English and Drama blog

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

5 posts categorized "Radio"

01 May 2014

The Spirit Voice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Drama and Literature Recordings section of the British Library aims to collect recordings of literary and other interesting spoken word material as extensively as possible.

However, as Toby Oakes, a previous British Library curator of spoken word recordings, once put it in his article 'Recording the Paranormal' (Playback, Winter 2002): '(Although) we deal with the voices of the dead every day ... our subjects tend to have been alive at the time of recording.'

This was the opening sentence of a report on the Library's then recent acquisition of a batch of 60 tapes made by Dr Konstantin Raudive, who believed that the dead could communicate with the living through the medium of radio waves.

The tapes are available for listening but are not easy to navigate. Newcomers wishing to explore the world of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon), as it is known, are instead referred to the commercial CD 'The Ghost Orchid: An Introduction to EVP' (PARC CD1, 1991), which collects many examples of the genre, including the recordings first issued on vinyl by Raudive in 1971 on the EP 'Breakthrough' (subtitled 'An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead'), which accompanied his book of the same title.

The recorded evidence is not especially convincing, being short comments or fragments that without the accompanying spoken 'translation' would probably not strike the listener as having any meaningful content.

A recent book on the subject, Rorschach Audio by Joe Banks (Disinformation, 2012), is also recommended. Banks seeks to understand why it is that someone might be psychologically disposed to find the recorded evidence for EVP to be credible, and comes up with some interesting conclusions.

The Library holds copies of all the above items, and much more in a similar vein: including the 3-CD set issued by Berlin label supposé 'Okkulte Stimmen - Mediale Musik: Recordings of Unseen Intelligences 1905-2007', and the 'Art After Death' series of CDs, for which Californian artists Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh recorded mediums channelling the voices of, among others, the artist Yves Klein.  

We also hold a video recording of the talk Joe Banks gave at the Library on 28 June 2013. 

Would Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have believed in EVP? Quite probably. He certainly believed - in his own words, 'beyond all doubt' - that the dead could communicate with the living. On his only commercially issued spoken word disc he devoted more of his recorded talk to his belief in spiritualism than he did to his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle Speaking

Listen to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on spiritualism

Conan Doyle recorded the above on 14 May 1930, just two months before his death.

In July 1930, one week after Conan Doyle's death, thousands of people attended a séance at the Royal Albert Hall at which a medium claimed to have communicated with him (an event featured in Julian Barnes's 2005 novel  Arthur & George).

Four years later, on 28 April 1934, a séance held by Noah Zerdin at the Aeolian Hall, New Bond Street, attracted a capacity audience of 560 people, with many turned away. It was  the first large gathering of its kind to be recorded, and Conan Doyle was one of 44 people heard speaking from the 'other side'.    

Listen to the spirit voice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Noah Zerdin (1888-1972) was, coincidentally, like Raudive, a Latvian. In 1906 he fled the Tsarist regime in Russia for London and established a successful business in Oxford Street as a furrier. It was only after a devastating fire, in which his wife Bertha died and his business was destroyed, that he began holding séances, apparently believing that he had successfully made contact with his late wife. This seeming link between an individual's experience of profound trauma and their willingness to believe in the supernatural is one of the themes explored by Joe Banks in Rorschach Audio.

The Aeolian Hall proceedings were professionally recorded on 26 acetate discs. These were to lay undisturbed in a trunk for 67 years before being discovered in 2001 by Dan Zerdin (Noah's son). The discovery led to a fascinating BBC Radio 4 documentary What Grandad Did in the Dark, first broadcast 4 January 2002, and the discs were subsequently donated by Dan to the British Library.

Both the radio documentary and the original discs are available to listen to at the British Library, but you may need to make an appointment.

With thanks to Dan Zerdin

06 January 2014

‘The most influential radio programme ever’? Charles Chilton, P J Harvey, and soldiers' songs

Fifty years after its first production—and marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War—Oh, What a Lovely War! returns to its original home at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in February.

Described by critic Michael Billington as ‘one of the seminal events of modern British theatre’, this ‘musical entertainment’ drew on soldiers’ songs to expose both the ‘absurdity’ and the ‘vulgarity’ of war (the former every bit as important to Theatre Workshop’s presentation as the latter).

The musical was inspired by Charles Chilton's ‘The Long, Long Trail’, first broadcast on the BBC Home Service in 1961, and which told the story of the War through bleakly ironic (and yet strangely uplifting?) soldiers' songs. Chilton had collected the songs from a book called Tommy’s Tunes (the first edition of which is in the Library) and from former soldiers he met in pubs around St Pancras.

Chilton died a year ago in January 2013, and on Saturday the BBC broadcast a tribute to 'The Long, Long Trail' described by one contributor as ‘the most influential radio programme ever’.

The original recordings of 'The Long, Long Trail' were not retained by the BBC, but Chilton kindly donated a copy to the British Library; we also hold original recordings and sound effects from the original production of Oh, What a Lovely War!, equally generously donated by Theatre Workshop's Murray Melvin (talking here as part of the Theatre Archive Project).

By coincidence, before Christmas we hosted a reception to share news of the forthcoming launch of our Europeana Collections 1914-18 project, which will make hundreds of thousands of newly-digitised materials—from the UK and our partners in eight European countries—relating to stories and events of the war available online for free. (See more at last month's blog). One of our readers that night was the singer, musician and artist P J Harvey, who chose to read the lyrics of soldiers’ songs (as well as her own lyrics from the album Let England Shake, and a new poem).


Her choice to read three soldiers' songs—all of which featured in 'The Long, Long Trail'—was a stunning one. Stripped of the accompanying music, the cold absurdity of their lyrics was laid bare. It may be a weakness or a strength, but one of the singularities of Oh, What a Lovely War! is the hummability of its tunes about death and destruction; indeed many of the early audiences for this anti-War production were former soldiers who apparently enjoyed reliving memories of comradely cheer. But when you listen to the lyrics—really listen—they are jaw-dropping in their calm horror.

The biggest revelation among the lyrics that Polly read was the song 'We're here because': originally sheltered behind the tune of 'Auld Lang Syne', that night the lyrics opened up a Beckettian no-man's land of senseless repetition. 'Here because we're here because we're here because we're here': on it went, that tortuous, clinically neat, anti-logic.

We're pleased to include the video of Polly's reading below; our Europeana project launches at the end of the month.

Polly Harvey at the British Library from Europeana Collections on Vimeo.


P J Harvey reads:

Lyrics from soldiers’ song ‘I Want to Go Home (I Don’t Want to Die)’

Lyrics from soldiers’ song ‘When This Bloody War Is Over’

Lyrics from soldiers’ song ‘We’re Here Because…’

Lyrics from ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ by P J Harvey, from the album Let England Shake

‘The Guest Room’, a poem by P J Harvey

The Charles Chilton audio collection, including tapes of 'The Long, Long Trail' can be found on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue under reference C1186

Murray Melvin's  audio collection, including tapes of the original production of Oh, What a Lovely War! and sound effects can be found on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue under reference C1502

The first edition of Tommy's Tunes can be found on the British Library catalogue under reference 011604.g.16

21 October 2013

Rediscovered: the earliest recording of Ted Hughes?

In April this year we were contacted by the poet Penelope Shuttle, whose late husband, the poet Peter Redgrove, was a friend of Ted Hughes. Penny asked if the Library would be interested in acquiring two open reel tapes which she thought were home recordings made by Peter Redgrove of himself and Hughes, possibly including Hughes reading from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

We advised Penny against playing the tapes and instead suggested we transfer them professionally at the Library in one of our Conservation Centre studios. We then invited Penny and her friend Neil Roberts, a writer and scholar who has published biographies and critical studies of both Redgrove and Hughes, to come in and listen.

Neil produced a three-page report for us on the contents, which transpired to be Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove reading, and a recording of an informal meeting of the Group (Neil has identified the voices of Peter Redgrove, Philip Hobsbaum, Peter Porter and Edward Lucie-Smith).  

The first 23 minutes of tape one is a reading by Ted Hughes of some of his own poems plus works by W B Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Of his own works, Hughes reads ‘The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar’, ‘Six Young Men’, ‘Lust and Desire’ and ‘Egghead’. The second part of ‘Lust and Desire’ was published (as ‘Incompatibilities’) in The Hawk in the Rain, as were the other three poems, but the first part remains unpublished. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which history tells us was recorded in just the same domestic circumstances, was not on the tape.   

All the evidence suggests that this new British Library acquisition features the earliest Hughes recording known to have survived. Neil estimates it was made between September 1956 and February 1957.

There was a recording made 24 October 1956 by the BBC of Hughes reading a single poem ('The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar', broadcast 14 April 1957 as part of The Poet's Voice) but this appears not to have survived. Peter Redgrove featured in the same edition of the programme, reading 'Game' (aka 'Without Eyes'). Could the home recording have been a rehearsal for the BBC recording session? It's certainly plausible.

One further detail: on the tape box, the word 'Ted' is crossed out. Is it fanciful to think therefore that this may also be the same tape that once held Hughes's recording of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

With thanks to Penelope Shuttle and Neil Roberts.

 Listen to Ted Hughes read W B Yeats, circa 1956

Two 2-CD sets of Hughes reading his poems and stories, drawn largely from BBC recordings, are available from the British Library online shop

06 September 2013

Evelyn Waugh manuscripts at the British Library

Attending a colloquium at Leicester University earlier in the summer in connection with a new AHRC funded research project - to produce a mammoth edition of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh - prompted me to revisit the British Library’s holdings of Waugh manuscripts. The colloquium was the first event of a five-year project, led by Leicester, whose partners include the Waugh Estate, Oxford University Press, the Bodleian Library, and the Universities of Texas, Leeds and Milan as well as the British Library. As well as the main focus – to produce a definitive critical edition of Waugh’s writing, including his travel writing, essays, journalism, criticism and incidental writing, as well as the plethora of well-known novels – the project involves a number of events and initiatives to disseminate the research to a wider audience as well as to contribute to current understanding in the art of textual editing.

University launches Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project

Evelyn Waugh, photographed in about 1940

The British Library holds an extensive Waugh collection, at the heart of which is Waugh’s incoming correspondence. These letters, dating from 1921 to 1966, the year of his death, were acquired from the Waugh family in 1990 and were selected by Waugh himself (showing him taking some steps towards what we might term ‘self-archiving' and shaping posterity’s view of him). Waugh’s correspondents range from family members to society friends, from friends and acquaintances from the literary and arts worlds and the Roman Catholic Church, to occasional communications, many of which relate to publishing and the business side of writing. The letters vary from extended series over several decades – the most substantial being from Nancy Mitford – to single communications, often congratulating him on his most recent publication.

Among the first letters in these files is a series from Harold Acton, a fellow Oxford student who became a lifelong friend. An early letter of Acton’s, reminding us that Waugh initially saw his future in the visual arts rather than as an exponent of the written word, complements Waugh on his ‘Fires of Youth’ wood engraving and emphatically declares: “At last you are the MODERN you were always intended to be.” The majority of letters are occasioned by responses to his reading of Waugh’s works, responses that are deeply felt. He describes his experience of reading Brideshead Revisited as being “swept alternatively by pleasure and pain: pleasure at your ever-increasing virtuosity and mastery of our fast-evaporating language…; pain, at the acrid memories of so many old friends you have conjured”. Another letter by Daphne Acton recounts that everyone in her circle has been bowled over by the brilliance of Brideshead. Adding her own congratulations, she writes, diffidently: “For all that it seems to me like writing to tell Shakespeare that I think well of Macbeth”.

Waugh’s Christian faith and conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930 bear crucially on any understanding of his writing. Among the letters at the British Library are a series from Father Philip Caraman, Jesuit priest and editor of the Catholic periodical, The Month, and another from John Douglas Woodruff, editor of The Tablet. Caraman’s letters include several references to a 1948 film called The Miracle of Bells, against which Waugh has written a diatribe in one of the newspapers. Endorsing Waugh’s slating of the film’s portrayal of Catholicism, Caraman goes on to suggest that Waugh write a more general essay criticising the Hollywood concept of religion as whole, essentially, as he writes: “its treatment of Catholicism as a box-office stunt”. Other letters suggest an idea for a Jesuit biography, outline his editorial purposes with The Month (a Catholic review of literature and the arts, with an appeal mainly to non-Catholics – “an Horizon, with Catholic thinking instead of the fluff”) and refer to Waugh’s various contributions to the review (one offering remuneration in the form of caviar). Later letters from Edith Sitwell in 1955 discuss her hopes that she will soon be received into the Roman Catholic Church, and refer to her instruction by Fr Caraman.

Some intriguing snippets of information are to be found in the occasional letters. There is an interesting run, for example, from Joan Saunders at Writer’s and Speaker’s Research, a Kensington-based agency which offers a facts and figures answer service. Among these are responses to Waugh’s queries on topics including ‘Tanks for Russia Week’ in 1941, ‘Red Sunday’ (21 June 1942), London air raids and other news items in 1941. (She tells him, for instance, that clothes rationing was introduced in June of that year and that, in December, three miles of Hyde Park railings were removed in connection with the war effort.) Other letters comprise genealogical enquiries. In contrast, the final letter in the run – on a rather more esoteric note – concerns mythological sources for the rejuvenating properties of water and the information that, according to Plutarch, the average life expectancy of a water nymph is 9,620 years. I’m not sure if that detail ever found its way into any of Waugh’s writings, but it was no doubt useful knowledge to have.

As well as within other manuscripts collections at the British Library (including the archive of Edward Sackville-West, papers relating to Christopher Sykes’s 1975 biography and the Society of Authors’ Archive), important Waugh resources can be found within the Library’s collections of printed material and drama and literature recordings. The opportunity to listen to readings of works in an author’s own voice and to hear little-known broadcasts of talks, interviews and events offers an illuminating perspective on the man and the work. The Library’s Waugh recordings span a period of 25 years, from the earliest preserved recordings of his voice in 1938 to a speech given at the Royal Society of Literature in 1963, just three years before his death. Some of them were published on CD as part of the Library's Spoken Word series a few years ago.

I’m looking forward to being involved with the project as it progresses. It marks a defining moment in Waugh studies and may well prove to be the largest ever scholarly edition of a British author. More Waugh-related blog posts may be on their way between now and 2018!

09 May 2012

Buddha of Suburbia and other loans

It’s been an exciting antepenultimate Writing Britain day – in the afternoon, Tanya and I went to pick up the manuscript of Buddha of Suburbia (in which suburban Bromley is ‘a leaving place’) from Hanif Kureishi’s house- or to be precise from Hanif’s Sainsbury’s shopping bag in which the drafts of Buddha were hitherto residing (see pic of the draft).


Along with the earliest drafts of the novel, Hanif has also kindly lent us his diary recording a meeting with fellow Bromley-ite David Bowie, who did the soundtrack for the BBC adaptation, at Bowie’s studio.

This is one of many loans coming directly from writers- Jonathan Coe, Ian McEwan, Posy Simmonds… never-before seen for the very good reason that they’ve never before left their owners’ houses/desks/attics/or sheds.

When we brought Hanif’s manuscripts in, we ran into Declan from the Morgan, with Dickens’s manuscript of Our Mutual Friend (see previous post by Tanya); and also the oldest manuscript in the exhibition, the 10th-century Exeter Book with the poem ‘The Seafarer’ very kindly - and rarely - lent by Exeter Cathedral.

All this and more will be unveiled to the press launch tomorrow morning- which is anticipated by tonight’s edition of BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves, which I recorded earlier.

For more on Writing Britain, see the major Guardian preview at the weekend by Blake Morrison; and a BBC audio slideshow with commentary and images of some of the highlights of the show.