English and Drama blog

111 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

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.     

29 July 2022

Amber Akaunu reflects on her work with the Beryl Gilroy archive

By Amber Akaunu, filmmaker and artist, who was commissioned by the British Library to engage creatively with the Beryl Gilroy archive.

Reflecting on past projects and experiences is something that I admittedly had never even considered doing before spending time with Dr Beryl Gilroy’s archive. I didn’t see it as an essential aspect of my work as an artist and filmmaker until now.

The highlight of Gilroy’s archive for me were the reflective pieces of writings she wrote on her own work. They were detailed and read more like an essay, in comparison to her creative writings we see in books such as In Praise of Love and Children’ (1996). I loved reading them and realised how important it is to not only reflect on our practice in order to identify areas that deserve celebration as well as areas that can use some development, however it is also important in defining our narrative and legacy; and Gilroy has done exactly that.

 

A zoomed in image of handwritten reflective writing by Dr Beryl Gilroy in different colour pens
BL Ref Deposit 11286/1/10 – extracts from Beryl Gilroy’s reflective writing.

 

So, I want to follow Dr Gilroy’s footsteps and go on a journey of deep reflection on my experience working with the British Library:

I received an invitation to pitch an idea to make a body of work that responds to the archive of Dr Beryl Gilroy. This invite came only a week after I had moved to London and so it was an affirming and grounding first creative project to take on amidst a time of transition for me. On reflection, I think the consistency of coming to the British Library and viewing Gilroy’s archive was exactly what I needed at the time.

We often idolise Black women for all the incredible things we achieve in such harsh circumstances. We’re often thought of as the rose that grew from concrete, and although that tends to be an accurate representation, I really wanted my response to Dr Gilroy’s archive to look deeper into who she was. I decided to explore her roles as a mother, educator, psychologist and founding member of Camden Black Sisters. I also used these categories to highlight Black women in my life including; my mother (Jessica); my therapist (Amanda); my primary school head teacher (Mrs Wrigley); and Liverpool’s Black Sisters, who held summer schemes that I attended as a child. Through this process I got to realise how lucky I have been to be able to have incredible Black women in my life.

I enjoyed exploring Dr Gilroy’s role as a mother in particular, especially after meeting with Dr Gilroy’s daughter, Darla, an academic. It was inspiring to see the work she does to help keep her mother’s legacy alive and to hear the way she talks about her mother. It made me think about the close bond my mother and I have, and so it was fulfilling to be able to include my mother’s impact on me and link this with Gilroy’s impact on her own children, and of course the many other children through her role as an educator and one of London’s first Black head teachers.

I had begun writing a poem in my iPhone notes app a while ago about how Black women are the blueprint, and this project felt like the perfect reason to finish that poem and develop that idea further. I also wanted to extend this notion to include the fact the archive of Black women is also the blueprint to which we build from. I felt like the underlying message I took away from my time with Dr Gilroy’s archive showed the importance of archiving. Gilroy’s archive was a special first-hand look into her life and I am thankful that it exists.

I worked with my good friend Khadeeja to make a short film that brought to life the poem I had written. I sent Khadeeja a WhatsApp message asking her if she’d like to be in the film along with a screenshot of the poem. She then sent me a voice note response of her performing the poem perfectly. This is one of the reasons I love to collaborate with other creatives. Khadeeja brought the poem to life in a way I couldn’t have imagined. I loved that voice note recording so much that I used it in the film.

 

A close up shot of Khadeeja in Amber Akaunu's film the blueprint, Khadeeja is looking directly at the camera in front of a blue background
A screenshot from Amber Akaunu's 'The Blueprint' showing Khadeeja.

 

Alongside the film, I also created a zine that is titled The Blueprint, which is the same title as the film. The zine was designed by Lana Mauge-Tharpe, who was perfect for the project as not only is she incredibly talented, she also is a former student at Dr Gilroy’s school in North London.

Through colour, composition and typography, Lana was able to present my words in a fresh way. The zine also featured a QR code that allowed readers to access a blue inspired playlist I had made while working on the project.

In conclusion, I have learned a lot about Dr Gilroy, myself and my practice through this project and process and hope that visitors of the exhibition also felt like they got to know more about Dr Beryl Gilroy, her impact and the significance of her archive to the Black women that she has directly, and indirectly, impacted.

 

Image shows the front cover of The Blueprint, which includes a photo of Dr Beryl Gilroy and a crowd of school children
The Blueprint, a zine by Amber Akaunu

 

Further reading:

Beryl Gilroy | The British Library (bl.uk)

For enquiries regarding the Beryl Gilroy archive, please contact Eleanor Dickens eleanor.dickens@bl.uk

15 July 2022

A researcher's story: using the Robert Aickman Archive at the British Library

by R.B. Russell, researcher, publisher and writer, who consulted the Robert Aickman Archive at the British Library and writes here of his experiences. 

Black and white photograph of Robert Aickman posing in front of bookshelves at Gledhow Gardens in 1980
BL Add. MS 89209/3/5. Robert Aickman at Gledhow Gardens, London. 1980

I first came across Robert Aickman (1914-1981) as the author of ‘strange stories’ (his own term), psychological tales that updated the traditional ghost story to the requirements of a more ‘knowing’ late twentieth century. I soon discovered that Aickman’s literary activities (he was also an editor of ghost story anthologies and wrote two volumes of autobiography) were just one part of his life. Another was his campaigning, largely successful, for the restoration of the inland waterways of Britain.

I was lucky enough to first see Aickman’s literary archive in 2014 when I visited his literary executor in Guiseley, West Yorkshire. At that time, Aickman’s manuscripts and typescripts were being stored in a spare bedroom. With my partner, Rosalie Parker, we produced an inventory of what was in the archive and we borrowed material to publish The Strangers and Other Writings (Tartarus Press, 2015) collecting together previously unpublished fiction and non-fiction. The Guiseley archive was ultimately acquired by the British Library in 2017. There are also collections of Aickman’s waterways papers at the National Archive in Kew and at the National Waterways Museum Ellesmere Port in Cheshire.

The more I found out about Aickman, the more interested I became in the man, and in 2020 I decided to write his biography. I realised there were several obstacles, however, and that any one of them might cause there to be a major shortcoming in the finished book. Until I started my research, though, I couldn’t be certain whether they were surmountable.

Typescript of We Are For The Dark: Six Ghost Stories with annotations
BL Add. MS 89209/1/70. Revised typescript for We Are For The Dark: Six Ghost Stories. The book, published in 1951, contained three stories by Elizabeth Jane Howard and three by Robert Aickman. Note Aickman’s amendment discarding the pseudonym ‘Robert Vigo’ in favour of his real name. The short-lived pseudonym was taken from the lead character in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1932 film The Blue Light. Reproduced by the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman.

The first problem was one shared by all researchers—the pandemic. I couldn’t consult any of the archives I wished to visit, meet up with anyone who knew Aickman, or visit any of the sites associated with him. However, since the 1990s I had amassed more research material than I realised, and now I had the opportunity to read it! If anything, being confined to home was a blessing in disguise. As for interviewing Aickman’s old friends, they were very helpful and they now had the time to share information with me. Those who might otherwise have been wary of using modern technology were happy to make Zoom and Skype calls.

I had to wait for the archives to re-open here in the UK, but there was another small collection of important material at Bowling Green University in America. Even if I could travel there at some unspecified time in the future, I wasn’t certain I could justify the expense. When I contacted them, I discovered the librarians were able to make pdf copies (for a modest fee) of all that I needed to see.

After a year of intensive and productive research from home, I was confident that many gaps in my knowledge would be filled when the British Library re-opened. There were only two major lacunae that concerned me.

The first was my inability to read Aickman’s letters to his American agent, Kirby McCauley. This mine of useful information was in the hands of a rare book dealer in the US.

The second was any concrete information relating to Aickman’s claim that he had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War, exempted from any kind of war work. This seemed out of character, and his old friends suggested several alternative theories, none of which could be verified. It seemed unlikely I would ever clear this up because the majority of official records relating to conscientious objection have been destroyed.

Black and white photograph of Robert Aickman reading in 1960
Robert Aickman 1960

In June 2021 Covid restrictions were lifted somewhat and Rosalie and I were finally able to travel from North Yorkshire to visit the British Library on the Euston Road in London. After our informal experience in Guiseley, I must admit that it seemed like an imposition to have to join the British Library in advance (in Wakefield), then to book tables in the reading room, and to have to book the material we wanted to see from the online catalogue. Pandemic restrictions meant that the number of items we could consult at any one visit was limited.

Photograph of R. B. Russell and Rosalie Parker smiling at the camera
R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker

However, over three days Rosalie and I looked through everything we asked for, and because of the friendly efficiency of the staff, we were able to see a little more besides. Despite the restrictions, the atmosphere in the reading room was relaxed and comfortable, and it was brought home to me how important it is to have this vital material publicly accessible (not kept in bedrooms, or overseas, owned by rare book dealers). So much was still uncertain in the world at that time, but there was something reassuring about being inside the British Library with the background sounds of murmuring voices, pages turning, and pencilled notes being made. I filled in all the gaps in my knowledge that I had been aware of, and discovered additional important material, besides.

My preparation for the visit to the British Library (which felt very long-delayed) meant that I extracted the most out of the three days. And I also discovered in the various files of Aickman’s correspondence carbon copies of all his letters to his agent. They were as important as I had expected.

This left just that one unanswered question—Robert Aickman’s apparent conscientious objection. I felt I knew Robert Aickman’s beliefs and motivations well by this time, and it didn’t ‘fit’ with his personality. It was out of character in the same way that one item in the British Library catalogue seemed out of place. Tucked away in a folder, according to the catalogue, was an application by Aickman to work for the Civil Service. I called up this folder to discover that the item had been mis-described (it has since been corrected). Rather than an unlikely application to work for the Civil Service, it was Aickman’s application to be considered a conscientious objector, and the decision that had been made.

Image of Robert Aickman's completed conscientious objection application
BL Add. MS 89209/3/3. Robert Aickman’s conscientious objection application decision

The biography came together at that point, although I still do not know what to make of the statement Robert Aickman submitted in support of his application for conscientious objection. He claims religious beliefs he does not profess anywhere else, and appears to contradict other statements he made. Whatever I may think of his justifications, he did receive the very rare judgement that he was exempt from any kind of war work.

My biography of Aickman was published in early 2022, as Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by Tartarus Press It contains extensive acknowledgements in alphabetical order, but if I had listed them in order of importance, along with Rosalie Parker, the British Library would have been towards the top.

6. RA Biog
Robert Aickman, An Attempted Biography by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press 2022

30 March 2022

P. G. Wodehouse Society launches international Essay Prize

Written by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. 

The British Library has been home to the P.G. Wodehouse archive since September 2016. It is a large collection of 481 folders and volumes, which provides a real insight into the life and work of the writer, humourist and lyricist.  

The archive contains material relating to Wodehouse’s literary career, his theatrical and cinematic work, the Second World War period and his private life. Also included are papers relating to fans of Wodehouse, research and articles about his writing, events and commemorations organised after his death, and adaptations of his work.

Image is black and white and shows P G Wodehouse reading a book in front of shelves of other books

The archive is catalogued and more information can be found by searching the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue using keywords or the reference Loan MS 129. Anyone with a reader’s pass can consult the archive in the Manuscripts reading room on the second floor of the Library. Please see the Reader Registration pages of the Library’s website for more information about how to register for a pass if you do not already have one.

The Wodehouse archive is a resource for everyone but it could be particularly useful for anyone who is planning to submit an entry for the international Essay prize that has been launched by the P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK). The initiative was launched in late 2021 to mark the 140th anniversary of Wodehouse’s birth and coincide with the 25th anniversary of the creation of the society in 2022. Two prizes of £1000 and £250 will be awarded to the adult and junior winners respectively by a judging panel that includes Paula Byrne, Stephen Fry and Sophie Ratcliffe.

Image shows actor Stephen Fry holding a copy of  P G Wodehouse's novel Code of the Woosters

The prize is open to all. The judges ask that entries focus on Wodehouse’s novels, stories, plays and journalism with the hope that they will throw scholarly new light on aspects of his writing.

Entries, which must be original and previously unpublished, should be submitted to essayprize@pgwodehousesociety.org.uk  by 12 noon BST on Wednesday 1 September 2022. Full details and Terms & Conditions can be found on the Society’s website.  Good luck to anyone who decides to enter.

21 March 2022

Celebrating Beryl Gilroy

By Eleanor Dickens, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts.

 

The British Library has recently announced the acquisition of the Beryl Gilroy Archive, which was donated to the library in 2020.

Beryl Agatha Gilroy (1924–2001), was an acclaimed writer, teacher and ethno-psychotherapist.

Her archive includes drafts of published and unpublished manuscripts, notebooks, research and reflective essays on her own writing. As well as correspondence, material from her counselling practice and born-digital material.

Highlights of the archive include two drafts of In Praise of Love and Children, a rare fictional account of a woman’s experience of migration from the Caribbean. These two drafts, one typed and annotated and the other hand-written, show successive versions of Gilroy’s first novel, which was written in 1959 but not published until 1996.

Image shows the first page of Gilroy's novel In Praise of Love and Children which is typed but also heavily annotated by hand
BL Deposit 11286/5/10 With kind permission of the Beryl Gilroy Estate

Another highlight, and quite unique, aspect of Gilroy’s archive are the series of essays she wrote analysing and reflecting on her own fiction. Her archive contains such writing for all of her published novels and they are a fantastic additional insight into her work.

The archive also contains unpublished manuscripts of Gilroy’s work, both fiction, for example, a historical novel set during the 1780 Gordon Riots based on the life of a woman known as ‘Black Harriot’ who is thought to be depicted in William Hogarth’s painting The Rake’s Progress. As well as non-fiction, including a non-fiction draft about teaching, which works as a sequel to her memoir Black Teacher, and explores the ways that racist attitudes pervaded her experience of education.

Gilroy said herself that she ‘[…] belonged any place where there were children.’ And her passion, care and dedication for children’s well-being and education shines throughout her archive. Not least in the manuscripts of her contributions to the Nippers series, published by Macmillan, and her own notebooks and research into teaching and inspiring creativity in children.

Image shows a selection of covers of the children's book series Nippers, which were written by Gilroy and published by Macmillan
BL Deposit 11286/3/1 With kind permission of the Beryl Gilroy Estate

One of our favourite items in the archive is a copy of a zine Gilroy made with students at Beckford Infants School (now West Hampstead Primary School), where she was head teacher between 1969-1982.

The zine is called ‘BIM’, which probably stands for ‘Beckford Infants Magazine’, and contains poetry, drawings and creative writing by the students at the school. The zine is a wonderful example of Gilroy combining her beliefs in child-centred learning, creative expression and positive self-image.

Image shows one of Gilroy's handwritten notebooks in which she is devising a creative writing exercise for children
BL Deposit 11286/1/6 With kind permission of the Beryl Gilroy Estate

As part of celebrating Beryl Gilroy and her exceptional archive, there will be a free display in the Treasures Gallery, Celebrating Beryl Gilroyrunning from 17 March until 26 June. The display includes highlights from the archive.

As part of this display, the British Library also commissioned the Liverpool-born Nigerian-German artist and filmmaker Amber Akaunu to respond creatively to the archive. Amber has created a zine, The Blueprint and a short film celebrating black women who help educate, nurture and develop children, which will also be on display.

Amber worked on the zine with Lana Maugé, a former student of Gilroy’s, and their contribution in the form of the zine feels like an excellent way of connecting with the zine Gilroy created with her students.

Amber Akaunu, said: ‘Spending time with Gilroy's archive was a luxury that visitors of the British Library will now also get to experience. The contents of the archive are honest, deeply reflective, and unique to the experiences of Dr. Beryl Gilroy. I created my film and zine response with these same attributes in mind, and centred around the idea that Black women, and their archive, are the blueprint to which we build from.’

Image shows the front cover of the zine made by artist Amber Akaunu with the designer Lana Mauge. It includes an image of Beryl Gilroy with her students
The Blueprint by Amber Akaunu

The acquisition of the Beryl Gilroy archive expands the Library’s existing collections of Caribbean and Black British literary archives, including those of Andrew Salkey, Andrea Levy, James Berry and Wasafiri magazine. It will be available for research on completion of cataloguing in autumn 2022.

For further information or enquiries please contact: eleanor.dickens@bl.uk

16 March 2022

John Berger and the 50th anniversary of Ways of Seeing

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. 

John Berger was an art critic, writer, painter and poet. January 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of his seminal television series, Ways of Seeing, which he made for the BBC with TV producer Mike Dibb. The BBC recently marked the anniversary with a series of programmes on Radio 4 entitled ‘Viewfinders: Ways of Seeing at 50’ in which writers Geoff Dyer, Olivia Laing, Tom Overton, Sinéad Gleeson and Melissa Chemam celebrated the original series and talk about looking at pictures.  

I was interested to hear about the Radio 4 series, as the Library is the home to John Berger’s archive, which was donated by Berger and his wife, Beverley, in 2009. The archive is one of the collections, which I look after as a member of the Contemporary Literary and Creative archives team and I have worked with it quite a bit over the years answering enquiries and selecting items for exhibition.

Image shows John and Beverley Berger with British Library curator, Jamie Andrews, at their home in France, when he collected the archive in 2009
With kind permission of the John Berger Estate.

The archive is large and consists of 379 files, boxes and books containing literary manuscripts, drafts, research notes and unpublished material, correspondence, press cuttings and professional papers. Although the archive contains some early examples of Berger’s graphic work, the majority of the archive is literary. The archive provides a fascinating insight into Berger’s life and work and particularly the collaborative way in which he worked and the international interest there was in what he created.

Unfortunately there is not a huge amount of material in the archive relating to Ways of Seeing aside from a file containing reviews of the series (and accompanying book) and a file relating to artwork used for different editions of the book that Berger created in collaboration with the graphic designer, Richard Hollis. Nevertheless I thought that the anniversary would be a wonderful opportunity to highlight the fact that the Library holds Berger’s archive. Anyone who is interested can find out more by searching the Library’s Archives and Manuscripts catalogue either by reference number (the reference for the Berger archive as a whole is Add MS 88964) or by keyword. This photograph is of one of several notebooks in the archive that contain research notes and drafts of A Painter of Our Time. I particularly like this one as it shows how Berger reworked his draft with blue annotations and corrections.

Image shows handwritten notebook of Painter of Our Time, written by John Berger and showing his detailed annotations
BL Add. MS 88964/1/6 Reproduced with kind permission of the John Berger Estate.

Everyone wishing to find out a bit more about the archive could also listen to Tom Overton’s programme as part of the Radio 4 series, which provides some lovely insights into his work cataloguing the Berger archive. The warmth of Berger’s personality is clear from Tom’s comments and although I never met Berger in person I also have fond memories of an encounter that I had with him.

One day in around 2012 I had a phone call from someone who introduced themselves as a friend of Tom’s who was trying to track him down. I explained that as a collaborative PhD student working at the Library Tom did not have a phone extension and that unfortunately he was not in on that day. We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes and then I said that I would be happy to pass on a message to Tom and ask him to return his friend’s call. When I asked the person’s name I was surprised to find that I was actually talking to John Berger himself. I have been lucky enough to meet and speak to many interesting people through my work but I have to say that I have not met that many celebrated writers who would introduce themselves as being a friend of the person cataloguing their archive! It has stuck with me ever since and reminded me that you never really know who you are speaking to on the phone until they introduce themselves.

See the Search Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (using Add MS 88964* as your search term) for further details.

02 November 2021

Andrew Salkey: “Too Polemic. Too Political”

By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310). Last few days to get tickets to Artist, Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats a British Library conference held in collaboration with Goldsmiths Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, MA Black British Writing (Goldsmiths) and The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

The Conference is free to book and everyone is welcome. Book your place now.

Black and white photograph of Andrew Salkey in profile

Andrew Salkey, a Jamaican writer, emigrated to the UK in the early 1950s to study at London University. Salkey was one of a few Caribbean writers swept up in the boom of interest in Britain for the ‘exoticism’ of colonial countries, particularly after the migration of Caribbean workers to Britain.[1] His successful, critically acclaimed debut novel A Quality of Violence was published in 1959. In 1960, he followed this with a significantly more controversial novel Escape to an Autumn Pavement, which has, over time, become an influential piece exploring the Caribbean diasporas portrayal of heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

This early success as a Caribbean writer in Britain led Salkey to become an instrumental figure in developing a diasporic consciousness among Caribbean artists and intellectuals at home and abroad. Salkey experienced the majority of his literary success in the 1960s-1970s with the steady publishing of his children’s novels alongside his adult fiction and poetry. This early success reflects the appetites of British and American publishers during this period. Salkey’s literary works are often underpinned by a political message or influenced by Salkey’s experience of ‘exile’ from his home, Jamaica. By the 1980s the popularity of this type of writing had waned and Caribbean writers often found it more difficult to be published in the UK and also in the US. Salkey continued to write prolifically regardless of his works being published less often. His archive, held at the British Library, includes unpublished manuscripts and typescripts of work he attempted to publish without success. All of the unpublished novels in the archive are children’s novels: The Multi-Coloured Bear of Moscow Road, Luisito, and Norman Kelly. This blog will focus on his unpublished children’s novel Luisito and his unpublished long poem In America.

Luisito is a children’s novel based on the true story of the assassination of a ten-year-old boy, Luis Alfonso Velasquez Flores (Luisito), by the Somoza Regime in Nicaragua during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Luisito was a child revolutionary fighting against the oppressive Somoza Regime in the late 1970s. Salkey wrote in his notes that he first read about the assassination of Luisito in Gramma the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party on 2 September 1979. He began his research notebook on the events surrounding the event and Luisito’s life on 12 October 1980.  He lists the ‘characters’, ‘events’ and ‘places’ in the story based on his research of the events in much the same way he did for all of his novels. To ensure he had the correct information Salkey contacted the Office of the National Network in Solidarity with the Nicaraguan People in Washington DC, and the Nicaraguan Mission at the United Nations in New York. He also wrote to the Nicaraguan government twice, in October 1980 and September 1981, but did not receive a reply. Salkey’s friend, the American writer and activist Margaret Randall, was living and working in Nicaragua at the time. She had interviewed Luisito’s mother for her own work about Nicaraguan women. She sent Salkey copies of photographs of his mother and his passport. It is clear from the level of detail how invested Salkey became not only in Luisito’s death, but the cause he was fighting for against the Somoza Regime. Salkey wrote in his diary ‘I haven’t experienced this before, this extraordinary personal identification with the life and death of someone I’m trying to write about. A very odd feeling and equally odd behaviour on my part’.

There are similarities between this children’s novel and his earlier children’s book Joey Tyson. Both look at a ‘real life’ event from the perspective of a child and attempt to engage the reader in adult issues in a way they can understand. There is a clear educational undertone to the work that can be found in most of Salkey’s children’s story writing. The story was sent to publishers in the UK and the US, but was ultimately rejected by them all. Salkey was told by one US publisher that it was ‘too polemical. Too political’.

Salkey began the long poem In America in July 1976, just before his permanent move from the UK to the US, and completed it in August 1981. He had originally allocated four years to write the four ‘books’ (chapters) that make up the poem. In the notebook he kept for this work he wrote a set of notes for this period and a further “late extra notes” for the additional work he did on the poem. This literary project was a deeply personal one for Salkey. He writes in his diary ‘it’s a kind of diarist’s long poem, a record of the poet’s slow acquaintance of his new situation in America, and of America as an experience capable of being written about in poetry’. Alongside this exploration of America, the long poem also delves in to Salkey’s feelings of self-imposed exile from Jamaica and the mixed feelings of living closer to the Caribbean than before. Salkey wrote his novel Luisito within the same time period, which influenced his writing of In America:

In the same breath, the very same poet reminds us:

    Somewhere, right now, someone, or system clever as

    mustard, is busy building a Somoza castle of sand on an

    unsuspecting shoreline. Stop it, if you can!

This verse also encapsulates Salkey’s call to arms style of literary activism. Ultimately the polemic tone of some of the poetry in the long poem contributed to publishers rejecting the manuscript. US publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc. were interested in the long poem but ultimately turned it down to focus on younger poets. William Morrow also turned it down. Salkey writes in his diary in November 1981 that he was not surprised that US publishers rejected the work; ‘I don’t think most of them are ready for the quirky experience the manuscript tends to deliver. In a sense, they never will’. Unfortunately, Salkey was equally as unsuccessful in the UK. He sent the manuscript to Hutchinson Publishing Group, Allison & Busby, and Faber and Faber; they all turned the manuscript down. The UK publishers saw merit in the work as an ambitious, interesting and diverse long poem. However, the did not think that there would be a viable audience for this type of work in the UK.

Source

[1] The George Padmore Institute: Why Publish Independently (online) Accessed 2nd April 2020 https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/the-pioneering-years/new-beacon-books-early-history/why-publish-independently

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