English and Drama blog

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

18 posts categorized "Diaries"

04 December 2015

The British Library acquires Kenneth Williams’s personal papers

The British Library is delighted to announce the acquisition of the personal archive of Kenneth Williams, including 42 personal diaries and approximately 2,000 letters spanning his entire life and career from the age of 18 until his death in 1988. The archive has been acquired by the British Library from Paul Richardson, Kenneth’s friend and neighbour, to whom he left his entire estate.


The Kenneth Williams archive at the British Library (Photo by Elizabeth Hunter)

Kenneth Williams (1926-1988) was best-known as the star of the Carry On films, but he was also a raconteur of verve and charm, and appeared to substantial acclaim in a number of stage roles, from frothy revue to the black comedy of Joe Orton. He used the diaries he kept for more than 40 years as a half-serious threat to his friends (“You’ll be in my diary!” was a favourite saying whenever someone annoyed him), but kept the contents almost completely to himself. Despite a selection from the diaries published in the early 1990s, the vast majority of the diary entries remain unpublished and unseen.

The diaries span the period 1942 – 1988, with only one gap of four years at the beginning of the sequence. The run makes up approximately 4 million words altogether, and is unusual in its degree of comprehensiveness and regularity.  Williams wrote a page a day as a nearly unbroken ritual. In the pages of the diaries Williams is both instantly recognisable as the acerbic and maddeningly fastidious character well known to everyone, and, more surprisingly, as reflective and poignant, the private persona and increasingly skilled observer, revealed only in the confessional of the diary.

The diaries regularly refer to news and current affairs – below he records new about the famous trial of Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal MP who, along with several co-defendants, was accused of the murder of Norman Scott, a would be male model who was allegedly blackmailing Thorpe on account of his homosexuality. The British Library also holds the political archive of Jeremy Thorpe.

June 22 1979: “On the news they announced that JEREMY THORPE had been acquitted!! So that lying crook Scott has not succeeded in his vindictive quest!! They were cheering Jeremy outside the Old Bailey, and he rather spoiled it by making a sanctimonious speech about JUSTICE etc. Whereas he should have just expressed satisfaction and breezed away!”

The archive also contains 3 boxes of personal correspondence, equating to approximately 2,000 letters as well as photographs, scripts, programmes and documents relating to Williams’ wartime service.  Correspondents include Peter Nichols, Joe Orton and Richard Burton. It is estimated that 85% of the newly-acquired archive is unpublished material never before seen by researchers.

The archive will be of huge interest to social historians of post war Britain, detailing the experience of a gay man both before and after the Wolfenden Report and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1968, alongside the mundane details of everyday life in London. The diaries and letters also record the actor’s experience of the dying days of the repertory theatre system and the growth of modern celebrity culture, something he seemed both to love and loathe. In the entry pictured below Williams was understudying Richard Burton as Trigorin in The Seagull. Despite the doubts William’s expresses in this extract, the run of The Seagull turned out to be a huge success, thanks to the performance of Burton. Williams contributed by fetching Burton drinks between acts.


Page from Kenneth Williams's diary from 21 August 1950, courtesy of the Kenneth Williams estate

Material will be available to researchers in the Library’s Reading Rooms from March 2016. The 1950 edition of the diary, as well as a letter from the archive will be on display in the Library’s permanent exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, from next week onwards.

Kathryn Johnson, Curator of Theatrical Archives and Manuscripts and Joanna Norledge, Curator of Performance and Creative Archives

03 July 2015

Remembering the 4th of July...

Carroll lewis alices c03312 08 Additional MS 46700


       Tomorrow sees the anniversary of the now world famous boat trip on the River Thames in Oxford, when the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics don at Oxford University, rowed up the river with the three young daughters of the University’s Vice-Chancellor. The middle child was Alice Liddell, then aged ten.

       Dodgson recorded the trip in his diary for 1862, one of nine volumes of his diaries that are held at the British Library. The details of the rowing trip itself are recorded on folio 15 of his diary:

Dodgson charles vol add ms 54343 f015rAdditional MS 54343

but the page opposite records why the trip turned out to be so important in the history of English literature. As he rowed up the river Dodgson began to tell the girls a story about a bored child called Alice who follows a white rabbit and ends up having a series of surreal adventures. The story, as recorded in Dodgson’s diary, was initially called ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’. One year later, under his pen name of Lewis Carroll, the story was published in an expanded form with the new title Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Dodgson charles vol add ms 54343 f014v  Additional MS 54343

         After the trip, Dodgson had written up the story, painstakingly added his own illustrations, and presented the manuscript to Alice Liddell as a gift, with the dedication: ‘A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer’s Day’. This manuscript is now one of the British Library’s treasures; however, its journey from its original creation to its home in the Library is quite a marvellous tale in itself. Alice Liddell kept the manuscript until 1928 when she was forced to sell it to pay death duties after the death of her husband. The manuscript was sold at auction at Sotheby’s for £15,000 to an American dealer, Dr Rosenbach, who in turn sold it to Eldridge Johnson upon returning to America. Following Johnson’s death in 1946 the manuscript was again sold at auction. This time, however, it was purchased by a wealthy group of benefactors who donated the volume to the British people (and the British Museum) in 1948 in gratitude for their gallantry against Hitler during World War Two.

        This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland and gives us a chance to celebrate and to reflect upon the continuing influence of this much-loved story. The Alice manuscript has just taken a trip back across the Atlantic to be the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Later in the year it will have a short sojourn at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia before returning to us and going on display as part of our Front Hall exhibition which will explore the many ways that the story has been adapted, appropriated, reimaged and re-illustrated since its conception. The exhibition curators will be blogging later in the year as we work towards the launch on 20th November.

       Though if you can’t wait until then to find out more, you can explore this manuscript and much more besides on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website, which you can find at http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/alices-adventures-under-ground-the-original-manuscript-version-of-alices-adventures-in-wonderland

02 June 2015

The British Library acquires the archive of the playwright and screenwriter, Julian Mitchell

The British Library is very pleased to announce that it has acquired the archive of the playwright, screenwriter and novelist, Julian Mitchell. Julian Mitchell began his playwriting career adapting novels for performance, starting with several novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett. He adapted Jane Austen’s 'Persuasion' (1971), Paul Scott’s 'Staying On' (1980) and Ford Madox Ford’s 'The Good Soldier' (1981) for television. Among his original works, he is best known for his play, 'Another Country', recently revived in the West End and on tour.

'Another Country' is based on the life of the spy Guy Burgess and explores the tensions of politics and sexuality within the context of the hypocrisy of the English public school system in the 1930s. The play won the Olivier Award for best play in 1981 and Julian later wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation in 1984. Early productions of the play were instrumental in launching the careers of Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth, and Julian's involvement with these productions can be seen in the archive. He also won the SWET Award in 1985 for 'After Aida' his play about the composer, Giuseppe Verdi, and wrote the screenplay for the film 'Wilde' (1997). Julian also wrote numerous screenplays for the Inspector Morse series and the archive including notes on adapting Colin Dexter’s books for television, along with drafts, shooting scripts and other related papers.


JM archive boxes
Just some of the 80 boxes of the archive in their new home at the Library

The archive includes successive drafts of Julian’s work providing a real insight into his creative process and the subjects which inspired him. In addition the archive includes correspondence with a wide range of people from theatre and television including the actors John Gielgud and Alec Guinness, the American writer, Philip Roth and the poet, Stephen Spender. A series of personal diaries, photographs and press cuttings are also included.


Some of the research notes, letters, scripts and other papers relating to 'Persuasion'

Julian’s archive is an exciting addition to the Library’s literary and creative archives and I am sure that it will be a great resource for researchers.

08 July 2014

Arthur Graeme West’s 'Diary of a Dead Officer' remembered.

In the run up to the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War the British Library has been involved in a number of projects including collaboration in a Europe wide initiative, Europeana. This project covered a range of activities one of which was the digitisation of thousands of books and documents.  Part of my involvement with the project was to put forward literary works to be digitised.  One book that had a particular impact on me was The Diary of a Dead Officer: Being the Posthumous Papers of Arthur Graeme West.  This slim volume comprises diary extracts written between 1915 and 1917 and a selection of West’s poems.

IMG_1186The Diary of a Dead Officer. British Library shelfmark 010856.de.16

The Diary was published posthumously in 1919 shortly after the end of the war and was edited by the pacifist campaigner C E M Joad who had been a friend of West’s since schooldays.  The Diary charts West’s growing sense of disillusionment as the reality of war takes its toll.  West had initially tried to obtain a commission in 1914 but had been turned down because of poor eyesight.  Undeterred, he enlisted as a private in the Public Schools Battalion in February 1915.  However, faced with the realities of army life and the way the war was being conducted, his sense of duty and patriotism gradually turned to disenchantment.  In 1916, after serving in France for several months, West was sent to Scotland for officer training, a period when West’s disillusionment reached crisis point.  Many of the instructors were soldiers who had not experienced life at the front making it difficult for them to gain the respect of the officer cadets who had served in the front line.  West felt that the training he received was ineffectual for the conditions faced in the trenches and at times he felt it bordered on the farcical.  During this period he became increasingly influenced by the writings of Bertrand Russell and the pacifist arguments of his friend Joad to the point where he decided he would write to his Commanding Officer resigning his commission and refusing to take any further part in the war.  In the end, West couldn’t bring himself to deliver the letter and reported for duty as instructed.  He went back to France in September 1916 on active service with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry and was killed by a sniper on 3 April 1917.

Along with the diary excerpts is a selection of West’s poetry.  The poetry section opens with ‘God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men!’ West’s angry reaction to the patriotic poetry of those idealistic young men who believed they were living through “epic days”.  The most well-known of West’s poems is ‘The Night Patrol’ a powerful and honest account of the atrocious conditions and horrific experiences endured by those living in the trenches and one of the first realistic war poems to be published.

Last year I was delighted to learn that the Old Stile Press were to publish a fine press edition of West’s work to commemorate the 1914 centenary.   This new publication, in a limited edition of 150 copies, contains newly commissioned linocut illustrations by the artist and print-maker John Abell who also provides an afterword.  The Illustrations, several of which are full-page, reinforce the sense of horror and outrage found in West’s narrative. The black and white images create a striking and haunting impression.  Hand printed by Nicolas McDowall this edition is a fitting tribute to West.  For more information about the creation of this work please see the Old Stile Press blog.

West’s frank and powerful writings deserve to be more widely known.  I hope the interest generated by the centenary of the First World War and publications such as the one from the Old Stile Press will go some way to helping his work reach a wider readership.

The Old Stile Press edition of The Diary of a Dead Officer is now available to consult in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room, shelfmark RF.2014.b.25.

07 May 2014

Laurie Lee's lost diary on display

IMG_8740 - Copy
Photograph: Janet Benoy

Laurie Lee's recently discovered Spanish Civil War diary is the highlight of our Treasures exhibition, Laurie Lee: Memories of War, on display until 20 July. You can read more about the discovery and the exhibition in my previous blog.

If that whets your appetite for Laurie Lee's work, we'll be celebrating his centenary on Friday 6 June with guests Louis de Bernières, Tim Dee, Adam Horovitz, P J Kavanagh and Brian Patten. See What's On for more details if you'd like to join us.


17 April 2014

Laurie Lee's lost diary discovered

by Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Modern Literary and Theatrical Manuscripts

IMG_8740 - Copy
Photograph by Janet Benoy

If you visit the British Library’s Treasures Gallery from today you can see a special display about Laurie Lee’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War. It is the poet’s centenary this year, so we have dedicated three cases in the gallery to an exhibition largely drawn from his archive, which was acquired by the Library in 2002. You have the chance to see a page from a draft of his most famous book, Cider With Rosie, but the main focus of the exhibition is Lee’s experiences in Spain in the 1930s. Years later he wrote about his part in the Spanish Civil War in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) and A Moment of War (1991), but a controversy blew up in the press over the accuracy of his story. Why had the account taken him so long to write? Was he nearly executed? Did he really kill a man? If only Laurie Lee’s diaries from the period hadn’t been stolen when he returned to Spain to make a documentary in 1969, we might be able to answer these questions.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 Laurie Lee was busking around Spain with his violin. He was evacuated by the British Navy soon after the outbreak of war, but he wasn’t home long before a feeling of guilt set in. ‘I feel sick at all that has happened [in Spain] and the vast reproach of my having lifted not a finger to help,’ he wrote in his diary in September 1937. Despite being physically weak and epileptic, Lee returned to Spain in December that year to join the International Brigades fighting Franco’s Nationalist forces.  He was there for just 11 weeks before leaving Spain feeling he had ‘done nothing’ to help the Republican cause. This feeling of dishonour was to remain with him for the rest of his life, despite the fact that International Brigade records show his conduct to have been ‘exemplary’.

Questions about the veracity of Laurie Lee’s account only came to public attention after his death in 1997. Some British veterans from the International Brigades thought he had exaggerated his part in the conflict. They didn’t believe that he would have seen frontline action (though he doesn’t actually claim that he did) or been assigned to ‘special duties’ tracking down political undesirables. In his critique of A Moment of War, Bill Alexander—a commander of the British Battalion in Spain—even claimed that Lee had never joined the International Brigades. This claim was disproved by Dr Barry McLoughlin and Lee’s biographer Valerie Grove in the late 1990s, and you can see an official document  proving that he was a member of the Brigades in this display. Some other aspects of the story are impossible to verify and you will have to make up your own mind.

If only we had those diaries…. Well actually, it turns out that we do have one of Lee’s diaries from 1936-1937. Somehow this one escaped being stolen in 1969 and has been here in the British Library since 2002, albeit misdated in the catalogue due to a mistake on the inventory supplied at the time of acquisition. It turns out that even Laurie Lee’s biographer wasn’t aware of the diary’s existence until now.

  1936-37 diary Wanting to Return - Copy
A page from Laurie Lee's recently discovered 1936-37 diary (Add MS 88936/5/66). In the entry at the top of the page from September 1937 Lee describes his reaction to seeing Picasso's painting 'Guernica' (created in response to the bombing of Guernica) in the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. Three months later Lee returned to Spain to fight for the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. © Laurie Lee Estate

The 1936-37 diary comes to an end the month before Lee crossed the Pyrenees to join the International Brigades, so unfortunately it can’t answer any of those big unsolved questions, but it does cover the three months leading up to the outbreak of war in 1936. During those three months Laurie Lee describes the growing unrest in the Andalusian fishing village where he was living. He recounts the accidental bombing of the village by a friendly warship (which he later wrote about in As I Walked Out) and observes a tax collector being driven out of town by angry villagers. There are more details about his hand-to-mouth existence on the road, but most moving of all are the entries from the autumn of 1937. Laurie Lee had fallen in love with Lorna Wishart, wife of the publisher Ernest Wishart (and later muse to Lucian Freud), and the diary entries from the days he spent with her in France before returning to war make for difficult reading – his happiness with Lorna serving to deepen his guilt at leaving Spain.  You will see one of these entries on display in the exhibition.

Other highlights are autograph draft pages from As I Walked Out and A Moment of War. The manuscripts show Lee crafting his narrative with a poet’s care and attention – seemingly redrafting passages over and over till he was satisfied with the rhythm of his sentences, as well as the words. The drafts are displayed alongside mementoes such as the violin permit from Lee’s first trip to Spain and the meal tickets issued to him as a new recruit to the International Brigades. There are letters from Wilma Gregory – who is not mentioned by name in Lee’s books but supported him financially in 1936-37 and led a campaign to have him sent back from the war. We’ve also drawn on our Philatelic collections to put Lee’s story in context with the experiences of other British volunteers. Laurie Lee: Memories of War will be on display in the British Library Treasures Gallery (which is free to everyone) until 20 July 2014, so you have plenty of time to come and see the lost diary and the other items on display.

This display isn’t our only tribute to Laurie Lee. We’re also hosting a celebration of Laurie Lee’s life and legacy on 6 June with Louis de Bernières, Tim Dee, Adam Horovitz, P.J. Kavanagh and Brian Patten. Before that, on 30 May, writer P D Murphy will talk about Laurie Lee’s Spanish travels in the conference Spain Through British Eyes. Tickets for both these events are available now from the British Library Box Office. Then in June we are publishing an audio CD of Laurie Lee recordings – a selection of readings and interviews drawn from the British Library and BBC collections. For more information on Laurie Lee events elsewhere, and publications have a look at the official centenary website.



30 January 2014

In Berlin...

News from Jamie Andrews at the Unlocking Sources First World War conference in Berlin (follow the conference on Twitter at #usww1)

The last time I was in Berlin, it was just under three years ago. It was a glorious spring; sun shining on concrete. We were there to begin a major EU-funded project with partners from seven other European countries to digitise several hundreds of thousands of collection items relating to the First World War. Almost three years—and several million digitised images—later, the same partners are back in Berlin to launch Europeana 1914-1918. This time we’re in the middle of a typical Berlin winter: fingers freeze on contact with the air, every bus we take apparently doomed to crash on the ice.

Film berlin

From the digitised film footage shown last night in Berlin to launch the portal

But nothing could disguise the warmth of the occasion last night when the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, Frau Professor Monika Grütters, officially declared the Europeana 1914-1918 portal live. The portal provides access to 400,000 rare documents digitised by our 10 library partners, as well as 660 hours of unique film material , and the personal papers and memorabilia of some 8,000 people involved in the war, held by their families and digitised at roadshows in 12 countries.

Europeana Collections 1914-1918 from Europeana Collections on Vimeo 

The British Library has been leading the UK’s contribution to the site, and has contributed 10,000 items from our own First World War collections to the site, including trench journals from foreign troops, iconic war poetry, and London schoolchildren’s accounts of Zeppelin raids that are featured by Buzzfeed.


From the new British Library World War One site

Especially significantly, we have also produced an amazing new website http://www.bl.uk/world-war-one offering curated access to over 500 digitised historical sources from Europeana 1914-1918, as well as newly commissioned films, contextual information and teacher’s notes (read more here). The importance of the site is its pan-European, comparative approach to the War, as well as its incorporation of material from the British Library relating to the immense part played by the British dominions and colonies.

Key themes explored on the site  include:

  • Origins and Outbreak
  • Recruitment of Conscripts and Volunteers
  • Daily Life on the Battlefield
  • The War Machine
  • Race, Empire and Colonial Troops
  • Gender Expectations and Roles
  • Propaganda on a Global Scale
  • Aftermath – Redrawing Europe’s Map

The site is free to use, and will be added to over the forthcoming weeks and months.


24 January 2014

Hanif Kureishi on why he deposited his archive at the British Library

       On Wednesday we announced the acquisition of Hanif Kureishi’s Archive at the British Library’s Cultural Highlights preview for 2014.

  Hanif Kureishi diary2
   Hanif Kureishi Archive. © Hanif Kureishi

        Hanif kindly agreed to join us for the press launch. An early start meant an improvised breakfast in the staff canteen, but over eggs and hash browns he shared his thoughts with me on how he thinks his archive will be used in the future and why he was so keen for it to find a permanent home at the Library. Click on the link below to hear the interview:

Hanif Kureishi interview at the British Library 

        The archive includes drafts and working material relating to all of his major novels, as well as over 50 notebooks and diaries spanning four decades. The collection also includes electronic drafts of his work in the form of Word files, including some relating to his new novel, The Last Word, which will be published by Faber next month. The Last Word tells the story of the relationship between an eminent writer and his biographer. It raises some interesting questions about identity, posterity and the inter-dependence of the writer and those who attempt to write about him, both of them being re-made in the process.

        The first diary in the collection dates from 1970 when Kureishi was just 15 years old. As well as recording everyday events and reflecting on his writing projects, the diaries are deeply philosophical in places and highly introspective. They give some fascinating insights into the workings of a restless, questing mind which is always driven to know more; as he records of his friend and hero David Bowie, at one point, his is a mind that’s “interested in everything”.  

Hanif Kureishi archive 2
Entry from a diary of Hanif Kureishi’s describing a meeting with Shabbir Akhtar, 13 May 1992. After the controversy following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, Akhtar acted as spokesperson for the Bradford Council of Mosques. © Hanif Kureishi

        Along with the drafts of Kureishi’s best known writing, such as My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia, are those of some lesser known ones and some surprises. The archive holds, for example, a draft of his adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage (written for the 1984 production at the Barbican with Judi Dench in the leading role) along with an adaptation written with his long-time collaborator, Roger Michell, of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was never realised.

        We’ll be starting work to catalogue the collection in the next few weeks and expect to be able to make it available in the Library’s Reading Room by the end of the year. Hanif Kureishi will be headlining the Library's Spring Festival at the end of March which this year focusses on the art of screenwriting. You can find more details on the Library's Events web pages at www.bl.uk/spring

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