private language of hundreds of millions of people. As translator-in-residence here at the BL, I’m interested in exploring not only linguistic diversity in general, but diversity within languages, especially as spoken in different areas of modern Britain. Additionally, my selfish desire to have a truly private language has got me wondering about forms of English that cannot be easily understood by non-natives, or even other English speakers.

So I was delighted to read first line in Liz Berry’s poem ‘Birmingham Roller’, written in Black Country dialect - ‘Wench, yorwm the colour of ower town’ – or a line in another of her poems simply listing words: ‘bibble, fettle, tay, wum’. I had a similar feeling looking at the first line of Hugh McDiarmid’s Braid Scots epic A drunk man looks at the thistle: ‘I amna fou' sae muckle as tired - deid dune.’

 

Bery Translation Blog Photo

Before I start getting complaints, I’m aware that Scots is not so much a version of English as a sister West Germanic language, which evolved alongside, rather than from, its southern neighbour. All the same, it comes as a relief to know that there are utterances that look and sound like English, but which the Polish narrator of Flights—with their privileged access into the private lives of hundreds of millions of Anglophones—would struggle to comprehend. In fact, many native speakers may struggle to comprehend them; think of initial reactions to Trainspotting or the Gallagher brothers having to be subtitled on US TV. The BL’s Head of Contemporary British Collections and Scottish Poet, Richard Price, recommended another great example of this kind of writing to me. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Glasgow Beasts an a Burd, as well as being a beautiful artefact, with papercut images by John Picking and Pete McGinn (due to its small print run I also had to make my first trip into the Rare Books Reading Room to see it), is a gloriously irreverent journey written in a tongue that is certainly not the international language of airports and lift instructions. It documents the poet’s transmogrification into various animal forms, all the while retaining a strong grasp of Glaswegian:

syne

ah wis a midgie

neist a stank

foon that kin o

thankless

I love not only the sounds, but also the spellings he uses, like ‘Didjye’, which could be Somali word, or ‘hail simmer’, which could be so many things (in this instance, it’s ‘whole summer’).

English has become dominant partly due to its incredible ability to evolve over time, and absorb the syntax and vocabulary of the languages it supplants, from Welsh to Urdu. Maybe those of us who wish to regain some sense of ‘privacy’ in our speech will have to harness this power and create new Englishes, at least until some other language replaces it on the international stage, and we can go back to merely being speakers of an obscure West Germanic tongue.

30 November 2018

Judges Announce Shortlist for 10th Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets: Library Celebrates Awards’ Anniversary

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by Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the Library’s Contemporary British collections of poetry pamphlets and artists’ books. The Library will be holding a poetry reading on the 10th December in celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the awards.  Poets include Christine de Luca, Omikemi Natacha Bryan, Charlotte Gann, Richard Scott and Phoebe Stuckes. You can read more about the event here.

The judging panel for the 2018 Michael Marks Awards have shortlisted five pamphlets and four publishers for the 10th anniversary of the awards. The judges were:

  • Sasha Dugdale, poet, translator and editor
  • Rachel Foss, head of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library
  • Declan Ryan, poet and critic
  • Sir Nicholas Penny, art historian

Marks Awards Blog

Pamphlets shortlisted for the 2018 Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets

The judges commented on the diversity of the submissions they received, and shortlisted the following pamphlets:

  • Gina Wilson, It Was and It Wasn’t (Mariscat Press)
  • Rakhshan Rizwan, Paisley (The Emma Press)
  • Ian Parks, If Possible (Cavafy Poems) (Calder Valley Poetry)
  • Liz Berry, The Republic of Motherhood (Chatto & Windus)
  • Carol Rumens, Bezdelki (The Emma Press)

The judges highlighted the calibre of this year’s shortlist, praising Wilson’s “dry wit”, Rizwan’s “tonal sharpness” and Parks’ “musicality”. They felt that Berry’s poems had an “electric charge”, and commended Rumens’ “savage and wild but beautifully cadenced” work.

 Four publishers were also shortlisted for this year’s publishing award:

  • Bad Betty Press – Amy Acre
  • The Emma Press – Emma Wright
  • Guillemot Press – Luke Thompson
  • Tapsalteerie – Duncan Lockerbie

This shortlist includes both new publishers, such as Bad Betty Press, which was founded last year, and more established publishers, such as The Emma Press, which won the award in 2016.

Luke Thompson’s Guillemot Press is an example of a publisher which plays with the possibilities of the pamphlet form, while Duncan Lockerbie’s Tapsalteerie Press shows a commitment to eclecticism, highlighting the crucial space the pamphlet offers to new and emerging writers.

The winners of the poetry, publisher and illustration prizes will be announced at the awards ceremony at the British Library on 11th December. The winning poet and publisher will each receive £5000, and the winning illustrator will receive £1000.

The winning poet will also be invited on a residency at the Harvard Centre for Hellenic Studies in Greece in the spring of 2019.

The Contemporary British Publications team at the British Library have created a new pamphlet to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards.This pamphlet features poems from each of the previous winners of the award, many of which were written during the poet’s residency in Greece. The winners of the illustration award have produced artwork in response to three of the poems in this pamphlet.The Michael Marks Charitable Trust and The Eccles Centre for American Studies have generously supported the production of this pamphlet.

Please join us in what promises to be an exciting evening of poetry and reflections on the success of the first 10 years of the Michael Marks Awards.

07 November 2018

Celebrating Poetry Pamphlets

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By Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the Library’s Contemporary British collection of poetry pamphlets and artists’ books. More information about the upcoming event,  Poetry Pamphlets Celebration, can be found here

Pamphlets are a crucial site for poetic innovation, allowing writers to experiment and offering readers cheap access to new work. Often small enough to fit into your pocket, pamphlets are the ideal way to sample new poetry from an unfamiliar writer. This frequently overlooked form has provided a platform for almost all of our established poets, from Ted Hughes to Carol Ann Duffy, at different stages in their career.

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A selection of poetry pamphlets from the British Library’s collections.

To celebrate the poetry pamphlet and the important role that it plays in the UK poetry scene, The Michael Marks Award is hosted annually by The British Library, in partnership with the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, The Wordsworth Trust, the TLS and Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS). Since it was founded in 2009, the awards have grown to include prizes for publishers and illustrators as well as for poetry. Despite the ease with which poetry can now be accessed online, the pamphlet form has flourished over the last decade, and the quality of the submissions to the awards each year attest to this. To mark the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards, we will be hosting a poetry reading on the 10th December, featuring shortlisted poets from previous years. Join us in hearing poems and reflections by Charlotte Gann, Christine De Luca, Richard Scott, Phoebe Stuckes, and Omikemi Natacha Bryan.  

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Charlotte Gann is a writer and editor from Sussex. Poems have appeared in The Rialto, The North and Magma, among many others, and her pamphlet, The Long Woman (Pighog Press), was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award in 2012. Since then, she published a full collection, Noir, with HappenStance – in 2016. This book – which grew from the seed of the pamphlet – asks: what are we to do with the darkness? The things, and people, often left silent and invisible. Originally, Charlotte studied English at UCL; much later, an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development at the University of Sussex. By day, she works as an editor – currently, editing a monthly magazine based in her hometown, where she lives with her husband and two teenage sons.


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Christine De Luca lives in Edinburgh where her working life was spent in education.  She writes in English and Shetlandic, her mother tongue.  She was appointed Edinburgh's Makar (laureate) for 2014-2017.  Besides several children’s stories and one novel, she has had seven poetry collections and four bi-lingual volumes published (French, Italian, Icelandic and Norwegian).  She’s participated in many festivals here and abroad.  Her poems have been selected four times for the Best Scottish Poems of the Year (2006, 2010, 2013 and 2015) for the Scottish Poetry Library online anthologies.  She has been a member of Edinburgh’s Shore Poets for 25 years. Christine is a linguistic activist, visiting schools, writing articles and taking part in conferences on mother tongue issues.  She is a member of Hansel Cooperative Press which publishes poetry and other literary writings in Shetland and Orkney.  She also enjoys translating children’s classics from Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson into Shetlandic. 

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Richard Scott was born in London in 1981. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies including Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Swimmers, The Poetry of Sex (Penguin) and Butt Magazine. He has been a winner of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize, a Jerwood/Arvon Poetry Mentee and a member of the Aldeburgh 8. His pamphlet 'Wound' (Rialto) won the Michael Marks Poetry Award 2016 and his poem 'crocodile' won the 2017 Poetry London Competition. Soho (Faber & Faber) is his first book. 

 
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Phoebe Stuckes is a writer and performer from West Somerset. She has been a winner of the Foyle Young Poets award four times and is a Barbican Young Poet. She has performed at the Southbank Centre, Wenlock Poetry Festival and was the Ledbury Festival young poet in residence in 2015. Her writing has appeared in the Morning Star, The Rialto, The North and Ambit. Her debut pamphlet, Gin & Tonic is available from Smith|Doorstop books and was shortlisted for The Michael Marks Award 2017.

 

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Omikemi Natacha Bryan is a writer, poet based in London. Her work has been published in numerous magazines including Ambit and Rialto and featured in Bloodaxe's Ten: poets of the New Generation. Her debut pamphlet poetry collection, If I talked everything my eyes saw, was shortlisted for the 2017 Michael Marks Award. She currently works as an associate writer for Vital Xposure theatre. 

 

02 November 2018

Introducing the Artists of Artists Books Now

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by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

The Artists Books Now event series is nothing without the artists and their works. This post offers brief introductions to those taking part in next Artists Books Now evening, on the 5th of November.  We have programmed the event around the theme of ‘Place’, asking the artists and other contributors to interpret that as they wished.

First, the  writer and UK Canal Laureate 2018 Nancy Campbell:

    'Since 2010, a series of residencies at museums and galleries in the Arctic has resulted in artist’s books on language and landscape including How to     Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic, which received the Birgit Skiöld Award in 2013. Collaboration is an important part of her practice; her work with     the New York based artist Roni Gross is demonstrated here by two books, The Night Hunter and Tikilluarit. Nancy’s other publications include     Disko Bay (shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016 and the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize) and a cultural history of books     and the environment, The Library of Ice, published this month by Simon & Schuster. Nancy is currently the UK’s Canal Laureate, a collaboration     between The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust, part of the Arts on the Waterways programme.'

 

 

1Image used with kind permission of Nancy Campbell

 

Véronique Chance, artist and Senior Lecturer at the Cambridge School of Art, explores:

    ‘[t]he representation of the body in contemporary art practice, and its relationship to performance, technology, documentation and the embodied     dynamics of spectatorship. The cross-disciplinary, cultural and creative dynamics of running as a mode of artistic enquiry and expression.     The impact of technology on contemporary art practice/s, especially developments in reproductive media and their role within the ‘expanded’ field     of printmaking.’

 

2Image used with Kind Permission of Véronique Chance.

 

The work of Artist Edmund Clark links issues of history, politics and representation through a range of references and forms including photography, video, documents, found images and installation:

    ‘A recurring theme is engaging with state censorship to represent unseen experiences, spaces and processes of control in contemporary conflict     and other contexts’.

3Image used with kind permission of Edmund Clark. 

Recent MA graduate of Royal College of Art Leonie Lachlan 'is concerned with the ever-evolving relationship between two and three dimensions. She is interested in material and linguistic utterances of spatial concepts. These often find themselves embedded in and performed by the printed page [...] propositions hover on the border between spaces; actual, represented or analytical, ideas of that which is both everywhere and nowhere; they interact with the different modes she encounters with her practice. Her works traverse many materials but she always return to the book. An obsession with flatness and illusion is ever-present; in many cases planes might suppress or compel a sculptural urge.'

An insight in to the text of her 2017 Meeting Point with the opening stanzas of Municipal Kid (MK):               

    'Journey from the middle

    of no consequence as

    there is no beginning or end,

    these do not matter anyway.

    Departure is delayed

    a couple of minutes

    we pull away from Euston

    into the blue April morning.

    Train so new

    seats so very green,

    my disappointment

    reflected around the carriage.

    Opposite

    the man doesn’t finish his Innocent smoothie,

    discards his sandwich packet

    alights at Hemel Hempstead…'

4Image used with kind permission of Leonie Lachlan.

The evening's host is Professor Chris Taylor from the Department of Fine Art at the University of Leeds. He is a practicing artist, curator and publisher working in the field of contemporary printmaking and artists’ books, with a particular interest in the role of the book as primary medium within contemporary art practice. He is co-editor of the Wild Pansy Press, a collective art practice and small publishing house based in the School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies.In addition Taylor is co-director of PAGES, an ongoing initiative which provides the structure and impetus for wide ranging activities promoting the development of the medium of the artist’s book, and its dissemination and reception to a growing and diverse audience. PAGES’ annual programme includes the International Contemporary Artists’ Book Fair and a curated projects series, held in partnership with The Tetley centre for contemporary art in Leeds. The evening will have a discussion between Taylor and Clive Phillpot to explore the concept of ‘Place’ within the framework of an artists’ book.

19 October 2018

About Artists Books Now

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by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

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One of the purposes of Artists’ Book Now is to introduce our visitors to the rich collections of artists’ books within the British Library and to widen the use of artists’ books across the research community beyond the Library.

From the outset, the project was concerned with how to get the audience engaging with the material in manner which could inspire debate, discussion and greater interaction. Traditional Library mechanisms of dissemination such as the Reading Room, exhibition, digitisation or even show and tell present various limitations to what is possible, particularly when dealing with artists’ books. Hence, we hit upon the concept of a host conversing with the artist themselves while presenting their work. Presenting the work in this manner heightens intimacy between the work and its viewer, as well as allowing the maker's thoughts about the work, and its creation, to emerge more fully.  

A key question for a national library, or any cultural institution for that matter, is how best to preserve the collection while ensuring maximum possible access and engagement. By negotiating this interchange between the audience and artists’ books, with the help of the artist, it is hoped that  a richer and fuller experience will be possible.  By using baggy themes as frames for the individual events, the co-curators hope that types of work not normally seen or discussed together will suddenly find common ground. It should be noted that this is all seen through a “Contemporary” lens, demonstrating that, while artists’ books certainly do offer up the pleasures of visual and physical artworks, and can and do use contemporary artistic techniques and aesthetics, they are also important witnesses to the the present, allowing myriad issues, concerns, and interests to surface for contemporary audiences.

 

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12 October 2018

Artists’ Books Now: 'Place'

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by Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

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The morning after our Artists’ Books Now evening back in April, I was stopped in a stairwell and congratulated on contributing to such as wonderful event.  I was somewhat surprised to hear this, mainly because the colleague I was speaking had been unable to attend! Nevertheless, as more feedback came in from audience members directly, I came to see this as a clear example of the power of word of mouth – last night’s enthusiasm had traveled quickly and perhaps was still travelling. And of course, I could only take a little of the credit as a co-curator – the artists and the books they brought to the event were the real stars.

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Photograph taken from the event in April, reproduced with the kind permission of Sophie Loss

So now as we find ourselves and the end of Summer with Autumn drawing in, it is a good time to  remind my colleagues, and you, that all will have the opportunity to  attend  the next evening  in the Artists’ Books Now  series, which is due to take place on 5 November 2018 at 6:30pm in the Knowledge Centre, British Library. In a similar vein to April’s ‘Now’-themed event the evening will explore the meanings and pleasures of artist’s books in the contemporary scene, this time from the perspective of ‘Place’.

Professor Chris Taylor, the artist and academic, will be master of ceremonies, joined by the book artist and poet Nancy Campbell, the photography and video artist Véronique Chance, artist Leonie Lachlan, and fine artist and photographer Edmund Clark. The essayist, art writer, curator, librarian Clive Phillpott will be in conversation with Professor Taylor. 

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.