THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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77 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

21 November 2019

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

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by Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives

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

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Peter Nichols, photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

19 February 2019

Remembering Andrea Levy

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By Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts

It was with great sadness that I heard the news of Andrea Levy’s death on Friday. She had been very supportive of our Windrush exhibition, for which she lent the Library a number of items including drafts of her novel Small Island. It was a pleasure to meet Andrea several times over the course of the exhibition planning period. Even sitting in her kitchen last December over cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, knowing she didn’t have much longer to live, there was still a warm atmosphere and plenty of laughter.

Not that Andrea hadn’t been a little reticent about her manuscripts being shown in the exhibition. ‘What archive? Are all those boxes of papers in my cellar an archive?’ she asked me initially. And the idea of letting anyone see a first draft sent a shudder through her. As she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs in 2011, for her those first attempts were embarrassing. ‘I write absolutely the first thing that comes into my mind… longhand. And they’re bad. The first things I write down, ooh no, they’re not good.’ But as any literary archivist knows, the fascinating thing is to see the progression of successive drafts as a novel takes shape, to be able to pinpoint where the magic happens, the key decisions where things fall into place. In the case of Small Island, the drafting process brought her gradually closer to her four protagonists Hortense, Gilbert, Queenie and Bernard:

I love writing in the first person. I did actually start the book in the third person but it felt like I was writing behind a screen. It was only when I let the characters speak themselves and saw the world entirely through their eyes and I wasn’t anywhere present in the book (and I hope I’m not present) [that] they really came to life for me. It’s like acting. Trying to take historic generalities and make it about humans. (Radio 4 Bookclub)

This for me is Levy’s overwhelming talent. Her knack for embodying and inhabiting her characters so completely. To walk in other people’s shoes, to see things from multiple perspectives. To appraise people clearly, with an uncompromising and unsentimental humour which nevertheless finds the strands and sinews of humanity that make everyone’s lives of interest, however modest. This talent is present as much in her three early novels (Every Light in the House Burnin’, Never Far From Nowhere and Fruit of the Lemon) as it is in Small Island and The Long Song, though it’s in the latter two that she really stretches her imagination to weave plots on a much larger canvas encompassing the broad sweep of history from slavery to the aftermath of World War II.

It’s difficult to face the truth that there will be no more novels from Levy’s pen and that she is no longer with us, but we do have those five novels and a handful of short stories to return to (plus the essay ‘Back to My Own Country’ which can be read on the British Library website Discovering Literature), and also the excellent Imagine documentary which aired for a second time last night (and which features Andrea getting the better of Alan Yentob on more than one occasion, and Rufus Norris for good measure).

For more on Andrea Levy, the British Library collection includes her interview for the Authors’ Lives series, which you can read more about on our Sound and Vision blog. Our Discovering Literature site offers Hannah Lowe’s ‘An introduction to Andrea Levy's Small Island’ which discusses Levy’s role as a second-generation migrant bearing witness to the trauma which had silenced her parents’ generation. There are also teaching resources for secondary students, and digitised images of the objects which were displayed in Windrush: Songs In a Strange Land – selected pages from the manuscript of Small Island, Winston Levy’s ‘Jamaica shirt’, his postcard of the Empire Windrush bought on board ship, and a family photograph of the Levys on a rare trip to the British seaside.

I will leave you with this clip from the Imagine documentary in which Andrea visits the Library to see the Windrush exhibition. Here she points out her father in the Pathé news footage playing in the gallery - though she confessed to me later that she wasn’t sure it really was her father. More likely it was his twin, the more attention-seeking of the two brothers, whom she’d never met but had clearly been the inspiration behind the character of Kenneth in Small Island.

Like her father, Andrea did not seek the limelight but she was proud to find herself there, proud to be telling the story of the Caribbean and the Black British experience, and proud to represent Black writers in a society that has too often overlooked others like her.

08 February 2019

P.G. Wodehouse in Translation

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by Rahul Bery, Translator in Residence at the British Library for 2018-19. The British Library’s Translator in Residence scheme, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), offers a translator the opportunity to become part of the British Library’s multilingual community of staff, readers and visitors for one year. The exhibition, P.G. Wodehouse: The Man and His Work, runs until February 24th. 

One thing I feel not sufficiently covered by the BL’s otherwise wonderful mini-exhibition on the life and works of P.G. Wodehouse, currently running in the treasures gallery, is his appeal beyond the Anglo-American world, both in English and in translation. Wodehouse’s popularity in India is well-known: a childhood friend of my father’s – and an avowed superfan of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings & co – once recalled the sage advice given them by the English teacher at their Himalayan boarding school: “Want to write good English? Read P.G. Wodehouse!” But far less has been written about his appeal beyond the Anglosphere.

Initial research on Google revealed, among other things, a thesis by one Petronella Stille which was quite rightly concerned with the question of how Wodehouse’s Japanese translator, Morimura Tamaki, had  “adapted such…expressions such as Right ho’, ‘By Jove’, ‘Tinkerty Tonk’, ‘Dash it’ or ‘What ho’?”  Well, in case you are curious, the answer for the first example is ‘Yoshikita’. She also handily highlights some of the unique features of Wodehousian prose that make it so enchanting and absurd, and also difficult to translate, including my personal favourite, the ‘transferred epithet’, that is, the ‘strained forkful of salmon’, the ‘astonished cigarette’ falling from Bertie Wooster’s lips. Overall, she acknowledges both the heroic attempts of the translator whilst exploring in depth just what it is about this brand of humour that is so hard to recreate.

Inspired by this, I moved on to the BL catalogue to find out what translations there were in the collections, if any. Starting with a pre-1973 physical catalogue, I found a smattering of translations into Esperanto (La Princo kaj Betty), Italian (Jim di Piccadilly) Polish (Wielce zobowia̢zany Jeeves), and –in keeping with the Indian theme- Marathi, before finally finding some in a language I could understand, Portuguese.

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The front cover of Edmundo Paula Rosa's Portuguese translation of Leave it to Psmith (1938)

Isso é comigo! is the title of Edmundo Paula Rosa’s 1938 translation of Leave it to Psmith, originally published in 1923. From what I could tell, Rosa’s translation is fluid, and he seems to have had the skills to match not only the liveliness of the dialogue, but also the convoluted wit of Wodehouse’s descriptive prose. When translating Portuguese writing myself I often find myself marvelling at how the sentences can just go on and on, before then cursing the writer as I find myself torturously unpicking and reconstructing the sentences back into equally convoluted English. Perhaps, then, Portuguese is an equal match for Wodehouse’s opening, single-sentence paragraph:

“At the open window of the great library of Blandings castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.”

Rosa tackles this sentence admirably, adapting the wet sock simile, but preserving the structure of the sentence. But he leaves out ‘boneheaded’ entirely! And the quintessentially Wodehousian ‘Right ho!’ is paraphrased out of existence, leaving us with ‘Nesse caso, esta bem’ (“In that case, fine” or less literally, something like ‘As you see fit’). The meaning of ‘Right ho!’ in this context is more or less captured, but precious little else is. Rather interestingly, ‘your lordship’ is translated not into a Portuguese equivalent but into another English word, ‘milord’. One can only assume that for whatever the latter would have been more recognisable than the former to the Portuguese reader of 80 years ago.

There is, I’m sure, far more work to be done on this. But don’t believe people when they claim that Finnegans wake  or a similar tome is ‘untranslatable’. I suspect that even Joyce himself would have been flummoxed by ‘tinkerty tonk’!

11 January 2019

Harold Pinter: A Line, A Word, An Image

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Today we launch a Harold Pinter retrospective in our Second Floor Gallery as part of the wider anniversary season of events marking ten years since his death. Focusing on Pinter’s creative process, this free display of manuscript reproductions from his Archive offers glimpses of some of his most famous plays at various stages in their development.

Antonia Fraser and The Pres and an Officer
Antonia Fraser and 'The Pres and an Officer', the Pinter sketch about a trigger-happy US president which she discovered in 2017. ‘The Pres and an Officer’ is © Fraser52 Limited.

In his Nobel Prize speech of 2005 Pinter noted that ‘most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word, or an image’. It was usually, in fact, a word or phrase – ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ in the case of The Homecoming - that was the starting point, closely followed by an image, typically of a configuration of characters in a room. Inspiration having struck, Pinter would put pen to paper in pursuit of the fleeting figures, working out who they were through the circuitous evasions and revelations of quotidian dialogue though always resisting too deep a probe into their backstories. These adventures on paper are what is on show in this new display.

Seeing Pinter’s large, energetic handwriting filling the pages of his yellow legal pads transports us back to the moment of creation. There are intriguing false starts and changes of mind in evidence, such as a deliberation over where to set the opening scene of Betrayal (a tea shop, flat or a pub) and a diagram suggesting a third presence in the enigmatic two-hander Landscape. The naming of characters (always a secondary act for Pinter) is revealed on the page as initially anonymous As and Bs are christened in later annotations. And there are, of course, many pauses peppering the manuscript pages, always denoted by a lower case ‘p’. According to Pinter in his 1962 speech to the National Student Drama Festival it was in these silences that his characters became most evident to him.

Taking the structure of Pinter’s great play Betrayal as a model, the display offers a selective reverse chronology of Pinter’s playwriting career, taking in the last lines of his final stage play Celebration (written in 1999) as well as early prose pieces that influenced his theatre writing. For those who’ve seen any of the ongoing Pinter at the Pinter season by the Jamie Lloyd Company there are numerous resonances with our selections: we have reproduced the notecard on which Pinter scribbled the threatening lines from One For The Road, performed so memorably by Anthony Sher in the recent 'Pinter One', as well as a number of other drafts which will be familiar to fans of the season. My favourite inclusions, though, are perhaps the early prose pieces which contain the seeds of Pinter’s playwriting career. The pieces in question are a 1955 short story called ‘The Examination’ in which the menacing figure ‘Kullus’ can be seen as a prototype of the threatening interlopers of later plays, and a first draft of Pinter’s biographical novel of competitive male friendship The Dwarfs begun in 1952. Both offer crucial clues to the dramatist that Pinter became and both deserve to be better known.

Although it has been ten years since Pinter’s death on Christmas Eve 2008, his plays continue to speak to us about today’s world, sometimes in astonishingly prescient ways. Pictured above is Antonia Fraser who came to the Library this week for a preview of the exhibition. She stands alongside a dramatic sketch she discovered in 2017 when turning the page of one of Pinter’s old legal pads kept by the phone for messages. There to her astonishment was ‘The Pres and an Officer’, a short piece in which a trigger-happy President of the United States is eager to ‘nuke London’. Donald Trump was entirely unknown to Pinter, but now we know what Pinter would have made of him, so to speak. It seemed fitting to include ‘The Pres’ in our display as a ‘first last look’ (to quote Samuel Beckett’s words about Betrayal) among the other drafts and photographs now on show.

Harold Pinter: A Line, A Word, An Image is on display in the British Library Second Floor Gallery until 17 March 2019.

Join Antonia Fraser and Michael Billington in conversation for Remembering Harold Pinter on Monday 4 March 2019.

13 September 2018

Windrush Sounds

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by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts, who assisted on the sound selections for the exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, on display in the Entrance Hall of the Library until 21st October 2018. More details about the exhibition can be found here.

By some coincidence, Britain’s first boom in mass migration roughly coincided with the growing availability and fidelity of sound recording and playback technology. Because of this, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, the Library’s free exhibition which is now entering its final month in the Entrance Hall Gallery, is a story which must be told – that is, spoken, shouted, sung, recited and chanted – as well as shown, seen and read. Sound recordings in the exhibition range from a speech by Marcus Garvey, whose precision and force as a profoundly gifted orator has not diminished over time, to readings by poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah and James Berry, whose incisive socio-political commentary, linguistic and formal experimentation, and willingness to engage with emerging musical forms have built upon the deep oral tradition of the Caribbean and impacted British poetry immeasurably in the process. But beyond these famous and perhaps familiar voices, the exhibition also highlights a number of everyday speakers, drawn from the Library’s Sound Archive. These stories of arrival and work, education and family-building, integration, tension and everything in between and beyond, help to build a fuller picture and go a long way to helping us think about the exhibition’s key questions: Why did people come? What did they leave behind? And how did they shape Britain?

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Visitors use the exhibition sound terminals on opening night. 

These stories are told through the Library’s vast and varied oral history collections, which come in a variety of forms. The first, and most accessible form, is the pre-curated radio programmes which, through their edited structure and high production values, provide an invaluable introduction to the canonical issues surrounding the Windrush moment and its afterlife. Shows such as Changing Caribbean (1960), London’s Black Pilgrims (1965) and Passage to the Promised Land (1996) form the backbone of the exhibition’s sound offering, with roughly contemporaneous interviews and more recent reflections charting the shifting and complex attitudes of those who came and their decedents.

The second kind of oral history takes the form of a long question and answer session with an individual or a group of individuals, usually lasting a few hours, which is recorded and left completely unedited for posterity. In these recordings, interviewees often mumble, stumble, clip and talk around the questions they are asked; they evade and waffle, mirroring the rhythm of a real conversation. The first reaction, for a curator tasked with locating narratives in these unwieldy audio-files, is often frustration. Yet there’s a strange sort of intimacy too, which over time becomes not only disarming but – I think – actively imbeds you in the lived experience of the person to whom you’re listening. These collections are often focused around occupational groups – there’s one for nurses, for instance, as a group which was highly represented among those arriving from the Caribbean.  But many are also incidentally concerned with the diasporic experience, such as the Millennium Memory Bank project which aimed to record oral histories with a demographically representative section of the British population as a kind of time capsule at the turn of this century. This project interviewed people from the Caribbean living in Britain not as immigrants but as part of British society at a particular point in time. Interviews like that with Eunice McGee, a Caribbean-born homemaker from the Midlands, allow researchers to engage with social history in a more direct and intimate way, as the discussion tracks the minutiae of everyday life – of bringing up families and buying a house, of marriage and work, of cooking and speaking – and the interested listener can move beyond external narritavisation of racial and economic groups and allow the complexity of the everyday to show itself through the life of a particular individual.  

All of these encounters made at the sound terminal in the exhibition, or with headphones in the Reading Rooms, are valuable. They allow us to commune with the past; to hear stories which affirm and contradict what we already think we know, often in the same recording. But this is part of the point. The idea of Windrush generation has become monolithic; a mythology which, for better or for worse, represents an over-simplification. The Library’s job is to facilitate access and act as custodians for material which complicates this narrative and others like it. Oral history helps to make sure that the multifaceted past is preserved in order that we, in the present, can avoid misrepresenting those who lived through it. (Even if this means listening intently to someone’s unedited recollection of their day).

 

05 September 2018

'I into history, now': Andrew Salkey's Jamaican epic

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Andrew Salkey in the mid 1960s. Photo courtesy of Jason Salkey.

This is a poem about Jamaica, about the experience of the slave trade and of colonisation and about a struggle for freedom and for identity which still rages today among Caribbean peoples. It deals with political issues, but is not simply a political poem. Rather it conjures up the swirling colours, the music, the moods, the atmosphere of a bustling, suffering, vital island community.

So says the blurb for the first edition of Andrew Salkey’s epic poem published in 1973, a typescript of which is currently on display in Windrush: Songs In a Strange Land. The poem had been 20 years in the writing. Its seed lay, presumably, in the poem of the same name that won Salkey the Thomas Helmore Poetry Prize in 1955, though nothing remains of this earlier effort in his archive here at the British Library. There are, however, records of the poem’s publication and reception among the fifty cartons of papers (and sound recordings) that make up the Salkey Archive. These boxes have been extensively mined for the Windrush exhibition: the number of items on display from this one archive is testament to Salkey’s importance as a central figure in the Caribbean arts scene and his tendency to act as its unofficial archivist.  He was jokingly labelled ‘Chief Recorder of Caribbean authors and their whereabouts’ by close friend Sam Selvon in recognition of his meticulous collecting and documentation activities. But more than that, Salkey played a crucial role in connecting and encouraging writers, influencing the decisions of British publishers and asserting the worth of Caribbean arts and cultures internationally.

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'Jamaica' poem by Andrew Salkey, from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310.

As a novelist, poet, broadcaster with the seminal BBC programme Caribbean Voices, activist, academic and co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement, Salkey’s importance is difficult to overstate. Born in Panama in 1928, brought up in Jamaica, resident in Britain from 1952 and later the US, Salkey was a truly diasporic figure. His political interests in revolutionary Cuba, newly-independent Guyana and Chile’s fight against the Pinochet regime are all evident in the archive, as is his stellar network of correspondents which include CLR James, Chinua Achebe and even a fan-letter from Maya Angelou. His own writing is well represented too, with manuscripts and correspondence pertaining to many (though not all) of his novels, poetry, children’s stories and non-fiction books.

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Salkey interviewing Ray Charles for the BBC, 1966. Photo courtesy of Jason Salkey.

When it came to deciding which example of Salkey’s own work to include in the Windrush exhibition, the decision was not easy and I wish we could have included more items. Whereas his novels exploring the Caribbean immigrant experience in Britain had previously been displayed in exhibitions at the Library, we felt that this time the poem Jamaica deserved a showing. For myself and my co-curator Elizabeth Cooper, Jamaica stands out for the power and directness of its language, and also because it was representative of many Caribbean writers and artists’ desire to possess their own understanding of Caribbean history and culture. Salkey explained this desire for greater knowledge to Anne Walmsley (quoted in her book The Caribbean Artists Movement):

I got a British Museum reading card, and I went to the Public Record Office nearby. And I really started learning about me and home and the history, because I damn’ well wanted to talk to Jamaicans about Jamaica in the long poem that I was hoping to write. And therefore for the first time I began to realise myself as a colonial and us as a colony, and our history, and the way that we were forever at somebody else’s beck and call. Our economy wasn’t ours. Even our language wasn’t really ours. We had to, at least I had to, relearn a great deal.

Present in the archive is the original (anonymous) reader’s report that was submitted to Salkey’s publishers, Hutchinson. The reader judged the poem to be ‘a work of imagination and originality’ - ‘always interesting, and often moving – nowhere more so than in the descriptions of what "freedom" means, when it consists only in abolishing licensed slavery.’ They noted some reservations about the symphonic structure (which Salkey removed prior to publication), but praised Salkey’s use of dialect:

The many dialect sections seem outstandingly successful to me: they capture a very rich human feeling and present no difficulty to someone unfamiliar with Caribbean speech, like myself. Within their terse and repetitive rhythms, there is a great deal of unforced poetry. This is the real language of ritual and as such it has a greater lyricism and power than the well-contrived but slightly stale formality of the other sections.

On publication Jamaica received a mixed response, both from critics and friends. The TLS (25 Jan 1974) described the poem as ‘a loud cry for the island to reclaim its identity from the wrongs and sorrows of imperialism, ancient and present, and reassert Caribbea in myth, history and current blood’, but did not find its execution entirely successful.  One friend, Judy Ruggles, wrote to say she had initially regarded it as ‘Andrew’s indulgence’ but had since changed her mind on visiting Jamaica for the first time. The Jamaican Daily News lauded the poem for telling the island’s pre-Columbian history, whereas the sharpest criticism came from the UK version of the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner (21 August 1974) which opened its review by quoting Samuel Johnson’s line: ‘Sir (it) is like a dog’s wailing on its hind legs. It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all’. Despite first impressions, the reviewer is not, actually, questioning the quality of the writing so much as the reason for publishing a 100-page poem that it says hardly anyone will read since Salkey ‘antagonises’ his middle-class readers with the inclusion of ‘four-letter words’, and ‘The masses who may approve of that sort of thing do not buy books, neither prose nor poetry’. But I will give the last word to Christopher Laird, publisher of the Trinidadian arts journal Kairi, who declared ‘Again I must tell you how successful your “Into History Now” has been and how much we all dig it. Hardly a statement can be made these days without fitting in a line from “Into History”’.

That influence has lived on, as demonstrated by Raymond Antrobus who read from the poem at Monday’s event on the sound of the Caribbean voice. He spoke about his appreciation of Salkey’s poetry and the importance of seeing a copy of Jamaica on each of his parent’s bookshelves – his English mother and Jamaican father - as he was growing up.

Part of the power of Jamaica lies in its refrain ‘I into history, now’ with its radical sense of embodying history in order to reclaim it. Salkey returns to this idea in the final movement of the poem. Starting with an invocation to ‘grab weself like we know weself’, it concludes with these lines:

Culture come when you buck up
on you’self.
It start when you’ body make shadow
on the lan’,
an’ you know say
that you standin’ up into mirror
underneat’ you.

I say to meself,
“Is how the mento music go?”

You say,

“Is how the river flow?”
or, “How the sea does lay down so?”

I done wit’ you.
I into history, now.
Is the lan’ I want
an’ is the lan’
I out to get.

The twenty years’ journey of self-discovery that Salkey embarked upon with this poem was a long one, but a necessary one given the gaps and silences that have dogged our understanding of Caribbean history, culture and identity. Elsewhere in the exhibition we feature the work of other cultural figures who embarked on a similar learning process, from poet James Berry who wrote about coming to terms with his Caribbean background only after witnessing racism in the southern states of the US, to novelist Andrea Levy who has written about her own revelation that she was part of the ‘black experience’ despite growing up in a light-skinned, middle-class family who had distanced themselves from the black community due to the legacy of colonial-era shadism. This flourishing of Caribbean literature is in evidence throughout the exhibition, so if you haven’t seen it yet there is still time as the display runs until 21 October.

As for Andrew Salkey’s archive - without which the exhibition would be considerably poorer - we are pleased to announce that cataloguing of the collection will begin early next year and will lead to a conference to be held here at the British Library in 2020, thanks to the support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

30 August 2018

Mary Shelley in Italy: ‘…tragedy with a scene both affecting and sublime’

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By Stephen Noble, Modern Archives and Manuscripts. You can read more about Mary Shelley on our Discovering Literature website. Material relating to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is now on display in our Treasures Gallery.

In 1818 Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley travelled to Italy on the advice of Percy’s doctors, but also to avoid their creditors. Over the next few years they travelled all over the country and it was a time of great creative output for them both. Mary completed the novels Matilda and Valperga, as well as the plays Proserpine and Midas, while Percy wrote his lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound.

These years were also marred by tragedy. In September 1818 their daughter Clara contracted dysentery and died in Venice, where they had gone to find medical attention. Nine months later whilst staying in Rome, their son William died after catching malaria.

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Richard Rothwell, oil on canvas, NPG 1235 ©
Reproduced with the kind permission of National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Despite the traumas the couple endured, they continued to travel and were able to enjoy their experiences in Italy. In January 1821 Mary Shelley wrote to her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Ashley MS 4020), giving her ‘some account of my adventures’. She had been to Lucca to see a performance of Tommaso Sgricci, a famous improvisational poet. She wrote ‘Sgricci acquitted himself to admiration in the conduct and passion & poetry of his piece. As he went on he altered the argument as it had been delivered to him and wound up the tragedy with a scene both affecting and sublime’.

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Mary Shelley, letter to Claire Clairmont, [14] January 1821 (Ashley MS 4020, f2v)

Mary was moved by the performance, and by how ‘truly and passionately did his words depict the scene’. Others in the party were not so impressed, describing it as ‘una cosa mediocra’, a mediocre thing, but to Mary ‘it appeared a miracle’.

In July 1822 tragedy struck again. When returning from a trip to Livorno, where he had visited their friends Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned when his boat sank during a heavy storm in the Gulf of La Spezia. A few weeks later Mary Shelley wrote to her friend Maria Gisborne describing the last months she and Percy had spent together, the events of his death and her immense grief (Ashley MS 5022). ‘I said in a letter to Peacock, my dear Mrs. Gisborne, that I would send you some account of the last miserable months of my disastrous life’…‘The scene of my existence is closed’.

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Mary Shelley, letter to Maria Gisborne, 15 August 1822 (Ashley MS 5022, f1)

On Monday 8 July, ‘it was stormy all day, and we did not at all suppose that they could put to sea’. By Wednesday the weather had improved enough for boats to arrive, which ‘brought word that they sailed on Monday, but we did not believe them’. On Friday 12 July, a letter arrived for Percy from Leigh Hunt in which Hunt wrote ‘Pray write to tell us how you got home, for they say that you had bad weather after you sailed Monday, and we are anxious’.

Now she knew something had gone wrong, ‘The paper fell from my hands. I trembled all over’, but she still had hope that the worst had not happened. In Lerici, the nearest town, she was told there had been no reports of any accidents. In Livorno she learned that Percy had been warned about the storm, but set sail anyway.

It was while returning home on Saturday 13 July that Mary learned that part of his boat had been found, washed ashore a few miles away from Lerici. It was not until 19 July, almost two weeks after his death, that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s body was recovered.

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Mary Shelley, letter to Maria Gisborne, 15 August 1822 (Ashley MS 5022, f5)

Mary closes the letter: ‘Well, here is my story – the last story I shall have to tell. All that might have been bright in my life is now despoiled’.

Mary Shelley did go on to tell other stories, writing and publishing many novels, short stories, travel books, biographies, articles, and poems. Published in 1930 with the title Absence, Mary Shelley wrote of her grief for her husband (Ashley MS A4023):

‘Ah! he is gone — and I alone;

How dark and dreary seems the time!

‘Tis Thus, when the glad sun is flown,

Night rushes o’er the Indian clime’.

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Autograph, fair copy of a poem ‘Ah! he is gone — and I alone’ by Mary Shelley, undated (Ashley MS A4023)

 

15 August 2018

Michael Palin: Writer, Actor and Comedian

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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.

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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.

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‘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’.

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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’.

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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’.

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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.