English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

117 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

15 September 2023

For Their Eyes Only – the letters of Ian and Ann Fleming

We mark the exciting acquisition of a collection of letters between Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and his wife Ann.

Unlike Ann Fleming, who has had a whole volume of her correspondence published, Ian Fleming was not a habitual letter writer. So the British Library was delighted to be able to acquire this collection of almost 100 letters from Ian to Ann (and over 50 in the opposite direction) in 2021. This major resource for Fleming scholars has now been catalogued (Add MS 89670) and, from today, is available to access in the Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room.

Letters between Ann and Ian Fleming, arranged in a fan shape on a wooden table. The letters are on mostly blue or white paper and are handwritten.
Correspondence of Ann and Ian Fleming. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1946-1964

The letters, most of which are unpublished and previously largely unseen, give an intimate and detailed insight into the shifting sands of Ann and Ian's relationship, from the complexities of the 1940s when Ann was still married to Esmond Harmsworth (in one letter Ian begs Ann to keep his letters well-hidden instead of leaving them in her underwear drawer), through the heartbreak of the death of Ann and Ian's daughter, Mary, just eight hours old, in 1948, their married life (they married in March 1952), and into the 1960s. It was at times a turbulent relationship and both had numerous affairs. The tension and strain of these affairs, as well as that caused by their long separations (even after their marriage, Ian spent three months every year at the house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica, he had built in 1945), is apparent in many of the letters. On the other hand, many other letters are traditional love letters, passionate and romantic, showing the depth of their feelings for each other.

Apart from their relationship, the subject matter of the letters ranges far and wide taking in the flora and fauna of Jamaica; the development of, and domestic arrangements at, Goldeneye; gossip from the newspaper world (Ian Fleming was foreign manager of the Kemsley newspaper group, the then owner of the Sunday Times, from 1945 to 1959 and continued to contribute articles into the 1960s) and discussion of his 'Atticus' column; their respective health, both physical and mental; the health, development, well-being, and schooling of Caspar, their son born in August 1952; and their international travels (India, Tangiers, Chicago, Miami, New York, Paris, Italy, Hong Kong, Istanbul, and Switzerland). They certainly took advantage of the advent of the jet age, but they also enjoyed the more leisurely pace of luxury liners such as the ‘Queen Elizabeth’, writing vivid pen portraits of their fellow passengers as they sailed.

The Flemings were inveterate gossips and a major thread in the correspondence is discussion of the figures within their social circles or passing through their orbit. The cast list of names that crop up – friends, acquaintances, guests at Goldeneye, fellow guests at others’ dinners and social events – is remarkable: Leolia Ponsonby, Blanche Blackwell (with whom Ian had a long affair), Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lucian Freud (“seems to have become world famous at last”), Micky Renshaw, Noel Coward, Truman Capote (“Can you imagine a more incongruous playmate for me… a fascinating character and we really get on very well” – Capote persuaded Fleming to try “a sinister pill called Mill Town”), Brendan Bracken, Hugh Gaitskell (with whom Ann had a long affair), Erica Marx, Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Edith Sitwell, Rosamund Lehmann, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Rex Harrison, Solly Zuckerman, Gladwyn Jebb, Joyce Grenfell, Pamela Churchill, Paul Gallico, Oscar Hammerstein, Charles Boyer, and Sidney Bernstein.

A typed letter from Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, on white paper and laid flat on a wooden table
Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, August 1952. The Flemings clearly had not yet settled on the spelling of their son’s name. The standard sources refer to him as Caspar. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1952
A typed letter from Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, on white paper and laid flat on a wooden table
Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, August 1952. The Flemings clearly had not yet settled on the spelling of their son’s name. The standard sources refer to him as Caspar. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1952

As would be expected, the letters are also littered with references to Ian Fleming's most famous literary creation, James Bond. He offers regular progress reports and occasional plot details, of mostly unnamed books: at one stage From Russia With Love, for example, is described as “galloping along. I have written a third of it in one week, a chapter a day”; another book “is half done and buzzing along merrily in the rain”. Fleming also alludes to some of the inspiration and sources for the stories and titles. For example, he mentions Blanche Blackwell's gift of a coracle, which he named Octopussy. The short story of the same name, written in 1962, would be published posthumously in 1966. 'Blanche' was the name of the guano-collecting ship in 1958’s Dr. No and Blackwell was the model for Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, published in 1959. Truman Capote is described as “twittering with excitement” while reading a proof copy of Diamonds Are Forever. Fleming writes of correcting proofs of Live and Let Die on-board the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ sailing to New York. There is even a reference to the gold-plated typewriter he bought while writing Casino Royale. However, there are also occasional allusions to Fleming's dissatisfaction with Bond as a character (“I have got so desperately tired of that ass Bond”) and with some of the stories (“just finishing a Bond short story of no merit”). Even so, his later letters make reference to possible television and film adaptations of his books, and on a trip to Hollywood, the positive reaction to his books gives him particular hope (“People really seem to be after my books... it’s as usual a question of crossing fingers & waiting for someone to pry them apart & force some dollars between them”). The first Bond film, Dr. No, would be released in 1962.

This is a truly absorbing collection, and there is something of interest on every page. Even the stationery the Flemings used is worth noting. So desperate were they to keep in touch with each other that if actual writing paper was not to hand they simply repurposed the endpapers of books, the back of a gin rummy score card, and even a hospital temperature chart!

We are grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for their generous support for this acquisition.

With thanks to The Ian Fleming Estate for permission to quote from the letters of Ian Fleming.


Written by Michael St John-McAlister, Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager, who has recently completed cataloguing the Ian and Ann Fleming letters.


Further reading:

Add MS 89670.

Mark Amory (ed.), The Letters of Ann Fleming (London: Collins Harvill, 1985).

Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995).

Andrew Lycett, ‘Fleming, Ian Lancaster (1908-1964)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/33168.

Andrew Lycett, ‘Fleming [née Charteris], Ann Geraldine Mary (1913-1981)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40227.

08 September 2023

Phantom of the Collection: Reaching Beyond the Material in the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive

With cataloguing underway on the archive of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, manuscripts cataloguer, Cameron Randall, reflects on the process and the presence of its previous archivist Murray Melvin.

Working as a Manuscripts Cataloguer, I feel lucky that I can arrive at work each day with the possibility of being transported to past places, previous times, and perhaps most interestingly, entering the lives of those who rise from the collection. A photo, some exchange of correspondence, or an inanimate object can hold stories that have lain buried and dormant among the collection's contents. In some sense, every archive is intrinsically hauntological. Hauntology, as coined by Jacques Derrida, is a spin on the term ontology: a metaphysical inquiry into ideas around being. Where hauntology differs is that it refers to the return or persistence of elements from the social or cultural past, as in the manner of a ghost.

The collection that I am currently working on, the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive, seems to capture this idea better than most. Running through the body of the collection is another presence that murmurs within the material. A spectre is haunting the archive: its previous custodian, the actor and director turned theatre archivist Murray Melvin.

A portrait of Murrary Melvin posing in front of a red wall with his arms cross and a small smile on his face, wearing his distinctive pale pink shirt and blue jumper.
Murrary Melvin at the Theatre Royal (c) The British Library Board

Murray enjoyed a distinguished theatre, television, and film career, working with directors including Joan Littlewood, Ken Russell, and Stanley Kubrick. He also appeared in 1966’s Alfie alongside Michael Caine, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera, not to mention the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. Murray’s first leading role on stage was with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, where he took on the role of Geoffrey in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, in 1958, followed by the seminal role in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, later the same year.  His star continued to rise, reprising his role as Geoffrey in the 1961 film adaptation of A Taste of Honey. This performance would lead Murray to win the BAFTA film award for Most Promising Newcomer and the Cannes Film Festival Best Actor.

Murray sadly passed away in April this year, but his spirit not only lives on through his hugely successful acting career but also in the diligent care and attention he provided to the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive, which was acquired by the British Library in 2021.

A selection of programmes, notes and various archival material from the Theatre Royal archive, displayed in a fan flat on a table and all overlapping
A selection of notes, programmes and other papers relating to theatre unions work in the thirties (c) British Library Board

Murray's influence on the archive cannot be understated; his methodology and instructions are extensive, precise, and deeply detailed. Each box contains Murray's literal and metaphorical fingerprints, from the chronological ordering of the Theatre Royal's productions, which Murray's hands would have sorted, to the micro-precision of labelled photos, designating the date, place, and individuals that sit within them. There are even meta-notes that accompany much of the archive, some with extended pages of long insights, stories, and descriptions that unearth an extra layer of context that enriches the content. In these moments, Murray's presence feels at its most potent; his tone and style of writing have a conversational quality that is not only accurate but provokes curiosity, establishing his personal perspective as an invaluable component of the archive and a lens through which to fully understand it.

Given Murray's long-term personal involvement with Theatre Royal Stratford East and his much greater knowledge of its history, I must adhere to his decision-making, and constrain my natural tendencies in shaping the collection, or even abstain from them all together. In some ways, I have to think as Murray would and respect his arrangement, order, and sorting of the material. In this sense, I feel like I am acting as a vehicle or conduit for Murray's archival logic, trying to stay true to his reasoning and maintain how he intended the archive to be perceived. This is both a blessing and a curse, as on the one hand, Murray guides me box to box, and on the other, his methodology creates inflexibility and rigidity, which I have to contend with as I attempt to pull a thread between Murray and potential researchers in the future.

A fabric and silk doll which was originally white and black but now appears browned with age, it is in the style of pierrot productions, with a silk dress with black pom pom buttons and a pointed white hat with black pom pom on the top
Doll made by Una Collins and used by Fanny Carby in Oh! What a Lovely War (c) British Library Board

My involvement with The Theatre Royal Stratford East comes through the Hidden Collection initiative, which seeks to remove barriers to discoverability and access in the cataloguing backlog at the British Library. The initiative itself is one that recognises the hidden, invisible, and ghostly nature that collections like these possess. Through the cataloguing process, collections are seemingly revived, the hauntological becomes ontological, and the hidden is unlocked to take on a new lease of life, ultimately making archives available for research and opening up the library's collections. As a troubled Danish prince once put it, 'the time is out of joint', but with the work of individuals such as Murray Melvin, we see the possibility for time to fall back into joint, where the past is resurrected in the present to produce new ideas, other perspectives, and unknown possibilities, reaching beyond the material and into the future.

Further Reading

Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx (Routledge, 1994)

Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (Zero Books, 2014)

Peter Rankin, Joan Littlewood: Dreams and Realities (Oberon Books, 2014)

Murray Melvin, The Art of Theatre Workshop (Oberon Books, 2006)

Murray Melvin, The Theatre Royal: A History of the Building (Stratford East Publications, 2009)

25 August 2023

Ted Hughes’s Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity

Dr Steve Ely, senior lecturer in creative writing at The University of Huddersfield, discusses their research on the work of the poet Ted Hughes.

Black and white close up head shot of the poet Ted Hughes who is looking directly into the camera with a serious expression
Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin © British Library Board

In 2022 I was awarded an AHRC grant to complete a two-year programme of research entitled Ted Hughes’s Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity. The research is designed to explore and expound the view that Hughes’s most distinctive, original and best work—the work that made his name—is essentially Expressionist, characterised by a visionary subjectivity that transforms content in order to present his own unique view of the world. Although his work is almost always rooted in observation, most clearly so in poems that take animals and nature as their ostensible content, Hughes is rarely content with limiting himself to realist or naturalistic representations. Imagination, argument and didactic intent combine in his work to create symbols and metaphors that articulate his own apocalyptic truths. Beyond this, an important secondary aim of the research is to use Expressionism to understand Hughes in the context of twentieth century movements and tendencies in the arts in general, not simply in ‘English Literature’, thereby facilitating a broader and more nuanced understanding of the achievement and status of an artist still too often understood as a ‘maverick’.

Expressionism is an elusive and contested term, and not one typically applied in Hughes studies, or indeed, in English Literature, and part of my research—and the work of the symposium—will be to explore, expound and critique its meaning in this context. An exciting range of talks—Hughes and German Expressionist cinema, Hughes and Alchemy, Hughes and ‘absolute music’, a number of presentations on Hughes’s relationships and affinities with other artists and writers including Peter Brooke, Barrie Cooke, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Alan Moore, Janos Pilinsky, Sylvia Plath, William Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, and several analyses of key works, including Seneca’s Oedipus, Crow, Gaudete, Capriccio and ‘Mayday on Holderness’, ‘The Howling of Wolves’ and ‘Anniversary’—will break new ground in doing so. Of course, many of the talks draw extensively on research conducted in the British Library’s rich and endlessly rewarding Ted Hughes archive.

I’m a poet with a dozen or so publications under my belt, including Englaland (2015), Lectio Violant (2021) and The European Eel (2021). However, a lifelong interest in Hughes led to a parallel career as an English literature academic, as Director of the Ted Hughes Network at Huddersfield University, where I also teach Creative Writing. These two strands came together to inform this research. Initially, an interest in developing a better understanding of my own processes and methods of artistic creation led me to explore and become more self-conscious about my own writing in a cross-disciplinary context. This led to the realisation that the application of a similar approach might provide a fruitful method of interrogating and understanding Hughes’s encyclopedic oeuvre, to gain a sense of where—in all that diversity and richness—his main achievement lies.

An important step on the journey to Ted Hughes’s Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity was the publication in 2020 of James Keery’s Apocalypse!, a revisionist anthology of the neglected and maligned poetry of the 1940s, its predecessors and antecedents, in doing so demonstrating the ‘visionary modernist’ context which provided the matrix for Hughes’s emergence—and to some extent ‘explains’ his singularity in the Movement-dominated English poetry scene of the mid/late Twentieth century. In 2022 Professor John Goodby and I organised dual symposia—Apocalypse I and Apocalypse II, at Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Huddersfield respectively—inspired by Keery’s work and insights. Apocalypse’ (book and symposia) helped catalyse my thinking and led to the AHRC application and my current research.

Indeed, as the research has developed, apocalypse is increasingly becoming an important concept in helping me to articulate my understanding of Ted Hughes’s Expressionism. There’s a two-fold sense to this. In the Greek, ‘apocalypse’ means a revealing, unveiling or vision—an inner experience triggering an urgent, highly subjective response. Of course, ‘vision’ is a key aspect of Expressionism. However, through the content and notoriety of the Apocalypse of S. John the Divine (the Book of Revelation in most Protestant Bibles), a second understanding of apocalypse—disaster, catastrophe, the end of the world—has become dominant. Much of Hughes’s poetry is concerned to address and articulate apocalypse in this sense, not only in his eco-poetry and his address to the atrocity and conflict that characterises the modern world, but also in his work addressed to ontology and being, his sense that humans are catastrophically cut-off from the spontaneity of their natural lives and are thus not only unable to live in harmony with themselves, their peers and the natural world, but are consequently locked into disastrous cycles of alienation, violence and self-harm. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to come up with a general definition of Expressionism to inform my research. However, I’m increasingly thinking that ‘apocalypse’ might be key: visionary work, rooted in a singular world view, articulated via imagination and addressed to urgent themes, as so much of Hughes’s work is, is almost certain to produce Expressionist work.

notebooks, letters and other material from the Ted Hughes archive arranged in a fan shape on a flat surface
Material from the Ted Hughes Archive

Ted Hughes Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity will take place in the Pigott Theatre, Knowledge Centre, British Library on 15th September, 2023. Attendance is FREE to members of the public, but Eventbrite booking is required.  More details, the symposium programme and the booking link can be found here: https://research.hud.ac.uk/institutes-centres/tedhughes/expressionism/symposium/.

19 May 2023

Andrew Salkey Archive – Mapping the Caribbean Diaspora through Letters

Natalie Lucy talks about their project mapping the Caribbean Diaspora through the letters of Andrew Salkey. 

I am a PhD student at UCL. I started a part-time placement at the British Library in September which finished at the end of February. I was supervised by Eleanor Casson, who, until recently, was working on the Andrew Salkey archive and Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator. The aim of the project was to map the Caribbean diaspora through the correspondence of the writer, broadcaster and poet Andrew Salkey. Well-known both as a meticulous chronicler and a prolific correspondent, the many fascinating and frequently poignant, letters in Salkey’s extensive archive reflect a network of Caribbean writers and academics for whom Salkey served not only as something of a nexus but also as a facilitator in their careers. More importantly, though, the correspondence shows the movement of these writers within a wider context of the diaspora, a feature which we have visually presented through the digital applications, Gephi and Kepler.    

Why did I apply for this project?

My thesis explores the way that the trickster character, Anancy, has historically been reinvented, primarily at key political points, to say something about heritage and identity and how he emerges in the literature of British writers and artists, particularly those with Caribbean heritage. A significant part of my research concerns the ways that Anancy was appropriated in the writing of the Caribbean Arts Movement, a dynamic group of artists and writers formed in London in the mid-1960s. Andrew Salkey was one of the three founders of CAM, along with John La Rose and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. He had been in London since the early 1950s and had already demonstrated his potential influence as something of an ‘enabler’, both through his immense generosity towards his fellow writers and his connections both within the writing world and at the BBC. The project offered an exciting opportunity. Not only would I be able to access Andrew Salkey’s archive, which would undoubtedly enhance my research, but the project had the potential to explore the dynamics between the writers and to bring to life something of the networks, which were so key to the establishment of a literary and cultural foundation.

What are Gephi and Kepler?

Gephi is an open graph visualization platform. It has been used in a variety of projects, to illustrate both social networks, which are evidenced within correspondence, and historical patterns of movement.  In these projects, Gephi has been used as a way to make data more accessible and, by visually animating it, more engaging.

Salkey network
Static visualisation of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files, using Gephi Visualisation Platform. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

Kepler is an open source geospatial analysis tool, which was originally created by Uber to map Uber drivers around the world. This offered a useful application through which to map the movement of the Caribbean writers in Salkey’s correspondence during key periods. 

Kepler visualisation
Static visualisation of the movement of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files using Kepler. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

Gathering the Data

The first stage of the project was to acquire the data that would ultimately be used in the visual map of the diaspora. Salkey was a meticulous archivist, retaining a significant quantity of the letters he received; he was also a diligent and attentive correspondent. Salkey’s friends were prominent Caribbean writers and publishers and Salkey’s archive contains the letters of Samuel Selvon, his distinctive language reminiscent of his groundbreaking novel The Lonely Londoners, George Lamming and Jan Carew.

A selection of letters from Sam Selvon to Andrew Salkey, Add MS 89377/7/54. Credit: CC-BY Samuel Selvon Estate

The initial data was limited to the date and location of the correspondence, information that could suggest the patterns of movement within the diaspora. The idea was that it would provide a framework with which to start to explore the potential of the project. 

The letters were so rich in detail, however, that other information was also recorded. I was able to note when correspondents mentioned other countries that they were planning to visit or when they spoke about other writers within the network. This provided an additional layer of information, which helped to broaden the analysis of the Caribbean diasporic network, linking people with each other as well as with Salkey.

Static visualisation of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files with biographical information. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

One of the recurring themes of the letters was the evident impact that these writers had on each other, not only as a network through which to promote their work, but also to seek some form of solidarity. In numerous letters, Andrew Salkey is asked for advice or practical assistance. Sometimes this is a request for a review of their work, or a recommendation for a lecturing post, or his opinion on a piece of writing. Further clues are revealed by the fact that some of the letters also contain Salkey’s additional notes, handwritten in the margin or a penned tick beside a request.

What did I Learn?

In addition to the fascinating insight into the important work that the British Library does, I have discovered something about Andrew Salkey himself.  What evolve within the letters are essentially a series of stories of friendships, between remarkable writers and artists. Sometimes, the extent of appreciation for Salkey’s generosity in helping so many other writers and friends can also be glimpsed within the, frequently poetical, words on the page. Samuel Selvon’s letters to Salkey are habitually humorous, but occasionally he steps outside his mocking, affectionate style, and says something that is profoundly moving. In one letter to Salkey on 15 March 1975,  he writes: ‘you have a great gift, Andrew, so great, that even with those few words, and my inability to express myself as you do, you will understand and appreciate what I am trying to say. That is the quintessence of your genius - that behind the ballad and the episode that other human beings will laugh kiff-kiff at and enjoy you can see with the inner eye and analyse with the unique power that God gave you.'

A letter written by Sam Selvon to Andrew Salkey 15th March 1975, from Add MS 89377/7/54. Credit: CC-BY Samuel Selvon Estate

Natalie Lucy was a PhD placement at the British Library from September 2022 until February 2023. In this blog, Natalie explains her interest in the project, development of the project through the content of the correspondence, as well as what she learned from the placement. This blog is linked with another post on the Digital Scholarship Blog, which gives more detail on the digital visualisation applications used for this project.

Linked Blog:

Mapping Caribbean Diasporic Networks through the Correspondence of Andrew Salkey

17 February 2023

Artists’ Books and Fine Press at Small Publisher Fairs

By Eva Isherwood-Wallace, PhD Placement Student with Contemporary British & Irish Published Collection.

As part of the British Library PhD placement scheme, I spent three months investigating small publisher fairs across the UK and Ireland to support collection development for artists’ books and fine press. This placement was based in the Contemporary British and Irish department, under the supervision of curator Jerry Jenkins. Small publisher fairs are held all over the UK and Ireland, showcasing the work of artists and small presses that produce handmade and limited-edition books. Curatorial staff from institutions like the British Library regularly attend these events to acquire new publications for their collections and to develop their relationships with individual artists and presses.

What can the British Library learn from these book fairs? By comparing lists of exhibitors to the British Library’s holdings, we can see whose work is being collected and where they are based. This is particularly important when assessing the regional diversity of the collection. During my placement, I had the opportunity to attend a few of these book fairs. My first visit was to the Small Publishers Fair in October 2022. Around 60 artists and publishers from across the world gather to share their work each year at Conway Hall in Bloomsbury. The hall was packed, filled with artists, printmakers, publishers, editors, librarians, curators, collectors, students and interested members of the public. These fairs are a great opportunity to discover unique publications from a wide variety of places. I left with a bag filled with as much as I could carry home with me, including a pamphlet from a Yorkshire-based printmaker, Irish writing from Aberdeen and a French novel printed in London.

Image One
Image by Eva Isherwood-Wallace

As well as seeing all of these interesting books and meeting the artists and presses behind them, attending the fair allowed me to do some in-person detective work. With my list of exhibitors, I made my way around the busy room to work out which exhibitors were relevant to the placement project. For my purposes, ‘relevant’ meant artists and presses based within the UK and Ireland who produce work in editions rather than unique artworks. This means that each individual work has multiple copies (e.g. in an edition of 50) because one-off pieces are considered manuscripts, a category handled by a different department. Exploring the fair in this way took most of the afternoon, mostly because I wanted to stop to examine every book on every table!

Before my visit, there were a few questions I particularly wanted to find the answers to. Do online fairs allow for wider regional representation? Did some of the changes made because of the Covid-19 pandemic actually benefit artists and presses based outside of London? We might expect to see a big shift in the locations of exhibitors when a fair is held online. However, the data I collected during my research suggests that the story is more complicated.

Image Two
Image by Eva Isherwood-Wallace

More Scottish presses participated in the online Small Publishers Fair in 2021 than in person in 2022. However, nearly all of these presses had already travelled to the Small Publishers Fair before the pandemic. Only one Scottish press, Stichill Marigold, exhibited at the Small Publishers Fair for the first time when it was held online. This was also the case for artists and presses based in Wales and the Republic of Ireland. This points towards the close-knit nature of this publishing community, with exhibitors returning year after year to the same fairs. For artists and presses in this industry, online provision does not necessarily equal accessibility. This can be partially explained by the difficulty in accurately representing work of this kind on a screen.

The work of these artists and presses is tactile and material. The making of artists’ books and fine press editions involves traditional techniques and equipment, with some publishers like Distillers Press in Dublin using printing presses that are over a century old. Artists’ books also act as physical documents of experience. Some recent works have been produced in a ‘lockdown diary’ format, which provides artists with a way to record their experiences of the pandemic. By acquiring these works for the collection, the British Library can safely archive them and make them available to readers who would not have otherwise been able to see them.

Image Three
Image by Eva Isherwood-Wallace

One example of the ‘lockdown diary’ artist’s book is Setting by Helen Douglas of Weproductions, a press based at Deuchar Mill in the Scottish Borders. Attending these fairs opens up the possibility of face-to-face encounters between collectors, curators and artists from across the UK and Ireland. We were able to meet with Helen Douglas and see her latest works, and this also gave me the chance to observe a British Library acquisition in the wild. The value of these fairs as meeting places underlines their importance to the British Library’s collecting practices.

From the data I collected during this visit, I was able to develop my understanding of the British Library’s relationship with small publisher fairs. By comparing the list of artists and presses at the Small Publishers Fair 2022 with the British Library’s holdings, I found that 70% of these exhibitors can be found in the Library’s collection. In contrast, 29% of exhibitors at another major fair­—Bristol Artist’s Book Event 2022—are represented in the collection. In preparing my final report at the end of my placement, I thought about how the British Library can develop its collecting strategies to ensure that the collection is inclusive of artists and publishers across the UK and Ireland.

It is, however, important to remember that this data doesn’t necessarily have a simple explanation. While the comparison between the Small Publishers Fair at Conway Hall and the Bristol Artist’s Book Event might suggest a skewed regional representation based on proximity to London, there are other factors at play. With 42% included in the British Library collection, more exhibitors at Dublin Art Book Fair 2022 are represented than those in Bristol. Nevertheless, these small publisher fairs are key to identifying regions that are underrepresented in the collection. By ensuring that the British Library has a presence at small publisher fairs throughout the UK and Ireland, curators will be able to acquire a diverse range of exciting new works for readers to discover.

30 September 2022

The Beatles and Hunter Davies

By Greg Buzwell, Curator, Contemporary Literary Archives.

‘Does anyone seriously believe that Beatles music will be an unthinkingly accepted part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?’ wrote the philosopher and politician Bryan Magee in the February 1967 issue of The Listener. The passage of time has subsequently given a resounding answer to Magee’s question, and it turned out not to be the one he was obviously expecting. His comment highlights the now almost eye-wateringly unbelievable notion that, even after Beatlemania, several albums including A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul and Revolver - and on the verge of the Summer of Love and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - the Beatles’ lasting contribution to popular culture was still being questioned in certain quarters.

Image shows a selection of Hunter Davie's notebook, arranged in a fan shape, showing the different covers which are red and blue covered and annotated with the subject
A small selection of the notebooks kept by Hunter Davies in 1967 as he carried out interviews and research for his book The Beatles: The Authorised Biography’. © Hunter Davies

Someone else also pondering the Beatles and their legacy in 1967 was the journalist Hunter Davies. The British Library has recently acquired Davies’s archive of Beatles-related material consisting of photographs, press cuttings, concert programmes and ephemera together with the notebooks he kept when carrying out his research for his 1968 biography of the band – The Beatles: The Authorised Biography. Hunter interviewed dozens of people prior to writing his book, including of course John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, but also wives and girlfriends including Cynthia Lennon and Jane Asher, along with other key contributors to the band’s success such as their manager Brian Epstein; their producer George Martin; Astrid Kirchherr whose early photographs of the group were instrumental in defining their look, and their road manager Mal Evans along with many, many others. Among the collection there is also a draft of Hunter’s original letter to Brian Epstein suggesting the idea that he write an authorised biography of the Beatles and asking for Brian’s approval.

Image shows Hunter's letter to Brian Epstein, black typed ink on white paper
A draft of Hunter’s letter to Brian Epstein outlining his proposal to write an authorised biography of the Beatles. 31st December 1966. © Hunter Davies

One of the points Hunter makes in the letter is that the book would provide a record of the Beatles phenomenon and allow everyone involved with the band to have their say while events were still relatively fresh in their memories. In essence the book would be, in Hunter’s words, ‘not a fan book, but a full study of what happened and why during the last five years’. Perhaps, even in 1967, this was ambitious. In particular the band’s recollection of their early days in Hamburg was already a little hazy. Unsurprising given the relentless nature of the gigs they had to play and the outrageous nightlife offered to those on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn where the clubs the Beatles played were situated. When talking to the Beatles about their Hamburg days Hunter’s notebooks contain details of John Lennon sleeping behind the stage and of Pete Best, the band’s drummer before Ringo Starr joined in 1962, being so exhausted he once collapsed over his drum kit mid-performance. Then again, all the more reason to have those recollections and thoughts put down on paper before they became even more lost in the haze between actuality and memory.

The highlight of the collection is undoubtedly to be found in one of the notebooks in which Hunter recorded his interviews with Paul McCartney. At one point Hunter asked Paul to describe how John Lennon and George Harrison looked back in their late-1950s pre-Beatles days with the band The Quarrymen. Paul duly obliged, but he also borrowed Hunter’s notebook and quickly sketched George and John: the former all boyishly innocent with upswept hair and bushy eyebrows and the latter with sideburns, glasses and a stare firmly focused on the future. There’s something touching about the sketches – an authenticity and affection that comes from Paul reflecting on two friends and the impression they made on him in the very first days of their friendship.

Image shows Paul McCartney's sketches of John Lennon and George Harrison, the sketches are on the left page of an open notebook, in blue pen on white paper, with notes on the right hand page. The sketches are caricature style showing head and shoulders
Paul McCartney’s sketches of George Harrison and John Lennon back in their Quarrymen days. © MPL Communications Inc

Also among the archive is the transcript of a television interview, the recording of which is now thought to be lost, between Hunter Davies and Ringo Starr dated December 15th 1970. A date by which point the band had effectively split. In the interview Ringo talks about how one of his childhood ambitions, at least according to his mother, was to be a tramp and to wander the world. There’s also a list of the questions Hunter is hoping to have answered in the interview, such as whether Ringo worries that film companies only want him in their movies so they can put his name on the poster; whether he still goes back to Liverpool to revisit his roots and whether his fame prevents him from ordinary pleasures such as evenings out in a pub with friends. Much of the interview comes across as a touching attempt to discover Ringo the private individual, husband and father beneath the surface glamour of Ringo the rock-star drummer.

Image shows Hunter's notes for his interview with Ringo, written on paper with the BBC letterhead
Hunter’s outline for the questions he’d like to ask Ringo Starr prior to a television interview. December 1970. © Hunter Davies

At its heart though the archive is really about Hunter’s authorised biography of the Beatles. First published in 1968 and the only book about the group ever written with the backing of the whole band and those within their inner circle. As such it offers an invaluable insight into what made the Beatles tick, and how they managed to achieve so much in such a relatively short space of time. There have been, quite literally, thousands of books written about the Beatles and while they all offer something perhaps only a dozen or so are absolutely essential to anyone who loves the music and wishes to know more about how it all came about. Hunter’s book is definitely towards the top of that select list and his archive reveals a great deal about how he put it together.

To learn more about The Beatles: The Authorised Biography, along with the archive behind its creation and Hunter Davies’s long association with the Beatles, please follow the link below for details of an event on November 11th 2022 featuring Hunter in conversation: Hunter Davies: Writing The Beatles.

23 September 2022

East and West with D. M. Thomas

by Dominic Newman, Manuscripts Cataloguer. 

Donald Michael Thomas (b. 1935) made his name as a writer when, in the early 1980s, his novel ‘The White Hotel’ scored a sudden success in the United States. With its psychedelic expedition into the subconscious, Freud and the Holocaust, and the vertiginous buckling and melting away of trust in its fickle narrator, the sensation it caused then spread back across the Atlantic to Britain.

Yet Thomas had been writing steadily and copiously for many years beforehand, as his archive, now fully catalogued and available in the Reading Rooms, records.  In his early career he considered himself mainly a poet: between the 1960s and the 1980s he filled thirty-five notebooks (preserved in photocopied form) with sketches and drafts of verse.  A home-made chart (Add MS 89363/9/6) chronicles appearances of his early poems in magazines and journals.

Image is of a chart showing publications of Thomas’s early poems in red and black ink, from around 1960
A chart showing publications of Thomas’s early poems, c. 1960 (Add MS 89363/9/6).  ‘Weirdly child-like!’ is his subsequent annotation.

It was only at the end of the 1970s that Thomas turned to writing novels.  His first, ‘Birthstone’, set in his native Cornwall and already exploring his interest in the ideas of Sigmund Freud, is preserved in a first-edition copy (Add MS 89363/1/4) with annotations and amendments by the author.  Draft material and annotated typescripts and proofs record work on the other titles that then followed in quick succession, including ‘Russian Nights’, a sequence of novels which, though originally planned as a trilogy, expanded first into a quartet, then a quintet.

Image is an extract from 'Lying Together' and is typed on white paper
In ‘Lying Together’ (1990), Thomas appears as one of his own characters, helping three other writers to improvise a novel-within-a-novel (Add MS 89363/1/23)

Russia is a recurring theme in Thomas’s work.  He has translated the poetry of Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, and made radio adaptations of Russian literature.  In the late 1990s he embarked on a substantial biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A Century in his Life’, which won the Orwell Book Prize in 1999.  The archive contains a great deal of draft and research material for this book, as well as photographs and interview transcripts.

A more unusual series of papers (Add MS 89363/8) records one of the great frustrations of Thomas’s career: the seeming impossibility of making a film adaptation of ‘The White Hotel’, in spite of at least three separate attempts by different producers over the years.  The idea of a film first surfaced almost immediately after the novel’s overnight success, and at various junctures it seemed almost certain to be made.  But each time the project ran into difficulties, including of the legal variety (Thomas even found himself being dragged unwittingly into an American court case).  He relates the whole saga in his memoir ‘Bleak Hotel’ (2008), a typescript of which is also present in the archive (Add MS 89363/3/4-5).

Image shows a typed commentary by D M Thomas on Dennis Potter's screenplay for the film adaption of 'The White Hotel'
Thomas’s commentary on Dennis Potter’s screenplay for a proposed film adaptation of ‘The White Hotel’ (Add MS 89363/8/19)

Thomas has retained much of his correspondence with publishers and well-known writers (Charles Causley, Stevie Smith, Peter Redgrove, and others), along with hundreds of messages from his sister Lois (Add MS 89363/9/18-24).  There are also dozens of family photographs (Add MS 89363/9/8-11), starting at the time of his parents’ courtship in Cornwall in the 1920s and continuing through his childhood and adult life.  Lively scenes at home in Truro, where he returned to live in the late 1980s, are preserved for posterity. Most of the snaps are captioned by Thomas himself: ‘Rugby with Dad’ – ‘I was always distant at visits to beach / sea’ – ‘Singing my face off’. Family and friends too are fondly epitheted. There is even a calendar entitled ‘Singing Thomas’s’, each month with a different picture of the family singing, drinking and generally making merry.  Thomas has still found time to write, however: the latest drafts and sketches in the archive (Add MS 89363/2/9-23) date from as recently as 2017.

Image is a black and white photograph of D M Thomas playing rugby with his dad in an open field with hills behind. Thomas is holding the ball and is a young child.
‘Rugby with Dad’ in the field behind Thomas’s childhood home at Carnkie, near Redruth in Cornwall (Add Ms 89363/9/8)

The D. M. Thomas archive is available under shelf-mark Add MS 89363.

23 August 2022

A new prize for Environmental Poetry - Michael Marks Awards

Logo for the Michael Marks Awards which is purple on a white background and reads Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets and shows an image of an open book between the two overlapping letter Ms

The 14th annual Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets is open for entries for best pamphlet, publisher and illustrator. The Awards are often marked by innovation and this year is no different, introducing the Award’s first prize for Environmental Poet of the Year.

The call for Environmental Poet of the Year closes on 1st September, and focuses on the theme of the environment and the place of the human within it. Poets are encouraged to think about the theme in a broad way, and submissions might describe the impact of humans on the environment, or on the impact that climate change is having on people’s lives. Entry is by submission of a portfolio of poetry and full details and entry rules are available at https://michaelmarksawards.org/epoty/

The winning portfolio will be published as a pamphlet, and the winning poet will invited to read at a special ‘Environmental Poet of the Year’ event at Wordsworth Grasmere, as well as at the Michael Marks Awards in December. The poet will also receive a prize of £1,000.

The judges for the new Award are poet Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, Dr Mark Avery (formerly Director of Conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and Jane Caven, a member of the Poetry Readers group at Wordsworth Grasmere.

The call for the prizes for Poet, Publish and Illustrator are also open, and close 23rd September. Full details for entry can be found on the Michael Marks Awards website at: https://michaelmarksawards.org/awards-2022/

Previous years have seen special prizes in different categories. The 2021 Awards were accompanied by an International Greek Bi-centennial Poetry Prize for both poet and illustrator, to mark the 200 year anniversary of the creation of the modern Greek state. The winning entries were published in the pamphlet, Ariadne, with poetry by Fiona Benson, illustrations by Judith Eyal and translations to Greek by Haris Psarras. The pamphlet can be bought from Broken Sleep Books.

In 2019 and 2020 the Awards included a prize for poetry in a Celtic language. The winning entries were (for 2019) moroedd/dŵr by Morgan Owen, and (for 2020) Carthen Denau by Rhys Iorwerth.

The Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets are a partnership of the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, with the British Library, Wordsworth Gasmere, Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies and Times Literary Supplement.     

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