30 March 2022
Written by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives.
The British Library has been home to the P.G. Wodehouse archive since September 2016. It is a large collection of 481 folders and volumes, which provides a real insight into the life and work of the writer, humourist and lyricist.
The archive contains material relating to Wodehouse’s literary career, his theatrical and cinematic work, the Second World War period and his private life. Also included are papers relating to fans of Wodehouse, research and articles about his writing, events and commemorations organised after his death, and adaptations of his work.
The archive is catalogued and more information can be found by searching the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue using keywords or the reference Loan MS 129. Anyone with a reader’s pass can consult the archive in the Manuscripts reading room on the second floor of the Library. Please see the Reader Registration pages of the Library’s website for more information about how to register for a pass if you do not already have one.
The Wodehouse archive is a resource for everyone but it could be particularly useful for anyone who is planning to submit an entry for the international Essay prize that has been launched by the P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK). The initiative was launched in late 2021 to mark the 140th anniversary of Wodehouse’s birth and coincide with the 25th anniversary of the creation of the society in 2022. Two prizes of £1000 and £250 will be awarded to the adult and junior winners respectively by a judging panel that includes Paula Byrne, Stephen Fry and Sophie Ratcliffe.
The prize is open to all. The judges ask that entries focus on Wodehouse’s novels, stories, plays and journalism with the hope that they will throw scholarly new light on aspects of his writing.
Entries, which must be original and previously unpublished, should be submitted to email@example.com by 12 noon BST on Wednesday 1 September 2022. Full details and Terms & Conditions can be found on the Society’s website. Good luck to anyone who decides to enter.
21 March 2022
By Eleanor Dickens, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts.
The British Library has recently announced the acquisition of the Beryl Gilroy Archive, which was donated to the library in 2020.
Beryl Agatha Gilroy (1924–2001), was an acclaimed writer, teacher and ethno-psychotherapist.
Her archive includes drafts of published and unpublished manuscripts, notebooks, research and reflective essays on her own writing. As well as correspondence, material from her counselling practice and born-digital material.
Highlights of the archive include two drafts of In Praise of Love and Children, a rare fictional account of a woman’s experience of migration from the Caribbean. These two drafts, one typed and annotated and the other hand-written, show successive versions of Gilroy’s first novel, which was written in 1959 but not published until 1996.
Another highlight, and quite unique, aspect of Gilroy’s archive are the series of essays she wrote analysing and reflecting on her own fiction. Her archive contains such writing for all of her published novels and they are a fantastic additional insight into her work.
The archive also contains unpublished manuscripts of Gilroy’s work, both fiction, for example, a historical novel set during the 1780 Gordon Riots based on the life of a woman known as ‘Black Harriot’ who is thought to be depicted in William Hogarth’s painting The Rake’s Progress. As well as non-fiction, including a non-fiction draft about teaching, which works as a sequel to her memoir Black Teacher, and explores the ways that racist attitudes pervaded her experience of education.
Gilroy said herself that she ‘[…] belonged any place where there were children.’ And her passion, care and dedication for children’s well-being and education shines throughout her archive. Not least in the manuscripts of her contributions to the Nippers series, published by Macmillan, and her own notebooks and research into teaching and inspiring creativity in children.
One of our favourite items in the archive is a copy of a zine Gilroy made with students at Beckford Infants School (now West Hampstead Primary School), where she was head teacher between 1969-1982.
The zine is called ‘BIM’, which probably stands for ‘Beckford Infants Magazine’, and contains poetry, drawings and creative writing by the students at the school. The zine is a wonderful example of Gilroy combining her beliefs in child-centred learning, creative expression and positive self-image.
As part of celebrating Beryl Gilroy and her exceptional archive, there will be a free display in the Treasures Gallery, Celebrating Beryl Gilroy, running from 17 March until 26 June. The display includes highlights from the archive.
As part of this display, the British Library also commissioned the Liverpool-born Nigerian-German artist and filmmaker Amber Akaunu to respond creatively to the archive. Amber has created a zine, The Blueprint and a short film celebrating black women who help educate, nurture and develop children, which will also be on display.
Amber worked on the zine with Lana Maugé, a former student of Gilroy’s, and their contribution in the form of the zine feels like an excellent way of connecting with the zine Gilroy created with her students.
Amber Akaunu, said: ‘Spending time with Gilroy's archive was a luxury that visitors of the British Library will now also get to experience. The contents of the archive are honest, deeply reflective, and unique to the experiences of Dr. Beryl Gilroy. I created my film and zine response with these same attributes in mind, and centred around the idea that Black women, and their archive, are the blueprint to which we build from.’
The acquisition of the Beryl Gilroy archive expands the Library’s existing collections of Caribbean and Black British literary archives, including those of Andrew Salkey, Andrea Levy, James Berry and Wasafiri magazine. It will be available for research on completion of cataloguing in autumn 2022.
For further information or enquiries please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
16 March 2022
by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives.
John Berger was an art critic, writer, painter and poet. January 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of his seminal television series, Ways of Seeing, which he made for the BBC with TV producer Mike Dibb. The BBC recently marked the anniversary with a series of programmes on Radio 4 entitled ‘Viewfinders: Ways of Seeing at 50’ in which writers Geoff Dyer, Olivia Laing, Tom Overton, Sinéad Gleeson and Melissa Chemam celebrated the original series and talk about looking at pictures.
I was interested to hear about the Radio 4 series, as the Library is the home to John Berger’s archive, which was donated by Berger and his wife, Beverley, in 2009. The archive is one of the collections, which I look after as a member of the Contemporary Literary and Creative archives team and I have worked with it quite a bit over the years answering enquiries and selecting items for exhibition.
The archive is large and consists of 379 files, boxes and books containing literary manuscripts, drafts, research notes and unpublished material, correspondence, press cuttings and professional papers. Although the archive contains some early examples of Berger’s graphic work, the majority of the archive is literary. The archive provides a fascinating insight into Berger’s life and work and particularly the collaborative way in which he worked and the international interest there was in what he created.
Unfortunately there is not a huge amount of material in the archive relating to Ways of Seeing aside from a file containing reviews of the series (and accompanying book) and a file relating to artwork used for different editions of the book that Berger created in collaboration with the graphic designer, Richard Hollis. Nevertheless I thought that the anniversary would be a wonderful opportunity to highlight the fact that the Library holds Berger’s archive. Anyone who is interested can find out more by searching the Library’s Archives and Manuscripts catalogue either by reference number (the reference for the Berger archive as a whole is Add MS 88964) or by keyword. This photograph is of one of several notebooks in the archive that contain research notes and drafts of A Painter of Our Time. I particularly like this one as it shows how Berger reworked his draft with blue annotations and corrections.
Everyone wishing to find out a bit more about the archive could also listen to Tom Overton’s programme as part of the Radio 4 series, which provides some lovely insights into his work cataloguing the Berger archive. The warmth of Berger’s personality is clear from Tom’s comments and although I never met Berger in person I also have fond memories of an encounter that I had with him.
One day in around 2012 I had a phone call from someone who introduced themselves as a friend of Tom’s who was trying to track him down. I explained that as a collaborative PhD student working at the Library Tom did not have a phone extension and that unfortunately he was not in on that day. We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes and then I said that I would be happy to pass on a message to Tom and ask him to return his friend’s call. When I asked the person’s name I was surprised to find that I was actually talking to John Berger himself. I have been lucky enough to meet and speak to many interesting people through my work but I have to say that I have not met that many celebrated writers who would introduce themselves as being a friend of the person cataloguing their archive! It has stuck with me ever since and reminded me that you never really know who you are speaking to on the phone until they introduce themselves.
See the Search Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (using Add MS 88964* as your search term) for further details.
02 November 2021
By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310). Last few days to get tickets to Artist, Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats a British Library conference held in collaboration with Goldsmiths Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, MA Black British Writing (Goldsmiths) and The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.
The Conference is free to book and everyone is welcome. Book your place now.
Andrew Salkey, a Jamaican writer, emigrated to the UK in the early 1950s to study at London University. Salkey was one of a few Caribbean writers swept up in the boom of interest in Britain for the ‘exoticism’ of colonial countries, particularly after the migration of Caribbean workers to Britain. His successful, critically acclaimed debut novel A Quality of Violence was published in 1959. In 1960, he followed this with a significantly more controversial novel Escape to an Autumn Pavement, which has, over time, become an influential piece exploring the Caribbean diasporas portrayal of heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
This early success as a Caribbean writer in Britain led Salkey to become an instrumental figure in developing a diasporic consciousness among Caribbean artists and intellectuals at home and abroad. Salkey experienced the majority of his literary success in the 1960s-1970s with the steady publishing of his children’s novels alongside his adult fiction and poetry. This early success reflects the appetites of British and American publishers during this period. Salkey’s literary works are often underpinned by a political message or influenced by Salkey’s experience of ‘exile’ from his home, Jamaica. By the 1980s the popularity of this type of writing had waned and Caribbean writers often found it more difficult to be published in the UK and also in the US. Salkey continued to write prolifically regardless of his works being published less often. His archive, held at the British Library, includes unpublished manuscripts and typescripts of work he attempted to publish without success. All of the unpublished novels in the archive are children’s novels: The Multi-Coloured Bear of Moscow Road, Luisito, and Norman Kelly. This blog will focus on his unpublished children’s novel Luisito and his unpublished long poem In America.
Luisito is a children’s novel based on the true story of the assassination of a ten-year-old boy, Luis Alfonso Velasquez Flores (Luisito), by the Somoza Regime in Nicaragua during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Luisito was a child revolutionary fighting against the oppressive Somoza Regime in the late 1970s. Salkey wrote in his notes that he first read about the assassination of Luisito in Gramma the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party on 2 September 1979. He began his research notebook on the events surrounding the event and Luisito’s life on 12 October 1980. He lists the ‘characters’, ‘events’ and ‘places’ in the story based on his research of the events in much the same way he did for all of his novels. To ensure he had the correct information Salkey contacted the Office of the National Network in Solidarity with the Nicaraguan People in Washington DC, and the Nicaraguan Mission at the United Nations in New York. He also wrote to the Nicaraguan government twice, in October 1980 and September 1981, but did not receive a reply. Salkey’s friend, the American writer and activist Margaret Randall, was living and working in Nicaragua at the time. She had interviewed Luisito’s mother for her own work about Nicaraguan women. She sent Salkey copies of photographs of his mother and his passport. It is clear from the level of detail how invested Salkey became not only in Luisito’s death, but the cause he was fighting for against the Somoza Regime. Salkey wrote in his diary ‘I haven’t experienced this before, this extraordinary personal identification with the life and death of someone I’m trying to write about. A very odd feeling and equally odd behaviour on my part’.
There are similarities between this children’s novel and his earlier children’s book Joey Tyson. Both look at a ‘real life’ event from the perspective of a child and attempt to engage the reader in adult issues in a way they can understand. There is a clear educational undertone to the work that can be found in most of Salkey’s children’s story writing. The story was sent to publishers in the UK and the US, but was ultimately rejected by them all. Salkey was told by one US publisher that it was ‘too polemical. Too political’.
Salkey began the long poem In America in July 1976, just before his permanent move from the UK to the US, and completed it in August 1981. He had originally allocated four years to write the four ‘books’ (chapters) that make up the poem. In the notebook he kept for this work he wrote a set of notes for this period and a further “late extra notes” for the additional work he did on the poem. This literary project was a deeply personal one for Salkey. He writes in his diary ‘it’s a kind of diarist’s long poem, a record of the poet’s slow acquaintance of his new situation in America, and of America as an experience capable of being written about in poetry’. Alongside this exploration of America, the long poem also delves in to Salkey’s feelings of self-imposed exile from Jamaica and the mixed feelings of living closer to the Caribbean than before. Salkey wrote his novel Luisito within the same time period, which influenced his writing of In America:
In the same breath, the very same poet reminds us:
Somewhere, right now, someone, or system clever as
mustard, is busy building a Somoza castle of sand on an
unsuspecting shoreline. Stop it, if you can!
This verse also encapsulates Salkey’s call to arms style of literary activism. Ultimately the polemic tone of some of the poetry in the long poem contributed to publishers rejecting the manuscript. US publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc. were interested in the long poem but ultimately turned it down to focus on younger poets. William Morrow also turned it down. Salkey writes in his diary in November 1981 that he was not surprised that US publishers rejected the work; ‘I don’t think most of them are ready for the quirky experience the manuscript tends to deliver. In a sense, they never will’. Unfortunately, Salkey was equally as unsuccessful in the UK. He sent the manuscript to Hutchinson Publishing Group, Allison & Busby, and Faber and Faber; they all turned the manuscript down. The UK publishers saw merit in the work as an ambitious, interesting and diverse long poem. However, the did not think that there would be a viable audience for this type of work in the UK.
 The George Padmore Institute: Why Publish Independently (online) Accessed 2nd April 2020 https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/the-pioneering-years/new-beacon-books-early-history/why-publish-independently
21 September 2021
by Helen Melody, Lead Curator for Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats is a British Library conference held in collaboration with Goldsmiths Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, MA Black British Literature (Goldsmiths) and The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.
The conference is free to book and everyone is welcome. Book your place now.
I am delighted to announce that registration has opened for a virtual conference on the Jamaican writer and broadcaster, Andrew Salkey (1928-1995). The conference will be held on the afternoons of Friday 5th (13.30-17.00) and Saturday 6th November (13.30-16.40).
The conference will celebrate the legacy of Andrew Salkey (1928-1995) by exploring his various writing projects and his contributions to the Caribbean literary community through his involvement with the Caribbean Artists Movement, and black publishing in Britain. Andrew Salkey was a co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement and lynchpin of the BBC’s Caribbean Service. He embodied the Black Radical Tradition in his writing, his politics, and in his support for other creative individuals. Twenty-six years after his death, this conference seeks to reclaim his legacy and amplify his voice.
The programme will include a keynote by Professor Robert A. Hill, a leading scholar on Marcus Garvey and Research Professor at the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles who was a friend of and collaborator with Salkey. There will also be ‘in conversation’ and panel sessions, guided readings of Salkey’s work, and a chance to see items from the Salkey archive, which is held at the British Library.
For a taste of sense of the archive, you can read previous English and Drama Blogs such as:
02 February 2021
by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. You can read more about the Library's existing collections of Joan Littlewood material online at Discovering Literature 20th Century, and more about the new acquisition in our latest press release.
I am delighted to announce that the Library has acquired the archive of Theatre Royal Stratford East and Theatre Workshop for the national collection. Comprising 140 boxes of scripts, correspondence, posters, flyers, audio visual material and props the archive provides a wonderful insight into the work of the award winning theatre and the highly innovative theatre company which was based there from 1953 until 1979.
Watch this film made by Theatre Royal Stratford East about the archive with Murray Melvin, actor, Theatre Workshop alumnus who for nearly thirty years was the honorary archivist of this collection, and my former colleague, Zoë Wilcox, to find out more.
The archive is an exciting addition the Library’s rich theatrical collections and fits particularly well with Joan Littlewood’s archive which we acquired in 2015. Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) was an internationally-renowned theatre and film director who has been described as ‘the mother of modern theatre’ for her radical vision and her innovative working methods. The archive documents her work at the theatre including a number of significant productions such as A Taste of Honey, The Hostage and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be. It also includes some early material relating to the predecessor of Theatre Workshop, Theatre of Action (later known as Theatre Union) which was set up by Littlewood and her then husband, Ewan MacColl (1915-1989).
Theatre Royal Stratford East first opened its doors to the public in 1884 and the archive includes material from those early days, through Theatre Workshop to the tenures of the artistic directors, Ken Hill, Maxwell Shaw, Clare Venables, Philip Hedley and Kerry Michael, taking us right up to 2017. The depth and breadth of the archive mean that its contents will allow research on a wide range of subjects from agit prop theatre of the 1930s and the work of the dance artist and theorist, Rudolf Laban, through to Black and Asian theatre, and ideas of urban geography explored in Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace project. With such a wide ranging archive it is not possible to describe everything here so I will just highlight some of the interesting items I’ve discovered so far.
Material from the earliest years of the theatre includes flyers for productions and a fragile pencil draft of a ballad entitled ‘Babes in the Wood’ which is believed to have been written by A.E. Abrahams in 1907. The archive also offers a fascinating insight into the workings of Theatre of Action/Theatre Union, the socialist theatre cooperative set up by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl in Manchester in 1934. The company followed the principles of agit prop theatre that were developed in Russia following the Revolution. Agitprop used popular media such as theatre, literature and film to disseminate an explicitly political message and was performed in the street to audiences who might not go to traditional theatres. The archive includes scripts for a ‘Living Newspaper’ production from 1939, a reading list for the company and costume sketches. The company were trailblazers of new techniques such as their use of back projection for
MacColl’s adaptation of Hašek’s Good Soldier Schweik, the first time the effect was used in Britain. Excitingly the archive includes the original gobos used to create the distinctive effect.
Theatre Union montage: selection of notes, programmes and other papers relating to Theatre Union’s work in the 1930s
Correspondence in the archive also points to the experimental nature of Theatre Workshop. Littlewood was very interested in the work of the dance and movement theorist, Rudolf Laban, and his first assistant in England, Jean Newlove, later become a member of the company and taught the them his methods. The archive contains a fascinating collection of letters from Laban to Newlove in which he outlines his theories that have since became an important foundation for dancers and actors alike. Letters also highlight how the socialist outlook of Theatre Workshop affected all aspects of its work as in this letter from Gerry Raffles to a prospective member of the company shows.
Gerry Raffles letter: Letter sent by Gerry Raffles, Theatre Workshop’s manager in 1948 to a prospective member of the company © Joan Littlewood Estate
Raffles explained that “all new members are expected to undergo a fairly rigorous training in the Company’s methods of work, and there is little point in applicants attending auditions unless they are prepared to accept the obvious hardships and financial disadvantages which work in a group such as ours involves.”
As you can see the archive is particularly strong for anyone interested in Theatre Workshop and Joan Littlewood. One final thing to flag is the material relating to Oh What a Lovely War! Littlewood and the company devised the groundbreaking musical which was a satire on WW1 and war in general in line with their usual working practice. The archive includes a wide range of material on the subject from annotated scripts, lighting plots and costume lists to recordings of music for the production and photographs. One of the most interesting parts is a series of the cast notes that Littlewood wrote after each performance. These handwritten notes were pinned up on the wall providing detailed feedback for individual cast members as well as the ensemble as a whole –
Oh, What A Lovely War! cast notes: Joan Littlewood’s detailed notes on a performance © Joan Littlewood Estate
Theatrical innovation continued to be a cornerstone for the Theatre Royal Stratford East long after Littlewood’s departure in the 1970s. In particular the directorships of Philip Hedley and Kerry Michael saw the development of Black and Asian theatre with highly significant productions such as D’yer eat with your fingers (1998), a satirical state-of-the-nation production derived by a company that included Shobna Gulati, Syreti Kumar and Nina Wadia and directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and The Big Life (2005) the highly successful directorial debut of Clint Dyer, which became the first All Black British Musical in the West End. Other recent examples of innovation under Kerry Michael and documented in the archive include Home Theatre (2013 and 2015), which saw bespoke one person performances in the homes of members of the public and the musical, Tommy, which was performed by Deaf and Disabled artists from Ramps on the Moon in 2017.
I would like to use this blog to pay tribute to Murray Melvin, actor and Theatre Workshop alumnus who for nearly thirty years was the honorary archivist of this collection. Murray’s careful organisation, preservation and curation of the archive mean that it is in very good condition. He also played a key role in the development of the archive as a large number of items within it were donated by former members of the theatre company and their families. This means that the archive really is a collaborative record reflecting the myriad of different groups and individuals whose lives were interwoven with the theatre over the years. I think that the archive is a fitting tribute to all of them.
09 December 2020
by Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Published Collections. The Michael Marks Awards were founded by the British Library and the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, and partners today include the Wordsworth Trust, the TLS, Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies, the National Library of Wales and the National Library of Scotland. Join us online to hear the winners announced on 14th December 2020.
The shortlisted pamphlets for the Michael Marks Award for Poetry 2020
The Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets will be announced on Monday 14th December, at a free online event. Join us to hear from the publishers and shortlisted and winning poets.
The Awards are now in their 12th year and celebrate poetry pamphlets as a site for innovation, making new poetry accessible in a variety of inventive styles and formats.
Four Awards will be announced on the evening of 14th December: the Poetry Award, best Publisher, Illustrator and Poetry in a Celtic Language. The shortlists for the Poetry Award and best Publisher have been announced on the Michael Marks Awards website.
At the start of 2020, we were uncertain about how the Awards would run this year. Over its history, the Awards has relied on people being able to travel and meet in person, whether for judging meetings or for the awards ceremony itself. The latter is a highlight, bringing together poets and publishers and hearing each other read and speak.
However, we quickly gathered very strong support for the Awards from the people that we spoke to, who emphasised the importance of celebrating new poetry and the role of independent publishers in this year particularly. The response to our call for entries was greater than ever before, with almost twice as many pamphlets submitted, and many new publishers. Although we wouldn’t be able to hold our celebration at the British Library as usual, we were excited that holding an event online would allow us to include far more people than we would usually be able to accommodate in our physical spaces. Poetry pamphlets are a fantastic way to bring exciting new poetry to a wide audience, and we wanted our online Awards to follow in that spirit.
Our shortlisted poetry pamphlets and publishers show that excitement, and demonstrate how poetry pamphlets reflect a very wide range of expression and experience. These include the first pamphlet from Sarah Wimbush, Bloodlines, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s second pamphlet, Hinge. But also pamphlets from poets with longer publishing histories, such as Jamie McKendrick’s The Years and Paul Muldoon’s Binge.
The poetry in the pamphlets reflect movement and changing perspectives, with Alycia Pirmohamed’s Hinge using themes of landscape, space and migration. Paul Muldoon’s Binge moves from detailed descriptions of place and experience in Northern Ireland to locations around the world and across history.
Fothermather, by Gail McConnell, describes change and formation in a different sense, from the development of a baby before birth, through to the change in identity of a new parent and — much more broadly — to the way that things are given form and names. Bloodlines incorporates a highly personal use of language and presentation of different characters, to explore and express Sarah Wimbush’s Gypsy/Traveller heritage. In Jamie McKendrick’s The Years, the relationship between the poems and pictures throughout the pamphlet allow a conversation between text and image, allowing one to influence how the other is read or viewed.
The shortlisted publishers for the Michael Marks Awards 2020
As with the poetry pamphlets, the shortlist for publishers show a commitment to representing a range of voices, coupled with a very careful attention to the form in which each poet and pamphlet is presented.
Guillemot Press, a former winner, gave each pamphlet its own clear identity, through choice of format, sustainable paper stock, and type face.
Face Press similarly use materials that reflect the character of each pamphlet, with the judges noting that ‘every pamphlet submitted by Face Press was an individual event’.
Broken Sleep Books show a strong commitment to inclusivity and community engagement in their publishing, with several initiatives designed especially for writers on low incomes.
Another former winner, the Emma Press, equally take an active interest in representing poets from different backgrounds and experiences, and in cultivating a love for poetry amongst new audiences.
At our Awards event on 14th December, all our shortlisted publishers and poets will speak and read. We will also hear from our winners for the Illustration and Poetry in a Celtic Language awards, as well as from our judges and partners. We are very excited that this year’s awards ceremony can be opened up to a wider audience online, and hope you can join us to hear the winners announced.
02 November 2020
by D-M Withers, Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and collaborator on the Business of Women's Words Project, which explores the dramatic story of the feminist publishing revolution that unfolded during the UK Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 80s. The exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights -- which includes material from the Callil Archive and elsewhere, is now open at the British Library.
"I remember, when I was still writing the PhD, going to Carmen’s home in Chelsea, the little jewel of a flat with these two magnificent white cats kind of, stalking around, you know, scrutinising us. I remember it being painted deep lime green […] like a jewel, but that could be a misremembering." 
Virago author Barbara Taylor’s memory of visiting Carmen Callil’s flat in the late 70s is one of many references to Callil’s cats that litter the feminist publisher’s history. In her recently published memoir A Bite of the Apple, Lennie Goodings – clearly not a cat person – offers another account of visiting Callil’s home for a Virago meeting. Upon entering the ‘jewel’ like flat, John or William – one of two grey half Siameses given to Carmen as kittens by Germaine Greer and named after two ‘lovely men’ she had worked with in her early publishing career – boldly jumped on Goodings’s shoulder, and proceeded to curl around her neck. ‘I protested weakly’, writes Goodings, ‘until it was removed by Carmen, who declared that not liking cats “showed a defect in your personality.” 
Many photographic portraits of Callil and her feline companion exist from the 70s and 80s, and were often used as illustration for newspaper and magazine features. I encountered these sources while working on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing, a partnership between the British Library, the University of Sussex and the University of Cambridge. Callil was profiled alongside several other ‘go it alone’ entrepreneurs, including a freelance management consultant, wine exporters and a restauranteur, in a feature for one of the final issues of glossy lifestyle magazine Nova that ran between 1965-75. Callil explained that the entrepreneurial route was attractive because she ‘had the wrong temperament to work for an employer, I think […] I just cannot tread the daily tightrope of compromise and gritting your teeth.’  In a full-page portrait of Callil and her fabulous white Persian Mary – named after Mary Wollstonecraft (who else?) – taken by John Ferrara, both figures pose seductively, shooting forth an arresting look that doubles up the feminine gaze for the viewer, a celebration of fur, feminism and self-possession.
Joan Bakewell’s 1980 article ‘The feminist publisher’, published in Illustrated London News, offers a different configuration . Here Callil is sat at home, crossed legged, adorned with knee-length boots that show she means business. Behind her is a desk strewn with books. In her arms is one of her grey half Siamese cats that, as soon as the shutter clicks, will likely struggle from her loving grasp, avoiding the burn of a cigarette held imperiously in the publisher’s right hand. The restless energy captured in the image seems appropriate for a domestic portrait in which the feminine interior, the private home, has been faced out, now transformed into a public space of work.
An article for the Telegraph Weekend Magazine from 1989 is more playful. We are introduced to two new additions to Callil’s household, sourced from a Sussex farm, the six-month old Augusta or ‘Gus’, named after friend Gus Skidelsky who bequeathed the kittens to Carmen, and Jessica or ‘Jess’, named after Carmen’s godchild, the daughter of the influential literary agent, Deborah Rogers. The article describes how the cats conquer ‘the 15-foot-high fence, entangled with greenery’ that frames Callil’s London garden ‘with ease. “I wish I could,” she smiles. “I locked myself out last week. I tried to scale the fence from a neighbour’s garden but fell off and bruised myself.”’  The accompanying photograph is warm, with a comedic touch: Callil, wearing a dashing multi-coloured, pin-striped blouse, holds a tortoiseshell with white paws barely outstripping its kittenhood in her palms; her face reveals an irrepressible smile, the cat looks askance from the camera, stuck out tongue, insubordinate, naughty.
These photographs evoke the fascination with feline imagery in the work of twentieth century female surrealists Maya Deren, Leonor Fini and Leonora Carrington (Carrington’s Seventh Horse & Other Tales and The Hearing Trumpet were of course recovered by Virago as Modern Classics, in 1989 and 1991 respectively). In the portraits, cats become Callil’s familiars, their co-presence conducting the power of feminine independence, metamorphic mischief, sensuality and self-sufficiency. The surrealist imagery, in Callil’s case, is not of the subversive artist, but the businesswoman: the self-styled entrepreneur who chose comradeship with a host of feline friends, and to do business with other women.
In the Virago papers held by the British Library, we sometimes catch glimpses of Callil’s cats in her correspondence with publishing colleagues. Cat-lover Paul Berry, the literary executor of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, wrote to Callil to express his delight upon reading about her cats in an article published in the Sunday Telegraph. Callil responded, with exuberance: ‘I can’t believe I never told you I had three cats: my best friends for the last twelve years; you must meet them one day, each a remarkable personality.’  Cats were also important to an author who kickstarted the Virago Modern Classics (VMC), Antonia White. White wrote two children’s books about her cats, Minka and Curdy (republished by Virago in 1992) and Living with Minka and Curdy. White was one of a number of living authors Virago published in the VMC that Callil befriended. Given their common interest in feline companionship, it seems likely that cats – and Catholicism – animated their conversations.
If, like me, you have a strange fascination with the who, what, where and why of other people’s grocery shopping, you’ll love the extensive collection of receipts and invoices held in Carmen Callil’s archives at the British Library. Among a host of other things (including the companies Virago used to print their books, where they sourced images for the VMC, membership receipts for the London Library, the Chinese restaurants they regularly frequented, the calculators they used in the office, among others) you’ll learn that in the late 70s, Callil bulk-bought her groceries from the wholesaler, Makro . Alongside food and various items for the Virago office – circled or marked with an asterix to ensure specific items were included in the company’s accounts – are entries for tins of cat food and litter! A busy woman, such as she was, very wisely did not get bogged down by the regular need to shop for life’s essentials. Bulk-buying was a far more efficient choice.
To close this feline circuit, I want to share one, further, Virago-themed cat story. As an undergraduate at the end of the twentieth century, I studied English Literature at Swansea University, where I had the good fortune to be taught by Professor Ann Heilmann. I was captivated by Ann’s teaching and the source material she presented to us, especially for her course on Victorian Women Writers, which included books by many authors she had first encountered – Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the ‘New Women’ Olive Schreiner, George Egerton, Sarah Grand – through Virago’s Modern Classics. Ann is also a cat lover (when I was studying at Swansea, she had a cat called Sweetie, named after the Jane Campion film). Fast forward twenty or so years: Ann now has two cats. Their names are Angelica and Diavolo – inspired by the gender bending ‘Heavenly Twins’ in Sarah Grand’s 1893 novel (incidentally, Sarah Grand – whose The Beth Book was a VMC, and the biography Darling Madame: Sarah Grand and Devoted Friend by Gillian Kersley was published by Virago in 1983 – also chose to be photographed with her cats).
Angelica and Diavolo at work and play
If it wasn’t for Virago, Ann’s cats would not be named after characters in The Heavenly Twins because her contact with Grand came through Virago’s reprint publishing. Without Ann’s academic study of niche Victorian women writers, in turn, I never would have studied them as an undergraduate, an experience which indelibly shaped my relationship to feminism. Ultimately, this is a story about how feminist knowledge is transmitted across generations, visible in the delicate details, of who we can name our favourite companions after. Callil after Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann the fictional characters popularised by a writer Virago plucked from obscurity and republished. Cats, as home-working companions, intrude upon Virago’s history in many different ways; their feline influence extends in a web of associations and references that give meaning to feminist life.
In recent years, Callil’s public companions are more likely be dogs rather than cats (proof, if ever it was needed, that one needn’t be forced to choose in life between such things). Indeed, you can hear current companion Effie barking enthusiastically in this episode of Backlisted, where Callil discusses The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor, one of her favourite novels. Discernible, too, is Callil barking back with fervour: ‘Shut. Up. Effie!’ Given my own penchant for cats, though, I will close this short article with Callil’s thoughts on these remarkable creatures. ‘I like them simply because they are not human. And I really love the shapes they make. My old cat was like a walking painting.’ 
Thank you to Ann Heilmann for feedback on this article and for the photograph of Angelica and Diavolo. Thanks also to Eleanor Dickens of the British Library for supporting my research into the Callil archives during this project. Finally, my thanks to Carmen Callil for article feedback and permission to quote from her letter to Paul Berry.
 Barbara Taylor interview by Margaretta Jolly (2011) Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project, British Library Sound & Moving Image Catalogue reference, C1420/38/05, p. 141 © The British Library the University of Sussex.
 Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple: A Life With Books, Writers and Virago, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 42.
 ‘Fresh start: make the break and go it alone, Carol Dix talks to four people who did’, Nova, August 1975, 57-59, 59. Add MS 89178/1/166.
 ‘The feminist publisher,’ by Joan Bakewell, Illustrated London News May 1980, 67-69. Add MS 89178/1/166.
 Sally Richardson, ‘Animal Passions’, Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 1 October 1989. Add MS 89178/1/166.
 Carmen Callil to Paul Berry, 28 Oct 1981, Add MS 88904/1-194
 Add MS 89178/1/124-165, Virago receipts, 1974-81
 Richardson, ‘Animal Passions’.
English and Drama blog recent posts
- P. G. Wodehouse Society launches international Essay Prize
- Celebrating Beryl Gilroy
- Celebrating John Berger and the 50th anniversary of Ways of Seeing
- Andrew Salkey: “Too Polemic. Too Political”
- Registration opens for Artist, Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats
- The Library acquires Theatre Royal Stratford East and Theatre Workshop archive
- Celebrating New Poetry Pamphlets: The Michael Marks Awards 2020
- Carmen Callil, Cats and Feminist Generations
- Harold Pinter’s Drafts of The Proust Screenplay
- Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Lifelong Refugee (1927-2013)