THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

74 posts categorized "Literature"

19 February 2019

Remembering Andrea Levy

Add comment

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

Add comment

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.

Wodehouse pic 2

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

Add comment

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.

04 January 2019

The Sun-Artist, the Typewriter and Bridge of the Ford

Add comment

A guest blog by Susan Connolly, whose poetry pamphlet, The Sun-Artist, was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets. The Sun-Artist will be on display in the Treasures Gallery until the end of February as part of an exhibition which celebrates the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards.

Sunlight, a big window, ruler, pencil, compass and tracing paper were the tools I used to write my first visual poems on sheets of white A4 paper – cutting and pasting, not on the computer, but with scissors and Prittstick. Written in 2005, these were freehand word-drawings of poems called ‘Mirrors’, ‘Many Selves’ and ‘Like Leaves on a Tree’.

Some of these early visual poems were published in Shearsman magazine in 2008. In early 2009 Shearsman Books published Forest Music, my second full-length collection of poetry. The collection is in two sections: Forest Music and Walking the Seawall. Walking the Seawall contains twenty-three visual poems.

In October 2009 a friend showed me the Olympia portable typewriter which she had bought in a charity shop. I looked at this object and a whole range of possibilities opened up in my mind. I borrowed her typewriter and set to work. The first poem I typed was ‘The Sun-Artist’. It required a huge amount of concentration not to make a mistake and have to start all over again. Later I copiedThe Sun-Artist’ onto my computer.

The idea for this poem came from a visit to the Cross of Muiredach in Monasterboice, near Drogheda, one July evening in 2009. This is an elaborately carved High Cross made of sandstone, dating to the 10th century. Its sides are covered with panels of interlace reminiscent of the Book of Kells. The interlace usually looks faded, but the way the sun shone on it that evening made it look new again. I wanted to depict this interlace in a poem. I wrote the line ‘deepshadowed sunset renews fading patterns’. Then I used these words re-creating how the interlace appeared,  renewed by the evening sun.  

My poetry moved increasingly from word-drawings to poetry which could be made on the typewriter and copied from there to computer. The best font for my work is Courier New, a font which gives equal space to each letter of the alphabet, just like the typewriter. I also realised that there were other possibilities on the computer: changing the size of the letters, line spacing, colour. Nowadays I use only the computer. However, my visual poems have been greatly influenced by my earlier engagement with the typewriter.               

In 2013 Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books asked me if I had enough visual poems for a chapbook. I had and so I concentrated on gathering individual poems into a collection. The Sun-Artist was the title I gave to the chapbook. Several poems had already been published in poetry journals, which was great, but sometimes they were printed too small so that the reader could barely see the letters. The chapbook was my chance to put things right, to have the poems on the page exactly as I wanted them. I made a mock-up of the book and went in search of the right order for the eighteen poems I had chosen.

The manuscript became proofs which were emailed back and forth until everything had settled into place. The cover image is from a poem which was originally in red and black. About six weeks later the first copies of The Sun-Artist arrived in the post. It was an incredible feeling to turn the pages of this very slim book and read the poems again.

 

Susan Connoly Blog

 

Cover page of The Sun-Artist.

With thanks to Susan Connolly for permission to use this image.

The Sun-Artist eventually led to the publication in 2016 of a full-length collection of visual poetry; eighty pages complete with introduction and notes. The main dilemma for me when approaching my third collection was whether it should contain visual poetry only or whether it should also include lyric poems many of which had been published in poetry journals. In the end I decided that Bridge of the Ford would consist entirely of visual poetry.

Bridge of the Ford has thirty-three visual poems. The book is in a larger than usual format to give the poems plenty of space. There are two sections: Bridge of the Ford and The Dream-Clock. The poems in the first part are arranged so that the reader can imagine drifting down the river Boyne in a boat, past the Neolithic tumulus of Dowth, past the mediaeval town of Drogheda (Droichead Átha / bridge of the ford) and out towards the sea. These sites are in my blood as I grew up and still live in this area.

And what happened to those lyric poems? Shearsman Books published them separately in a chapbook called The Orchard Keeper in 2017.

10 December 2018

‘Some little language of their own’: English and Scottish dialects, and the desire for a private language

Add comment

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.

Earlier this year, I found myself vigorously agreeing with a Guardian Long Read article which effectively argued that the English language was not so much a liberating lingua franca as a highly successful virus, an invasive species; the linguistic equivalent of a grey squirrel or cane toad. Around the same time, I was reading Olga Tocarczuk’s Booker-winning Flights, and reacted even more strongly to this passage:

“There are countries out there where people speak English…It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language. Oftentimes, their only language…How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions…all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures ­– even the buttons in the lift! – are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them…I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own…so that for once they can have something just for themselves.”

This is something I’d been feeling for a while, but I’d never seen it expressed so clearly before.  It encompassed so many of my frustrations: the experience (probably shared by many first language English speakers who speak another language) of being spoken back to in English when abroad, even when you’ve clearly demonstrated your competency or fluency; having to convince writers whose work you’re translating that, however good their English is, your choice of words *is* the best one; even my occasional sense of doubt that literary translation into English is something I should be doing. After all, does the world really need more English?

And yet, I’ve spent the vast majority of life in the UK, speaking English. I love the way the language looks and sounds, its idiosyncrasies, the way it sounds in Cardiff, Derbyshire, Birmingham, not to mention the wider Anglophone world. Given its status as an international language, as Tocarczuk suggests, it is easy to forget that English is just another West Germanic language, and the (only) private language of hundreds of millions of people. As translator-in-residence here at the BL, I’m interested in exploring not only linguistic diversity in general, but diversity within languages, especially as spoken in different areas of modern Britain. Additionally, my selfish desire to have a truly private language has got me wondering about forms of English that cannot be easily understood by non-natives, or even other English speakers.

So I was delighted to read first line in Liz Berry’s poem ‘Birmingham Roller’, written in Black Country dialect - ‘Wench, yorwm the colour of ower town’ – or a line in another of her poems simply listing words: ‘bibble, fettle, tay, wum’. I had a similar feeling looking at the first line of Hugh McDiarmid’s Braid Scots epic A drunk man looks at the thistle: ‘I amna fou' sae muckle as tired - deid dune.’

 

Bery Translation Blog Photo

Before I start getting complaints, I’m aware that Scots is not so much a version of English as a sister West Germanic language, which evolved alongside, rather than from, its southern neighbour. All the same, it comes as a relief to know that there are utterances that look and sound like English, but which the Polish narrator of Flights—with their privileged access into the private lives of hundreds of millions of Anglophones—would struggle to comprehend. In fact, many native speakers may struggle to comprehend them; think of initial reactions to Trainspotting or the Gallagher brothers having to be subtitled on US TV. The BL’s Head of Contemporary British Collections and Scottish Poet, Richard Price, recommended another great example of this kind of writing to me. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Glasgow Beasts an a Burd, as well as being a beautiful artefact, with papercut images by John Picking and Pete McGinn (due to its small print run I also had to make my first trip into the Rare Books Reading Room to see it), is a gloriously irreverent journey written in a tongue that is certainly not the international language of airports and lift instructions. It documents the poet’s transmogrification into various animal forms, all the while retaining a strong grasp of Glaswegian:

syne

ah wis a midgie

neist a stank

foon that kin o

thankless

I love not only the sounds, but also the spellings he uses, like ‘Didjye’, which could be Somali word, or ‘hail simmer’, which could be so many things (in this instance, it’s ‘whole summer’).

English has become dominant partly due to its incredible ability to evolve over time, and absorb the syntax and vocabulary of the languages it supplants, from Welsh to Urdu. Maybe those of us who wish to regain some sense of ‘privacy’ in our speech will have to harness this power and create new Englishes, at least until some other language replaces it on the international stage, and we can go back to merely being speakers of an obscure West Germanic tongue.

07 November 2018

Celebrating Poetry Pamphlets

Add comment

By Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the Library’s Contemporary British collection of poetry pamphlets and artists’ books. More information about the upcoming event,  Poetry Pamphlets Celebration, can be found here

Pamphlets are a crucial site for poetic innovation, allowing writers to experiment and offering readers cheap access to new work. Often small enough to fit into your pocket, pamphlets are the ideal way to sample new poetry from an unfamiliar writer. This frequently overlooked form has provided a platform for almost all of our established poets, from Ted Hughes to Carol Ann Duffy, at different stages in their career.

1

A selection of poetry pamphlets from the British Library’s collections.

To celebrate the poetry pamphlet and the important role that it plays in the UK poetry scene, The Michael Marks Award is hosted annually by The British Library, in partnership with the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, The Wordsworth Trust, the TLS and Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS). Since it was founded in 2009, the awards have grown to include prizes for publishers and illustrators as well as for poetry. Despite the ease with which poetry can now be accessed online, the pamphlet form has flourished over the last decade, and the quality of the submissions to the awards each year attest to this. To mark the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards, we will be hosting a poetry reading on the 10th December, featuring shortlisted poets from previous years. Join us in hearing poems and reflections by Charlotte Gann, Christine De Luca, Richard Scott, Phoebe Stuckes, and Omikemi Natacha Bryan.  

  2

Charlotte Gann is a writer and editor from Sussex. Poems have appeared in The Rialto, The North and Magma, among many others, and her pamphlet, The Long Woman (Pighog Press), was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award in 2012. Since then, she published a full collection, Noir, with HappenStance – in 2016. This book – which grew from the seed of the pamphlet – asks: what are we to do with the darkness? The things, and people, often left silent and invisible. Originally, Charlotte studied English at UCL; much later, an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development at the University of Sussex. By day, she works as an editor – currently, editing a monthly magazine based in her hometown, where she lives with her husband and two teenage sons.


3

 

Christine De Luca lives in Edinburgh where her working life was spent in education.  She writes in English and Shetlandic, her mother tongue.  She was appointed Edinburgh's Makar (laureate) for 2014-2017.  Besides several children’s stories and one novel, she has had seven poetry collections and four bi-lingual volumes published (French, Italian, Icelandic and Norwegian).  She’s participated in many festivals here and abroad.  Her poems have been selected four times for the Best Scottish Poems of the Year (2006, 2010, 2013 and 2015) for the Scottish Poetry Library online anthologies.  She has been a member of Edinburgh’s Shore Poets for 25 years. Christine is a linguistic activist, visiting schools, writing articles and taking part in conferences on mother tongue issues.  She is a member of Hansel Cooperative Press which publishes poetry and other literary writings in Shetland and Orkney.  She also enjoys translating children’s classics from Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson into Shetlandic. 

4

Richard Scott was born in London in 1981. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies including Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Swimmers, The Poetry of Sex (Penguin) and Butt Magazine. He has been a winner of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize, a Jerwood/Arvon Poetry Mentee and a member of the Aldeburgh 8. His pamphlet 'Wound' (Rialto) won the Michael Marks Poetry Award 2016 and his poem 'crocodile' won the 2017 Poetry London Competition. Soho (Faber & Faber) is his first book. 

 
5

Phoebe Stuckes is a writer and performer from West Somerset. She has been a winner of the Foyle Young Poets award four times and is a Barbican Young Poet. She has performed at the Southbank Centre, Wenlock Poetry Festival and was the Ledbury Festival young poet in residence in 2015. Her writing has appeared in the Morning Star, The Rialto, The North and Ambit. Her debut pamphlet, Gin & Tonic is available from Smith|Doorstop books and was shortlisted for The Michael Marks Award 2017.

 

  6

Omikemi Natacha Bryan is a writer, poet based in London. Her work has been published in numerous magazines including Ambit and Rialto and featured in Bloodaxe's Ten: poets of the New Generation. Her debut pamphlet poetry collection, If I talked everything my eyes saw, was shortlisted for the 2017 Michael Marks Award. She currently works as an associate writer for Vital Xposure theatre. 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

18 October 2018

Shiva Naipaul: An Unfinished Journey

Add comment

In our final Windrush blog before the exhibition closes on Sunday, I would like to focus on Shiva Naipaul, the award-winning novelist and travel writer whose archive is held here at the British Library.

Shiva Naipaul resized

Shiva Naipaul photographed by Fay Godwin in 1974. Detail from Godwin Photo 5/229(1).

Shivadhar Srinivasa Naipaul (Shiva for short) was born in Trinidad in 1945, part of a family descended from the indentured workers who came to the Caribbean from India in the 19th century. He was one of seven children born to his journalist father Seepersad and his mother, Droapatie Capildeo. Five of his siblings were girls; the only other boy in the family being his elder brother Vidiadhar, later to become better known as the Nobel Prize-winning novelist V S Naipaul.

Sogee_Capildeo_Maharaj_with_9daughters_2sons resized

Shiva Naipaul's maternal grandmother, Sogee Capildeo Maharaj (centre of middle row), matriarch of the Capildeo family of The Lion House, Chauganas, Trinidad, 1935. Pictured with her two sons and nine daughters including Shiva's mother Droapatie. University of Tulsa VS Naipaul Archive.

The male members of the family vanished early from Shiva’s childhood: his father died when he was only seven, by which time his elder brother had already left for England to study at Oxford University. Other members of Shiva’s wider family were also leaving for England in this period in order to pursue higher education or professional careers. The ritual of the dockside farewell – ‘the familiar Trinidad ritual of “going away”’ - became ingrained in Shiva’s memory, as did the fantasy of what England would be like:

‘England’ was in the air virtually for as long as I can remember. But it was a diffused presence; part of a texture of feeling and imagination, particularly the latter. The element of fantasy and daydream was very strong indeed.

Add_ms_89154_8_8_p001 resized

Essay on impressions of England, from the Shiva Naipaul Archive Add MS 89154/8/8. Image © The Estate of Shiva Naipaul. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

These are the formative experiences he writes about in the essay pictured above which is currently on display in the Windrush exhibition (and available in full on our new Windrush Stories website). This untitled piece of prose was written sometime after Shiva’s arrival in Britain in 1964, by which time England had become a concrete reality for him though he could still recollect the days when his idea of the ‘mother country’ was fuelled by his escapades in English literature. The prime ‘source of fantasy’ in the Naipaul household was his father’s bookcase. Although he only read a few pages from the ‘dusty volumes’ by British authors, ‘I returned to that bookcase again and again. It was a corner under the steps in which to dream in a vague, ill-defined way about England – the place from which those blue air-letters were posted; the place to which my brother – whom I hardly remembered – had gone.’

Shiva followed in his brother’s footsteps in more ways than one, studying at Oxford before embarking on a literary career. In an autobiographical essay ‘My Brother and I’ (published in An Unfinished Journey in 1986), Shiva acknowledges that having always ‘suffered by comparison’ with his brother ‘my choice of career must seem like an exercise in masochism’. But writing came to him unconsciously, ‘It happened. Or rather, it began to happen slowly and haltingly, fed by despair’ at his lack of academic success during his last year at Oxford. What would turn out to be his first novel, Fireflies (1970), was initiated then, as described in An Unfinished Journey, p28:

It began as I was sitting at my desk, staring at a page of Chinese characters (I was doing a degree in Chinese), which danced meaningfully across the frail paper… it began when, for no reason I can fathom, a sentence came into my head. ‘The Lutchmans lived in a part of the city, where the houses, tall and narrow…’

I pushed away the books and papers in front of me, wrote down the sentence and started to follow it.

After a further two years’ work on the manuscript, the tragicomic family saga Fireflies was published to great acclaim, winning the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize as well as the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Jock Campbell New Statesman Award. It was followed in 1973 by the Whitbread award-winning novel The Chip-Chip Gatherers, which like Fireflies was set in the Indian Trinidadian community. The next decade saw Shiva change tack to write in new genres, publishing short fiction, non-fiction, journalism and travel writing, no less excellent for the change in form. North of South (1978), Black and White (1980), and Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth (1984) were followed by one more novel, A Hot Country (1983), before Shiva’s early death from a heart attack in 1985 at the age of forty. A posthumous collection of prose, An Unfinished Journey, was published the following year.

Though Shiva was rightly at pains to point out that writing was, for him, an act of independence and autonomy, a ‘breaking loose of the doppelgänger absolutism’ that had bound him to his brother in others’ eyes, there were aspects of the brothers’ lives that paralleled each other. Both men struggled to fit in in England, not ‘being straightforwardly Indian or straightforwardly West Indian’ as Shiva put it in his 1973 essay ‘Living in Earl’s Court’.

This is a sentiment that V S Naipaul expands upon in another exhibit in the Windrush exhibition. In a letter to Shiva from 1969 he remarks upon the sense of alienation he feels as a Caribbean author writing for an English literary market that will never really understand him.

The same letter also contains a note of hearty congratulations to Shiva for finishing his first novel together with advice on handling publishers and agents. It is one of a number of family letters that can be found in the Shiva Naipaul Archive alongside the working drafts of his books, notebooks, travel diaries, business correspondence and other papers. The Archive was generously donated to the Library in 2015 by Shiva’s widow, Jenny Naipaul. The collection is fully catalogued and we hope that it stands as a staging post in Shiva’s ‘unfinished journey’ for all those interested in researching the work of this important writer.