English and Drama blog

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

27 posts categorized "Sound recordings"

16 July 2014

Aleister Crowley on record

The British Library's summer exhibition Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK is the UK’s largest ever exhibition of mainstream and underground comics. Many of the works on display, particularly those published from the late 1960s onwards, uncompromisingly address political issues, gender issues, drugs, sex and violence, among other subjects.

A modest section located towards the exit acknowledges the interest in magic and mysticism of comics writers such as Alan Moore, who has famously stated that he regards himself as a magician first and a writer second.

Visitors can view Moore's work alongside the magic book (c. 1581-3) of Elizabethan occultist John Dee, and a notebook (c. 1899) kept by Aleister Crowley while in magical training with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose other members included the poet W. B. Yeats, and the writers of supernatural fiction Algernon Blackwood and Bram Stoker (more about them in the Library's next big exhibition - on Gothic literature).  

Born in Leamington Spa, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was a poet, writer and mountaineer (also, according to Somerset Maugham, 'the best whist player of his time'1).

He is best known however as the twentieth century's most influential exponent of the practice of 'magick' (Crowley added a 'k' to differentiate his practice from stage magic).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines magic as 'the use of ritual activities or observances which are intended to influence the course of events or to manipulate the natural world, usually involving the use of an occult or secret body of knowledge; sorcery, witchcraft'.

In his lifetime Crowley's activities attracted highly negative reports in the press: a front-page Sunday Express article from 4 March 1923, for example, painted Crowley as 'a drug fiend, an author of vile books, the spreader of obscene practices' and  'one of the most sinister figures of modern times'.

At around the same time the weekly journal John Bull ran a series of anti-Crowley articles with titles such as 'The King of Depravity' and 'The Wickedest Man in the World'. The latter phrase has stuck ever since, cropping up almost without fail whenever Crowley is mentioned in the mainstream media.


Should you be interested, the articles mentioned here can be consulted in microfilm format in the British Library's new Newsroom

Years after his death, Crowley's dictum 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law', and his rejection of conventional religious and societal mores, attracted the attention of the rock and pop generation: in 1967 the Beatles included an image of Crowley on the front cover of their Sgt. Pepper LP sleeve; the Doors posed with a bust of Crowley on the reverse of their 1970 compilation LP 13; Led Zeppelin had Crowley's 'Do what thou wilt' inscribed into the run-out groove of their third album; and unlikely followers Eddie and the Hot Rods used Crowley's image and the 'Do what thou wilt' quote on the sleeve of their 1977 single 'Do Anything You Wanna Do' (i.e. 'Do what thou wilt' rendered in rock'n'roll argot) .

Underground musical artists such as Psychic TV, Coil, and David Tibet's Current 93, have likewise made their interest in Crowley evident in various ways.

When the curators of the Comics Unmasked exhibition requested an audio sample of Crowley speaking, we thought it a good time to take a closer look at the recordings that circulate of his voice.

The first question, naturally, was: are they authentic?

Within the Library's sound archive, suspicions had been aired some years ago that a circa 1990s CD issue of the Crowley recordings (the same set of recordings has been issued over the years by various labels, as we shall see) was unlikely, for various technical reasons, to have been, as stated on the product, a collection of recordings originally made on wax cylinders.   

I sent a speculative email to David Tibet, who was the first person to produce an LP-length collection of the Crowley recordings ('The Hastings Archives', GOETIA 666, 1986). David replied immediately, explaining where he had sourced the tapes used for his release ('a Thelemite group run by Kenneth Grant'), and stating unequivocally that the recordings 'are absolutely genuine and absolutely Crowley'.

'The Hastings Archives' is an unusual record in many respects: there is no written information on the outer sleeve beyond the label/catalogue number and the handwritten limited edition number (the Library's copy is numbered 105/418); neither the title nor the name of the artist appears on the sleeve or label at all; one side plays at 45 rpm, the other at 33; and the paper label on mint copies covers the centre hole and has to be punctured so the record can be played. Finally, a contemporary promotional flyer/insert states that 'the plates for LP manufacture have now been destroyed'.

David Tibet put me on to William Breeze of the Crowley Estate who kindly shared with me some liner notes he had previously prepared towards a possible authorized release of the recordings.

These notes quote Crowley's diary entries of 1936 onwards, which make several references to recording sessions, and a letter to the HMV company, in which Crowley, trying to interest HMV in a commercial arrangement, mentions that his recordings were  made 'privately in Coventry Street', presumably in a walk-up DIY recording booth. The resulting products would have been 78 rpm lacquer discs (sometimes referred to as 'acetate' discs) not wax cylinders as has been claimed on some issues of the material.    

William Breeze says that the original discs are believed lost or possibly in a private collection, but that at least one copy (as in dubbing) of one of the original discs does exist in the Estate's holdings.

I don't know which titles are featured on this disc but it may perhaps have served as the source for the first commercial issue of a Crowley voice recording: a 7" vinyl disc (Marabo UPS 500, 1976), the A-side of which features Crowley reciting two poems, 'La Gitana' and 'Pentagram'. The sound quality here is slightly superior to any subsequent issue of these tracks. The disc is backed with 'Scarlet Woman', a spooky Leonard Cohen-ish rock song performed by a group called Chakra. An insert that comes with the disc (missing from the Library's copy unfortunately) suggests the Crowley recordings were made in the 1940s.


I asked British Library audio engineer Tom Ruane to compare four versions of the same recording, drawn from: (a) the Marabo 7";  (b) 'The Hastings Archives' LP; (c) 'Aleister Crowley' LP (OZ 77, 1986); (d) 'The Great Beast Speaks' CD (DISGUST 1, 1999).


The image above is a screen grab from Wavelab 7 software showing a comparison of the four sound waves. The top one (the Marabo 7") is the 'cleanest' and closest to the source; the next one down ('The Hastings Archives' LP) is a slightly quieter version - and the sound wave is now 180 degrees out of phase, as it is on version (c), which is probably a straight copy of (b).

Though versions (c) and (d) clearly come from the same source (or one that is a generation or two removed), they have had differing levels of compression and equalization applied, to bring out the 'top end' (higher frequencies).  All three later versions play very slightly faster than the Marabo 7".

Tom tells me that the noise profiles are in tune with the kind of groove distortion one expects from a 78 rpm disc.

In the world of sound archiving, final judgements on provenance and authenticity sometimes have to be suspended to a degree, especially if one does not have access to the original master copy of the recording under scrutiny. But the circumstantial and technical evidence in this case is fairly persuasive and there seems no reason to doubt that these are indeed recordings of the voice of Crowley.

Copyright regulations do not allow us to post any sound clips here but all the recordings discussed may be consulted at the Library free-of-charge by appointment. 


1. Crowley served as the model for Somerset Maugham's character Oliver Haddo in his 1908 novel The Magician

With thanks to William Breeze, David Tibet and Tom Ruane.

27 June 2014

Performance Archives: SIBMAS TLA 2014 - New York City


I have recently returned from the biennial SIBMAS TLA conference, which took place in New York City, 10-13 June. SIBMAS stands for Société Internationale des Bibliothèques et des Musées des Arts du Spectacle (International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centres of the Performing Arts). TLA is the Theatre Library Association, USA.

SIBMAS connects professionals from thirty five countries around the world working on institutional and independent performing arts collections of all genres. The theme for this conference was Body, Mind, Artifact: Reimagining Collections, with a special focus on dance archives.

Most dance and performance archives hold a substantial amount of video and audio recordings. The collections are ongoing and are frequently accessed by performers, companies, researchers and enthusiasts. For this reason they are often credited as living archives or artist-driven archives. Capturing and documenting the creative process, working with artists and re-purposing legacy materials are core tasks for these archives.

At the SIBMAS conference, keynote speaker Marvin Taylor, Director of the Fales Library and Special Collections, made the following bold statement: ‘Stop making the digitization of paper a priority. Most of the paper from the last forty years will be OK in ten years. Video, audio, and digital files will not’.

Preserving video is a challenge for all archives. The main components of this challenge and how these compare with those for other media formats is what I am going to briefly highlight here.

Access to video and audio recordings requires machines to play a wide variety of formats. Playback machines quickly become obsolete and disappear from the market. Once this happens, finding spare parts for existing machines becomes the only option to keep them working. To palliate the shortage of machinery and spare parts eyes and hopes are now on 3D printing technologies, but this has not yet been implemented in an archival habitat and it wouldn’t solve the problem of obsolete electronics.

Hence, access and preservation needs make it mandatory that recordings are transferred into digital formats. Digitization resources are generally not extensive enough for the ideal purposes of most archives.

Archival standards regarding the transfer of analogue video and the archiving of born-digital video are in dispute and therefore inconclusive. For example, the short history of digital video has already generated a plethora of diverse file formats, and although there are principles, there is no formal agreement on which codec ought to be used.

So far archivists have narrowed codec choices to four compressed for long-term archiving and one for uncompressed. That is out of the three hundred plus available out there. Also, every manufacturer produces its own codec and format.

Intrinsic to all born-digital video archiving procedure is the question of storage. HD formats contain five times more data than standard definition videos and those proportions multiply by four when considering files on 4K (cinema and Ultra High Definition TV standard) resolution.

I thought Marvin Taylor’s statement pointing out what we are up against with video collections deserved attention. In his words once more: ‘If we do not act now, we will lose the ‘incunable’ period of born-digital and electronic media’.

The conference also coincided with the 60th anniversary of SIBMAS and to mark such a special occasion TLA New York hosts opened the doors to some of the most renowned performance collections of the city. It was very hard to choose which institutions to visit from a list composed of Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mark Morris Dance Group, MoMa Archives, Museum of the City of New York, New York Philharmonic Archives, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, New York University Fales Library, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Roundabout Theatre Archive, and the Shubert Archive.

I visited the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the MoMa Archives. Both were very impressive, but I am sure that would have been the case for all the archives mentioned above.

Curators and archivists from the NYPL Performing Arts division had prepared a special display for delegates, which included drawings, prints, a scale model of the set of the Broadway show Cabaret, photographs, 3D paper objects, an actual Tony and an Oscar awards.

We also learnt that the NYPL Performing Arts has over 24,000 dance films and tapes which are currently being digitized. Due to copyright, the majority of the collection is accessible on the premises only. Please see here for more information.

The icing on the cake for me was the Library’s jaw-dropping video tool, which allows researchers to compare several videos at the same time and create a link to share the results with others. NYPL’s Digital Curator Doug Reside explained how they have developed this and other tools in the NYPL Labs. More about the Labs here.

At the MoMa archives we talked to Milan Hughston, Chief of Library and Museum Archives, and Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist and regular contributor to Esopus Magazine. Their Department of Media and Performance Art  houses, among others, the Fluxus collection, which came to the Museum from a private collector. The Museum Archive provides researchers access by appointment; they have an onsite database of the collections and over 30.000 electronic images from MoMa exhibitions. Most of their collection materials are yet to be digitized.

The papers from the conference will eventually be published. For more information about the conference programme, publications and useful performance arts links please visit SIBMAS website. That’s all from now, to be continued at the next SIBMAS conference: ‘Freeze! Challenge the Hierarchy: Researcher, Artist, User!’, which will take place in Copenhagen 2016.

With thanks to SIBMAS TLA  and to my colleague Andrew Pearson, our video expert here at the British Library.

26 June 2014

‘The most beautiful lyrical prose of the 20th century’: Happy birthday Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee in 1935 cropped

Laurie Lee in 1935

Laurie Lee was born one hundred years ago today in a house on the road that leads out of Stroud and climbs up through Slad, the Cotswold valley which he later immortalised in Cider With Rosie (1959). Gloucestershire is celebrating the centenary in style in a summer-long programme of events, but Laurie Lee’s popularity and significance goes far beyond the Cotswolds. Here at the Library, home to Laurie Lee’s archive, we held an early birthday celebration of sorts with an evening of readings and reflections from P J Kavanagh, Tim Dee, Brian Patten, Adam Horovitz and Louis de Bernières.

  Louis playing cropped
Brian Patten, Tim Dee and P J Kavanagh look on as Louis de Bernières plays the Spanish guitar

The centenary of Lee’s birth seems like an appropriate time to reconsider Lee’s literary legacy, not least because Lee seems to have felt that his work wasn’t fully appreciated by the literary establishment, hugely popular though it has always been.  After his overnight success with Cider With Rosie in 1959 Lee seemed to feel that his work was looked down upon in some quarters: ‘poor old Laurie, such a good poet, what a pity he’s now writing best-selling prose.’ Lee’s perception of his critical reputation was one of the points discussed by fellow poet and friend, P J Kavanagh:

Listen to P J Kavanagh remembering Laurie Lee

If Lee felt that he was regarded as a lightweight, it was perhaps a result of some of his early reviews. In response to criticism from the poet Roy Fuller who challenged Lee to leave aside nature writing, write about contemporary themes and use a greater range of verse forms, Lee responded: ‘You dare me to be more complicated, but I dare to achieve simplicity’. Luckily for us Lee was true to his word: he pursued his quest for the illusion of simplicity in prose and verse; his work continued to be infused with a sense of the past; and he proved himself to be one of the finest nature writers in the English language. This last point was the topic of naturalist Tim Dee’s talk:

Listen to Tim Dee on Laurie Lee's nature writing

Following a wonderfully humorous rendition of U A Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Dear Mr Lee’ by U A Fanthorpe, Louis de Bernières spoke about Lee’s last book and his own personal favourite, A Moment of War.

Listen to Louis de Bernières on A Moment of War

The full recording of Laurie Lee: A Celebration of his Life and Legacy will be available to listen to onsite at the Library shortly, but here are a few more clips of our guests reading from Lee’s work:

Listen to Brian Patten reading an extract from 'First Bite at the Apple', from Cider with Rosie

Listen to Tim Dee reading an extract from Cider with Rosie about the Slad Valley

Listen to Adam Horovitz reading an extract from 'The Kitchen', from Cider with Rosie

Listen to Adam Horovitz reading 'Edge of Day' by Laurie Lee

Listen to P J Kavanagh reading 'Home from Abroad' by Laurie Lee

If these clips have whetted your appetite to hear from Laurie Lee himself, you'll find a selection of recordings available on our recently released Laurie Lee CD, the latest in our spoken word series. And if you'd like to see material from his archive, a free exhibition on Lee and the Spanish Civil War is on display in the Treasures Gallery until 20 July. 

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

23 April 2014

More Shakespeare

To commemorate 450 years since Shakespeare's birth here is a rough list (Shakespeare Recordings BL) of live theatre audio recordings of Shakespeare plays held at the British Library.

A total of 368 productions from the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company (plus Renaissance Theatre Company and some others), mainly recorded between 1963 and 2013.

The plays are listed alphabetically by title. Each brief recording entry includes: production year; Library call number; director; and in the case of Hamlet, the name of the lead actor.

Hamlet is the best represented play in the collection, with twenty three recordings. It is also the first play recorded by the Library’s live theatre recording programme (22 October 1963 at the National Theatre in the Old Vic, starring Peter O’Toole and directed by Laurence Olivier).

Over the decades, many of the nation’s greatest actors have appeared in these various productions. Find out full cast of each production, the venue and further details by typing the call number into the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

ShakespeareShakespeare's First Folio. Image copyright © The British Library Board

This is an ongoing collection: the RSC send us their own audio recordings. We no longer record at the NT, since they have had their own video recording programme since 2008.

All the recordings listed are available to listen to free at the British Library but you may need to make an appointment.

I would be happy to answer any enquiries about the collection. Please feel free to use the comments box below.

11 February 2014

Trevor Eaton: The Chaucer Man

Trevor-Eaton-in-the-BritishTrevor Eaton in the British Library recording studio.

On Monday 16 December last year the British Library was pleased to welcome a distinguished visitor to its recording studio.

Trevor Eaton aka 'The Chaucer Man'  is widely known for his recordings of Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon and The Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

Over the course of a long career Trevor has introduced many thousands of school students to Chaucer, through more than 1000 live solo performances. A former university lecturer in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, Trevor is also the author of several books on language and literature, and founder of both the Journal of Literary Semantics and the International Association of Literary Semantics.

Trevor visited the British Library studio to record, at his own suggestion, the few remaining passages of The Canterbury Tales he had not already recorded for Pearl Records. The Pearl Records sequence was originally issued as 17 tape cassettes (circa late-1980s) but omitted three of the linking passages and Chaucer’s Retraction.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to sit in with studio engineer Nigel Bewley in the control room, as beyond the glass Trevor brought the texts vividly to life.

Trevor is now thought to be the only person to have recorded The Canterbury Tales in its entirety.

In the first audio recording below, you can listen to Trevor explain the project and also hear his thoughts on correct Middle English pronunciation.

Listen to Trevor Eaton 1

In this second recording, you can hear Chaucer's Retraction, performed by Trevor in the original Middle English.

Listen to Trevor Eaton 2

Recordings are copyright  © The British Library Board, 2013.

The complete new recordings, plus all of the commercially issued cassettes, are available for listening at the British Library, although you may need to make an appointment.

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

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