THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

79 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

19 June 2020

“To Mr Pope att Button’s Coffee House”: translating Homer on scraps

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by Tabitha Driver, Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts. Find out more about the Library's collections of material relating to Alexander Pope on Discovering Literature.

Though we have been unable to explore physical collections directly during the last few months, their materiality exercises a continuing fascination. Printing, handwriting, paper, and writing tools all provide evidence of the processes of creation and transmission that’s sometimes not at all easy to reproduce in digital form. A writer’s own manuscripts can reveal much, from the quality of paper to revisions, insertions and rewritings. Not all writers start work with a fresh sheet of paper, either. Used scraps, old envelopes or discarded documents can all serve just as well, whether snatched up as a matter of urgency or simply for economy’s sake.

One such case is the 18th century poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Early in his career Pope produced translations of Homer’s two great epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Pope’s Iliad took him over six years to complete – at times he despaired of ever finishing – but when it was finally published, by subscription and issued in parts from 1715 to 1720, it paid off handsomely. Thanks to his earnings from both Homeric epics, Pope acquired invaluable financial independence; as he strikingly declared in a poem from 1737: “But (thanks to Homer) since I live and thrive,/Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive” (Epistle 2, ii.68–9, Poems, 4.169). 

Pope drafted his Homeric translations on the backs of old letters sent to him by friends, family, writers, and other public figures, and on other written fragments. Some years after his death, the drafts were presented to the British Museum in three volumes (Add MS 4807-4809): volumes one and two are the draft translations of The Iliad and the third is The Odyssey. They were early on a source of interest. Samuel Johnson, who described Pope’s Iliad as “the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen” examined the manuscripts at the Museum closely for his life of Pope (Johnson, Lives of the poets, ed. G H Norman (1905) vol. 3, p. 119), and printed comparisons between selected verses from the draft and published versions of The Iliad. He put down Pope’s use of old letters for writing paper to “petty artifices of parsimony”, a sign of the poet’s tendency to excessive frugality. You can find out more about the manuscripts, and read a selection of folios from Add MS 4807, on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website, along with Pope’s sketch of Achilles’ shield from Add MS 4808.

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Opening verses of Homer’s Iliad, translated by Alexander Pope. Manuscript draft (Add MS 4807, f. 17)

 

Besides what we can see of Pope’s translating and writing process from the manuscripts themselves – the crossings out and insertions, and the variances from the published text that Johnson observed – the mixed bag of unrelated letters and notes on which they were written confer a rich additional layer of significance. They provide a fascinating insight into the development of Alexander Pope as a young writer in literary London of the early 18th century, and the coffee house milieu in which he moved, with its literary and political alliances, rivalries, business and friendship.

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End of book 6 of The Iliad, translated by Alexander Pope. Manuscript draft written on a letter addressed to Mr Pope, Button’s Coffee-house (Add MS 4807, f. 87v)

 

The writers of the letters and notes include Pope’s friends John Caryll, the Jacobite Baron Caryll of Durford, Edward Bedingfield of Grays Inn, Barnaby Bernard Lintot, Pope’s publisher, Charles Jervas, portrait artist and painting instructor of Pope, and Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, poet, among others.

 

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Letter from Bernard Lintot about reception of “Mr Tickles book” at Buttons Coffee House, 10 June 1715 (Add MS 4807, f. 96v)

Topics touched on in the letters are miscellaneous too. They range from literary matters, such as publication of The Rape of the Lock (Pope’s mock-epic poem about the theft of a lock of hair) in 1712, instructions for the printer Jacob Tonson regarding Pope’s translation of the Sarpedon episode in Poetical miscellanies (1709), and the critical reception of a rival translation of the first book of The Iliad by Thomas Tickle, published in the same month as Pope’s (June 1715), to family affairs, such as medical advice and investments in the South Sea Bubble.

Thanks to the poet’s economical habit of re-using old paper for his writing, the manuscripts of “Pope’s Homer” have acquired a double significance. On the one hand they are important as the original drafts of his hugely successful translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. On the other, they offer us a vivid record of Pope’s life and times during all the years he worked on them.

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Alexander Pope’s sketch of the shield of Achilles (Add MS 4808)

01 April 2020

Digital Literary Collections — Variety, Complexity and Curiosity under Lockdown

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by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts.

The April - June  2020 season of blogs on English and Drama will focus on the Library’s digital literary collections, ranging through Online Exhibitions, Learning Resources, the UK Web Archive, Personal Digital Archives and Emerging Formats.

Curators and cataloguers will post selections from our remotely available collections alongside their reflections every Friday, and an investigation of a different aspect of these digital collections every Wednesday.

The current situation is strange in countless ways. One way — relatively abstract and apparently unimportant at first glance — is how it has distorted our collective sense of physical space. By staying at home we simultaneously ground ourselves in a limited physical range whilst being drawn to new, expansionist forms of electronic communication. How many times have we heard, over the past few weeks — listening to friends and family over distorted, overburdened broadband connections — how relieved we all are that this particular crisis (if it had to happen) happened now; when we have unprecedented access to technologies which can, for those of us lucky enough to be able to access them, ameliorate the isolation or at least stave off the boredom. Perhaps it is inevitable that the ‘digital’, as a somewhat amorphous and poorly defined category, comes to the forefront of these conversations. Puritanical notions of screen-time as something to be avoided, or at least restricted, take a back-seat as the physical world grinds to a halt around us, and the fibre-optic synapses continue to fire, faster than ever.

 

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The UK Web Archive (UKWA) attempts to collect this online activity, capturing millions of websites each year, preserving them for future generations. 

 

For curators, cataloguers and researchers who work at, use and visit cultural heritage institutions like the British Library, the physical collections remain out of reach. They’re in isolation too. In storage areas which are less like the ancient, labyrinthine temples of happenstance so often depicted in media representations — and much more like sterile hospital wards — countless boxes of archival material and shelves of printed material sit unprocessed and unread, gathering (minimal, tightly controlled, mostly metaphorical) dust. And we’ll miss them. But we’re relieved too. Because if this particular crisis had to happen, then at least it happened now, when our capacity to share our collections with our audiences remotely is growing more quickly than ever before.

 

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Discovering Literature is an example of growing capacity to share and re-contextualise our literary collections online.  Enjoy digitised treasures from our collection, newly commissioned articles, short documentary films and teachers’ notes.

Every Wednesday a blog will go live from one of the Library’s curators or cataloguers, which will approach a different aspect of the ‘digital’ and how it relates to literature, drama and the Library.

Every Friday, a curator or cataloguer will highlight a digitised literary collection item or piece of writing from one of the Library’s many online portals, which in some way reflects upon our unprecedented situation.

None of this is to say that digital collections are easy; a fall-back option during a crisis. Archivists and other cultural heritage workers have long resisted the optimism (and hubris) of the tech-world and its zealots who claim that everything will be — or already has been — digitised. We know that the internet hasn’t superseded the Library or the Archive. We know that a future where all of our collections are available remotely, for free, online is a long, long way off. Most of us have spent too many years buried under piles of paper to confidently predict its obsolescence. We have spent too long agonising over the logistics, pragmatics and ethics of categorisation to take such systems for granted. We know that information delivery is never value-free or structure-free, and we take our roles as custodians of information seriously enough to question anything that argues otherwise. And, as the posts lined up for these coming months will prove, a significant number of Library colleagues have enough experience with these complex and various ‘digital objects’ to be all too aware that they are not post-archival in any meaningful sense, but rather present their own set of unique — and, at this point, often insurmountable — challenges for conservation, visibility and access.

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The Library's Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts Department now routinely collects born-digital archive material, including the hard-drives and e-mail of prominent writers. This material presents heretofore unprecedented opportunities and challenges for the Library in terms of preservation, visibility and access.

 

We hope that these reflections and selections will engage your curiosity and encourage both reflection and discussion in the coming months, as more of us settle into this new way of life.

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.