THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

90 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

25 May 2020

Invoking the Dunkirk Spirit: Thames to Dunkirk 1940 to 2020

Add comment

In this guest post, we are very pleased to welcome the artist Liz Mathews. The Library holds several of Liz Mathews' works in our artists books collection, including Thames to Dunkirk. During the past weeks, we have been working with Liz to create a new short film that shows this work and reflects on the events of the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk in May and June 1940.   
 
DSC_0025
 
Thames to Dunkirk in the British Library Writing Exhibition, 2019

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

DSC_0819

Front cover of Thames to Dunkirk

 

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

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

DSC_0821

DSC_0705

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

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

TtoD p21 copy

Thames to Dunkirk, p.21.

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

DSC_0437

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

 

TtoD p10 copy

Thames to Dunkirk, p.10

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

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

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

DSC_0786

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

TtoD p18 Harry West detail
Thames to Dunkirk, p.18.

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

Marking with wooden pegMarking Thames to Dunkirk book with a wooden clothes peg

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

DSC_0444

Card for the Dunkirk Project

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

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

TtoD p20 copy TtoD p21 copy 2

Thames to Dunkirk, p.20-1

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

DSC_0829

Captain Tom Moore post-mark

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

Ethel Maud

20 May 2020

What Have We Been Reading?

Add comment

This week marks the first in our blog series What Have We Been Reading? where the English & Drama Blog canvasses a broad range of British Library departments and curators to pick their brains about what they've been reading in their spare time. Views -- as always in this series -- are their own.

Jessica Gregory, Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Manuscripts. 

The last book I bought before the lockdown was Bernadine Evaristo's, Girl, Woman, Other, which has a wonderful cast of characters that kept me entertained for the first few weeks. As well as this, I think its exploration of intersectional feminism makes for essential reading. I have been exploring women in the modern manuscript collections and British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820,  by Devoney Looser, has helped me to do this by introducing me to some important women writers. I have also started George Eliot's, Middlemarch, which has been on my to-read list for yonks, and rightly so, as department holds the original manuscript, so catching up with this classic was a priority. Aside from these, I am crawling through Elana Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend, in an effort to learn some Italian. I barely manage a page a night, so it’s slow progress. I’ll probably finish the book some point next year at this rate, and then of course, there is the rest of the series! 

Girl Woman Other
510298_media-0

MiddlemarchAmiga Genial


Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

Reading can be a great way to distract one’s self and get some much needed escapism from the real world, with all of its problems, especially in times of crisis. So would a book about that same crisis be a good choice for some relaxing reading? Maybe not, but Quarantine by Wim Daniels, seems to find an eager audience, in the Netherlands and Flanders, because it is written in Dutch. The publisher Thomas Rap claims it is the first ‘Corona-novel’. I am always a bit suspicious about these sort of claims, because how can we be sure someone else did not get there first, but without the publishing and marketing machine we in the West have at our disposal? It is in any case the first corona novel ‘in the world’ in the Netherlands. Let’s leave it at that. It’s not important. The main question is, is it a good read? I haven’t started it yet, and the blurb is not that informative.This is what it says:

'Quarantine’ tells the story of a Dutch man and woman, who independently travel to a holiday resort in the Dordogne for some important business. Then Corona arrives. Together they are looking for answers, but the problems only seem to accumulate. Yet, they recognise something in each other. Their conversations reveal surprising insights.’ 

Am I supposed to believe this is not a cheesy love-story? I better start eaves dropping in on their conversations, just to check. I’ll let you know what I think.

61311de5c9b1a6de7b3e5df293a01081_cache_

 

Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives

I am currently reading Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams by Christopher Stevens. I am really enjoying it partly as I love a good biography but especially because Kenneth Williams was such an interesting figure, whose life and career were more varied than I had first realised. Did you know for example that he trained as a draughtsman after leaving school or that he was the understudy for Richard Burton in a production of The Seagull at Swansea's Grand Theatre in 1950? The Library holds Williams' archive too so any insights that I can gain from the book will help deepen my understanding of his life and work. The archive isn't yet available to order in the Reading Room however if you're looking for more Kenneth at home, the Library has made the audio available from one of it's 2016 events, which looks at Williams as a prolific (and incisive) diarist.

Hbg-title-9781848544604-4

 

 

 

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator of Central and East European Collections

In late March, I decided that staying at home was good for finally getting engaged with really thick books.  Nino Haratischvili’s novel The Eight Life is a sort of book, which one would struggle to handle on the go, especially on daily commutes. The story of the 20th century in the form of a family saga is unveiled over 935 pages. Written in 2014 in German and just recently translated into English by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (published by Scribe), the novel received the English Pen Translates award and is long-listed for the 2020 International Booker Prize.

If I were writing a critical review, I would have presented a list of slips and inaccuracies and argue that the novel and its translation could have benefited from better editing. However, not being a critic, shall I just say that I was incredibly moved by the story and found myself crying (more than once) not even bothering to brush away my tears? Maybe, because the story made me think about my own family and its untold accounts and hidden truths and lies, or maybe, because I have just recently discovered a wonderful country called Georgia and traced the characters’ movements on the map of Tbilisi, which I visited last summer? Well, I’m getting sentimental and can get away with it now, when I don’t have to conceal my feelings on the busy Tube. I wonder if this might change when we return to our hectic routine and social contacts. In any case, it is good to be reminded that there are some books out there which one might prefer to read unobserved.

Eighth Life

 

Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives

I was reading D H Lawrence when lockdown occurred and having slogged my way through The Rainbow (rewarding but not easy) I decided to raid my music-geek husband’s bookshelves for some lighter fare. I settled on the 40th anniversary edition of Hunter Davies’ Beatles book which I had been meaning to read for ages given that we have the privilege of looking after about a dozen of The Beatles’ original lyrics, including the manuscripts of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Yesterday’.

The majority of the Beatles lyrics in our collections come from Hunter Davies who started collecting them while hanging out with the band in 1967-68. As ‘The Only Ever Authorised Biography’ of The Beatles, Hunter’s book provides a snapshot of them at a particular moment in time. Most biographers have the benefit of hindsight and plenty of much-admired works on The Beatles have come out since 1968, but the beauty of this particular book is that it’s a hastily written first-hand account by an author whose attitude and sense of humour is not far off that of the The Beatles themselves. I particularly enjoyed the bits about the boys scandalising their parents with their long hair and ‘drainies’ and their refusal to conform, plus Hunter’s description of their song-writing methods, and the period details about the Liverpool teenage club scene where fans and musicians alike took their lunch along to gigs.  Hunter’s reflections on things he missed or couldn’t reveal at the time in his 1985 postscript and his 2009 introduction are in themselves interesting for what they show us about how we construct story over time. I think this may be the beginning of a project to read more Beatles books in chronological order, although strictly speaking I should go back to Michael Braun’s 1964 book Love Me Do before I start going forwards.

Beatles book real

07 May 2020

Angela Carter: A Celebration

Add comment

By Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. Read more about the Angela Carter Archive on Discovering Literature and see the entire catalogue entry on our catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts at Add MS 88899. Listen back to our event, Angela Carter: a Celebration, presented in association with the Royal Society of Literature at the British Library on 24th November 2016.

To mark what would have been the year of Carter’s 80th birthday, we wanted to give everyone another chance to listen to Angela Carter: A Celebration, an event presented in association with the Royal Society of Literature at The British Library on 24 November 2016. Edmund Gordon, author of the multiple award-winning The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography talks to Lisa Appignanesi, Susannah Clapp and Pauline Melville, all friends of Carter. Something to enjoy, perhaps, while raising a drink (Carter enjoyed wine, I believe) of your choice in honour of Carter’s memory, and in celebration of her work.

 

Angela Carter, had she lived, would have celebrated her 80th birthday on May 7th this year. Sadly, we will never know what she would have made of the current world situation but, from her books, articles and interviews we can be certain that her opinions would have been perceptive, original and expressed with a refreshingly bracing honesty and vigour. There are many things to admire about Carter’s life and work, but perhaps none more so than the fact she wasn’t afraid of tackling the big subjects and addressing each one – sex, death, politics, class, feminism and parenthood to name but a few – with a devil-may-care directness. Even when people disagreed with her observations, as some did for example with The Sadeian Woman (1979) - her influential critique of pornography and the cultural determinism of gender and sexuality - it’s impossible not to admire the intelligence, wit and originality with which her ideas were expressed.

Angela Carter 02

Angela Carter, circa 1975. (c) Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter

During her career Carter wrote novels and short stories that changed the landscape of British fiction. In particular the books she published from the early 1970s onwards display a remarkable originality. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), for example, largely inspired by her experiences of Japan marries surrealism and philosophy to tell a tale that seems more relevant than ever in today’s world of computer games and virtual reality. The Passion of New Eve (1977) meanwhile, one of the key works of 1970s feminism, satirises simplistic notions of gender, sex and identity. Angela Carter was always well ahead of the curve. The stories in The Bloody Chamber combine feminism and fairy tales with sublime Gothic imagery to inspire emotions in the reader that are by turns shocking and uplifting. Her final two novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991) took her work in new directions. Wise Children, with its highly theatrical – in every possible sense of the word – cast of characters is a stylish and original take on highbrow and lowbrow art and the claims both have for a place in the world, and in our affections.

2

A page from Angela Carter’s manuscript draft of ‘The Bloody Chamber’. Add. MS 88899/1/13. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter

With the support of the Estate of Angela Carter the British Library was able to feature highlights from her papers on its Discovering Literature: 20th Century website. From articles on themes such as fairy tales, cross-dressing and identity to explorations of individual collection items such as Carter’s manuscript drafts of Nights at the Circus or her notes about Tooting Granada Cinema the website allowed us to bring items from the archive to a worldwide audience. Indeed, we could add to the picture of Carter given by her archive by including other British Library collection items, such as her experimental poem 'Unicorn', first printed in 1963 in Vision, a magazine edited by Carter and Nick Curry when the pair were students at Bristol University. The poem, which takes the medieval myth of the unicorn and virgin and transposes it to a sleazy modern setting of pornography and strip clubs provides an early precursor to novels like The Passion of New Eve and the stories in The Bloody Chamber.

3

A page from Carter’s experimental poem ‘Unicorn’, from an edition published by the Location Press in 1966. Cup.805.a.9. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter

Curators always have favourites among the archives they look after, even if in many ways they’re not really supposed to ‘value’ one collection over another. Like passing the port to the right or snoozing through the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day curators having favourites is slightly frowned upon in some circles. All the same, given that an archive of a writer, politician, publisher, actor, etc., should provide as complete a picture as possible of their life and work the archive of Angela Carter is undeniably a fascinating source of wonders.

 

01 May 2020

Andrew Salkey and The Multi-Coloured Bear of Moscow Road

Add comment

By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310), working in collaboration with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and the British Library. This blog is the first in a series looking at Salkey’s literary works. The blog will be followed by more in-depth pieces on Salkey’s career in the Autumn, in the run up to the delayed launch of the Andrew Salkey Archive.   

What do you get if you cross Fidel Castro with Paddington Bear?

As more of us are stuck at home looking for ways to inspire and engage our children, I thought that I'd use the first blog in this series on Andrew Salkey as an opportunity to look at an unpublished children’s story from Salkey's archive, which he wrote with his two sons, Jason and Eliot Salkey. Written in the late 1960s, it’s a particularly impressive story as both of Salkey’s sons were under ten when they wrote it. It’s a fun children’s story about a larger than life bear and his adventures around London, influenced heavily by Salkey’s love of Cuba and Fidel Castro, and his own experiences as an immigrant in London.

The Multi-Coloured Bear of Moscow Road is about a large multi-coloured bear called Fidel or ‘McB’ to his friends. Salkey visited Cuba in 1968 for the Cultural Congress of Havana, which undoubtedly inspired his family with this story as the character of McB is, unsubtly, based on Fidel Castro. He lived on Moscow Road, the same road as the Salkey family home before they moved to the USA in 1976. The style of the story is similar to Paddington Bear and follows the exploits of McB as he visits London for a yearlong trip. McB is ’a warm weather bear’ born in Havana, Cuba ‘during the first week or so of 1959’. To differentiate him from any of the other bears found in children’s literature Salkey and his sons gave him a ‘unique’ style. He is described as having eyes that are ‘Caribbean blue’ and a brown fur coat ‘speckled all over with black, purple, green, yellow, Seville orange and red smudges’ and that he wore ‘a multi-coloured militia soft cap’ and chain-smoked cigars. I think it is fair to say he would not be the greatest role model for the children of today! Unfortunately, Salkey’s archive does not include any artist’s impressions or illustrations of McB, so I have put together my own interpretation of what he could have looked like on the jacket sleeve!

McB crop

The story follows McB as he explores London, stopping off at well-known landmarks such as Buckingham Palace, London Zoo and the Serpentine. Although the chapters do follow a conventional structure of a children’s story book Salkey is still able to inject his trademark satirical commentary into McB’s interactions, playing on his likeness to Fidel Castro. The bankers McB meets at the Royal Mint are wary and suspicious of him and he is not welcome, whilst the Dockers at the Pool of London wave and cheer when they see him.

Salkey and his sons are also able to create a subtle commentary on being an outsider in London. Written from the perspective of McB as someone who does not fit in anywhere in London, he stands out with an overly large body and vibrant fur. He is wary of the ‘red monster’, which turns out to be a red bus, he daydreams of ‘Spanish jars of logwood honey’, and he writes letters home to his brother. As he becomes more familiar with London, McB learns to love the ‘friendly red monsters’ and buys a fleet of buses to send home. He also builds friendships with his human neighbours, and throws a birthday party. McB finds a way to make London his temporary home as he buys a house and marries a lovely ‘lady bear’. Although only an assistant in the authorship of this story, Salkey’s experience of being an immigrant in London is clear to see.

Salkey did attempt to have the manuscript published; he sent it to the publishers of Paddington Bear, Collings Publishers, as well as Oxford University Press among others. Although some of the publishing houses were impressed that children so young had written the manuscript, the consensus was that the story was too much of an ‘in-family joke’ and that it did not fit with the rest of their book list. Salkey’s archive includes the correspondence from the publishers explaining their refusals, as well as a typescript and carbon copies of the story.

17 April 2020

To Sir With Love, a new appreciation for an old favourite

Add comment

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator, Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. Read more about E.R Braithwaite, and To Sir With Love on the Library's Discovering Literature pages, here.

How are you spending the lockdown? Being at home could mean a chance to read all those books that you have never quite got around to. Or then again it could be an opportunity to re-visit some old favourites which in my case includes E.R. Braithwaite’s To Sir With Love. Published in 1959 this semi-autobiographical book tells the story of Rick Braithwaite who finds work teaching in a tough East End school in the early 1950s. It is an exploration of prejudice, teenage rebellion and triumph over adversity which sees the teacher come face to face with racism and kindness in post-war London. This is a great book to read at any time, but the difficulties that Rick faces in trying to interest his teenage class in their education will probably ring especially true for anyone faced with home schooling their children at the moment. 

I feel very lucky that the Library has an annotated typescript of To Sir with Love in its collections, which forms part of the archive of the publisher Max Reinhardt, who managed The Bodley Head Press. Selected pages from the typescript have been digitised for Discovering Literature which means that you can enjoy reading an excerpt from the book, complete with E.R. Braithwaite’s handwritten annotations, even when the Library is closed.

 

Braithwaite

Typewritten draft, with copious manuscript amendments, of Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love, published by The Bodley Head, 1959. Add MS 88987/2/10

In this insert from Chapter IV, Rick goes to an interview for a job as a Communications Engineer only to be rejected because the interview panel feel that their white workforce would not wish to be managed by a black man. The incident highlights the racism that was present in Britain at the time but which Rick had not experienced whilst serving as an RAF serviceman during the war. His disillusionment is complete when he telephones the other companies to which he had applied for work to inform them that he is black, only to be told that the jobs (for which he had been offered interviews) have been filled. Rick reflects on his upbringing and the Britishness which he felt growing up but which he realises does not mean that he is British in the eyes of British people. His pain is palpable and upsetting, yet for the purposes of the story his decision to turn his back on his pre-war profession leads him to teaching, which forms the basis of the book.

I would whole heartedly recommend this book to anyone, along with its sequel, Paid Servant (1962), which Braithwaite wrote about his subsequent time as a social worker. Please do take a look at the Discovering Literature webpages and those relating to Beryl Gilroy, the pioneering teacher and writer. Gilroy’s autobiography, Black Teacher, was published in 1976 whilst her novel, In Praise of Love and Children written in 1959 and only published in 1996 was featured in the Library’s Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition in 2018. Hopefully it will provide inspiration for all those parent-teachers out there.

 

 

 

15 April 2020

Collecting Literature on the Web: a Q&A

Add comment

A Q&A with Carlos Rarugal, Assistant Web Archivist about the UK Web Archive’s literary collections, and the challenges faced by colleagues trying to collect the web, conducted by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. For more news and information about the work of the UK Web Archive, visit their blog or follow them on Twitter.

‘Oh, you work at the British Library? You guys have everything, right?’ My colleagues and I hear this more often than you’d think. Usually it’s in reference to the Legal Deposit Act, which states that one copy of every book (which includes pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, sheet music and maps) published in the United Kingdom must be sent to the British Library (and, that five other UK libraries have the right to request a free copy within one year of publication). But books — even if they include unusual printed formats — aren’t everything. So much knowledge, entertainment, culture and community is created and shared without ever going to print in the traditional sense. This is why Legal Deposit legislation was updated in 2013 to include regulations around ‘non-print’ works, making provision for the collection of works published online or offline in formats other than print, such as websites, blogs, e-journals and CD-ROMs. The UK Web Archive (which celebrated its 15th birthday this year!) exists to collect, make accessible and preserve web resources of scholarly and cultural importance from the UK domain in line with this legislation. But the Archive also plays an important role in selecting and curating this material. I spoke to Carlos Rarugal, Assistant Web Archivist, about some of their literary collections — the challenges they face — and how you can get involved.

Hi Carlos. Considering the UK Web Archive is relatively young, it’s often presumed that it’s focus is exclusively on contemporary material, but I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of content about contemporary reception of older literary material, like the Dickens Bicentenary and the 19th Century Literature collections — how do you decide which anniversaries to collect?

Hi Callum. The Dickens Bicentenary and 19th Century literature collections are examples of what we call Special Collections, in that they’re actively curated, either by Library staff or outside experts. Web Archiving happens in two streams, called a Domain Crawl and a Frequent Crawl. The Domain Crawl takes place once a year over several months and is a ‘shallow crawl’ of all known UK hosted web-sites. As you can imagine, this involves many millions of web-sites, so we deliberately cap the amount of data per site to 500 megabytes and refer to it as a ‘shallow capture’ because it’s unlikely to capture the whole complexity of the original website.

The Frequent crawl is different because it’s curated and deals with a relatively small subset of websites, around 100,000, each including a unique database record and metadata. Special Collections are often created to highlight frequently crawled sites because a curator or external partner outside of the UK Web Archive, with access to tools, has added the site for crawling, or the public has nominated the topic for inclusion, or curators and archivists within the UK Web Archive team itself were made aware of the occasion. Our network of internal and external experts means that we’re particularly good at capturing material relating to contemporary reception of historical events, as well as more active events as they happen. (As you can imagine, our whole team is very busy with the Pandemic Outbreaks collection right now).

Screenshot 2020-04-15 at 16.15.49A screenshot taken from the UK Web Archive's 19th Century Literature Special Collections Page, showing the breadth of content being captured, from news and blogs to academic journals.

One of the collections which I think will be of particular interest to readers of this blog is the Poetry and Zines Special Collection.  This must be a very difficult collection to build in some ways, as this activity often happens in the nooks and crannies of the internet — can you say a little bit about how these collections are built? 

It would be fair to say that we have archived millions of websites that have yet to be discovered or accessed by the public. Websites that feature zines, poetry zines and journals have been captured, though their numbers are few. Contributions come from the curatorial team responsible for contemporary published collections, especially Debbie Cox and Jerry Jenkins (ed note: whose extensive work on Artists’ Books has appeared on this blog). We rely on them and their highly specialised knowledge and professional connections to build these obscure collections. Our work is always collaborative in this way. We try to partner with as many Curators and Archivists as possible, and also with external experts who are keen to get involved in web archiving.

One of these experts, Pete Hebden, who we were lucky enough to work with recently, just posted to the UK Web Archive Blog talking about his experience of exploring and helping to build this collection. If your readers are looking for a place to start, I’d recommend they take a look.

You spoke about contemporary events earlier, two of the largest collections which are available from home seem to be the ones relating to Black and Asian Britain and LGBT issues. This isn’t surprising given how active the online discourse around social justice has become in the past ten or fifteen years. The Library has been active in these spaces more generally, with exhibitions such as Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land and Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty, and their corresponding web spaces, Black and Asian Britain and LGBTQ Histories. But these are highly controlled spaces, sensitively and co-operatively curated by experts and activists. Collecting web-content  — which is relatively uncontrolled, and sometimes hurtful and offensive — must present huge issues in terms of data-protection and hate-speech.

Yes, definitely. There are quite a few sensitive areas in the UK Web Archive: adult sites, for instance, aren’t promoted but are still archived. Personally, I think it’s important that we archive all sides of the story; and if certain narratives are controversial, we should pay particular attention.  All sides of the conversation will be important for the historians of the future, who will see value in a discursive and highly active medium with a rich research potential. We are limited, of course, but more-so in technical than curatorial and legal terms.

If a site is public, then we are simply operating within our obligation as outlined in the 2013 Non-Print Legal Deposit act. Whether or not we can capture this content is a more of a technical issue, as many sites that include forums for discussions are highly dynamic (PHP or Javascript heavy) and very difficult to capture using our current setup. The discussions online are also occurring more frequently on app-based platforms, which again we are unable to capture, and sites such as Facebook (to name a few) are designed to inhibit crawlers and so we are prevented from archiving.

Under these regulations, if archived content is illegal, it will be suppressed from public access. The content we collect grows daily by gigabytes and is not ‘processed’ at the point of archiving; rather there is a delay to archived content being made available (to both curators and the public). Only parts of our archived content is full-text indexed, so it would not be possible to perform deep searches on recent crawls.

There are times when content can be removed from public access for other limited reasons; for example if sensitive personal data has been mistakenly published on a live website. Our Notice and Takedown process is robust and we are quick to respond; thankfully, there have only been a handful of such requests in the past few years. Archiving under GDPR is permitted as stated in Article 89 which allows ‘archiving in the public interest’.

Screenshot 2020-04-15 at 16.17.42
The Black and Asian Britain Special Collection page is one of the largest, and contains a wide variety of literary material, from author pages to literary festivals and Twitter pages.

You mentioned social media and how difficult it is to archive. Whilst there’s clearly work going on in this area, I think the Archive does a good job of capturing some of the everyday interactions that happen online, especially on public forums. One of the most charming hubs, and I think it’s important too, is the one relating to Online Enthusiast Communities in the UK. The internet seems able to bring people with similar interests together across huge geographical distances. Most of this activity happens on specialist forums. Everything is represented here, it’s a real curiosity shop, from fans of Japanese Anime to Pylon enthusiasts. Some of the collections that might interest our readers are the Comics UK Forum and the Writers Online Forum. What are some of the issues around collecting this kind of highly social material?

People are fascinated by the spectrum of content in the Online Enthusiast Communities of the UK Collection, and although a lot has been tagged into that collection, it’s likely that more sites that have already been archived are waiting to be added to it, or have yet to be nominated and are waiting to be archived. Whilst all Collections remain active, only a few at a time have the focus of curators and archivists. When a Collection is in focus, curators, archivists, and external partners all work together to focus on adding targets en-masse, with a sustained amount of archiving within a short time frame. Collections in focus need attention so that time-sensitive content is quickly captured. For example, Twitter or news articles that should be captured, perhaps daily, require curation to add/amend the crawling schedules of those websites.

Another issue when archiving uncommon content is the lack of discovery; if we are unaware of their existence then it is unlikely that we will capture that content, even in the Domain Crawl. This issue is compounded when delving deeper into a site, that is, looking at their online forums where regular discussions occur. Without the proper intervention of users, these overlooked forums may not be crawled, and if they are, they may only be shallow crawls that occur infrequently. We do have forums that are being captured often, sometimes daily, however, it is rare that we would have a frequent crawl of a forum unless a user updated a record accordingly. The complex structure of forums, and the fact that they often sit behind a login, makes them more difficult to capture effectively.

Screenshot 2020-04-15 at 16.17.23The Online Enthusiast Communities in the UK page is a fascinating insight into how communities of shared interest, including those of a literary bent, evolve online.

Thanks Carlos

10 April 2020

Postcards for our times

Add comment

Postcards-sent-from-angela-005

Postcard from the archive of Angela Carter Archive, Add MS 88899/3/4-24. © Courtesy of Susannah Clapp. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

When was the last time you sent a friend a postcard? Perhaps now’s the time. Yes, you could Whatsapp or videocall or email, but who doesn’t love post? Even if receiving it in this day and age does throw up multiple questions. Should I wash my hands after touching it? Did the postwoman wear gloves? My dad even took to quarantining the daily newspaper for a while until the absurdity of reading 24 hour-old ‘news’ got the better of him. Still, once you’ve got past the hurdle of welcoming an item from the outside world into your home, there is all the joy of the postcard to appreciate. A written message and a visual element to admire, and perhaps some witty interplay between the two, depending on the acuity of the sender.

As we continue our blog series on Digital Literary Collections and following on from Callum’s post on the epistolary novel, I’d like to draw attention to the humble postcard. Sometimes overlooked within the correspondence section of a literary archive, many of our contemporary literary archives contain substantial numbers of postcards and greetings cards. Unlike the heavyweight genre that is the literary letter, they may not be as painstakingly performative and endlessly quotable as their paper counterparts. But these cardboard cousins offer us a more intimate and arguably less self-conscious view of literary friendships. And the images chosen by the senders can themselves offer insights into the workings of a writer’s imagination.

In Susannah Clapp’s article Angela Carter in Postcards on our Discovering Literature: 20th Century website, she recalls her friendship with Carter as played out in postcards ‘dashed off throughout the 1980s from Australia, the States, Europe, London’:

These cards told more than one story. The cartoons, paintings and photographs Angela chose sometimes contradicted, at other times re-emphasised her words on the other side. Some of the images glance at a conversation we had been having, or at an episode in Angela’s life. Sometimes, of course, the picture hints at nothing. Soon it will be harder to uncover the hidden history here, to know what is random and what is allusive.

The images which Carter sent to Clapp reveal her preoccupation with Shakespeare in the early stages of work on Wise Children, as well as her delight in lampooning authority figures, and her aesthetic tastes (there’s something particularly Carteresque about the red splatter of Mount Etna exploding in a card sent to Clapp in 1987). For further commentary see Susannah Clapp's article Angela Carter in Postcards, or her beautiful little book, A Card From Angela Carter.

Postcards-sent-from-angela-003

Postcards-sent-from-angela-014

Postcards from the archive of Angela Carter Archive, Add MS 88899/3/4-24. © Courtesy of Susannah Clapp. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

As a great sender of postcards, it follows that Carter also received many in return. The large collection in her archive includes examples from other writer friends, such as one from ‘Jim’ [J G] Ballard, congratulating her on ‘your demolition job on Our Saviour’, referring to a documentary she had written and narrated irreverently deconstructing visual images of Christ. Aptly, Ballard chose a reproduction of Dalí’s surrealist painting of Mae West as a vehicle for his message, while comparing her achievement to that of other surrealist artists: ‘Breton + Ernst would have been proud of you’. Given the visual sophistication of both writers’ work it’s not surprising that they both enjoyed this means of communication. (For more on Ballard’s interest in and influence on visual art see Roger Luckhurst’s article on our site.)

And of course, sometimes the postcards we find in a writer’s possession were never sent but were kept for inspiration, such as Winston Levy’s souvenir postcard of the Empire Windrush that hung on his daughter Andrea Levy’s wall as a visual reminder of the true story that prompted her to write Small Island.

Empire Windrush

Postcard of Empire Windrush purchased by Winston Levy on board ship, 1948 © By kind permission of Andrea Levy

I’m off to look through my postcard collection… Meanwhile, if anyone is feeling lonely and in need of post during lockdown, see the brilliant Shaun Usher’s offer to send a ‘letter of need’.

08 April 2020

Born-digital Literary Archives — How We’re Capturing the Future

Add comment

by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. For more information about the challenges and opportunities posed by born-digital material elsewhere in the Library, see the Digital Scholarship Blog and the extensive work of the Library's Digital Preservation Department.

I. Capturing a Moving Target

If you’re adjusting to working from home, look around your working area: maybe you have a home office or you’ve repurposed the dining table, or you're out in the garden. Did anyone in your team — when making the move — scramble to transport the filing cabinets or stacks of unsorted paper that had accumulated on their desks to their new workspace? If not, this is sufficient evidence that the way a lot of us work has radically changed; a platitude that doesn’t get less true with repetition. Your computer (and, more often than not, the network) has at least partially relegated or replaced the paper in your professional life with ‘Digital Objects’ — a useful but deceptively complex archival term — defined by the Society of American Archivists as, “a unit of information that includes properties (attributes or characteristics of the object) and may also include methods (means of performing operations on the object)”. If the word ‘object’ seems ontologically insufficient to carry such a definition, with its emphasis on process, relationship, and contingency, then this is part of the problem we’re facing. (Archivists — and traditional archival methodologies — have a clear (and often justified) tendency to fetishise permanence and fixity). 

This shift towards the ‘digital’ is no less dramatic in the personal archives of the novelists, poets and playwrights collected by the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts department at the Library, whose historical remit (c.1950-) traces the rapidly evolving landscape of personal computing in the latter half of the twentieth century and the explosion of the internet and social media, which is by no means complete, in the twenty-first. This shifting landscape means that, more often than not, we collect ‘hybrid’ archives comprised of traditional paper material and — depending on the donor’s enthusiasm for new forms of technology — a variety of digital formats, including floppy-disks, CD-ROMs, spinning hard-drives, USB sticks, and even laptop computers. Creative writers are, much more-so than institutions, academics and scientists, given to superstition and mysticism regarding the tools of their trade. Most are methodologically conservative and eager to link their ability to produce work to their idiosyncratic habits and tools. (On this blog, Chris Beckett’s discussion of Will Self’s use of post-it notes and typewriters in one of our most significant hybrid archives is an excellent case-study of how complex these interrelationships can become).

 

Screenshot

A double-sided Amsoft branded Compact floppy disk from the Archive of poet Wendy Cope, dated 1989.

What becomes apparent when attempting to capture, preserve, arrange and fix these ‘Digital Objects’ is that an undeniable materiality — often partially erased by the term ‘digital’ — is fundamental to their structure. The history of computing is a history of design miracles, both technical and aesthetic. Recovering a long-forgotten Word Perfect file from an Amstrad Floppy Disk is an archeological task, demanding attention to the structure and format of the data, its physical housing, and the software-codex able to make sense of it. Like a dig, it requires sensitive excavation equipment capable of moving the object without altering or destroying it. Similarly, capturing a hard-drive demands knowledge of how it reads, writes and stores data mechanically in order that when we act upon it we capture everything (including, interestingly, apparently empty space) and disturb as little as possible. (In a strange turn, archivists have learned to use software and hardware first developed by law-enforcement for these and other tasks).

 

Screenshot

A Kryoflux machine reads a 3.5” floppy disk using magnetic resonance technology to achieve a complete capture where possible, often helping us to recover partially-corrupted legacy data.

II. Representing exchange

Next to draft material, correspondence is another major component of the traditional literary archive. The movement from paper to digital has been just as pronounced in this area too, with e-mail becoming the dominant mode of communication for the vast majority of our donors. Unsurprisingly, the collection of e-mail archives presents its own challenges, both technical and curatorial. In much the same way that a letter might come to us within an envelope, an e-mail message is held within a machine-readable envelope — from which it is possible to glean similar kinds of data about sender, receiver, the path which the messaged travelled through on its journey from one to the other. All of this data must be preserved in order to retain the integrity of the archival collection, but much of it must also be withheld from public access for a significant period of time in order to comply with legal restrictions relating to the use of personal data.

Screenshot Screenshot 2

A side by side metadata comparison of a letter and an e-mail. The envelope sent by Samuel Beckett to B.S. Johnson contains critical metadata about dates and receiver, as well as about the French post-offices through which the letter travelled before reaching Johnson. The e-mail metadata contains much of the same information (highlighted) in a machine-readable format.

As well as these technical challenges, the preservation and access provision for e-mail archives must take into account its threaded nature  — its a conversation and so is not particularly amenable to the archival logic of ‘deliverable units' which guides our approach to paper manuscripts. Additionally, any robust archival process must consider e-mail's increased tendency to include rich media; including attachments such as word-processing files, images and sometimes even audiovisual material. The scale of the challenge for collecting institutions is huge. The largest e-mail archive held at the Library, (of the poet Wendy Cope, comprised of around 25,000 individual messages) contains everything from family correspondence, professional booking requests, draft revisions and shopping lists. Making sure that this material complies with data protection regulation in the UK before it is released is obviously a considerable task. Fortunately, software tools like ePadd, an e-mail archiving tool developed at Stanford University, exist to alleviate some of the issues; allowing us to filter and process messages more efficiently through the implementation of a tool-assisted approach.

Screenshot

ePadd’s user friendly interface allows curators to filter messages by correspondent, attachment and assign user-generated labels.


III. Managing Scale

Scale is a double-edged for born-digital literary archives. The growing size of these collections undoubtedly renders some established archival cataloguing techniques inadequate. Equally, as the the kinds of media stored on consumer-level storage devices become more complex, traditional techniques for information organisation and control become either too labour intensive or impossible to adapt to this new context. Nevertheless, the scale of structured metadata available for these new kinds of collection items allows us to explore new techniques for data visualisation and ‘enhanced curation’ in ways that would be impossible for more traditional archival collections.

 

Screenshot 3
Screenshot

Examples of how structured metadata can allow us to visualise and compile data in interesting ways using computing languages such as Python. The bar graph shows a time distribution for files in the Virago archive, with the 24 hour clock on the x axis and number of files on the y axis. The text describes some statistics and metrics for the same archive.

 

What next?

The processing, preservation and access provision for born digital literary archives is very much still an open field. The future is uncertain, but consequently still very exciting. Although there are many challenges ahead, if we are willing and able to leverage the technology, there are innumerable new discoveries to be made about the collections we hold, some of which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. In this way, our driving motivation for born-digital is no different than it is for paper -- to preserve, interpret and provide access to our collections for the inspiration and enjoyment of everyone.