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12 October 2020

Harold Pinter’s Drafts of The Proust Screenplay

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a guest blog by Patrick Armstrong, PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge.  Read more about the Library's collections relating to Harold Pinter on Discovering Literature.

‘In order that the film artist may create a work of art’, Rudolf Arnheim argued in his 1933 book, Film as Art, ‘it is important that he consciously stress the peculiarities of the medium’. When, in the early 1970s, Harold Pinter collaborated with Joseph Losey and Barbara Bray to write a screenplay of Marcel Proust’s novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (1913-1927), they were keen to find a means of foregrounding the peculiarities of the film medium while in some way maintaining a fidelity to the original text. How could they condense and distil Proust’s great novel into a (commercially viable) feature-length film? One answer is, simply, that they could not: to this day, the film has never been made (although there has been a sound broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1995, adapted by Michael Bakewell, and a modified National Theatre production in 2000, directed by Di Trevis). To quote the resigned Pinter, who would remain in search of lost funding: ‘The money to make the film was never found’. With Pinter's what would have been Pinter's 90th birthday passing last weekend, however, Lady Antonia Fraser has recently spoken of her desire for his screenplays and films to be more widely known and appreciated. The prospect of producing the Proust film remains a tantalising one. Still, any attempt to bring the screenplay to filmic fruition would be a true labour of love. To give my two cents’ worth, I would welcome the unlikely extension of Luca Guadagnino’s beautiful ‘Desire Trilogy’ (into a ‘Desire Quadrilogy’) to incorporate a long-awaited cinematic realisation of Pinter’s Proust Screenplay (with, if you’re asking, Timothée Chalamet as the young and fragile Marcel, Ralph Fiennes as Charles Swann, Mia Goth as Albertine, and, à la Suspiria (2018), multiple roles for Tilda Swinton).

It would be misleading to call this work ‘Harold Pinter’s Proust Screenplay’ because it was, from the outset, a thoroughly collaborative project. In his 2015 article on The Proust Screenplay, Matt Harle explains how the first draft - now housed in the Harold Pinter Archive at the British Library - began to take shape:

    Working as a trio, they [Pinter, Losey and Bray] spent time in France visiting significant Proustian sites [Illiers, Cabourg and Paris] and planning the film before Pinter sat down to     write a draft of the script. The script was completed in just three months in November 1972, Pinter having adapted the entirety of Proust’s novel into a single four-hour script. This     was notably against the advice of Samuel Beckett, who suggested that the team start with Le temps retrouvé.

Both Losey and Bray made extensive comments on Pinter’s first draft in 1972. Losey, for instance, expressed his concerns about the practicalities of using a pure white screen (later replaced by the Vermeerian ‘yellow screen’), because of the likelihood of it becoming scratched and dirty. The archive shows that Bray, who was close friends with Beckett, and the project’s main authority on Proust, made a number of helpful suggestions relating to the structure of the film. The adaption also bears the imprint of Beckett’s own work, including his early essay on Proust, simply entitled Proust (1931). Pinter was surely under the spell of Beckett’s forays into film and television in the 1960s. The latter had made his own short film, entitled Film, in New York in the summer of 1964, while, with Eh Joe, a piece for television that was also completed in 1965, Beckett made use of filmic techniques by incorporating close-ups of the protagonist’s face (a device Pinter frequently uses in The Proust Screenplay). The ‘fresh and shrill’ garden gate bell that sounds at the beginning and end of Pinter’s screenplay, moreover, is reminiscent of the piercing bell in Beckett’s Happy Days (1961).

Photograph of file containing Pinter’s drafts towards his Proust screenplay

Pinter’s drafts and notes towards the screenplay are available to view in our Reading Rooms at Add MS 88880/2/82.

The drafts of the adaptation show how Pinter gradually selected the more distinctly filmic aspects of Proust’s novel and made them central to his screenplay: the patch of yellow wall in Jan Vermeer’s View of Delft (c.1559-1660), the romanticised visions of gondolas and palazzos in Venice, the dining room and sea at Balbec, and so on. For three months of 1972, Pinter read A la Recherche du temps perdu every day, taking ‘hundreds of notes’ along the way. When reading through these many notes and drafts, Pinter’s keen eye for detail becomes apparent: he draws attention to Albertine’s many rings, to the simple aigrette in the Duchesse de Guermantes hair, and, more broadly, displays a Proustian attentiveness to jewellery and clothing. ‘Clothes’, as Diana Festa-McCormick argues in her 1984 book Proustian Optics of Clothes, ‘act as the revealing factor for often unavowed psychological responses on the part of the narrator and as indications of the wearer’s social roles’. After all, Proust’s narrator ultimately resolves to construct his book, ‘not say ambitiously like a cathedral, but quite simply like a dress’. Comparably, Pinter tries to find the structural elements that are essential to the whole, the seams that join the carefully made garment together.

Proust’s own suspicion of the relation between the novel and the cinema is made clear in a parenthetical remark from the final volume, Time Regained:

    (Some critics now liked to regard the novel as a sort of procession of things upon the screen of a cinematograph. This comparison was absurd. Nothing is further from what we have     really perceived than the vision that the cinematograph presents.)

Correspondingly, Pinter writes about the difficulties of adapting Proust’s great novel, concluding that a fidelity to the text must be retained through the distillation of its essence. This is an understandable position given that the word count of Proust’s novel is somewhere in the region of 1,267,069 words. Despite the daunting challenges of radically condensing the original, Pinter found working on the adaptation ‘the best working year’ of his life, as he wrote in the introduction to the 1978 Metheun edition of the screenplay. Reading through Pinter’s reams of notes allows us to perceive the slow process of distillation. As one reviewer for the New Statesman put it, the finished screenplay is ‘a beautiful working model in which Proust’s million and a half words have been brought lucidly down to 455 shots’.

At the early stage of the screenplay composition, the notes offer an accumulation of images and snatches of dialogue, as if Pinter were peering in through one of the windows of the Parisian drawing-rooms frequented by the narrator, half-hearing conversations and half-seeing figures from the world of fashion. Proust’s novel demands that the reader imagines themselves seeing, leaving space for the individual’s imagination to give the scenes and characters shape. We are invited to read the novel through the lens of our own experiences, comparing them with those recounted by the narrator. Yet, the difficulty for Pinter is representing through film the workings of the narrator’s mind. As Walter Benjamin suggested in his 1929 essay, ‘The Image of Proust’, ‘the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection’. For Michael Billington, Pinter’s official biographer, the ‘screenplay was based on a chain of visual and aural motifs, and interlocking images’. In this sense, the adaptation is true to the original in its attempt to foreground the workings of involuntary memory. As you read through Pinter’s many notes, the same images and impressions (the napkin, the sea, the steeples, etc.), familiar to any reader of Proust’s novel, appear and reappear throughout the drafts. These become the central images of the finished screenplay, the luminous fragments that disrupt the paralysing effects of habitual perception.  

The early notes show Pinter carefully working out the chronology and order of the book, including the ages of the characters at various stages in the narrative. Though onerous, plotting the ages of the characters at different stages of the narrative is an important task because, as Benjamin writes, ‘to observe the interaction of aging and remembering means to penetrate to the heart of Proust’s world, to the universe of convolution’. Pinter’s many lists of the narrative’s key events and images can be compared with Beckett’s incomplete cataloguing of the crucial, epiphanic moments of involuntary memory in his essay Proust:

  • 1. The Madeleine steeped in an infusion of tea.
  • 2. The steeples of Martinville, seen from Dr. Percepied’s trap.
  • 3. A musty smell in a public lavatory in the Champs-Elysees.
  • 4. The three trees, seen near Balbec from the carriage of Mme. de Villeparisis.
  • 5. The hedge of hawthorn near Balbec.
  • 6. He stoops to unbutton his boots on the occasion of his second visit to the Grand Hotel at Balbec.
  • 7. Uneven cobbles in the courtyard of the Guermantes Hotel.
  • 8. The noise of a spoon against a plate.
  • 9. He wipes his mouth with a napkin.
  • 10. The noise of water in the pipes.
  • 11. George Sand’s François le Champi.

Many of these ‘fetishes’, as Beckett calls them, are central to Pinter’s adaptation, which foregrounds the narrator’s revelatory impressions and memories. Undoubtedly, Pinter would have been familiar with Beckett’s dazzling early reading of Proust’s epic, in which he points out that the narrator’s ‘eye functions with the cruel precision of a camera’ – an idea that seems to lurk behind the numerous close-ups of faces and the shots from Marcel’s point of view.

Pinter’s screenplay is an attempt to dislocate and reorder time, true to Proust’s project of immobilising and recovering fragments of lost time in their pure state. Pinter dislocates narrative time in order to focus on the connections between images and sounds. In so doing, Pinter is able to stress the peculiarities of the film medium while remaining true to the original text. Aware of the opportunities as well as the restrictions of adaptation, Pinter realises that film offers the possibility of cutting swiftly between, or even overlaying, some of the key motifs and artistic figures of Proust’s novel: namely music, as represented by the composer, Vinteuil, and literature, as represented by the writer, Bergotte. Shot 31, for instance, succinctly blends visual art, literature, and music (which Beckett called the ‘catalytic element’ in Proust): ‘Flash of yellow screen. Music of Vinteuil’. The opening montage provides an opportunity to cross-cut between the vital moments of involuntary memory in the novel: the Proustian epiphanies, though there are no famous madeleines or teacups in sight. It is a non-verbal sequence of thirty-four shots (some would argue thirty-five or more), resembling the symphonies of visual movement created by the montagist Slavko Vorkapich. Yet, as the many drafts indicate, a considerable number of words – read, written, rewritten, erased – were considered to create this iconic, though as yet unseen, wordless opening.

02 September 2020

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Lifelong Refugee (1927-2013)

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By Pauline McGonagle, Collaborative PhD candidate with the British Library and University of Exeter working on the Ruth Prawer Jhabvala archive. Pauline's work on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has recently appeared in Wasifiri and formed part of a case-study on collaborative PhDs at the Library.

A Jewish refugee child of Polish origin, who escaped to England in 1939 from Cologne under Nazism, without any spoken English, left a remarkable legacy to international literary and cinematic culture.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s contribution is celebrated along with many prominent Jews in the biographical dictionary of the Jewish Lives Project within the Jewish Museum in London. Her literary archive, thanks to her bequest, is housed at the British Library. Within this collection are hand-written notebooks, scrapbooks, printed typed drafts, digital material and letters. These relate to her 13 published novels, over 100 short stories (some unpublished), several plays and nonfiction articles. Her scripts and screen play archives (21 in total) are housed in the USA.

History Remembered

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala recounted her Cologne childhood memories of being called a “dirty Jew” and chased by other German children in 1983 profiles and interviews. She remembered the notices on the city’s cinemas which stated, “Jews are not desired”. In 1934, the year after she started school, she witnessed the Nazis parade past their apartment before Nazi troops came to arrest her parents who were taken into protective police custody. She spoke of walking to her segregated Jewish school in 1938 past gangs smashing windows, and how once friendly shopkeepers “grew very cold and turned away from you”. She told Harriet Shapiro in 1987: “Other children would scream after us and throw stones”.

Ruth Prawer fled with her father Marcus, mother Eleanora and brother Siegbert, by the “smallest fluke” in April 1939, when US visas were declined, and they found Polish-born sponsors in Coventry. They later discovered, that at least forty of their relatives had perished. When Ruth Prawer was twenty-one and a student at Queen Mary College, London (1948), her father committed suicide. She later emigrated to Delhi, after she married the Parsi architect Cyrus Jhabvala in 1951, where she spent the next 25 years before moving to New York in 1976.

Destined to Write

Jhabvala told Dorothy D. Horowitz in an interview for Oral History how she constantly wrote stories as a child, in German, about Jewish life and with settings based on an imaginary Palestine; but “I can’t recall a single one”. Her mother was accused by her school of writing the stories and these were read out loud in the house of her grandfather, Elias Cohn, a bass Ober-Kantor at the conservative synagogue in Cologne. But, she recounted, someone threw these stories away and no-one thought to keep them.

The British Library has the photocopies of her first two published stories in her English school magazine Microcosm, ‘Der Fuchs un der rabe’ (1939) and ‘The Wonder Pot’ (1940). The copies were posted to Jhabvala in 1987 by the friend who had shared a childhood bedroom with this refugee stranger in Coventry in 1939. The letter attached to them said: “Herewith proof of your early promise–so elegantly fulfilled”. 

Photocopy of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's first publication in German, 'Der Fuchs Und Der Rabe'

Front cover of Summer 1939 edition of Jhabvala's school magazine, Microcosm
Ruth Prawer’s first publication in German and the cover of the School Magazine Microcosm, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348 © British Library Board

In 2005 Maya Jaggi explained how other writers described Jhabvala’s skill and ability in terms of her unique outsider perspective. Caryl Phillips identified her postcolonial positioning: “She understood loss of language, land and history in a brutal and visceral way, and reinvented herself…”

Jhabvala told a Canadian radio interviewer in 2012 when asked about the link between her refugee background and her ability to detach herself from the subjects of her work:

    I’m not interested in who am I, … I’m interested in what’s gone, the disinheritance, what I’ve     been able to become or learn or fuse with or not fuse with. A certain freedom comes… I like it     that way.

The lecture which she gave on receipt of the Neil Gunn Fellowship awarded by the Scottish Arts Council in 1979 tackled this topic and was published in Blackwood’s Magazine under the title ‘Disinheritance’.  In it, she distinguishes the loss of “ancestral memories” from what she sees as inherited craftsman’s tools, which “were given, gifted to me, happened to me”. The drafted plans for the lecture clearly delineate her life into distinct phases.

photograph of a notebook containing plan outline of a lecture for receipt of Neil Gunn Fellowship in Edinburgh 1979 given by Ruth PrawerJhabvala

From Notebook containing plan outline of lecture for receipt of Neil Gunn Fellowship in Edinburgh 1979, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348 © British Library Board

Try and try and try again

Jhabvala worked at her craft with a daily routine of morning writing and was driven by inner confidence and resilience. An annotated typed piece entitled ‘Why I Write’ (undated) from the archive, reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1946 essay, illustrates this. It may have been written after 1976, as the final page addresses her last writing phase. She describes “the double spur” of inner and outward ambition and the increasing thrill that writing brings. Yet the assuredness and self-reflection on how Jhabvala the writer was formed is balanced by a self-critical voice, one which speaks after completing every story or book : “I didn’t get it right…” and then a persistent: “let me try again, and again, and again”.

Photograph of undated annotated typed essay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Undated annotated typed essay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348© British Library Board

Jhabvala never mentions screen writing here. If ‘Why I Write’ is dated close to the papers with which it was packed (1980-1983) she had already written five screenplays by then, all set in India, and had adapted both Henry James’ The Europeans (1979) and Jean Rhys’ Quartet (1981). Her inspiration for screen writing was always literary and she admired those artists who shared this influence in their work, most of whom had a deep rootedness in their own soil, something which, for her, was absent.

When discussing her favourite Satyajit Ray film, Charulata, based on the Rabindranath Tagore novel, this ambition features:

    All great works stimulate a hopeful emulation that ends occasionally, as in the films of Satyajit Ray, in radiant success —     ensuring the business of influence and inspiration that makes us all try and try and try again.

Ray supervised the music production of Jhabvala’s first Merchant Ivory adaptation of her novel The Householder (1963), he re-cut the film, and his cameraman directed the photography. James Ivory also recalls her saying “Let’s climb a big mountain” when she wanted them to make EM Forster’s Howards End (the adaptation which won her one of two Oscars in 1993).

Jhabvala, who died in 2013 in New York, had no ambition or desire to return to Cologne. In the ‘Disinheritance’ essay she speaks about her feelings after twenty-four years in India: “a terrible hunger of homesickness that I cannot describe it was so terrible, so consuming”. She articulates it as a desire for no specific ‘home’ but for a generic Europe, where people spoke, thought, and looked like she did. New York provided this homecoming for her in 1976, because it seemed like a bucolic Europe, reaching backward and “untouched by the events of the 1930s and 40s”. When Bernard Weinraub interviewed her in 1983 for The New York Times Magazine she explained: “To anyone of my generation… Europe now does smell of blood”.

Once a Refugee, Always a Refugee

“A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten” (the Talmud). This quote is cited by Gunter Demnig, the Cologne artist, as the inspiration for his work. He remembers those who fled, were deported or murdered as victims of Nationalist Socialism, by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of their last address of choice. These stolpersteine (‘stumbling stones’) now exist in 2,000 locations, and the 75,000th was placed in Frankfurt in December 2019. The stones give individual names to those considered “subhuman” by an ideology which promoted Aryan racial purity, one that propagated Fascist movements right across Europe.

In September 2019, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s daughter Ava Wood and I went to Cologne where four stones were being laid in memory of the Prawer family, commissioned by the generosity of a local art gallery owner, Norbert Arns and his book group. This group, formed in 2013, were reading Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day in May 2019, when a member, Thomas Schuld, Director of the Edith Stein Archive, realised that Prawer Jhabvala who adapted the novel for the screen was a former resident. They researched the family and discovered the great achievements of both Ruth and her brother Siegbert, a scholar and Professor of German and Comparative Literature; located their last known address from the City council’s registers, and traced family members.

Our very brief visit was to a city which none of the Prawers would have recognised. The book group’s hospitality included; visits to the Jewish Cemetery gravestones of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s grandparents, to the original site of the orthodox synagogue on Glockengasse, which was razed in 1938 during Kristallnacht, where now sits the opera house, and a personal tour of the Roonstrasse synagogue with Boris Rothe.

On the morning of 26th September 2019 four granite setts with brass plates fixed on top, hand-engraved by the craftsman Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer, were silently and swiftly laid by Gunther Demnig outside a five-storey 1950s building on 35 Hochstadenstrasse. We witnessed a moving but simple tribute with some residents, the book group members and passers-by, in the drizzling rain. These stones were the first four of 50 that were laid later that day in Cologne. Among other groups considered ‘a-social’, whose names will not be forgotten, are Roma and Sinti gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and disabled people.

The stolpersteine are not always welcome and some Jewish leaders and groups consider them disrespectful, while a few residents find it distasteful to have such painful reminders outside their front doors. Munich has only permitted wall panel memorials as alternatives. It seems to me, that the humility of bowing down to honour the victims of persecution as we stumble upon them has its own dignity; a dignity not offered to other victims of perpetrators of injustice, the offenders honoured with statues, and to whom we look upwards as we walk under their shadows.

Ruth Prawer, who was almost twelve when she left Cologne, could only dream of being the writer she would become, but Cologne now remembers her and her family as survivors who fled from what was their home. These memorials, created and placed with respect by human hands, and stumbled on by human feet, carry the name she was born with next to those of her dearest, thanks to the generosity and humanity of strangers.

Photograph of commemorative stones placed in memory of the Prawer family

Photograph by Ava Wood stolpersteine laid on Sept 26, 2019 outside 35 Hochstadenstrasse, Cologne. © Ava Jhabvala Wood

 

References

Apperly, Eliza. “‘Stumbling stones’: a different vision of Holocaust remembrance” The Guardian February 18, 2019.

Etzioni, Amitai “‘Kristallnacht’ Remembered: History & Communal Responsibility” Commonweal June 15, 2014.

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. 1979. ‘Disinheritance’. Blackwood’s Magazine

Horowitz, Dorothy.1983. ‘Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Oral History Memoir’ (November 16) from William E. Wiener Oral History Library of the American Jewish Committee at New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Shapiro, Helen. ‘The Teeming Imagination of Novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is Her Window on a World She Avoids’.  People, September 28, 1987, 48–53.

Weinraub, Bernard.  ‘The Artistry of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’. The New York Times Magazine Sept.11, 1983.

Woo, Elaine. ‘Jhabvala saw herself as a “lifelong refugee”’ Los Angeles Times April 05, 2013.

17 August 2020

Ted Hughes: A 90th Birthday Celebration

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by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives who catalogued the Hughes Archive (held at Add MS 88198) For more information about the Library's holdings of material relating to the life and work of Ted Hughes, see our collection guide and the relevant pages on Discovering Literature.

Photograph of Ted Hughes © Copyright Caroline Forbes.

Photograph of Ted Hughes © Copyright Caroline Forbes.

Today would have been the poet and writer, Ted Hughes’ 90th birthday. Born in Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire in 1930 Ted Hughes created a hugely diverse body of work from poetry and prose to theatre adaptations and non-fiction. The natural world and our relationship with it is one of the most abiding themes in his work from early poems such as ‘The Thought Fox’ and ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ through to his children’s story, The Iron Man. Hughes was also lauded for one of his last poetry collections, Birthday Letters, a series of 88 poems about his relationship with his first wife, the poet, Sylvia Plath.

We had hoped to mark 2020 with a small display of items from the Library’s rich collections on Ted Hughes in our Treasures Gallery, and an evening event. Sadly the Coronavirus pandemic meant that these plans have had to be put on hold at present although we hope to be able to celebrate Hughes’ life and work in a similar way in 2021 instead. In the meantime I would like to use this post to highlight the richness of the Library’s collections relating to Hughes and point to some of the online resources relating to him which can be accessed at the moment while the Library continues to reopen after the recent restrictions.

My own work at the Library began when I started cataloguing the Hughes archive which was acquired from the Hughes Estate in 2008. The archive contains literary drafts, diaries and notebooks, correspondence, professional papers and project files dating from throughout Hughes’ life and career from early notes made in the 1940s through to 1990s drafts of Birthday Letters and Howls and Whispers. The depth and breadth of the archive provide a rich insight into Hughes including both his creative process and the subjects that interested him which were as varied as astrology, fishing and poetry in translation. As my first proper job after becoming an archivist the archive was both a challenge and a joy as I looked through the boxes and marvelled at their contents. I think that all too often curators at the Library can forget how privileged we are to have access to such treasures. Having worked at home since March I have obviously missed meeting up with colleagues in person but I have also missed the collections. Being able to touch the paper on which an iconic work is written remains a privilege and a thrill which I am looking forward to getting back at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.

In addition to the archive which I catalogued we hold a number of smaller collections relating to Hughes often based around a series of correspondence between him and his friends, family and collaborators, including his sister, Olwyn, the artist, Leonard Baskin and the academic, Keith Sagar. Comments made in correspondence can often provide important context to works as well as useful information about an individual’s life.

Anyone looking for a Hughes fix would do well to look at Discovering Literature: 20th century which includes digitised highlights from across our Hughes collections including early astrological charts, notes on river pollution, drafts of Birthday Letters poems and sketches by Hughes. These can be found alongside articles on him by academics and others aiming to provide an introduction to his work.

I thought of Ted recently when out on my daily walk I saw a small pike in a river near my house. Getting out for walks has been important to me since I’ve been working from home and a good way of tiring out my small sons. You can’t spend as much time as I did reading about fishing when cataloguing the Hughes archive and not be enthusiastic about seeing one of Ted’s most iconic fish! Here is a photograph of the spot where we saw the pike.

Photograph of river showing where author spotted a pike

Needless to say I didn’t have a chance to photograph the pike when we saw it and we probably won’t see it again though we have seen chub and roach in the river too. Here are some roach in the same spot which seems to be a popular haunt for them!

Photograph of roach in river

Meanwhile you can listen to Hughes reading ‘Pike’ on the Poetry Archive and describing his pike which sound rather larger and more impressive than mine. Happy Birthday Ted!

30 July 2020

Andrew Salkey and the first Publishing Houses for Black Writing in Britain

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By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310), working in collaboration with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and the British Library. This blog is part of a series looking at Salkey’s literary works and involvement with publishing houses for black writing in Britain. 

Andrew Salkey was a man of many hats; a novelist, poet, editor, broadcaster, academic, cultural promoter and activist but, his main passion in his life was writing. Salkey’s love for writing began as a young boy in Jamaica writing short stories in school exercise books and he continued to write almost daily until his death in 1995. His back-catalogue of literary work boasts a range of adult and children’s novels, short story collections, poetry collections and long poems. His archive reflects the sheer variety of his literary works and the characteristic political undertones of all of his writing.  Salkey is often remembered for his role as a presenter of the BBC’s seminal programme ‘Caribbean Voices’ and as a leading figure in the diasporic consciousness of Caribbean artists and intellectuals in the UK through his role as co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM). However, he also had a significant influence on the development of Caribbean literary activism in London during the 1960s and 1970s through his unwavering support of two of the first black publishing houses in London New Beacon Books and Bogle L’Ouverture (BLP).

Salkey became involved with New Beacon books through his friendship with the founders, John La Rose and Sarah White. Salkey, La Rose and Kamau Brathwaite were the co-founders of CAM; a movement set up for Caribbean artists to get to know each other, and their work, as well as get to know their readers in the Caribbean diaspora. The CAM meetings were the first place La Rose and White sold their own publications. New Beacon Books was founded in 1966 as the UK’s first black publisher, specialist bookshop and international book distributor. The company was named after a journal, The Beacon, which ran from 1931-1932 in La Rose’s native Trinidad. New Beacon’s publishing and distribution was originally ran from La Rose and White’s flat until they were able to take over premises in Finsbury Park and begin functioning as a book store. The shop became the epicentre of many campaigns, movements and organisations Salkey was involved with including: CAM (1966-1972), and the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books- organised jointly with BLP and Race Today Publications (1982-1995).

Two of Salkey’s works were published by New Beacon Books: Georgetown Journal: a Caribbean writer’s journey from London to Port of Spain to Georgetown, Guyana 1970 (1972) and the second edition of Salkey’s critically acclaimed first novel, A Quality of Violence (1978). Georgetown Journal is an account of Salkey’s 1970 trip, with La Rose and Samuel Selvon, to Georgetown. They were guests at events organised by President Forbes Burnham marking the founding of the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana and the Caribbean Writers and Artists Conference. Salkey’s archive includes a letter from Trevor McDonald relating to the trip offering Salkey advice on who to target for interviews. McDonald was a producer on the Caribbean Service, he suggested President Forbes Burnham, Willy Demas and Clyde Walcott as interesting interviews but signed off his letter to Salkey with ‘I am leaving the rest to your impeccable judgement’.

In 1974 Salkey was given a directorship in New Beacon Books with ten shares. Salkey gave New Beacon Books all of the rights and proceeds from Georgetown Journal in a personal effort to ‘strengthen and consolidate’ the company. Despite this, Salkey was very aware of how financially draining the publishing endeavour was for La Rose. He laments in his diary about how much debt La Rose incurred printing Georgetown Journal, he goes on to say that apart from free manuscripts ‘I must also find a way to keep them with money or its hard-edged equivalent, in some way’.

Bogle L’Ouverture (BLP) was founded in London in 1968 by Guyanese couple Eric and Jessica Huntley. They were friends of La Rose and met Salkey through him. Although the Huntleys were never official members of CAM they were friends with many of its members. BLP was named after the Jamaican hero of the Morant Bay uprising, Paul Bogle, and Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture. When the Huntleys opened their bookshop in Ealing, they did so with the help and backing of La Rose. Salkey supported their endeavour in the same way he had with New Beacon Books. He was a Director and shareholder in the company and supported the organisation through the rights and proceeds of his manuscripts. He sent them other Caribbean writers’ works, and he offered them business and literary advice. In his diaries Salkey refers to BLP as ‘our publishing firm’, he was determined to be an active supporter of Caribbean writing and ‘keep the faith as a writer with my two Caribbean publishers in Britain’.

Salkey’s first novel published by BLP was the children’s story Joey Tyson. This was the third publication in BLP’s children’s series (which also included the writings of Bernard Coard), which was aimed at educating children in Britain about African and Caribbean history, politics and culture. Salkey’s ability to convey adult issues and themes to children in a way they can understand, and feel an affinity with, made him the perfect author for BLP’s literary activism. Joey Tyson depicts the exile of a fictional character, Dr Paul Bogle Buxton, from the perspective of a young boy. Dr Buxton, described as ‘the radical lecturer in African history at the university’, was a fictional imagining of Walter Rodney and his expulsion from Jamaica in 1968. One review of the novel retained in Salkey’s archive states: ‘Teachers looking for something new or something more and who appreciate that literature cannot be divorced from life will recognise the merits of Joey Tyson’. This work embodies the Huntleys’ and Salkey’s endeavour to create children’s literature that educated and rallied the new generation, encouraging grassroots activism and highlighted the counter-hegemony in Britain and the Caribbean. The launch for the novel was held at the Keskidee Centre in Islington, once used regularly for CAM functions, by Jessica Huntley on Salkey’s 47th birthday, 30 January 1975. In his diary he wrote that this day ‘symbolised an acceptance of my small contribution to our community, which I never thought I’d receive’.

Sources and Further Reading

David Austin Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal, Between the Lines, (Toronto: Canada, 2013)

Edited by Verner D. Mitchell, Cynthia Davis, The Black Arts Movement, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019),

The George Padmore Institute: Why Publish Independently (online) Accessed: 29/03/2020: https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/the-pioneering-years/new-beacon-books-early-history/why-publish-independently

15 July 2020

Mervyn Peake’s scariest drawings saved for the nation

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By Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts

Drawing of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Drawing of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Today we are announcing the acquisition of over 300 drawings from the pen of one of the 20th century’s greatest illustrators, Mervyn Peake. The archive includes fearsome and funny illustrations for classics such as Treasure Island, The Hunting of the Snark and Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm, as well as illustrations for his own books including Gormenghast, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor and Letters From a Lost Uncle. This newly-acquired archive – also containing juvenilia and unpublished work - joins his literary manuscripts already held here at the British Library, together forming the largest public Mervyn Peake collection anywhere in the world. From completion of cataloguing in 2022 you will be able to research the Mervyn Peake Visual Archive for yourself and there will be opportunities to see the illustrations in upcoming British Library exhibitions, but for now here are a few highlights to whet your appetite and stimulate those research ideas.

Treasured islands

One of the undoubted gems of this new collection is Peake’s series of illustrations for Treasure Island, which were published in 1949 and are regarded as some of the finest examples of his illustrative work. It probably helped that Treasure Island was his favourite book from childhood and that he had been poring over the drawings of others, including the anonymous original illustrator, and drafting his own versions since he was a schoolboy (as evidenced by the fact that two watercolour illustrations survive in the archive executed when Peake was only 15). But Peake’s familiarity with the illustrators who went before him was not purely down to childhood fandom. On receiving one of his earliest commissions to illustrate Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark in 1941 he set out to learn everything he could from the artists he most admired – from Hogarth and Blake to Cruikshank and Bewick. As a writer himself, he maintained a healthy respect for the authors whose work he was reinterpreting, ‘sliding into another man’s soul’ as he put it and subordinating himself to the story, which perhaps explains why he often chose to show us characters divorced from their setting, leaving it to our imaginations to conjure the action of the story. The results have been highly praised and Peake is credited with reimagining the story and showing us the true evil potential of the pirates (see John Lewis’ The 20th Century Book: Its Illustration and Design).

The pirate crew

The pirate crew from Treasure Island, 1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

These Treasure Island illustrations are also a particularly fine example of Peake’s mastery of the technique of cross-hatching, as you can see from the above drawing of the Hispaniola’s shipmates as they approach Skeleton Island. Elsewhere, his innovative use of closely-drawn broken lines results in the incredible image of Israel Hands falling from the mast with a swirling sea behind him. Part of the rich research potential in this new archive lies in the many preliminary drawings and annotated proofs for Treasure Island which Peake retained, allowing us to trace his creative process in detail as he carefully honed each picture.

Israel Hands falling from the mast. Treasure Island  1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Israel Hands falling from the mast, Treasure Island, 1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Too scary for bedtime?

Once dubbed by critics ‘eerie’, ‘sinister’ and ‘quite unsuitable for sensitive children’, it is Peake’s children’s book illustrations that are at the heart of this archive. Peake’s work has thrilled and unsettled children since he started publishing in the later 1930s, sometimes with an outcry from adults who have worried about nightmares and the ‘indelible mark’ left on their offspring. Here is an example from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm (1946), which again uses cross-hatching to evoke the dark, foreboding atmosphere.

Illustration for ‘Our Lady’s Child’ from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm  1946. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Illustration for 'Our Lady's Child' from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

For older readers, Peake will be best-known as the author of the Gormenghast books which earned him the status as one of the best fantasy writers of the 20th century. Fans of the series will find ten illustrations of Gormenghast characters in the Visual Archive, including depictions of its hollow-eyed anti-hero Steerpike, the grotesque chef Arabiatha Swelter and the delightfully-named doctor’s sister, Irma Prunesquallor.

Early Peake

The earliest item from the Visual Archive is a drawing by seven-year-old Mervyn, sketched on a Sunday afternoon in China, where he spent his childhood as the son of a missionary doctor. The Peake family returned to England for good when Mervyn was 11 years old but the sights and sounds of his early years were never forgotten. The sense of being an outsider came from living in a walled missionary compound looking like a miniature version of Croydon set down in a distinctly different culture, and it continued on his return to England where there seemed to be no thread linking his two very different lives. Peake’s perspective on Chinese culture and this sense of isolation have both been consistent influences on Peake’s later work, from the ritualised world of Gormenghast to the stylised brushwork of some of his drawings. In the Visual Archive, the Chinese influence can be seen in his juvenilia and also in his exquisite illustrations for an early unpublished book of nonsense, ‘The Moccus Book’, which he produced in the late 1920s from an idea developed with his best friend, Gordon Smith.

A Sunday evening walk in China. Earliest surviving drawing by Mervyn Peake  aged 7  circa 1918. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

A Sunday evening walk in China. Earliest surviving drawing by Mervyn Peake, aged 7, around 1918. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

The pirate who never grew up

The thread running through the entire archive is Peake’s piratical spirit. He was obsessed with pirate stories from childhood, cultivated a piratical appearance and was very fond of jokes and pranks. It is not surprising therefore that Peake went on to write his own pirate tale in the form of his 1939 children’s book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. Although Peake’s early literary influences reflect the colonial society in which he grew up, it is notable how he could turn these tropes upside down. The bloodthirsty Captain Slaughterboard, for instance, gives up his piratical ways and sets up a cosy, domesticated life on a foreign island with an ambiguously-gendered ‘Yellow Creature’ in what appears to be a very happy queer relationship – marking the picture book out as ‘way ahead of its time’ in the opinion of former Cambridge Professor of Children’s Literature, Morag Styles. The Visual Archive holds the complete set of all 45 final illustrations for this book and you can see a glimpse of an early version of the Slaughterboard story in this beautifully illustrated manuscript from the collection which is available in full on our Discovering Children’s Books site.

The pirate Charlie Choke sporting a tattoo of Mervyn Peake’s wife Maeve on his arm. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor  1939. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

The pirate Charlie Choke sporting a tattoo of Mervyn Peake's wife Maeve on his arm. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, 1939. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Words and pictures

Utlimately, in the fashion of other great writer-artists from Blake to Wyndham Lewis, it is impossible to separate Peake’s art from his writing. To understand his imagination and his synaesthetic creative process as a whole, we need to consider his writing and drawing side by side, and this acquisition will enable researchers to do just that. You can read more about the Mervyn Peake Visual Archive in our press release.

Funders

The Mervyn Peake Visual Archive was acquired by the British Library with the generous support of the Art Fund with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation and a contribution in memory of Miranda Stonor, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the British Library Collections Trust and the Friends of the National Libraries.

Further reading

  • G. Peter Winngton, ed., Mervyn Peake The Man and his Art (London: Peter Owen, 2006)
  • G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London: Peter Owen, 2009)
  • Maeve Gilmore, A World Away (London: Gollancz, 1

13 July 2020

Blazing a trail for Black British writing: Jacaranda's Twenty in 2020

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It seems fitting to open our series on small publishers who make the work of Black writers central to their mission by featuring the first publishing house to commit to publishing 20 titles by 20 Black British writers in one year.  This initiative aims to amplify the voice of Black Britons as valued members of British culture and society and to increase the range and presence of work by diverse writers. The books include adult fiction, nonfiction and poetry.  The publisher is London-based Jacaranda Books, who have just picked up the British Bookseller Award for Best Small Publisher 2020.

Leopard's Gaza

Through the Leopard's Gaze, by Njambi McGrath.

Jacaranda Books is an independent publishing house that aims to create a platform for under-represented voices from a wide cultural heritage, but with a particular focus on works related to Africa, the Caribbean and the Diaspora. It was founded in January 2012 by Valerie Brandes. In an interview with literature website Afrikult, Brandes spoke of her desire “to revive and add to the rich tradition of black female publishing in the UK [and] to honour and continue the tradition of black publishers who came before us, figures such as Margaret Busby and Verna Wilkins.”   Valerie Brandes placed her publishing work in the same context when she spoke to 5 News recently about why diverse literature is important to tackle racism.

Referring to two inspirational figures in black British publishing, Valerie Brandes is signalling Jacaranda’s aim to make change through publishing and to continue a tradition of collective activism.

As the founding editor of Allison & Busby in 1967, Ghana-born Margaret Busby has long been a pioneer of Black British publishing. Last year she edited 'New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent', as a follow up to the original anthology she compiled in 1992. Born in Grenada and living in London, Verna Wilkins is the author of a wide range of picture books and biographies for young people, including ‘The Life of Stephen Lawrence’. Verna Wilkins and Margaret Busby worked together to establish Independent Black Publishers, a trade association aiming to increase the impact of progressive Black publishers within UK publishing.

Jacaranda’s all-women staff includes Jazzmine Breary as sales, publicity and marketing manager. Jazzmine has been part of Jacaranda’s story since it began, and she was among those who spoke at the Library’s Bringing Voices Together networking event in 2017.  She has been named as one of The Bookseller’s ‘Rising Stars of 2020’.  The Bookseller notes Breary’s involvement in all aspects of developing and defining Jacaranda’s list, ethos and brand identity.  At the British Library, Jazzmine Breary spoke about the way black writers are often pigeon-holed by mainstream publishers. She has noted too that although Jacaranda may be driven by positive aims and passion, that’s not enough to sell books.  The quality of the writing is the key to Jacaranda’s success, and has never been compromised by its commitment to inclusivity.

Butterfly Fish

The Butterfly Fish, by Irenosen Okojie

If one thing stands out about Jacaranda, it is the wide range of books on offer.  That range stretches from award-winning novels of writers like Irenosen Okojie to the contemporary honest and emotional love stories of Maame Blue and Frances Mensah Williams.

Jacaranda has also published translated fiction such as 'Seven Stones' by Venus Khoury-Ghata, the Man Booker International Prize-listed 'Tram 83' by Fiston Mwanza Mujilaand, and 'A Girl Called Eel' by Ali Zamir, which was gained the English Pen Translates Award.  Books such as 'The Marrow Thieves' by Cherie Dimaline are aimed at young adult readers.

Tram 83

Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Beyond fiction, Jacaranda’s list includes history and biography, from Stephen Bourne’s fascinating study of the life of jazz and caberet singer and actress Evelyn Dove, to the memoir of feminist and activist Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith, ‘The Space between Black and White’.

Screen Shot 2020-07-13 at 15.33.57

The Space between Black and White, by Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith

Jacaranda also published Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin narrated alternately by Trayvon’s parents Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin.  Paramount’s award-winning documentary television series was based largely on this book.

Where mainstream publishers tend to avoid risks by sticking to what they know, smaller publishers such as Jacaranda play a vital role in showing that there is a market for diverse fiction.  Offering a range of books of different styles allows Jacaranda to cater for readers with very different interests and tastes. Readers may find recognition in these stories or they may be challenged by encountering the individual dimension of shared and troubled histories connecting Britain and Africa. Either way, these are books that entertain, forge understanding, and make a difference. 

The books featured here are available in bookshops or direct from Jacaranda.

In the coming weeks we will continue to cast a spotlight on small and independent publishers with a focus on black writers and other writers of colour in order to aid wider awareness of the quality and quantity of this work.

 

08 July 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph of typescript draft of The Black Jacobins by CLR James

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

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

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

Photograph of manuscript draft of Andrea Leavy's nove, Small Island

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

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

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

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

Photograph of assorted printed material from the Library's collections

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

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

25 May 2020

Invoking the Dunkirk Spirit: Thames to Dunkirk 1940 to 2020

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In this guest post, we are very pleased to welcome the artist Liz Mathews. The Library holds several of Liz Mathews' works in our artists books collection, including Thames to Dunkirk. During the past weeks, we have been working with Liz to create a new short film that shows this work and reflects on the events of the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk in May and June 1940.   
 
Photograph showing Thames to Dunkirk as it was displayed within the exhibition Writing at the British Library
 
Thames to Dunkirk in the British Library Writing Exhibition, 2019

The eightieth anniversary of Dunkirk falls in May 2020 while here in Britain we are still living through the coronavirus pandemic. My artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk is the largest book in the British Library’s Contemporary British collection, and curators at the British Library had been planning some events with me to mark the moment, but since it became clear that no public events would be possible, I’ve been working with Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications, to make an artists’ film of my artists' book Thames to Dunkirk (below). Under lockdown conditions we have assembled the elements of the soundtrack - on which the soldier-poet Basil Bonallack is voiced by his grandson Christopher Peters, and Virginia Woolf’s questioning lines from The Waves by me Liz Mathews - over my own photography of the book, and the film was edited by Jeremy Jenkins. 

Photograph showing the front cover of Thames to Dunkirk

Front cover of Thames to Dunkirk

 

Thames to Dunkirk, an artists' book by Liz Mathews, on film. 

I made Thames to Dunkirk in 2009, and it’s been in the Library’s collection for a decade, a surreally large book to echo the extraordinary nature of an event shared by over 300,000 people, each with their own individual experience and their own story to tell. It’s made from twenty-four sheets of the largest handmade paper in the world, each 1 metre high and 1.4 metres wide - and it opens out to a free-standing paper sculpture 17 metres long and a metre high.

Photograph of Thames to Dunkirk in full-view

Photograph of Thames to Dunkirk in full-view

Looking at Thames to Dunkirk again now, as its maker I’m both reminded of my original aim, and struck by the many parallels with our current situation. Hearing Dunkirk 1940 invoked so often during the lockdown - exemplifying British ingenuity, courage and adaptability in a desperate crisis - has brought that long ago time vividly to mind. So what is it about Dunkirk that speaks so urgently to our times? Who could read the following accounts in these days without recognising the ‘absolute mayhem’, the fear and anxiety, the ‘public catastrophe’, the ‘terrible suspense’?

‘The Dunkirk crisis was unbelievable. A lot of people coming back had jettisoned their guns and vehicles, they just got there as fast as they could. There were lots of refugees coming in - it was absolute mayhem. Dunkirk had been bombed. We knew that a lot of troops were sheltering along the shore. We had no idea they were going to be rescued - it seemed the whole army was going to be captured. I was extremely upset, because it never occurred to me that we would survive. I though we were defeated, that we would surrender and sue for peace.’ (Corporal Elizabeth Quale, WAAF liaison officer, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Second World War, Ebury Press / IWM 2004)

Photograph of Thames to Dunkirk, p.21

Thames to Dunkirk, p.21.

On May 26th 1940 the rescue began, an event of such enormity that it has become one of our most potent national myths. The British army fighting in France and Belgium had been outflanked and surrounded by the invading army of Nazi Germany, and ‘there was nothing for it but to fall back, made almost impossible by the multitudes of refugees on the roads. Our men could only crawl back, while the enemy raced to cut them off from the sea.’ (John Masefield, The Nine Days Wonder Heinemann, 1940).

Photograph of soldiers being evacuated from beaches at Dunkirk

By 26th May a solid mass of men had already gathered on the beaches and in the dunes near the town, and thousands more were still struggling to get there. Churchill’s government had a plan for the Royal Navy to rescue them, with the help of a makeshift armada of ‘little ships’, privately owned boats, yachts, lifeboats and small ships from England’s south coast and the Thames, to ferry the men out from the beaches to the waiting Naval ships.

 

Photograph showing page 10 of Thames to Dunkirk

Thames to Dunkirk, p.10

But ‘when Operation Dynamo began it was thought that only a few thousand could be saved. The next day the situation was so much worse that we had to be prepared for a desperate scramble to pick up survivors from a great disaster.’ (JM, ibid)

Meanwhile at home, Leonard and Virginia Woolf were among the millions waiting for news: ‘In Rodmell Dunkirk was a harrowing business. There was not merely the public catastrophe, the terrible suspense with Britain on the razor’s edge of complete disaster; in the village we were domestically on the beaches. For Percy, and Jim and Dick and Chris, whom I had known as small boys in the village school and watched grow up onto farm workers and tractor drivers were now, one knew, retreating, driven back to the Dunkirk beaches. There they presumably were waiting, and we in Rodmell waited.’ (Leonard Woolf The Journey not the Arrival Matters The Hogarth Press, 1969)

And from Virginia Woolf’s diary: ‘Louie comes agog. [Her brother] Harry come back on Monday. It pours out - how he hadn’t boots off for 3 days; the beach at Dunkirk - the bombers as low as trees - the bullets like moth holes in his coat…  He looted a Belgian shop & stuffed his pockets with rings which fell out in the sea; but 2 watches pinned to his coat survived… He was talking to a chap, who showed him a silk handkerchief bought for his joy lady. That moment a bomb killed him. Harry took the handkerchief. He saw his cousin dead on the beach; & another man from the street. Harry swam off, a boat neared. Say chum can you row? Yes, he said, hauled in, rowed for 5 hours, saw England, landed - didn’t know if it were day or night or what town - didn’t ask - couldn’t write to his mother - was despatched to his regiment.’ (Virginia Woolf, Diary Volume Five, ed. Anne Olivier Bell The Hogarth Press, 1984) 

Photograph showing Thames to Dunkirk in full-view

Virginia Woolf’s story about Harry West set me on a path of discovering first-hand accounts of that time, and gave me the idea of making Thames to Dunkirk. Along both sides of the huge book’s length are juxtaposed four significant lines: first, soldier-poet BG Bonallack’s eye-witness account of Dunkirk 1940 from his poem The Retreat; second, Virginia Woolf’s introspective questioning lines from The Waves flowing beneath as an undercurrent; and then on one side a watercolour map of the Thames from source to sea, lettered with the names of most of the little ships that went to the rescue; and on the other a 17m long watercolour of the great stretch of Dunkirk beaches and dunes, with the names of many people who were there during those nine days in 1940.

Close-up image of Thames to Dunkirk, page 18


Thames to Dunkirk, p.18.

There’s Alexander Graham King, ‘the mad hatter’ who played his accordion to entertain the queues of waiting soldiers for seven days, and Captain NC Strother-Smith, who could spare a thought for the refugees on the roads ‘machine-gunned and attacked by Bombers and fighters’ in this impossible situation. There’s Philip Newman, the army surgeon who treated wounded men by the thousands in ‘the Chateau’, remained behind with men too badly wounded to be moved, was captured and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp as a POW. And there’s Louie’s brother Harry - his name lettered in a queue out into the sea; I see him with the water up to his armpits, worrying about his looted watches getting wet.

Photograph showing the creation of Thames to Dunkirk, through the use of a wooden clothes-peg to apply paint.

Marking Thames to Dunkirk book with a wooden clothes peg

Each person whose story I found is there in the crowd on the book; the letters of their names stand as individuals in the mass, marked with a wooden clothes peg, an incongruous domestic tool to reference a background of home for each person. The little ships’ names, too, are set along the watercolour map of the Thames in paint mixed with Thames water, the words lettered with a Thames driftwood stick, to draw the material presence of the river into the book, to bring in the stories not only of the gallant boats but of all those across Britain doing what they could to help, volunteering, nursing the wounded, waiting for news.

Photograph of card showing details for the Dunkirk Project

Card for the Dunkirk Project

As for my aims: I wanted Thames to Dunkirk to represent all the voices of Dunkirk, not a simplified impersonal official version; to catch the event in all its diversity and complexity. Once it was made, it became the central thread of The Dunkirk Project, an online installation that collects and shared hidden or forgotten stories from Dunkirk. Presented in the form of daily news from 26th May to 4th June, this River of Stories made up of many voices, many different perspectives, shows how this multi-layered event defies simplistic reduction but still has important truths for today.

The voices of Thames to Dunkirk speak to our uncertain times at an apt moment. It’s more important than ever to acknowledge the European, multi-national nature of Britain’s wartime struggle against fascism, as exemplified at Dunkirk, and to recognise how we, the inheritors of the world that was made then, are still living with the consequences of our past. In June 1940 when the Dunkirk evacuation had brought most of the army home again, the threat of invasion was at its most acute - and Britain was still at war for a further four years. The parallels for our wounded world are all too clear: while we’ve been struggling with Brexit and the pandemic, the Climate Emergency has not gone away.

TtoD p20 copy TtoD p21 copy 2

Thames to Dunkirk, p.20-1

Now, coronavirus has forced us to re-examine our priorities. Another clear correspondence with Dunkirk 1940 is that amidst the devastation and the suffering there have been some positives: the many heroes we’ve met - Captain/Sir Tom Moore, every NHS doctor and nurse, three-quarters of a million volunteers, our bus drivers, our care workers and Andrea our local pharmacist, to name just a few - have outnumbered the villains, and we’ve found a renewed compassionate empathy and awareness of community.

Photograph showing post-mark of Captain Tom Moore

Captain Tom Moore post-mark

British engineers and fashion designers are falling over themselves to adapt factories to make essential personal protective equipment and ventilators; universities and research institutions are vying to produce tests, vaccine, antibodies; our theatres, online arts and the BBC are keeping us sane - in short, the real maverick Dunkirk spirit is alive and well in Britain today. Now is a good time to look again at this parallel crisis in our nation’s past, in order to understand the present better, and prepare for the future.

Ethel Maud