THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

81 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

20 March 2020

Three New British Library Collections Featuring Harold Pinter

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By Chris Beckett

The British Library’s collections of material relating to Harold Pinter continue to grow. Just released into the Manuscripts Reading Room are two small but significant acquisitions, one from Susan Engel, who acted in the first production of The Room (15-16 May, 1957), and another from the Estate of Guy Vaesen, who was Assistant Director to Pinter for the double-bill The Lover and The Dwarfs produced by Michael Codron at the New Arts Theatre in 1963. The third and more extensive deposit also now open to researchers is the archive of Joe Brearley, Pinter’s teacher and mentor at Hackney Downs School.

Susan Engel was a drama student at the University of Bristol when she took the role of Rose Hudd in Pinter’s first play, The Room. The play was produced and directed by Henry Woolf, one of Pinter’s close circle of Hackney Downs friends, who was at the time a postgraduate student in the Drama Department. As well as directing, Woolf also played Mr. Kidd. Woolf’s passion for the theatre, like Pinter’s, was strongly inspired by Brearley’s enthusiasm for poetry and drama. Engel has provided her programme for the play, seven original photographs of the production and her typescript copy of the play. Rose’s part is underlined throughout, and Engel’s occasional annotations show something of Woolf’s direction.

    The Room programme front BLOG

The Room programme inside BLOG

Programme front cover and inside page showing the cast for The Room, University of Bristol, 15-16 May, 1957.

Michael Billington’s biography of Pinter tells how, one evening in July 1957, Engel was instrumental in bringing together Pinter and his future theatrical agent, Jimmy Wax. Engel’s papers include a letter and a card from Pinter that show he kept her informed. Following Harold Hobson’s influential review of The Room (when it was revived at the National Student Drama Festival, again at Bristol, in December 1957), Pinter wrote to Engel (January 1958) that The Birthday Party, ‘my 3-acter is expected to go on at the Lyric Hammersmith. Quite a thing. Thank God you were Rose’. Although the play flopped badly on its first run, Pinter remained resolute: ‘a cheer for Hobson. I ain’t finished yet!’ (postcard to Engel, 4 June 1958).

Guy Vaesen kept a fascinating theatre journal in which he recorded, over eighty-eight closely-written notebook pages, the 1963 Pinter-led rehearsals for The Lover and The Dwarfs. Pinter and Vivien Merchant, who played ‘Sarah’ in The Lover, had previously acted together in several of Vaesen’s productions in repertory. At Bournemouth, in the summer of 1956, Merchant played Jane Eyre to Pinter’s Rochester; at the end of the season, they married. Vaesen’s journal is therefore not only illuminating about Pinter’s approach to stage direction but is enriched by personal observation and it displays particular insights that only close association brings. Of the two plays, it was The Dwarfs that proved the more challenging in rehearsal. Pinter’s response to the actors’ difficulties with some of his lines was that they should simply follow the rhythm of the words: ‘In short,’ Vaesen reports Pinter as saying, ‘if you hit a line with particular emphasis (within the rhythm) the line will become clear. Listen to the sound first – and the meaning will clear through this […]. Music and rhythm. They must be your guides.’ Here, Pinter’s approach to performance exhibits a poet’s confidence in the cadence of his words.

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Extract from Guy Vaesen’s rehearsal journal (19 August 1963).

Vaesen’s papers include thirty-two letters and cards from Pinter, beginning in 1963 with a letter confirming that he is to work with Pinter in directing the double bill: ‘Codron is completely happy about the idea! So am I, as you know.’ In typical Pinter style, the letters tend to be brief and direct. They continue until 1995, when we find Pinter ‘off today to Chichester where I’m directing Harwood’s new play.’ Lifelong friends, Pinter kept Vaesen abreast of his writing and directing projects for stage and screen. In later life, Vaesen enjoyed considerable success as an artist. Pinter bought his cricket scenes. In 1980, he wrote to say that he has a Vaesen ‘in almost every room in both houses now’.

Pinter’s acceptance speech for the Cohen Literature Prize (1995) included a warm tribute to his ‘inspirational’ teacher at Hackney Downs, Joe Brearley, who ‘possessed a passionate enthusiasm for English poetry’, especially the dramatic poetry of Shakespeare and John Webster. Pinter said that Webster’s words made him feel ‘dizzy’. Henry Woolf has recalled the vivid impression that Webster made on ‘the Hackney gang’ when Brearley took some of his pupils to see The White Devil. In his Cohen speech, Pinter remembered long walks with Brearley when they would ‘declare into the wind, at the passing trolley-buses or indeed to the passers-by, nuggets of Webster’. Betrayal, cruelty, moral corruption, and torture – mainstays of dark Jacobean theatre – were to be repeatedly re-inscribed in Pinter’s plays. The memorial poem he wrote for Brearley, who died 19 November 1977, evokes these excited walks and talks of his youth, perambulations so indelible that it seemed to Pinter he was, in some ever-necessary way, undertaking them still: ‘You’re gone, I’m at your side, / Walking with you from Clapton Pond to Finsbury Park, / And on, and on.’ When Mr. Kidd in The Room says ‘So I thought to myself, I’d better have a look at those pipes’, one can imagine an inward chuckle as Woolf performed, reminded as he surely must have been of Webster’s visceral line, cited by Pinter in his Cohen speech: ‘There’s a plumber laying pipes in my guts’.

Joe Brearley retired from Hackney Downs School in 1971, at the age of 62. He spent the next six years of his life – all that was to remain to him – in Germany. A German speaker, and a teacher of German as well as English, Brearley had spent his summers in the 1930s in Germany as a private English tutor, where he witnessed at first hand the rise of the National Socialist Party. In 1933, he heard Hitler speak at a rally at Rüdesheim on the Rhine. After the War, he returned to teach at Hackney Downs School, where fifty per cent of the pupils, including Pinter, were from Jewish families. Although Brearley’s final years in Germany were few, they were nevertheless eventful. At the Gymnasium where he taught English (his retirement did not bring an end to the impulse to teach), Brearley met the artist and teacher Mara Loytved-Hardegg, thirty-three years his junior, with whom he was to share his last years (and who has now donated Brearley’s papers to the British Library). They lived in Nuremburg. To an out-going yet conservative former Deputy Head, Mara’s circle of young friends – avant-garde artists, teachers, film-makers, and Marxists – were a rich source of intellectual stimulation (although, as the papers show, he drew the line at Marxism and at smoking cannabis).

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Joe Brearley, 1973 (credit: Mara Loytved-Hardegg).

Brearley’s archive is weighted towards these final and personally-fulfilling years: there are extensive files of correspondence and two journals that record, in poetry, photographs and watercolours, holidays with Mara in Greece and Ireland. But the collection also includes some earlier Hackney Downs material. There are printed programmes for the school plays that Brearley produced, and school exercise books that record the staging and lighting schemes for the two plays by Shakespeare in which Pinter acted, as Macbeth and as Romeo. Brearley did not act in his production of Macbeth, but in Romeo and Juliet he played Prince Escalus.

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A page from Joe Brearley’s lighting scheme for his production of Macbeth (1947) at Hackney Downs School.

In September 1977, only weeks before his death in November, Brearley returned to England to meet up with a longstanding American friend and his wife. Much to Brearley’s frustration, they are determined to visit – whistle-stop fashion, guide-book in hand – every cathedral city in southern England. Along the way, however, Brearley manages to augment the repetitive schedule. They visit Henry Woolf, ‘an old (actor) pupil of mine’ then living in Folkestone. Two days later, they detour to Brighton where Brearley is reacquainted with Pinter’s parents (in 1948, Brearley had interceded on Pinter’s behalf when, much to the dismay of his parents, he decided to register as a conscientious objector). At the end of the exhausting itinerary, on Friday 30 September, Brearley lunches with Pinter, at ‘The Little Acropolis’ in Charlotte Street. Inevitably, much of their conversation touches upon Pinter’s changed personal circumstances, sensationally reported at the time in the newspapers: the end of his marriage to Vivien Merchant and his new life with Antonia Fraser. When Brearley and Pinter met for the last time, they were both were embarking on new futures. 

Pinter is a presence throughout the archive, which includes his correspondence with both Brearley and Loytved-Hardegg, continuing solicitously until his death in 2008. But there is a second consistent presence who must be mentioned. On the same tour of southern England, Brearley slipped away to make one further personal call. Passing through Cambridge, he called upon his old tutor, F. R. Leavis, whose health was then rapidly declining. Queenie Leavis greeted him: ‘It’s good to see his really old students from the great days … one has to be so careful now. I have to keep away people who come out of mere curiosity … and journalists out for a story.’ Brearley read for the English Tripos at Cambridge under Leavis’s supervision. In an autograph testimonial in the archive, Leavis wrote (14 March 1932): ‘[Brearley] has in particular studied critical method, especially as it bears upon the problem of teaching English. He is a cultivated man with a trained mind, & is himself well qualified to teach. I recommend him with great confidence.’ Among the many letters of condolence Mara received was one from Q. D. Leavis, who admitted to having initially hesitated in agreeing to Brearley’s visit, ‘Dr Leavis so changed and not able to converse’. She paints a poignant picture of their last meeting: ‘I shall never forget how kind and sympathetic [Joe] was to my husband, sitting by his bed & holding his hand’.

Leavis outlived Brearley by five months. His persistent presence in the archive – which extends even to a final brief entry (2 November 1977) in Brearley’s last journal, written from his hospital bed – serves as a reminder that Brearley’s enduring influence upon the young Pinter in the late 1940s, including the ‘revelation’, as Pinter described it, of Webster’s plays, had a particular critical and pedagogical setting. It also supplies a context to Pinter’s advice to the actors rehearsing The Dwarfs, that their guide should be the music and rhythm, the movement – to borrow a favoured term from Leavis – of his words. If Brearley’s teacher was not far from his thoughts in hospital, nor was his pupil. The first note in the same hospital journal (15 October) registers a dream of a dream, a dream of Pinter acting in a ‘school production’ of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

 

13 March 2020

Community Printing in North Kensington: The Beryl Foster Archive

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by Eleanor Dickens, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, Politics and Public Life. The Beryl Foster Archive( Add MS 89305) now available to consult, for free, in our Reading Rooms

During the late 1960s, London was home to many revolutionary groups and radical collectives that were part of the greater wave of student and worker action that spread across Europe that decade. In West London, community activists sought to fight local issues -- such as poor housing conditions and lack of play space for children -- by forming groups such as the Notting Hill Community Workshop and the Notting Hill People’s Association.  In this environment, there was a need to spread information and updates quickly and cheaply, to promote the local community activities and share the successes and the campaigns.

To meet this need student nurses Beryl Foster and Linda Gane co-founded Notting Hill Press LTD in 1968. It was the beginning of almost three decades of radical printing in North Kensington and, although the press would change hands and identities over the next decades, its output would remain a consistent and important resource for the neighborhood until the late 1980’s.

Foster and Gane had initially wanted to produce a newspaper for local community groups to share updates but all the groups they had contact with had wanted to print their own material. So the idea of the Notting Hill Press LTD was born. The Press was designed to meet the needs of the local radical community by allowing them to design and print their own material using in-house equipment. Foster recounts: “In the 1960’s printing was a powerful medium. Organisations, groups and movements all sought to get their message across to others and to put their information in print. […] Controlling the means of production had a particular appeal to anyone wanting to make a revolution and the offset lithographic process could make these means more affordable and flexible. It could deliver long runs, colour printing, flexible graphics and even photographs.” (Foster:2017)

Through their friends, Myrtle Solomon, general secretary of the Peace Pledge Union, and the pacifist and suffragist Sybil Morrison, Foster and Gane procured a printing machine - a Rotaprint 30/90 - from a mutual friend. Another friend emptied out an old laundry room as a home for the machine and the first premises for Notting Hill Press was established. Given the precariousness of Foster and Gane’s living situation and that of the radical communities which they served, Notting Hill Press organised a careful legal arrangement that protected the expensive printing equipment. They ‘sold’ their machinery, for a peppercorn, to two neighbourhood centres and the Community Workshop, who then leased them back to them, again for a peppercorn.

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‘Playspace in North Kensington: Report on local play programmes 1967 – 69’ published by the Notting Hill Social Council Leisure and Amenities Committee, printed by Notting Hill Press, July 1970. Copyright – Beryl Foster

 

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‘People’s News’ published by Notting Hill People’s Association, printed by Notting Hill Press, January [1969] Copyright – With kind permission of the Mike Braybrook Archive Group

 

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Westway Nursery Association first Annual Report, printed by Crest Press, 1974. Copyright – Beryl Foster

 

In 1969 the press moved to premises at on Ladbroke Road, beneath an opticians. This new premises required rent so Foster and Gane, who had both had children by 1970, were beginning to struggle to put in the long hours the press required. In 1971 they trained up and handed over the press to two students, Vicky Hutchin and Carola Ker. Just as they had anticipated with the earlier financial arrangements Notting Hill Press LTD could be declared bankrupt with the machines remaining safe in the hands of local community groups.

This was the end of Notting Hill Press LTD in name but not the end of community printing in this area. In fact, the people, ideas and even machines through which it emerged continued to flourish. The press formed itself into a new company, Crest Press Ltd., which functioned in much the same manner as Notting Hill Press; printing for local community organisations and on local issues such as housing, nurseries and play spaces for children. As before, all the staff were volunteers who drew no real wage and no commercial work was taken.

Senta Kandler joined Crest Press in around 1973 and in 1975 she and Mike Braybrook took over the press and moved it to the Community Action Centre (CAC) on Kensington Park Road. CAC as an organisation was formed the same year to secure rights to the Talbot Tabernacle, known as ‘The Tab’ and used as a community center. Another new iteration of the press was born, this time known as Printshop W11.

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'Losing Out': A study on Colville and Tavistock, printed by Crest Press. Copyright – With kind permission of the Mike Braybrook Archive Group

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The Un-Supported Mothers Handbook by members of the Claimants’ Union, printed by [Crest Press]. Copyright – With kind permission of the Mike Braybrook Archive Group

In 1978, moved on again by the council, Printshop W11 moved to ‘The Point’ on Tavistock Road. By this point those that ran the press were still working for free but they were breaking even and had developed an impressive list of local customers. Before it ended, the press was to go through one final move, forming in 1982 into ‘Words Illustrated’ run by Braybrook, Conor Lynch and George Robertson. Words Illustrated ran in this format for much of the eighties before finally folding in 1988. As his next move Mike Braybrook started A-Priori Press and though this was more commercial in the sense that people earned a wage (and so commercial work was undertaken) it remained the go-to for local community printing until it was finally bought in the 1990s by Portobello Press.

Through all these changes – and the many wider political and national changes over these decades - the press and the essential community activism around it remained the constant. There had been differences: Notting Hill Press wanted to be embedded in the broad left community coalition which was active in North Kensington at the time, they wanted to serve that movement; Crest Press worked as a collective of political activists who were involved in local and national movements; later incarnations, Printshop West 11 and Words Illustrated, functioned more as worker collectives serving community groups and supporting movements for social and political change. Through it all, one thing remained the same – the Rotaprint 30/60 which was used until this final iteration in 1988. As Forster re-calls, “from 1968 to 1990’s the names of the printers and of the press change, but the machines carried on”. Beryl Foster (2017).

14 February 2020

The Launderers

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a guest blog by Timothy Hawley, Ph.D, a retired psychologist who, for forty years, was the proprietor of the Contre Coup Press, an avocational private press located in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.A.

In today’s social network-obsessed world, the idea that a fascinating group of novelists, poets, dramatists, artists, actors and others could fly underneath the radar seems inconceivable. But in 1920s London, the situation was very different; public opinion and attention were directed and shaped by journalists and other powerful interests. Thus, the Bright Young People (aka Bright Young Things) — a group of well-connected, affluent young people whose exploits were breathlessly reported in the press and by one writer in particular, Evelyn Waugh — were, despite the attention they garnered, far from being the only game in town. Another group – less well-connected, less affluent, a bit older and a bit less flamboyant – were living parallel lives. This group called itself The Launderers, supposedly because they were committed to washing each other’s clean laundry in public, an apparent reference to their desire to promote, rather than denigrate, each other.

The group’s activities were recorded by Joanna Elder Giles, a young Australian woman and a member of a wealthy and influential family in her native country (the library at the University of Adelaide, for instance, is named after her grandfather). As a budding writer, Elder Giles wrote two books of poetry before coming to London in the early 1920s. She became acquainted with The Launderers through a friend, and quickly met one of the group’s members; her soon-to-be writing partner, Brian Hill, with whom she wrote mystery novels under the pseudonym of Marcus Magill. Joanna, who was known as “Jay,” began writing what she called The Laundry Book at the very beginning of her involvement with the Launderers, in the late fall of 1924, and continued writing this journal of the group’s activities until October 1, 1930, at which point the journal abruptly ends mid-sentence.  The group was centered around the theatre district in London’s West End, and they wrote and performed plays in small theatres and other private venues, most commonly in a restaurant called The Cutty Sark, which was a favored hangout of the Launderers. They wrote and produced a play at Elsa Lanchester’s famous The Cave of Harmony club, known for its bohemian and avant-garde entertainments, which almost proved to be disastrous, despite the fact that The Cave of Harmony was ostensibly a “private club” which generally made it immune from morals prosecutions (more about this incident later).

But they also partied – oh, how they partied. And their parties pulled in many others who might have been considered to be special guests of the Launderers, but who were not in attendance often enough to be considered to be in the inner circle. When only the “members” (notwithstanding the fact that there was no formal membership) were in attendance at a get-together, they called it a “Laundry.” They often held these “Laundries” at the home of Gilbert Beith, known as Hollywood, in Gomshall. The people who would have considered themselves to be “members” would include (in alphabetical order):

Gilbert Beith, an amateur actor, scoutmaster and writer, brother of Ian Hay.

Buena Bent, an actress who appeared on stage and in film during the 20s and 30s.

Antonia Earnshaw-Smith, advertising copywriter for Crawford’s, later to gain renown as the novelist Antonia White.

Joan Garstin, actress.

Joanna Giles.

Mary Grigs, journalist and writer.

George Harvey, solicitor.

Brian Hill, accountant and writer.

Naomi Jacob, actress.

Gladys Morris, actress.

Ben Pendred, son of Laura Pendred.

Laura Pendred, author and dramatist, writing under the pseudonym of Laura Wildig.

Loughnan Pendred, son of Laura Pendred.

Gwen “David” Powell, restauranteur.

Kathleen Stenning, artist.

Marjorie Young, actress.

Many, many others flit through the pages of The Laundry Book, some famous, some infamous, some little known. These include Meum Stewart, an actress who nearly caused catastrophe for Brian Hill (more on that later); Alick Schepeler, artists’ model and mistress of Augustus Johns; Joe Carstairs, at the time running an all-female taxicab company, and many others.

But perhaps the most remarkable person in the book is Antonia Earnshaw-Smith. Several of the Launderers first met her and her husband, Eric, while taking a holiday at Cassis sur Mer. She was brilliant, witty, bawdy and very flirtatious – a perfect fit for the Launderers. Upon returning to London, she became a regular with the group, and bailed out Brian Hill when he was about to be investigated for homosexual writings for a play at The Cave of Harmony (co-written by her).

Meum Stewart, who was to appear in the play, inadvertently left a copy of the script in a taxicab. The cab-driver read the script, finding it highly offensive, and turned it over to Scotland Yard, where it was assigned for investigation to Detective Inspector Jesse W. Keech, one of the top detectives in the organization. But Tony (as Antonia Earnshaw-Smith was called) went and met with Keech and somehow persuaded him to drop the investigation, much to the relief of the Launderers, who feted her with poems implying that she must have done something naughty with the famous detective to get him to call off the dogs.

Later, Jay became jealous of Tony’s relationship with Brian Hill, and Jay and Brian played a practical joke on Tony that backfired. Years later, Tony wrote out a list of men that she had had affairs with, and Brian’s name was on the list. However, it is highly unlikely that this “affair” was sexual. Tony’s first two husbands were gay, and she joked that she was the only woman who had been married twice and was still a virgin. Tony – and Jay as well – was a woman who was very attracted to gay men (Brian was gay, his partner being George Harvey), but only in an intense intellectual way. She was drawn to Brian’s wit, his intelligence, his interests and talents. Jay was also attracted to gay men, and may herself have been a lesbian, although that is purely conjecture.

But being a gay man in 1920s London was a very dangerous situation. Being “outed” in those days was likely to destroy a person’s life. Oddly enough, lesbians were in no danger from the law, supposedly due to Queen Victoria’s naïveté about the mechanics of sexual congress between women. So while many of the people in the Laundry book are gay or lesbian, this fact is only alluded to in regard to the women, since Jay was far too loyal and discreet to write anything down that might endanger her gay friends.

Many other events, large and small, are recounted in The Laundry Book, but the writing came to an end in 1930. It may be that the members were slowly drifting apart. Another possibility is that Jay’s interest in aviation drew her away from the group. She was issued a Pilot’s Certificate in July, 1930, and was one of only 40 women in England who owned their own planes.

The original manuscript of The Laundry Book is in the possession of The Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville in the U.S.A. It is a remarkable object, made up of large typed sheets folded and sewn into signatures with yarn or string. It includes a large number of tipped-in items, including photographs, poems, clippings and much miscellaneous material, and is enclosed in a cloth clamshell box.

The copy now in the possession of The British Library reprints the entirety of the approximately 80,000 word manuscript and includes over 200 tipped-in items. However, it is not a type-facsimile. Rather, it a typographic interpretation, based on the printer’s whim (or whimsy). The book was printed in a limited edition of only 29 copies, with a 96-page companion volume providing context, explanation and additional information. It was entirely hand-set in metal type and printed on a hand-operated cylinder proof press.

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Photographs of the Laundry Book and its Companion, now in the Library's possession.

21 November 2019

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

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by Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives

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

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Peter Nichols, photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

12 November 2019

Call for Papers -- Creative Activism Now!: Andrew Salkey and Today’s Diasporic Cultural Networks

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A celebratory conference placing Andrew Salkey’s legacy in the modern moment and exploring the Caribbean diasporic networks of today will be held at The Knowledge Centre, The British Library, London on Saturday 20th June 2020.

Keynote speakers:

  • Professor Robert A. Hill, leading scholar on Marcus Garvey and Research Professor, Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Professor Nadia Ellis, author of Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora, English Department, University of California, Berkeley

Writer and broadcaster Andrew Salkey became a central figure in a circle of Caribbean writers, artists and intellectuals when he moved to London from Jamaica in the 1950s, later co-founding the Caribbean Artists Movement and dedicating his life to literary activism across the Caribbean diaspora. While his achievements and influence were widely acknowledged in his own lifetime, his name is less-well-known today. Twenty-five years on from Salkey’s death, this conference seeks to retrieve his legacy and to open up questions about today’s Caribbean diasporic networks. How have they changed? Are the same questions from the past still important today?

Born in Panama in 1928 and raised in Jamaica, Andrew Salkey was a novelist, poet, editor, broadcaster and academic. He embodied the Black Radical Tradition as a member of the League of Coloured Peoples and the Movement for Colonial Freedom; as an author and folklorist; and in his support for revolutionary Cuba and the freedom struggles of Guyana and Chile. Salkey was the main presenter and writer-in-residence in the Caribbean section of the BBC World Service giving a platform for a generation of writers including Sam Selvon, George Lamming and V S Naipaul through its ‘Caribbean Voices’ programme. He was influential in the British publishing industry, recommending V S Naipaul and Wilson Harris to Andre Deutsch and Faber & Faber respectively, championing women writers such as Beryl Gilroy, and supporting Bogle L'Ouverture and New Beacon Books in their pioneering roles as the first publishing houses for Black writing in Britain. In 1966, he co-founded the Caribbean Artists Movement alongside Kamau Brathwaite and John La Rose. From 1976 until his death in 1995, Salkey lived in the US and worked as Professor of Creative Writing at Hampshire College in Amherst. His life and work have been seen as embodying the Black Radical Tradition.

Dubbed the unofficial archivist of the Caribbean cultural scene by his friend Sam Selvon, he preserved not only his own literary drafts, diaries and wide-ranging correspondence, but also rare printed ephemera, news cuttings, project files and sound recordings. The Andrew Salkey Archive will be open to researchers at the British Library from autumn 2020.

We are currently accepting abstracts for 15-minute papers from scholars and early career researchers with an interest in Caribbean diaspora studies. We encourage paper proposals from a wide variety of institutions. We also welcome papers from writers, artists, performers, activists and archivists.

Themes to consider:

  • The works of Andrew Salkey
  • Literary and cultural networks across the Diaspora – past and present
  • Women’s writing and activism
  • The Caribbean Artists Movement
  • Diasporic communication, languages and idioms
  • Expressions of home, belonging, exile, transnationality
  • Radical Politics, Black Radical Aesthetics, human liberation
  • The politics of the archive, memory and erasure, the ethics of dispersed and contested archives, Decolonising the Archive
  • New media, broadcasting, publishing, literary festivals

A British Library conference in collaboration with Goldsmiths Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, Goldsmiths MA in Black British Writing and The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

Access bursaries of up to £250 will be available to delegates not in permanent employment to help with travel and/or childcare costs. Details of how to apply will be shared with applicants once paper acceptances have been circulated.  The bursaries have been made available through support from the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.  Any enquiries about the bursaries should be sent to eccles-centre@bl.uk.

Abstracts for papers and enquiries should be sent by e-mail to Eleanor Casson, Eleanor.Casson@bl.uk

Deadline for abstracts: Monday 27th January 2020

Decisions announced: March 2020

08 November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

New media writing to engage diverse audiences and preserve obsolete technologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New media writing to represent the multitude of our emotional landscape 

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

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

3Underbelly © Christine Wilks

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

New media writing to democratise language and escape censorship 

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

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

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

4A Dictionary of the Revolution © Amira Hanafi

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

New media writing to own your narrative and renew civic identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emerging Formats Project

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

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

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

 

29 October 2019

Andrew Salkey: A Man of Many Hats

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By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and Cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310), working in collaboration with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and the British Library. The catalogue will be made available in Autumn 2020. The British Library, in collaboration with The Eccles Centre and Goldsmiths, University of London, are also planning a conference celebrating Andrew Salkey’s legacy and exploring the Caribbean diasporic networks of today. Details of this will be released soon. 

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

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

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

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

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

A Friend

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

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

 

A Founding Member of the Caribbean Artists Movement

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

A Mentor

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

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

[2] Ibid, p.44

 

11 October 2019

Beyond the Unfortunates

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

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

Unfortunates1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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