English and Drama blog

11 posts categorized "World War One"

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

18 December 2013

Andrew Motion, Owen Sheers and P J Harvey read war poetry at the British Library

In just a few weeks, the country—and the world—will step up activities to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

We’re extremely proud to be leading the UK’s contribution to a pan-European project, Europeana Collections 1914-1918, which will make hundreds of thousands of newly-digitised materials—from partners in eight European countries—relating to stories and events of the war available online for free. Partners in the project joined us at the Library last week to share news of this major new resource with guests from museums, galleries, libraries, the arts, funding bodies, charities, as well as an impressive roster of global diplomats.

The First World War is known as the ‘poets’ war’, and so many of our conceptions of the conflict have been shaped, created, or even sometimes distorted, by the words and images of what are still some of the best-known of all English language poems. At the reception last week we were grateful that three writers agreed to join us to read from their own, and others’, work relating to war and conflict.

Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate for 10 years and an exceptional champion of poetry, read two poems by Wilfred Owen, finding a softness alongside ‘the monstrous anger’ of Owen’s work. He also read from The Customs House, his most recent collection that opens with a sequence of war poems drawing on soldiers' testimonies from the past 100 years.


Andrew Motion, photo courtesy of the British Library and Foteini Aravani

Poet and writer Owen Sheers emphasised the sometimes neglected voices of the private soldiers and their families in his readings from Ivor Gurney and from his own 2013 verse drama Pink Mist

Owen Sheers, photo courtesy of the British Library and Foteini Aravani

Finally musician, writer and artist Polly Harvey gave an unprecedented reading of traditional soldiers’ songs, stripping away any musical sentimentality to uncover the real horror at stake.

Polly also read her own work, including lyrics from her 2011 album Let England Shake, informed by reflections on the history of 20th-century conflict.


Polly Harvey, photo courtesy of the British Library and Foteini Aravani

Europeana Collections 1914-18 will launch at the end of January, giving access to millions of images of documents charting the European and global experiences of the War.

We've prepared a highlights video from the event below, and videos of all the readings will follow soon.

First World War Poetry at the British Library from Europeana Collections on Vimeo.

18 November 2012

'Just a name on a list'? Archives: traces of the past, guarantor of the future

I was lucky this week to be invited by the French Culture Ministry to take part in a series of hugely rich workshops around the theme of archives and their role in society, coordinated by the marvelous, and indefatigable, Jean-Pierre Defrance from the Directorate General for Heritage. I was the representative from the UK, alongside a wonderful range of colleagues from all over Western and Eastern Europe, for the most part directors of national or regional archives, as well as some colleagues from NGOs.P1010115

Coming from a background of literary archives - of writers, poets, publishers - I have often had a particular perspective on the relationship between archives and the societies they record, describe, or imagine. Many of the sessions this week covered slightly different stakes: whether archives of former Soviet republics, of World War I combatants, or Jewish children hidden during the Occupation of France...the importance and impact of archives in good governance; in personal and political memorialisation, reconciliation, and validation; can be both harrowing and humbling.

One of the themes that ran across the discussions was the significance of the place of archives in governmental structures - and the consequences of coming under Culture Ministries, or not. Many felt that incorporation in structures concerned with cultural patrimony might sometimes elide the crucial, active role of archives as lever for, and guarantor of, human rights and good governance, with several examples taken from processes of democratic transition, and disaster recovery.

In terms of the literal place of archives and society, it was interesting to speculate on the impact of the imminent moves of France's own National Archives. Currently housed in the Marais (and at Fontainebleau), a new site will open early 2013 in Pierrefitte, Pierrefitte a commune in the Seine-Saint-Denis department; an imaginative distance from the grandeur of the Hotel de Soubise ...resolutely extra muros (though conveniently located next to the terminus of Line 13, with an extension of Line 14 to come soon). A new signature building, with the aesthetic impact you'd expect of a contemporary art museum (the public art onsite includes a new work by Antony Gormley), it is surrounded by both HLMs, and a University campus ....suggesting interesting new collaborations, users, and employment prospects for the quarter.

I was happy to be able to share our work in the UK around the documentary commemoration of the forthcoming 1914 anniversary (including our work with Europeana on the Collections 1914-18 mass digitisation project) when we visited the wonderful new Museum of the Great War in Meaux- a spectacular contemporary building housing a collection of objects and documents put together by a private collector. The Museum has had a huge impact on visitors to Meaux (50kms from Paris), and is, in my opinion, developing innovative collaborations with nearby Disneyland. Walt was in France as an ambulance driver in 1918, and I was fascinated by the way the Museum and Disneyland have had the imagination to realize that apparently heterogenous 'attractions' have a huge amount to offer each other.

The most moving presentation this week was from Yoram Mouchenik, psychologist-psychotherapist at the University of Paris XIII. Yoram talked about his work with a group who, as Jewish children, had been hidden during the Occupation. The subject was taboo in the immediate post-War years: what Yoram described as a 'freezing of memory' meant that the official  status of deported French Jews was listed as 'missing', as if people had simply vanished, evaporated. When new laws were introduced to provide compensation  and pensions for those who had been hidden during the War, and whose property had been confiscated, archives became key to establishing proof. But of course, as the subject began to be opened up, Yoram described how archival research offered a personal reinsertion into a genealogical line - a re-filiation. Archival work became a form of substitution, or compensation, for family conversations that were too painful, or simply impossible, to have ever happened. The most poignant quote from a member of the group that Yoram worked with was a man who described how he 'was looking for his father on microfilm'. The title of Yoram's book sums it up: Ce n'est qu'un nom sur une liste, mais c'est mon cimitière (It's just a name on a list, but it's my cemetery)...and of course archivists themselves cannot be immune from the affective forces that inform this kind of archival work.

The vastly diverse world in which archives operate was brought home to me the evening after this talk- when I popped by the Sotheby's Paris viewing of their forthcoming sales. It's fun looking at the liggers, the lapdogs, and the Lots: that included manuscripts of everything from Serge Gainsbourg's crisply arranged lyrics, to historical letters. The sale rooms are a vital part of the circulation and transmission of original documents, but it's important to be reminded how the sometimes astounding number of zeroes in the estimates listed in the auction catalogue are but a tiny part of the value of archival heritage.

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