30 July 2020
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 part of a series looking at Salkey’s literary works and involvement with publishing houses for black writing in Britain.
Andrew Salkey was a man of many hats; a novelist, poet, editor, broadcaster, academic, cultural promoter and activist but, his main passion in his life was writing. Salkey’s love for writing began as a young boy in Jamaica writing short stories in school exercise books and he continued to write almost daily until his death in 1995. His back-catalogue of literary work boasts a range of adult and children’s novels, short story collections, poetry collections and long poems. His archive reflects the sheer variety of his literary works and the characteristic political undertones of all of his writing. Salkey is often remembered for his role as a presenter of the BBC’s seminal programme ‘Caribbean Voices’ and as a leading figure in the diasporic consciousness of Caribbean artists and intellectuals in the UK through his role as co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM). However, he also had a significant influence on the development of Caribbean literary activism in London during the 1960s and 1970s through his unwavering support of two of the first black publishing houses in London New Beacon Books and Bogle L’Ouverture (BLP).
Salkey became involved with New Beacon books through his friendship with the founders, John La Rose and Sarah White. Salkey, La Rose and Kamau Brathwaite were the co-founders of CAM; a movement set up for Caribbean artists to get to know each other, and their work, as well as get to know their readers in the Caribbean diaspora. The CAM meetings were the first place La Rose and White sold their own publications. New Beacon Books was founded in 1966 as the UK’s first black publisher, specialist bookshop and international book distributor. The company was named after a journal, The Beacon, which ran from 1931-1932 in La Rose’s native Trinidad. New Beacon’s publishing and distribution was originally ran from La Rose and White’s flat until they were able to take over premises in Finsbury Park and begin functioning as a book store. The shop became the epicentre of many campaigns, movements and organisations Salkey was involved with including: CAM (1966-1972), and the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books- organised jointly with BLP and Race Today Publications (1982-1995).
Two of Salkey’s works were published by New Beacon Books: Georgetown Journal: a Caribbean writer’s journey from London to Port of Spain to Georgetown, Guyana 1970 (1972) and the second edition of Salkey’s critically acclaimed first novel, A Quality of Violence (1978). Georgetown Journal is an account of Salkey’s 1970 trip, with La Rose and Samuel Selvon, to Georgetown. They were guests at events organised by President Forbes Burnham marking the founding of the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana and the Caribbean Writers and Artists Conference. Salkey’s archive includes a letter from Trevor McDonald relating to the trip offering Salkey advice on who to target for interviews. McDonald was a producer on the Caribbean Service, he suggested President Forbes Burnham, Willy Demas and Clyde Walcott as interesting interviews but signed off his letter to Salkey with ‘I am leaving the rest to your impeccable judgement’.
In 1974 Salkey was given a directorship in New Beacon Books with ten shares. Salkey gave New Beacon Books all of the rights and proceeds from Georgetown Journal in a personal effort to ‘strengthen and consolidate’ the company. Despite this, Salkey was very aware of how financially draining the publishing endeavour was for La Rose. He laments in his diary about how much debt La Rose incurred printing Georgetown Journal, he goes on to say that apart from free manuscripts ‘I must also find a way to keep them with money or its hard-edged equivalent, in some way’.
Bogle L’Ouverture (BLP) was founded in London in 1968 by Guyanese couple Eric and Jessica Huntley. They were friends of La Rose and met Salkey through him. Although the Huntleys were never official members of CAM they were friends with many of its members. BLP was named after the Jamaican hero of the Morant Bay uprising, Paul Bogle, and Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture. When the Huntleys opened their bookshop in Ealing, they did so with the help and backing of La Rose. Salkey supported their endeavour in the same way he had with New Beacon Books. He was a Director and shareholder in the company and supported the organisation through the rights and proceeds of his manuscripts. He sent them other Caribbean writers’ works, and he offered them business and literary advice. In his diaries Salkey refers to BLP as ‘our publishing firm’, he was determined to be an active supporter of Caribbean writing and ‘keep the faith as a writer with my two Caribbean publishers in Britain’.
Salkey’s first novel published by BLP was the children’s story Joey Tyson. This was the third publication in BLP’s children’s series (which also included the writings of Bernard Coard), which was aimed at educating children in Britain about African and Caribbean history, politics and culture. Salkey’s ability to convey adult issues and themes to children in a way they can understand, and feel an affinity with, made him the perfect author for BLP’s literary activism. Joey Tyson depicts the exile of a fictional character, Dr Paul Bogle Buxton, from the perspective of a young boy. Dr Buxton, described as ‘the radical lecturer in African history at the university’, was a fictional imagining of Walter Rodney and his expulsion from Jamaica in 1968. One review of the novel retained in Salkey’s archive states: ‘Teachers looking for something new or something more and who appreciate that literature cannot be divorced from life will recognise the merits of Joey Tyson’. This work embodies the Huntleys’ and Salkey’s endeavour to create children’s literature that educated and rallied the new generation, encouraging grassroots activism and highlighted the counter-hegemony in Britain and the Caribbean. The launch for the novel was held at the Keskidee Centre in Islington, once used regularly for CAM functions, by Jessica Huntley on Salkey’s 47th birthday, 30 January 1975. In his diary he wrote that this day ‘symbolised an acceptance of my small contribution to our community, which I never thought I’d receive’.
Sources and Further Reading
David Austin Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal, Between the Lines, (Toronto: Canada, 2013)
Edited by Verner D. Mitchell, Cynthia Davis, The Black Arts Movement, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019),
The George Padmore Institute: Why Publish Independently (online) Accessed: 29/03/2020: https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/the-pioneering-years/new-beacon-books-early-history/why-publish-independently
15 August 2018
By Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives, and Silvia Gallotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer. The Michael Palin Archive, generously donated to the British Library by Michael Palin in 2017, is now available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room. A display – Michael Palin: Writer, Actor and Comedian – featuring items from the archive can be seen in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library until 11th November 2018.
Attempting to curate a small display featuring material from the archive of Michael Palin was rather like attempting to select a small number of iconic songs written by The Beatles. The sheer volume of fascinating material available to choose from rapidly made the task of deciding what to leave out the stuff of nightmares. Diaries, letters, photographs, notebooks, annotated scripts and publicity material all jostled for attention. About fifty of the notebooks date from Palin’s time with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and provide a fascinating insight into how comedy routines such as ‘Spam’ and ‘Spanish Inquisition’ developed through different versions into those we know – and can’t help but recite using all the different voices – today. Finding iconic material to exhibit was clearly not going to be a problem.
The Michael Palin display in Treasures Gallery at the British Library.
The display follows Palin’s career from the mid-1960s up to the late 1980s. The first case opens with the script for a mock theatrical documentary about attitudes towards sex through the ages called ‘The Love Show’ which Palin worked on with Terry Jones in 1965. Although never produced ‘The Love Show’, for which Palin received his first payment as a professional writer, shows early signs of the surreal humour that would come to define Monty Python. Other highlights in the first case include handwritten scripts by Palin and Jones for The Frost Report – a show which proved to be a meeting ground for future Pythons Palin, Jones, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle – and from Do Not Adjust Your Set where Palin, Jones and Idle met another future Python, Terry Gilliam. The item on display relating to Do Not Adjust Your Set is a sketch, written by Palin, called ‘Captain Fantastic’s Christmas’. David Jason played the hapless Captain Fantastic, a bumbling bowler-hatted superhero endlessly battling Mrs Black – ‘the most evil woman in the world’ – played by Denise Coffey. Although intended for children the anarchic humour of Do Not Adjust Your Set rapidly gained a cult following among adults.
‘Captain Fantastic’s Christmas’, a sketch written by Palin and starring David Jason as Captain Fantastic and Denise Coffey as Mrs Black. 1968. Add. MS 89284/2/11. © Michael Palin.
The following section is dedicated to Palin’s career with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and to his subsequent work on Ripping Yarns, and on films such as The Missionary, A Private Function and A Fish Called Wanda. Included in the display is an early scene from The Holy Grail in which a surreal explanation for the absence of horses and the use of coconut shells to mimic the sound of their hooves is provided (‘Our horses grew weary, unable to carry us further. We were forced to leave them by the mountain and continue with coconuts …’). Also included is an early draft of the ‘Biggus Dickus’ scene from Life of Brian and one of Palin’s notebooks in which he has written a potential running order for various Python routines including ‘Spanish Inquisition’, ‘Fish Licence’, ‘Scott of the Sahara’ and ‘Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights’.
One of Michael Palin’s notebooks, listing potential running orders for sketches including ‘Spanish Inquisition’, ‘Scott of the Sahara’, ‘Communist Quiz’, ‘Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights’ and many others. Add. MS 89284/2/15. © Michael Palin
Ripping Yarns, which Palin worked on with Terry Jones in the mid-1970s is represented by an annotated script from the pilot episode ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’. The episode is a brilliant satire on public school life and the adventure stories found in magazines such as The Boys Own Paper. Tomkinson’s trials at the school include being nailed to a wall on St Tadger’s Day, fighting the school grizzly bear, being hunted down by a leopard while attempting to escape and, as seen here, having to take part in the ‘Thirty Mile Hop’.
Annotated script for ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’, the first episode of Ripping Yarns broadcast in January 1976. Add. MS 89284/1/75. © Michael Palin
The last part of the display looks at some of the less widely known aspects of Palin’s career including his books for children, and the brilliantly disturbing Bert Fegg’s Nasty Book for Boys & Girls (a humorous book satirising popular encyclopaedias for children and presented as though written by the most unsuitable and disturbed person imaginable for the job). This part of the display also includes two of Palin’s diaries, one of which is open at an entry for 27 March 1970, in which Palin recollects the beginnings of his career just a few years earlier, when he was ‘finishing ‘The Love Show’ with Terry’, ‘still unmarried’, with ‘no immediate prospects’. He concludes: ‘A little bit of nostalgia, but I like sometimes to get my bearings right, just to convince myself that I haven’t wasted the 1960s’.
Michael Palin’s diary entry for 27th March 1970, reflecting upon the 1960s and writing the second series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. © Michael Palin
The display represents only a very small portion of the archive, but hopefully it provides a glimpse into the riches it contains. The large amount of material included in the collection relating to the production, publicity and distribution of Palin’s TV shows and films makes the archive a wonderful resource for those interested in the history of comedy, TV and filmmaking. The wealth of notebooks and annotated scripts meanwhile provides a unique insight into one of the nation’s most popular entertainers, and into the genesis and development of comedy sketches and films that are now part of the very fabric of our cultural history.
10 August 2018
by guest blogger Paul Boakye, who tells the story of his mother, Verona Franceta Pettigrew, and her primary job in Britain after migrating here from Jamaica in 1956. You can see her memoir - The Daybook of Mrs Pettigrew - on display in the Library's free exhibition, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, more details about which can be found here.
Mrs. Pettigrew in 1997
Everybody knew that Mrs Pettigrew’s Daybook was always 100% accurate. Mrs Pettigrew was the brilliant bookkeeper who managed the accounts department at the company where she worked for twenty years, but she was without a title, without a job description, and without even a contract of employment.
Her employers used the fact that the British were prejudiced on racial grounds to employ her, and others like her, partly under the table and off-the-record at the lower end of the pay-scale.
‘You were in charge as long as you were on your own. Once someone white came along, you became his or her assistant, but you had all the responsibility without any of the corresponding pay.’
Even the accountants used her bookkeeping accuracy to their advantage. They came twice a year to audit the books, but there was usually nothing for them to do after the first week, but they earned more money in two weeks than she got paid all year.
She had thought in 1966 that as the business grew, she would grow with it, but her Eastern European employers had no such plans for their “schvartze” workhorse. When the company finally computerised its accounts in 1986, Mrs Pettigrew’s expert paper-based system was now surplus to requirements.
She was not trained to use the company’s new accounting software. She taught herself at evening classes, but her job vanished anyway, her position now replaced by a new financial director’s post complete with company perks.
Upon losing her case for unfair dismissal, she fell under a spell of writing about her life and everything she could remember. So stirred was she by these diary entries that she moved from place to place with a briefcase full of papers.
She began by writing letters – first, to practically anybody who could help with the ensuing industrial tribunal case – and then, to a variety of friends, colleagues, politicians, people in the public eye, and even a daily missive to a secret, unnamed lover, entitled ‘Letters from America.’
Convinced that various figures in her life – her employers, doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists and social workers – have conspired in the destruction of her health, her home, and her career, she has moved temporarily to Deerfield, Illinois, as the companion to a sick and elderly woman.
Hiding out in suburbia, USA, she now writes endlessly, furiously, about all aspects of her life and everything under the sun. These stories are the primary source of material for The Daybook of Mrs Pettigrew Blog and the various posts shared with its 5000+ Facebook Fans.
Following on from the recent Windrush Scandal, we can perhaps begin to make allowances for Mrs Pettigrew’s state of mind—she is, after all, trying to make sense of her situation – and what it means to be a Black, British, Jamaican grandmother in today's modern world.
The wedding of Verona Franceta Bennett and Thomas Ranford Pettigrew in London, 1956.
She was supposed to have prospered in England but was worse off in Britain in 1997 than when she arrived in 1956. All of her former school friends from Jamaica were now big news in the United States. Yet the vast majority of West Indians she knew came to England for a better life for themselves and their children.
‘So, what the hell happened? Nothing! Zilch!’
She laughs out loud alone in her room with a selection of her diaries laid out before her.
‘No point being mad without showing it,’ she writes and underlines it.
Some people in England had thought that she was certifiable, and for a time there on medication, she had questioned whether she had, in fact, lost it. Having arrived out here in America, finally, although she still behaved oddly at times, she felt hopeful, confident, perceptive, and strong.
She was ‘awaiting an audience with Oprah.’ Dig in!
11 July 2018
By Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts. The James Berry Archive, which was acquired by the Library in 2012, is comprised of twenty-eight boxes containing drafts, notebooks, diaries, correspondence and audio-visual material spanning Berry’s fifty year career. Further details about the acquisition can be found here. A conference on Berry’s work will be held in the Knowledge Centre on 5th October 2018, with information and tickets available here. Details about the exhibition, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, containing items from the James Berry Archive, can be found here.
James Berry’s earliest short stories are not often read together. Despite being published in various popular magazines in the late fifties and early sixties under the name J. Raglan Berry, they remain uncollected and disparate, available only to those proficient in database searches or willing to trawl through microfilm reels. For a cataloguer, tasked with describing a large cardboard box filled with stacked manila binders, each containing annotated typescript drafts of this early work, the experience is very different. Rather than reading each story as a distinct, atomised unit, a structure starts to emerge as they are read one after the other. The familiar rhythm of something being compulsively worked out, again and again, begins to take hold. These are stories about new arrivals to the so-called Mother Country, what they see and how they are seen. But, perhaps more fundamentally, they are stories about encounters; personal, cultural and material collisions parsed out with emotional incisiveness and critical intelligence. In one story, a young factory worker is paralysed by memories of her home island as she stands on the precipice of a cavernous canteen in her new place of work with all eyes on her; in another, a West Indian cricket player becomes an inadvertent focus for English gawkers as he prepares for a match; and in yet another, a young family moving in to a west London flat are met with their new neighbours’ quintessentially English hostility – at once veiled and virulent. One thing which makes these stories of cross-cultural encounter uniquely Berry's, though, is a hard-won commitment to progress; a need to move beyond identifying friction towards something like easing it. In these early stories such a zealous commitment to resolution can sometimes come at the expense of realism: factory workers, cricket players and new neighbours all turn out to embrace the newcomers, in different ways and on different terms, in the end. The short story form – crammed into the columns of popular magazines – is sometimes felt to bring everything together too quickly and easily for Berry’s sense of the complexity of these meetings.
A selection of marked-up typescript drafts of James Berry’s early short stories, submitted to various magazines, most notably Truth, under the name J. Raglan Berry.
Given space, though, Berry’s later work takes a different approach, particularly in his most famous and final poetry collection, Windrush Songs (2007) – now on display in the Library’s Entrance Hall as part of the exhibition which echoes its title, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land. In this collection, taking on this most mythical of cross-cultural encounters, Berry manages to maintain a voice which is gritty, complex and poly-vocal without ever losing his commitment to resolution, however difficult. If the metonymic ship in the collection’s title (and on its front cover) is ever to plot a successful course for the future, it must first take detailed readings of the past and present in order to adjust for the direction and speed of present travel. The ship’s on-board instrument, language, must then be wielded with extreme sensitivity and acuity. In this way the elegance of the slim volume published by Bloodaxe betrays the massive volume of draft material, amassed over a period of more than ten years, which went into its production. The reams of draft material for Windrush Songs, present in the archive, reveal a practice which was both precise and open-ended. Individual poems are revised daily in a routine which comes to resemble the mantric, meditative practices which interested Berry so much throughout his life and which he wrote about in his personal diaries and notebooks. But as well as being precisely constructed these poems are also amorphous in draft form, blending into one another, taking on new titles, merging, exploding in size and significance only to fade into the background and re-emerge later, recognisable only as a trace. This combination of fluidity and fastidiousness can make the cataloguer’s job more difficult but, as is so often the case with creative archives, what is most difficult for a cataloguer to pin-down often proves to be of the greatest interest to potential researchers.
As well amassing his considerable literary output, Berry’s archive is also a fascinating piece of social history for those interested in the generation of people who left the Caribbean for England in the late forties and early fifties. (Berry himself left Jamaica on the ship after the Windrush, the SS Orbita). In the Library’s exhibition, a photo taken from Berry’s archive showing him at work as a labourer in the United States during the Second World War is intended to unravel the idea of the rural islander travelling for the very first time to unknown shores – Berry and many others from the Caribbean had visited and lived in the US, Canada, and even England before the Windrush set sail. Although the notebook which he carried during this period -- which he thought of as representing the birth of his impulse to write -- does not survive, his pocket-diary from this period does. This little leather-bound pocket-book gives a unique insight into the places Berry lived, the people he met, as well as providing some personal ruminations on life in America. Equally, long-form personal letters from family members in Jamaica, sent after Berry moved to London, provide comments on his burgeoning writing from a Caribbean perspective, send personal encouragement, give news, and fill out a deeply intimate sense sense of the ways in which familial closeness was maintained over long distances during this period of mass migration.
These highlights only scratch the surface of Berry’s archive, which also includes correspondence with key figures in Caribbean literary circles, unpublished or hard to find non-fiction essays , talks for TV and radio, as well as material related to his prolific childrens’ writing and his time as a writer in residence at Vauxhall Manor School. All of the material highlighted here, and much more, will be available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room in late 2020.
05 January 2018
Guest blog by Travis Elborough author of Our Twentieth Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters, published by Michael O’Mara.
Diaries and journals as we know them now have been with us since at least the 16th century. But it wasn't until 1812 that the stationer John Letts first began selling a yearly almanack from his shop at the Royal Exchange in London – at that time home to numerous booksellers and coffeehouses and an area previously haunted by Pepys. The Letts Diary was an immediate success, attracting such devoted users as William Makepeace Thackeray who favoured the 'three shillings cloth boards' No 12 model, and continues to be published in a multitude of formats to this day.
I’ve never really kept a diary. But I am an inveterate reader of other people’s. For me, the appeal has always been their immediacy and intimacy. That unique sense of being addressed directly, and sometimes extremely candidly, by someone, perhaps from an age other than our own, is intensely seductive. At the British Library there is the added thrill of being able to consult the original diaries of the likes of Laurie Lee, Kenneth Williams, Alec Guinness, Beryl Bainbridge and Shiva Naipaul in the archives, their personalities coming across here in pen stroke and paper stock as well as in choice turns of phrase.
It has been an enormous pleasure and a real privilege to be able to consult such documents and the Library’s unparalleled collection of published diaries while putting together my latest anthology, Our History of the 20th Century. In this book I’ve used extracts from over a hundred different diarists, both the great and the good and the completely obscure, to present a kind of top down and bottom up account of Britain during the last century. My diarists range from politicians, heads of state, novelists, playwrights and celebrities to ordinary people and the largely unknown and unsung contributors to the Mass Observation Project.
But in any case, as an historian and author of books on vinyl records and the British seaside, diaries are where I go to try and find as instantaneous or unvarnished a reaction to events as possible. First impressions count because they tend to get superseded by the collectively agreed verdict of history. Take for example the funeral of Queen Victoria, an event which we condescendingly assume must have been greeted with great solemnity by the general public. And yet here is Arnold Bennett’s impression of the occasion from his journal on 2 February 1901:
This morning I saw what I could, over the heads of a vast crowd, of the funeral procession of the Queen. The people were not, on the whole, deeply moved, whatever journalists may say, but rather serene and cheerful.
Afterwards, Legge, Fred Terry and Hooley lunched with me at the Golden Cross Hotel, and all was very agreeable and merry.
Diaries are, of course, often far from authoritative and have no commitment to tell the truth or record incidents accurately. They are by their very nature subjective, and so subject to the egos, whims and biases of their writers. Bennett may, perhaps, have nursed a particular antipathy toward the old Queen, who knows? Elsewhere in his journals he denounces cocktails, admires Lyons Corner House restaurants and records meeting T S Eliot and asking the American-born poet if The Wasteland was intended as a joke.
This is another joy of diaries, they can often supply frank (and sometimes amusingly wrong-headed) assessments of artworks long since judged canonical. It is in her diary that Virginia Woolf famously confessed on reading James Joyce’s Ulysses to feeling ‘puzzled, bored, irritated, and disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. In turn Beatrice Webb writes off To the Lighthouse in her diary, deeming the ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative of Woolf’s 1927 novel ‘objectionable’ on the grounds that ‘even one’s own consciousness defies description’.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman might well have won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 and is widely regarded as a classic of post-war American theatre. One that continues to be studied and regularly performed all over the world but after seeing its first London run, Malcolm Muggeridge judged it ‘a wholly sentimental affair’, concluding in a diary entry for the 27 September 1949 that it was little more than ‘a glorified hard-luck story.’ He was similarly damning of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger too.
Anyone familiar with the work of the film and theatre director Lindsay Anderson, leading light of the Free Cinema movement who produced politically-charged movies like If and Britannia Hospital, might have expected him to take a rather dim view of Star Wars. And indeed he does, with the robots C3P0 and R2D2 in George Lucas’s cinematic space epic coming in for particular criticism. But it is also in the pages of his diary we learn, rather surprisingly, that in 1978 he was a committed viewer of the American television series The Incredible Hulk.
Armed with this knowledge is it tempting to imagine what Anderson, who late in his career worked unhappily with the 80s pop group Wham! on a documentary of their tour of China, might possibly have done himself with a Marvel comics movie.
Anderson died in 1994, the year Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party. And there is, if anything, nothing more distant than that recent past. What seems like yesterday remains a period when news of Princess Diana’s death, for instance, reaches all the diarists in my book via landline telephone, radio, terrestrial television and inky newsprint rather than by text, the internet or social media.
Today, of course, many more people choose to document their lives with pictures on Instagram and comment publicly on events, personal and political, on Facebook or Twitter rather than privately in the leaves of a diary. It will be interesting to see what future historians might then use to construct a similar volume about our current century.
Travis Elborough’s new book Our Twentieth Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters is published by Michael O’Mara.
01 June 2016
by Melissa Addey, 2016 Writer in Residence at the British Library, funded by the Leverhulme Trust
As a writer of historical fiction, my favourite item at the British Library so far has been a letter in the Treasures of the British Library permanent exhibition. It’s a dark and shadowy space, with delicate lighting placed here and there so that you can make out the precious items on display.
The letter is from both Anne Boleyn and Henry the 8th, to Cardinal Wolsey. On a single page, Anne begins the letter, asking about the progress of the desired annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon. The second half of the page is from Henry. “The wrytter of thys letter wolde nott cease tyll she (had caused me likewise) to sett to my hand; desiring yow, thowght it be short, to (take it in good part)”. In other words, Anne has nagged him to complete the letter and add his own nudge to the Cardinal.
It’s special for a number of reasons. To actually see the item is to know that these two people, so famous in our history, both held this page in their hands. It has their handwriting on it, such an intimate thing about a person, so peculiarly theirs.
Handwriting is something we are losing: I used to know exactly what my friends’ and family members’ handwriting looked like. I now have friends whose handwriting I don’t believe I’ve ever seen. The letter has their tone of voice. Henry’s reference to Anne nagging is really quite funny. It tells you something about their relationship at the time and makes you wonder how many of these letters were sent, gradually increasing from jocular confidence to frustrated rage. The letter is dated August 1528, quite early on in Henry’s attempt to marry Anne, something that didn’t happen for another five years. Seeing something like this is to reach back and touch history, to see people as human rather than legend.
Detail from Henry VII’s Psalter, Royal MS 2 A XVI f3r, showing Henry VII.
When researching for a historical novel, it’s these items you’re desperately searching for. Not the big dates and official accounts, the official court robes and formal proclamations, although you have to have those as your backdrop. It’s the tone of voice and the scribbled asides, the letters and diaries, children’s toys and defamatory handbills, hearing the crack in someone’s voice. These are what let us touch history. Because of my residency I’ve been spending a lot of time at the British Library and these up-close brushes with history are endlessly fascinating.
Currently the British Library’s Literary and Creative Archives and Manuscripts team are working on trying to acquire complete archives, such as diaries, manuscripts and collections of people like Alec Guinness (one of his letters to Evelyn Waugh includes the great line: “Graham’s last play seemed BONKERS to me…”), Hanif Kureishi (see some of the Kureishi Archive on our online learning resource Discovering Literature: 20th Century) and Kenneth Williams.
A page from the diaries of Kenneth Williams
Seeing these items, reading through them, looking at the notations or signatures, the rants or the ponderings, is like sitting next to that person and watching them be themselves. Not a front put on for others but their own selves, the people they are underneath.
Laurence Olivier's shooting script for Henry V 1943 British Library Photo by Clare Kendall
In the current Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library I stood with earphones on and quickly pushed buttons, hearing actors from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant say “To be or not to be’. I didn’t listen to the whole speech, just that one line and even in that line, with over ten actors, there was such a variety of choice and meaning to just six words. It made you think about the role and the person portraying Hamlet, the decisions they must have made in rehearsals, their own understanding of the text. It was a strange and intimate auditory experience and more personal than you would expect. As is a Christmas greeting message from the Beatles to their fan club: extraordinarily unpolished by today’s standards but unmistakably them.
Touching history should not be a smooth and polished affair. It should be rough and dirty. It should leave you with your fingers bleeding, your eyes open wide and a gasp or a giggle in your mouth. I’m off to trawl through the archives again.
25 May 2016
We are delighted to announce that the 20th century phase of the Library’s free educational resource has been launched today! The website which is aimed at A-level, undergraduate students and the general public, uses archival and printed sources to shed lights on the historical, political and cultural contexts in which key literary works were created. The launch of the 20th century phase follows on from the very successful 19th century module, ‘Romantics and Victorians’ that was launched in 2014 and the Shakespeare module which came out in March of this year.
The 20th century phase sees over 300 literary treasures being made available online for the first time. High resolution images of literary drafts, first editions, letters, notebooks, diaries, newspapers and photographs from Virginia Woolf, Ted Hughes, Angela Carter, J.G. Ballard and others provide a wonderful insight into the creative process of some of the most influential and innovative writers and poets of the 20th century. The site focuses predominately on 15 key literary figures of the 20th century - Wilfred Owen, E.M. Forster, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Daphne du Maurier, George Orwell, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Angela Carter, J.G. Ballard, E.R. Braithwaite and Hanif Kureishi.
I am sure that people will be excited to see the original handwritten literary drafts many of which differ from later published editions. These include drafts of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf under its original title ‘The Hours’ and George Orwell’s literary notebook in which he recorded his ideas for what would later become Nineteen Eighty-Four . An earlier title for Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters ‘The Sorrows of the Deer’ can also be found in successive drafts of the poet’s work on one of his most famous poetry collections.
Draft of 'St Botolph's' from Add MS 88918/1/6 © Ted Hughes Estate and reproduced with their kind permission. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.
Alongside these original drafts you will be able to read letters and diaries of the period, and look at old photographs and newspaper cuttings that provide a real context for the literary creations broadening our understanding of the world in which the writers were living and working. The innovative ways in which the works were created often challenged contemporary audiences whether those audiences were made up of other authors or the general public. A good example of this is George Bernard Shaw’s letter to Sylvia Beach in which he gives his not altogether flattering opinion of James Joyce’s Ulysses. As well as commenting on the work of others letters and diaries also illustrate the hopes, doubts and aspirations of writers, particularly early in their career. In his letter to Sydney Schiff whilst he was working on ‘The Waste Land’ T.S. Eliot writes to thank Schiff for his comments saying -
‘You could not have used words which would have given more pleasure or have so persuaded me that the poem may possibly communicate something of which it intends’.
Similarly in a diary entry from 1959 Ted Hughes writes of waiting nervously to find out if he has received the Guggenheim prize for this first poetry collection, Hawk in the Rain. Whilst we can look back with hindsight on such events it is a real privilege to be able to read of the poet’s own feelings so early in his writing career.
This blog can only go some way to whet your appetite about the website but please don’t take my word for it do have a look for yourself! In addition to having everything from Wilfred Owen’s poetry drafts and Woolf’s travel writings to J.G. Ballard’s evocative Crash! manuscript and Hanif Kureishi’s drafts of My Beautiful Launderette the site also has a series of articles on the writers, their work and wider 20th century literature, short documentary films and teachers notes all free and available for everyone.
21 December 2015
The Library’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition has now been open for a month. I have been pleased by how busy the gallery has been and hope that the visitors have enjoyed the exhibition. When I give tours of the exhibition I try to include some information about how it was created as I know that people like to hear a bit about what goes on behind the scenes. I thought that it might also be an interesting subject for my second blog about the exhibition.
Graphic design by Fiona Barlow of Anonymous and 3D design by LYN Atelier
When my colleague, Andie and I were first asked to create an exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland we knew that we would need to have quite a specific narrative focus as the Library has lots of material relating to the book which could be displayed! We chose to focus on the enduring popularity of Carroll’s story and the way in which it has remained true to his original story despite over a century of re-illustrations, adaptations and parodies. With this narrative in place we started to think about the collection items that we would like to display and began to look at lots of different items from Carroll’s handwritten diaries and letters to printed books and sound recordings. We had to be selective and concentrate on those items that would help to tell the story as well as thinking about how visual they would be to display and how easy they would be to read! We were lucky enough to be able to get lots of useful advice from colleagues across the Library about items in their collections that we could show.
At the same time we started to speak to graphic and 3D designers about how we would like the exhibition to look. I am really pleased with the exhibition design which uses a simple colour palette of black, red, white and dark grey and takes inspiration from the playing cards in Carroll’s story. The colours also allow the collection items, many of which are include beautiful illustrations, to really shine. Fiona, the graphic designer, suggested that we incorporate quotes from the book into the exhibition design and they have been printed on the fabric which is wrapped around the frame that runs throughout the gallery. The quotations look great and it is a lovely way to include text from the book in the very fabric (no pun intended) of the exhibition.
Graphic design by Fiona Barlow of Anonymous
The design also includes instructions on how to navigate around the gallery that are very much in the spirit of Alice. Finally the large tag hanging above the gallery takes inspiration from the ‘drink me’ tag on the bottle which Alice finds down the rabbit hole.
Once the exhibition design and item list had been finalised we had to choose the page openings to be displayed carefully so that we didn’t want to end up with 25 pictures of the Cheshire Cat! We then began writing the exhibition text. This included seven panel texts, 12 chapter summaries and 55 labels so it took some time. It was time well spent though as I have been able to share some of the knowledge I gained when giving exhibition tours.
The exhibition (and the Alice pop up shop) are open over Christmas so please do visit if you are in London during the festive period.
English and Drama blog recent posts
- Andrew Salkey and the first Publishing Houses for Black Writing in Britain
- Michael Palin: Writer, Actor and Comedian
- The Daybook of Mrs. Pettigrew
- Cataloguing James Berry
- Diaries: Recording History in Many Voices
- Touching History
- Discovering Literature: 20th Century is launched!
- How we created Alice in Wonderland
- The British Library acquires Kenneth Williams’s personal papers
- Remembering the 4th of July...