THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

7 posts categorized "Humanities"

09 November 2018

C M Taylor on ‘keystroke logging project’ with British Library

Add comment

a guest blog by Craig Taylor, whose latest novel, Staying On, is published by Duckworth in 2018. In 2014 he began a project with the British Library to document the creative process of writing the book, using key-logging software. You can reach Craig on Twitter at @CMTaylorStory.

Re-entering the academic world after starting work as an Associate Lecturer on the Publishing degree at Oxford Brookes University, I began speculating about writer’s archives. Did previous scholars have access to more hand-written and typed drafts of works in progress - actual objects showing the shaping of works of art - but with the normalisation of computerized authorship, were these discrete drafts abolished in the rolling palimpsest of write and digital re-write?

Plus, I was considering a new novel myself, but as I have written elsewhere, emotionally I was daunted by the long-haul loneliness of novel writing, a process I considered in my most despairing moments as like wallpapering a dungeon.

I spoke to my friend Mark about these two things - the lost drafts and the loneliness - and in a flash he had the answer: ‘Put a piece of malware on it.’

He meant that if I put some malware, or spyware, on my computer to note everything I did, it would record all changes made to an evolving manuscript, plus it might offer a weird kind of company for me in my wallpapered dungeon.

It was worth a shot.

I contacted the digital curation team at the British Library in April 2013 and they could not have been more transparent, accessible and curious. We started talking about how digital production intersected with the scholarly recovery of the creation of works of art, and it turned out that my first view of things was off. Forensic curatorial techniques for salvaging the development of a manuscript on a hard drive did exist. It was just that they could not often be used, due to issues of privacy. How could you go into a writer's hard drive if they were writing and receiving email from multiple others from the same computer they were writing on, and writing on topics that might be of a personal sensitivity to one or more of the correspondents? Without complex legal initiatives and sensitive multiple consent, you just couldn’t.

But a simple solution was available. To save us from running into privacy issues, I would just buy a separate machine on which I wrote only the novel. I’m not the world’s richest guy, so I bought a pretty basic reconditioned laptop. After all, I was only going to write prose.

1

The reconditioned keylogging laptop on my writing desk at home.

We negotiated a contract where (to put it crudely) the data was the British Library’s but the resultant book was mine, and then we looked round for some software. The curation team found a piece of keylogging software called, Spector Pro about which Jonathan Pledge, a curator of contemporary archives at the British Library has recently written:

"The software used for capturing the writing process on the Craig Taylor project was the keylogging software, Spector Pro produced by SpectorSoft. In 2015 the company was rebranded as Veratio; Spector Pro is no longer part of the product range and is no longer supported. Spector Pro works with Windows variants from Windows XP to Windows 7.

After installation on a host computer, Spector Pro works by running undetected as a background application and cannot be accessed via the normal Windows user interface (it is not visible in the Applications folder). Access to the programme is by a default keyboard combination Control-Alt-Shift which brings up a password dialog box. The password is set by whoever installs the programme.

As keylogging software Spector Pro is not terribly sophisticated and seems to have been specifically designed for low-level company surveillance of employees, potentially without their knowledge. It is possible to run Spector Pro as a visible programme but this would seem to negate its original stated purpose.

Spector Pro can track and record chat conversations (as transcripts), emails (sent and received), websites visited and, most importantly for this project, keystrokes made, not only what has been typed within an application; but mouse and keystroke usage across the whole computer system."

The software was installed on my empty computer and I set to work.

But what had I done? I’d offered myself as a guinea pig, with my every wrong-turn, reappraisal, edit and mistake noted, recoverable and time and date stamped. Not only that but the novel proved punishingly hard to write. It wasn’t just that I was also writing a film script and an app, plus working as an editor of fiction and a university lecturer, and it wasn’t just that one of my young daughters was often to be found perched on my desk asking me questions, it was also the content of the book. I was aiming for a clarity of prose and of story, and for a universal relatability of protagonist, that I had never sought before.

The going was slow, but when I got the chance, and when I had chunk of work, I would arrange to come in to the British Library to download the data. I visited on eight separate occasions. My first visit was in October 2014, and my last was in March 2018. By the time we had finished we had generated 222GB of date, captured across 108, 318 files.

So, what exactly do we have?

We have information on every keystroke typed:

2
This shot shows the raw data usage as a list. By far the largest number of keystrokes concerns writing/typing as well as work on editing (Find & Replace) with the remainder comprising system activity including backups.

 

Plus, we have thousands of screenshots, one captured every few seconds each time activity on the host computer is detected.

3

From the moment the computer is logged into until the moment it is shutdown. Screenshots allows an output as either still images (.jpg or .BMP) or as black and white video (.avi).

And we have text outputs:

4

Text output from ‘Keystrokes Typed’ for a single tracked session. As seen from the detail below the header provides information on the Application used, the start of activity and the title of the file being worked on. The greyed text represents the tracked movements with typed words rendered in bold. Time stamps are given, with the green text signalling the start of activity and red the end.

During the writing I had no access to the software on my computer and I had no clear sense of the data being produced. But while I never knew what it was doing, it actually did help me begin again with novel writing, to get over that initial hump in the road. Somehow the writing felt collaborative, not only because the software was recording me, but also because of the digital curation team who were taking the data.

I have been asked if knowing that the work was being recorded made me self-conscious, and, sure at first, I was minding my Ps and Qs a bit, trying to seem like a more competent writer. But that didn’t last. Soon I realised that I quite wanted mistakes to show. It seemed an act of solidarity with the writers I was teaching, to really show them what I had often told them, that writing is born from repetition, that every writer has blind spots – weak theme, two dimensional characters, flimsy plotting – and that only re-writing cures these ills. It seemed like honesty to uncover the tottering beginnings of what most people would only consume as the solid, finished article.

Not only that. I forget about the keylogging software recording my every character because of the story itself. I wrote earlier that it was a difficult novel to write, because I aimed to write as simply and truthfully and compassionately as I was able. Aims I found to be not as readily available to me as I would have flattered myself to hope. I forgot about the keylogging going on as I wrote because the difficult writing became immersive – as I hope the reading of it will be - because my story and my characters - Tony and Laney, Jo and Nick - absorbed me, and in the end it was their story that cured me of my wallpapered dungeon, the keylogging project being the booster to get the journey started.

And so now, what are we going to do with the data? Well, I’m not going to do anything with it, I don’t have the skills. The data will be placed in the public domain, under a Creative Commons BY license,  running free at https://www.data.bl.uk/ in the near future. So, if you are a scholar of digital humanities, or a digital artist or a creative visualizer, be our guest. The data is there to be played with. It would be lovely to know what you did with it.

 

 

24 October 2018

The Cambridge Love Letters from Ted Hughes to Liz Hicklin

Add comment

by guest blogger Di Beddow, PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London, researching Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Cambridge. Recently acquired by the library, letters and cards from poet Ted Hughes to Elizabeth Hicklin (née Grattidge) have  been catalogued  (Add MS 89198) and are available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room via our online catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts. Read more  on our Ted Hughes Discovering Literature page. Reach Di on Twitter at @DiBeddow, and read more about her work here.

Hughes stock image
Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin, Copyright British Library Board
 

Recently acquired by the library, letters and cards from poet Ted Hughes to Elizabeth Hicklin (née Grattidge) have been catalogued (Add MS 89198) and are available for reading in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Hicklin, a nurse at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge met Hughes when he was an undergraduate at Pembroke College in the early 1950s. The couple were in a relationship for several years with Liz meeting the Hughes family in Yorkshire and joining the students in The Anchor public house where according to Daniel Huws, a friend of Ted’s at Cambridge ‘She smiled indulgently at the proceedings’ (Memories of Ted Hughes 2010 p.16) The letters shed light on a period which is not as well documented as most of Hughes’s life and work; it gives insight into his views on Cambridge; his friendship groups; his family and his writing, travel and career plans.

Liz, the recipient of the letters, was from Manchester originally, but left both her home and Cambridge eventually to emigrate to Australia where she lives today.  At one point the couple thought they would both emigrate and join Gerald, Hughes’s  brother, but Liz left for America first and whilst the relationship did not survive her departure, the correspondence is warm and tender from Hughes. He calls her, ‘My darlingest bunnyown’ and ‘My darling Bunpussington.’When he considers the end of their relationship with the distance between them, he is totally candid - ‘I dare say you’d have shown more faith in me if I’d shown you more honesty.’  He appreciates that she may well meet someone else abroad, but he insists, ‘I love you Bun, don’t ever doubt that.’ The letters and postcards were sent over a two year period and shed light on the time when as he says in ‘Fidelity’ from Birthday Letters that he graduated, but remained part of the culture in which he had studied – ‘Free of University I dangled/ In its liberties’.

In one letter he writes of his plan for an autobiographical novel about Cambridge and a book of fairy tales for children.  This is significant in that traditionally it is given that Hughes wrote little whilst at Cambridge; he tells Liz though that he has ‘…an idea for a book.  Two books in fact. One is about Cambridge. An autobiography of a student written from I’m not quite sure what angle, during three years, and to sell as a soft back popular thing.’

Just six months later he was to meet Sylvia Plath in Cambridge and she was to start a book called Falcon Yard which was to tell the story of her meeting and relationship with Hughes in Cambridge.  He goes on to say that - ‘The book about Cambridge would be very cynicial (sic), I feel, very cruel to everyone I knew - but the interesting things about everyone I knew, now I look back, seem to have been their absurdities.  I don’t think that I remember it with much affection’.

This is a popular view of Hughes at Cambridge, as an outsider and a critic, for example, of the Cambridge teaching of English Literature; one recalls Hughes’s dream of a burnt fox which considered his latest essay and warned him “Stop this. You are destroying us.” ‘(Letter to Keith Sagar 16 July 1979) However, Hughes made strong and lasting relationships with several of his Cambridge contemporaries and he finishes his letter to Liz reassuringly, telling her that she is not incorporated in his slight of the Cambridge circle -  ‘You’re just no part of it, you’re nothing but a good memory, my very best. Ever’.

The postcards are all sent from Europe when Hughes was on holiday with his Uncle Walt. In one from Spain, showing the cathedral in Tarragona he says, ‘Nothing but tombs of gold and lapis lazuli…’ which resonates with one of Liz Hicklin’s anecdotes of their relationship written up in an article included in the folder; she tells that Hughes would recite his favourite poem, Yeats’  ‘Oil and Blood’ in the pub.  The poem begins, ‘In tombs of gold and lapis lazuli’ and it accentuates the mysterious phenomenon of decaying corpses in tombs, with heavenly or supernatural scents and oils.  Indeed, Hughes continues on the card - ‘…what a melancholy choosing faculty I have.’

Six poems and literary fragments are also included. The majority of the drafts are untitled with the exception of ‘Sheep’ and ‘Nessie’. Two of the drafts are written in another hand and not Hughes's. ‘Sheep’ is a typewritten copy of the poem which appeared in Season Songs published in 1976, whilst ‘Nessie’ has some skilled sketches for which Hughes became known whenever he was writing for children; signing publications for those dear to him, or simply when doodling.

Finally there are two photographs, one of Hughes fishing at the age of 22, taken by his brother Gerald and another, more interesting perhaps, of the couple at a May Ball in Pembroke.  Liz has written on the back that it was taken at 3 a.m. and Liz has sunk into an armchair with Hughes standing beside her. Linking this photo back to a letter Hughes sent home in May 1954, reveals that the similar profiles of the two were noted by several peers.  Hughes writes in a letter home - ‘There is a girl here that I shall take with me (to Australia) if I still feel like it, and probably marry her before I go…She is a nurse and from some angles looks very like me, everyone says.’ (Selected Letters p.25)

Liz’s article on her memories of the relationship is added to the material and proves to be a useful commentary on the folder.  Hughes’s courtship of Liz bears strong resemblances to the way he courted Plath, using pet-names, reading poetry and what he calls in Birthday Letters (‘The Owl’) his ‘masterpiece’, aping the sound of a hurt rabbit in order to attract owls.  Liz describes this in terms similar to that of Plath’s amazement - ‘Ted made a whining sound with moistened lips and a cupped hand.  Creatures appeared from nowhere - rabbits from their burrows, a stoat at his feet.  Birds swooped overhead. “They think it’s an animal in distress,” he said.  A trick learnt as a small boy, trailing his big brother over the moors, trapping rabbits and delivering newspapers for the family business.’

The wit of both Hicklin and Hughes brings their mutual attraction alive; she recalls receiving a written invitation from Hughes, ‘Would you like to come to tea? I have a ghost in my room.’  When she does attend his room she is taken aback by the drawings of birds with clawed feet and hooked beaks over the walls.  When Hughes tells her he intends to be a writer of children’s stories, she notes the murals and induces, ‘You’ll scare them to death.’

This folio of material enchants with its anecdotes and proves to be a rich resource for the lesser-known Cambridge period of Ted Hughes.

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

19 October 2018

About Artists Books Now

Add comment

by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

IMG_3661

One of the purposes of Artists’ Book Now is to introduce our visitors to the rich collections of artists’ books within the British Library and to widen the use of artists’ books across the research community beyond the Library.

From the outset, the project was concerned with how to get the audience engaging with the material in manner which could inspire debate, discussion and greater interaction. Traditional Library mechanisms of dissemination such as the Reading Room, exhibition, digitisation or even show and tell present various limitations to what is possible, particularly when dealing with artists’ books. Hence, we hit upon the concept of a host conversing with the artist themselves while presenting their work. Presenting the work in this manner heightens intimacy between the work and its viewer, as well as allowing the maker's thoughts about the work, and its creation, to emerge more fully.  

A key question for a national library, or any cultural institution for that matter, is how best to preserve the collection while ensuring maximum possible access and engagement. By negotiating this interchange between the audience and artists’ books, with the help of the artist, it is hoped that  a richer and fuller experience will be possible.  By using baggy themes as frames for the individual events, the co-curators hope that types of work not normally seen or discussed together will suddenly find common ground. It should be noted that this is all seen through a “Contemporary” lens, demonstrating that, while artists’ books certainly do offer up the pleasures of visual and physical artworks, and can and do use contemporary artistic techniques and aesthetics, they are also important witnesses to the the present, allowing myriad issues, concerns, and interests to surface for contemporary audiences.

 

IMG_3662

 

 

 

 

03 August 2018

From the strange to the enchanting: the hidden surprises of poetry pamphlets

Add comment

by Gemma Meek, PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University working in collaboration with the British Library, funded by the AHRC NWCDTP.  If you want to discover more about poetry pamphlets, you can search the library’s extensive collections. Or, you can support independent press through purchasing pamphlets on individual publisher’s websites. They are often very modest in price – ranging from £4-10. For a list of independent presses that publish poetry pamphlets visit: The National Poetry Library or Sphinx Review for a list maintained by Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press.

 

1

Exploring a doll’s house, beheading a saint and the collapse of an urban café. These are just some of the themes of the pamphlets shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award.

As the 10th Michael Marks Award approaches, it might be a good time to reflect on the current poetry pamphlet scene. As a PhD placement student at the British Library, this involves rummaging through the Michael Marks shortlisted pamphlets. As well as speaking to the various individuals within and around pamphlet publishing – from academics, to poets, publishers and librarians. This post is a reflection on these explorations, and a brief tour of some of the surprises in the pamphlet field.

Reading the Michael Marks shortlisted pamphlets evokes a range of different experiences. Sometimes it can feel like entering another’s dream, walking across a landscape or noticing overlooked aspects of the everyday. Although it is hard to choose a favourite, there are some pamphlets I am particularly drawn to: Sarah Jackson’s Milk (2008, Pighog Press), which includes a strange and uncomfortable exploration of a doll’s house. Richard Scott’s Wound (2016, The Rialto), which contains some violent (and occasionally erotic) poetry – with one written from a witness perspective of a saint’s beheading. And David Hart’s rather long titled: The Titanic Café closes its doors and hits the rocks or: Knife, fork and bulldozer ultra modern retail outlet complex development scenario with flowers. (2009, Nine Arches Press) as a politicised ‘documentary’ style pamphlet, using photography and poetry to explore a Birmingham café closure.  

Traditionally, a poetry pamphlet is a small collection of poems printed and bound with staples (saddle-stitch), glue or thread in a slim publication (normally A5, but not always). Although pamphlets can vary in the number of pages, it is generally much thinner than a book – with the Michael Marks Award only accepting pamphlets up to 36 pages long. This bite-sized format emphasises a cohesive collection of poems, with their selection, arrangement and editing often developed through discussions between publisher and poet (unless, of course, they are self-published).

Many pamphlets are published by independent press, a term used to define small enterprises which produce a limited amount of publications annually, and are often considered an ‘alternative space’ to the mainstream or more established institutions (although there are always exceptions to the rule).

In the case of poetry pamphlets, the publishers are normally involved in the selection of work, its editing, design and marketing. Most presses have some form of selection criteria, whether that is based around the personal preferences of the publisher, or certain thematic/stylistic concerns. These can range from publishing a particular genre of poetry, to a focus on certain identities, dialects or works from particular regional areas.

Some presses have ‘house styles’, in which their pamphlets have uniform cover designs, size, font choices and branding – seen in some of the Smith/Doorstop or Tall Lighthouse Press pamphlets. Whereas others, such as Longbarrow Press or Pighog Press, produce more individualised, or unique pamphlets in accordance with the content and style of the work being published.

Presses also like to push the boundaries of what is possible with the pamphlet form. This is visible in David Hart’s The Titanic Café Closes Its Doors and Hits The Rocks (2009, Nine Arches Press), and in Devorgilla Bridge by poet Hugh McMillan and artist Hugh Bryden (2009, Roncadora Press) – an artist book turned pamphlet. Like This Press have been making ‘books-in-a-box’, with Rupert Loydell’s Tower of Babel (2013) containing a poetry pamphlet, an essay and various postcards of vibrant abstract paintings. There are also free, digital pamphlets which can be downloaded from Platypus Press and Neon Books, challenging a focus on tactility. And it is worth checking out the poetry pamphlets in University of Sheffield Special Collections by CURVD H&z, where spontaneous poetry is stamped on food labels and used envelopes. These various experiments might encourage poetry pamphlets to be seen as a ‘zone of activity’ rather than a fixed definition.[1]

There are also presses working to be more inclusive of the various voices, identities and performances occurring in the poetry scene – although much more work needs to be done in this area. As a recent report by David Coates from Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics shows, not only is there is a lack of BAME writers being published, but there is also little critical review of the work. Chantelle Lewis also raised this concern when she ran an event at the library ‘Bringing Voices Together’, which aimed to highlight independent publishers committed to writers of colour.  

2

Rachel McCrum, The Glassblower Dances. Stewed Rhubarb Press. 

Some presses are also breaking tradition by exploring the relations and differences in written and spoken word. For example, Stewed Rhubarb Press shows a penchant for queer, feminist or minority voices– often publishing work that starts off as spoken word. Their pamphlets attempt to convey the poet’s performance through dialectical and formal experiments, to encourage the reader to perform the work.

Test Centre have also been working with spoken word and performance, publishing vinyl and cassettes with pamphlets, scores and books to highlight fiction, poetry and sound works. These multi-sensory publications are slamming, singing, humming and pacing words, whilst still giving the pamphlet form some exposure.  

3

Ian Sinclair. Westering. Test Centre.

As I come to the end of my placement, I hope to pull together these reflections on pamphlet experimentation alongside discussions with publishers on running an independent press. These reflections will be collated into a report, which will consider some of the following themes: definitions, working models, budgets, pamphlet quality and the place/benefit of pamphlet awards.

This report will be a collection of different voices – as I draw together the conversations and information individuals have shared. Although it is difficult to provide a cohesive account of the poetry pamphlet ‘scene’ in three months – I hope this report will generate further discussions about the future of pamphlet production.

 

[1] The idea of a ‘zone of activity’ was used by Johanna Drucker to explain the different experiments and forms within artists’ books. Drucker, Johanna. (2004) The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books

 

 

 

15 January 2018

It’s a kinda magick: Aleister Crowley

Add comment

A guest blog by Rachel Brett, Humanities Reference Specialist

For those who believe in magic it’s reasonable to accept it can form in monochrome shades. Potentially the most infamous practitioner of the darker variety was Aleister Crowley (pictured below). Emerging from the Fin de siècle moment when, along with philosophers and psychoanalysists alike, he became interested in mysticism and the occult. Rebelling against his evangelical Christian upbringing causing his mother to dub him ‘The Beast’ a moniker amongst many he would adopt throughout his life as a magician.

ACrowleyCrowley began his magical apprentice training with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, other probationers included W.B.Yeats. Crowley however, developed an interest in goetia- the evocation of demons and would later believe Yeats was casting spells on him because he was jealous of his poetry… The clandestine life style Crowley was beginning to indulge in encompassing drug taking and sexual experiments cast a cloud over his progress with that magical order prompting him to seek wider magical landscapes.

He travelled extensively and studied a myriad amount of ancient eastern traditions from yoga, meditation to kabbalah. He married and shortly after in telepathic communication with his new wife made contact with the Egyptian god Aiwass, which resulted in him producing The Book of the Law which would serve as the basis for the magic system he dedicated his life to. The premises of his belief system was ‘Do What thy Will, Love is the Law’. Analogous to Nietzsche before him he believed that individuals held the power to be free and live according to their own desires, despite the effect of those desires. Having achieved top level magus status Crowley became head of Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) he added a ‘k’ to the spelling of magic and set about establishing the religion of Thelema that would guide in the new Aeon.

One vital element to Crowley’s practice was the attainment of a magic diary. He had a strong interest in science and felt that magic should use the ‘method of science with the aim of religion’. In the age of enlightenment knowledge received by reason could be scientifically calculated. The practice of magic for Crowley had to be studied in the same manner; collect data and look for repeatable patterns and repetitions. The diary was key to this procedure.

He kept a diary from his initiation into the Golden Dawn and expected all his students to do likewise. The process of keeping a diary was to record and reflect on experiences and effective exercises. The recording allowed theories and methods to be tested but also a tool to aid his most profound motto; know thy self and ones limits.

He chronicled everything in his diary, from Astrological charts, concentration exercises, dreams, daily observations to what he ate and when. The resolution was to show life as a spell that is willed for a purpose. Evocations were his way of confronting obstacles to the self. By recording all his thoughts, feelings and activities and the reflecting upon these illuminated his perceptions. The practice of keeping the diary was a disciplined aspect of training for the aspirant. The diary would be maintained for a year then reflected upon by the teacher before a pupil could become adept. The principle was for the magician to record their past, where they came from and how they were brought to the gateway of magic. The diary would function as the writer’s conscience that could be used for further experiments. The recording of all activities meant that the mind could not forget or falsely remember.

Sometimes coded cipher might be used, and grammar was banished. There would be no full stops, or use of the word failure Crowley writes in The Book:

“This full stop may never be written anywhere else; for the writing of the Book goes on eternally; there is no way of closing the record until the goal of all has been attained.”

Aleister_Crowley_as_OsirisPicture showing Aleister Crowley as Osiris

For Crowley the maintenance of a magical diary was so vital to attainment that he wrote a novel based upon his own experiences. ‘The Diary of a Drug Fiend’ is a fictional account premised on his own experiences.

Magicians diaries rarely survive least of all become published, the full set are still waiting publications. John Dee who was the astrologer of Elizabeth 1 also kept a magical diary. Some of his original manuscript form part of the British Library collections.

Aleister Crowley had many faces, an iconoclast, a poet, a mountaineer, a mystic and popular culture icon. His cultural influence began as early as 1908 when Somerset Maugham wrote The Magician a novel caricaturing Crowley. During the revolutionary 1960’s Crowley would posthumously become an alternative inspiration for the new generation from magicians to pop stars. It seems that the subterranean world of the magician is an enduring mystery that looks set to remain in our popular consciousness for a long time to come. Just remember magic isn’t just one colour…  

References books on magic can be located on the open shelves in Humanities one reading room.

17 March 2016

How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?

Add comment Comments (0)

By Christina Hardyment, complier of 'Pleasures of Nature: A Literary Anthology' now available from British Library Publishing.

Having enjoyed compiling literary anthologies about gardens (Pleasures of the Garden) and food (Pleasures of the Table), I turned to a much more challenging subject: Pleasures of Nature. Where to start and where to stop? I decided that a challenging way of classifying literary mentions of natural things would be to consider them in the context of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Earth’s ‘sweet interchange of hill and valley, rivers, woods and plains’ are mournfully recalled by the exiled Satan in Paradise Lost, a tranquil scene quite unlike the ‘mighty polypus mouth … chewing and digesting its food in its throat and belly’ of the earthquake described by Sabine Baring-Gould in his tempestuous romantic novel Winefred. Trees are firmly rooted in earth, particularly such ancient giants as the Borrowdale yews apostrophized by Wordsworth, and the hunched beech and juniper of the ancient combe found in the Marlborough Downs by Edward Thomas. And then there are particularly earthbound creatures: D H Lawrence’s ‘little Titan’ of a tortoise and Richard Braithwaite’s hedgehog, ‘a whole fort in himself’.

Maps_k_top_76_84_b

‘View of the Source of the Arveyron, by Belanger and Vanlerberghe, engraved by Malgo’, 1829. British Library Maps K.Top.76.84.b.

Writers conjure air up in rainbows, winds and mists, the ‘tremendous voice’ of James Thomson’s thunder, and the ‘livid flame’ of his lightning. Leonardo da Vinci analysed the varying blues of atmosphere: smoky grey, azure, profoundly dark. Coleridge made startlingly vivid notes on sunsets and moonsets, observed while upturning his chamber pot out of the window of his Keswick residence, Greta Hall. It’s also the domain of Tennyson’s eagle, falling like a thunderbolt, Dorothy Wordsworth’s tremulously fluttering swallows, and Emerson’s ‘burly, dozing humble-bee.’

T00035-06

Plate from The Beauty of the Heavens by Charles F. Blunt, 1840. British Library 717.g.4*

Fiery phenomena invade all the elements of course, be they volcanoes (observed at Pompeii by Pliny, and at Krakatoa by R M Ballantyne), ‘phosphorescent billows’ as whales’ tails lash the sea in Moby-Dick, or Robert Service’s ‘wild and weird and wan’ Northern Lights dancing in the polar sky. Thomas Hardy likened the great bonfire lit on the heath in The Return of the Native to ancient funeral pyres and Bartholomew Anglicus’s phoenix crawled into a nest ‘of right sweet-smelling sticks’, which is set on fire by the sun.

C04275-06

Plate from Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies by William Hamilton, Ambassador to the Court of Naples, 1776. British Library TAB.435.a.15, volume 1.

Water includes the sound of rain and what Henry Beston called the ‘awesome, beautiful, and varied’ voice of the ocean; the ‘fleecy fall’ of Hardy’s snow, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘darksome burn, horseback brown’. It too has its creatures: Grey Owl’s beaver people, Henry Williamson’s otters and Graeme Stones’s  ‘storm-orphaned seal pup’.

But time and again I came across passages that escaped my quartet of categories. So I added two more. One was Surprise, in honour of Terry Pratchett, who once jokingly defined it as a fifth element, which I could fill with fun in the form of Lewis Carroll’s Bread-and-Butter-Fly, Jean Fabré’s macabre account of the courting habits of the grasshopper, and Aldous Huxley’s jokey skit on Darwinism, ‘Jonah and the Apes’. Finally, I found a home for the most arresting passages and poems under Deep Thinking. God recurs: as a ‘vast Chain of Being’ for Alexander Pope, in the changing seasons for Henry Vaughan, in the form of Space for Coleridge, jokingly in Rupert Brooke’s piscine ‘Heaven’. The Japanese poet Bashö reads Buddhist poems under the moon, Robert Louis Stevenson wanders the bird-enchanted highlands in ‘a trance of silence’. The pioneer environmentalist Aldo Leopold reminds us that ‘in wildness is the salvation of the world’, and the physicist Chet Raymo gazes at the stars from a dark hillside, listening and watching ‘for the tingle in the spine’.

I found much to comfort, but also much to dread during my reading. We are taming and tidying our world too thoroughly. In our gardens, birds, bees and hedgehogs disappear in the face of pesticides. The rockpools on our beaches are all but deserted. In South America, Africa and Asia, forests shrink unimaginably quickly, and round the globe the oceans are being ruthlessly harvested and polluted. As we reach greedily for the stars, let’s stop a while and remember Gilbert White’s tortoise, digging himself into the ground with a movement that ‘little exceeded the hour hand of a clock’, and the tall old shepherd in the Lakeland Hills who, Harriet Martineau tells us, ‘has trod upon rainbows’.

26 October 2015

Artist Portraits: John Berger's latest book launch at the British Library

Add comment Comments (0)

by Tom Overton, editor of Portraits: John Berger on Artists by John Berger, 2015

 

On the 18th September, John Berger and Ali Smith came to the British Library to launch a book I’ve been editing, Portraits: John Berger on Artists.

Portraits-Berger

Image courtesy of Verso Books

Ali Smith gave a short speech explaining why she loved Berger’s work; it was wonderful, and can be read in the New Statesman here. As you’ll understand from reading it, I was very glad that I’d been on stage already, and my stint explaining the origins of the book didn’t have to follow that.

 

Between 2010 and 2013 I had the pleasure and the privilege of cataloguing the archive John Berger donated to the British Library while I was writing my PhD. This turned into an exhibition at Somerset House, connecting the archive to works of art, and a conference and free school celebrating the anniversary of to of his most famous works, Ways of Seeing and G. Then, while I was a Research Fellow at the Henry Moore Institute, Verso to ask me to put together a collection of Berger’s writing about art.

 

The original proposal turned into two books, the second of which, Landscapes, will be published next year. In some ways the discipline of focusing on Berger’s writing on art was a relief – the scope of his achievement in writing alone is enormous, and books like A Seventh Man, on migrants in Europe, seem particularly timely today. These achievements are also ongoing; among other things there’s this piece addressed to Rosa Luxemburg in the New Statesman.

 

I had to go away and think about what I loved about Berger’s writing on art, and what I thought was important about it. I haven’t got time to do justice to that, so instead, I’ll try and lay out three of the considerations I had in mind. The first was the sheer scope of material in two, historical senses: Berger trained as a painter here in London in the 1940s, and has been writing about art ever since. But he’s written about everything, from all periods, from the very earliest to the most contemporary. That was one of the reasons I was so pleased that Ali Smith agreed to come, because I think – particularly in a book like How to Be Both she and Berger share this wonderfully free, freeing approach to history, existing in what Berger calls ‘the company of the past.’

 

The second consideration is that, like Smith, Berger has little sense of being constrained by literary form. It seems appropriate that we’re launching this book on the anniversary of the death of another radical writer and painter, William Hazlitt, because Berger is rightly known as one of the great innovators in the essay. But he’s also much more than that. In The Success and Failure of Picasso, Berger quotes Picasso writing to his dealer in 1923, to explain the vast formal variety of his work. He says ‘whenever I have had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I felt it ought to be said.’ This seems to me to be true of Berger’s work too: he’s responded to the experience of looking at art through fiction, drama, poetry, films, collaborations with Nella Bielski, Mike Dibb and Simon McBurney and things which don’t fit into any category at all. There’s a kind of elegy in the book for the sculptor Juan Muñoz, for example, structured as a sequence of letters to the dead Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet.

 

The third consideration also seems to be a unique aspect to Berger’s work. Like Monet with his cathedrals, Berger submits himself to the discipline of returning to the same stimulus, over and over again, and bringing a new insight out of it each time, about the work, and he world around us. The archetypal example of this is the way he went to see Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece either side of the revolutionary hopes and failures of 1968. It’s also in writing about Henry Moore and Francis Bacon in a very different way in the 1950s, the 1980s, and the 21st century, each time with a scrupulous honesty and complete commitment.

 

So a straightforward essay collection wouldn’t have worked. The structure I settled on was a timeline, arranged around the dates of birth of the artists John had written about, from the Chauvet Cave painters and Fayum portraitists to many of the artists who are in the audience today – Michael Broughton, Yvonne Barlow, Rostia Kunovsky, Peter Kennard. Within the chapters there’s space for these sequences of responses to emerge where they do.

  BergerEvent

Image courtesy of Verso Books

Re-imagining all this writing in this way reminded me of the moment at the beginning of Ways of Seeing, the book and series with Mike Dibb and others which you can still see on YouTube. Berger walks up to what looks like Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, gets out a Stanley knife, chops out Venus’s head, and announces ‘an allegorical painting becomes a portrait of a girl’. I hope Berger can forgive me for the similar violence I’ve sometimes used in taking pieces of response out of their original context and putting them in this book; but he gave me the idea.

 

You can read it like this, in segments when you see something in a gallery, or on a screen – with Berger’s piece on Rosa Luxemburg and birds in mind, I want to call that bird-like. Or you can be very proper and read it from cover to cover. When I did that in making the book, a lot of unexpected connections emerged – even within the pieces themselves, Berger is always pointing out simultaneities. What it isn’t is what he has called ‘a relay-race of individual geniuses’; it’s an art history which is about collaboration, rather than competition, and this quality of what I called the company of the past.

 

Portraits is dedicated to Gareth Evans, who has long been a really vital advocate of Berger’s work, and the work of many other important, committed artists – I exhort you to follow everything he does very closely. But it’s also dedicated to Berger’s wife Beverly, who passed away in 2013, and who gave the archive at the British Library its shape, and its great richness of content. So as I’ve explained, this book, like many others, couldn’t have happened without her. I hope you enjoy it.