17 January 2023
By Catherine Angerson, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts.
The Blavatnik Honresfield Library is a collection of books and manuscripts of exceptional historical and literary importance formed by the Lancashire mill owner William Law (1836–1901) in the late 19th century and cared for by subsequent generations of the family until the sale of the collection in 2022. The collection includes manuscripts and rare editions of the work of Jane Austen, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, the Brontë siblings, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Honresfield House, just outside Littleborough near Rochdale, was where William Law lived with his brother Alfred, who inherited the collection after William’s death in 1901. It then passed to a nephew, the Conservative MP Sir Alfred Law (1860–1939). Selected scholars were granted access during the 1930s and transcriptions of several of the manuscripts were made, but the collection then largely disappeared from public view after the death of Alfred Law in 1939.
The Blavatnik Honresfield Library was purchased for the nation in 2022 by the Friends of the National Libraries with the support of the Blavatnik Family Foundation, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and many other generous supporters. The collection has been shared between cultural heritage institutions in the UK who are all committed to making the items in their care publically accessible.
The British Library was one of the beneficiaries, receiving 102 printed books, four manuscript items, and the William Maskell chapbook collection. The manuscript items have now been digitised and you can access the images by following the links below.
One of the highlights of the Blavatnik Honresfield Library is the notebook of Emily Brontë’s poems (Add MS 89488) which she kept between 1844 and 1846. Few of Emily Brontë’s literary manuscripts survive and the notebook is a fascinating record of her creative process. Brontë transcribed neat copies of 31 of her own poems into this notebook, recording the date of original composition next to each.
The first poem, ‘Loud without the wind was roaring’, is dated 11 November 1838 when Emily was 20. She composed the final poem, ‘No Coward Soul is Mine’, on 2 January 1846 at the age of 27. Some of the poems include further revisions in the hand of her sister Charlotte. Beneath the poem ‘How beautiful the earth is still’ of 2 June 1845, pictured below, Charlotte has written, ‘Never was better stuff penned’, in the miniature script shared by both sisters.
The notebook is the source for 15 of the 21 of Emily Brontë’s poems selected for Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846). The other six poems came from Emily’s ‘Gondal Poems’ notebook which she kept at the same time. Emily Brontë’s own signed copy of Poems (1846) is also among the treasures of the Blavatnik Honresfield Library.
Another treasure allocated to the British Library is a miniature book by Charlotte Brontë titled, 'Characters of the Celebrated Men of the Present Time by Captain Tree' (Add MS 89486). The tiny book, created by Charlotte when she was just 13 years old, is one of seven early Brontë manuscripts now jointly owned by the British Library, the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds. The book is narrated by Captain Tree, one of Charlotte’s childhood pen names. It consists of ten chapters that feature ‘Celebrated Men’ such as the Duke of Wellington, Lord Charles Wellesley, Captain Bud and Young Man Naughty. These figures were drawn from real life as well as from the fictional world of Glass Town. The Glass Town Federation was a complex fantasy land created by Charlotte and her siblings Branwell, Emily and Anne.
The book measures a tiny 5 x 3.7 cm, the size of a small matchbox. The digital images allow us to zoom in on Brontë’s tiny script and to examine the pages of the manuscript in detail. The pages are slightly uneven in size. This is because Charlotte cut the paper by hand and sewed the pages together using a needle and thread, and the book is still bound in its original yellow sugar paper cover.
The manuscript items allocated to the British Library also include a letter dated 10 November 1847 from Charlotte Brontë to William Smith Williams of Smith, Elder & Co., the publisher of Jane Eyre (1847) (Add MS 89487). In this letter, Brontë (using her pen name ‘C. Bell’) complains about the ‘exhausting delay and procrastination’ that her sisters Emily (‘Ellis’) and Anne (‘Acton’) have had to endure in the publication of their novels by Thomas Newby. Emily Brontë’s only novel Wuthering Heights and Anne Brontë’s first novel Agnes Grey were both published by Newby in December 1847 shortly after Charlotte wrote this letter.
In addition to the Brontë manuscripts described above, the British Library also received two leaves from the manuscript of Walter Scott’s Kenilworth (Add MS 89485), a novel of intrigue and deception set in Elizabethan England. These handwritten pages were part of the manuscript which Scott sent to the printer John Ballantyne for the publication of the novel in January 1821. The Library also holds the larger part of the manuscript of Kenilworth and two further leaves acquired in 2017.
The manuscripts have been digitised in full and images can be accessed via the archives and manuscripts catalogue and through the links in this blogpost. The printed items are described in the main catalogue and can be identified by the shelfmark prefix ‘Hon’. See our new collection guide for further details.
A small selection of books and manuscripts from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library is currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library in London (until 19 February 2023). The display includes a leaf from Walter Scott’s Kenilworth manuscript, the letter from Charlotte Brontë to WS Williams, Emily Brontë’s poetry notebook together with her own copy of Poems (1846), and two of the chapbooks from the Maskell collection.
We are delighted to be working with the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the Brotherton Library to make the Brontë material available to new audiences (online and in an exhibition) over the coming months and years.
30 September 2022
By Greg Buzwell, Curator, Contemporary Literary Archives.
‘Does anyone seriously believe that Beatles music will be an unthinkingly accepted part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?’ wrote the philosopher and politician Bryan Magee in the February 1967 issue of The Listener. The passage of time has subsequently given a resounding answer to Magee’s question, and it turned out not to be the one he was obviously expecting. His comment highlights the now almost eye-wateringly unbelievable notion that, even after Beatlemania, several albums including A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul and Revolver - and on the verge of the Summer of Love and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - the Beatles’ lasting contribution to popular culture was still being questioned in certain quarters.
Someone else also pondering the Beatles and their legacy in 1967 was the journalist Hunter Davies. The British Library has recently acquired Davies’s archive of Beatles-related material consisting of photographs, press cuttings, concert programmes and ephemera together with the notebooks he kept when carrying out his research for his 1968 biography of the band – The Beatles: The Authorised Biography. Hunter interviewed dozens of people prior to writing his book, including of course John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, but also wives and girlfriends including Cynthia Lennon and Jane Asher, along with other key contributors to the band’s success such as their manager Brian Epstein; their producer George Martin; Astrid Kirchherr whose early photographs of the group were instrumental in defining their look, and their road manager Mal Evans along with many, many others. Among the collection there is also a draft of Hunter’s original letter to Brian Epstein suggesting the idea that he write an authorised biography of the Beatles and asking for Brian’s approval.
One of the points Hunter makes in the letter is that the book would provide a record of the Beatles phenomenon and allow everyone involved with the band to have their say while events were still relatively fresh in their memories. In essence the book would be, in Hunter’s words, ‘not a fan book, but a full study of what happened and why during the last five years’. Perhaps, even in 1967, this was ambitious. In particular the band’s recollection of their early days in Hamburg was already a little hazy. Unsurprising given the relentless nature of the gigs they had to play and the outrageous nightlife offered to those on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn where the clubs the Beatles played were situated. When talking to the Beatles about their Hamburg days Hunter’s notebooks contain details of John Lennon sleeping behind the stage and of Pete Best, the band’s drummer before Ringo Starr joined in 1962, being so exhausted he once collapsed over his drum kit mid-performance. Then again, all the more reason to have those recollections and thoughts put down on paper before they became even more lost in the haze between actuality and memory.
The highlight of the collection is undoubtedly to be found in one of the notebooks in which Hunter recorded his interviews with Paul McCartney. At one point Hunter asked Paul to describe how John Lennon and George Harrison looked back in their late-1950s pre-Beatles days with the band The Quarrymen. Paul duly obliged, but he also borrowed Hunter’s notebook and quickly sketched George and John: the former all boyishly innocent with upswept hair and bushy eyebrows and the latter with sideburns, glasses and a stare firmly focused on the future. There’s something touching about the sketches – an authenticity and affection that comes from Paul reflecting on two friends and the impression they made on him in the very first days of their friendship.
Also among the archive is the transcript of a television interview, the recording of which is now thought to be lost, between Hunter Davies and Ringo Starr dated December 15th 1970. A date by which point the band had effectively split. In the interview Ringo talks about how one of his childhood ambitions, at least according to his mother, was to be a tramp and to wander the world. There’s also a list of the questions Hunter is hoping to have answered in the interview, such as whether Ringo worries that film companies only want him in their movies so they can put his name on the poster; whether he still goes back to Liverpool to revisit his roots and whether his fame prevents him from ordinary pleasures such as evenings out in a pub with friends. Much of the interview comes across as a touching attempt to discover Ringo the private individual, husband and father beneath the surface glamour of Ringo the rock-star drummer.
At its heart though the archive is really about Hunter’s authorised biography of the Beatles. First published in 1968 and the only book about the group ever written with the backing of the whole band and those within their inner circle. As such it offers an invaluable insight into what made the Beatles tick, and how they managed to achieve so much in such a relatively short space of time. There have been, quite literally, thousands of books written about the Beatles and while they all offer something perhaps only a dozen or so are absolutely essential to anyone who loves the music and wishes to know more about how it all came about. Hunter’s book is definitely towards the top of that select list and his archive reveals a great deal about how he put it together.
To learn more about The Beatles: The Authorised Biography, along with the archive behind its creation and Hunter Davies’s long association with the Beatles, please follow the link below for details of an event on November 11th 2022 featuring Hunter in conversation: Hunter Davies: Writing The Beatles.
23 September 2022
by Dominic Newman, Manuscripts Cataloguer.
Donald Michael Thomas (b. 1935) made his name as a writer when, in the early 1980s, his novel ‘The White Hotel’ scored a sudden success in the United States. With its psychedelic expedition into the subconscious, Freud and the Holocaust, and the vertiginous buckling and melting away of trust in its fickle narrator, the sensation it caused then spread back across the Atlantic to Britain.
Yet Thomas had been writing steadily and copiously for many years beforehand, as his archive, now fully catalogued and available in the Reading Rooms, records. In his early career he considered himself mainly a poet: between the 1960s and the 1980s he filled thirty-five notebooks (preserved in photocopied form) with sketches and drafts of verse. A home-made chart (Add MS 89363/9/6) chronicles appearances of his early poems in magazines and journals.
It was only at the end of the 1970s that Thomas turned to writing novels. His first, ‘Birthstone’, set in his native Cornwall and already exploring his interest in the ideas of Sigmund Freud, is preserved in a first-edition copy (Add MS 89363/1/4) with annotations and amendments by the author. Draft material and annotated typescripts and proofs record work on the other titles that then followed in quick succession, including ‘Russian Nights’, a sequence of novels which, though originally planned as a trilogy, expanded first into a quartet, then a quintet.
Russia is a recurring theme in Thomas’s work. He has translated the poetry of Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, and made radio adaptations of Russian literature. In the late 1990s he embarked on a substantial biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A Century in his Life’, which won the Orwell Book Prize in 1999. The archive contains a great deal of draft and research material for this book, as well as photographs and interview transcripts.
A more unusual series of papers (Add MS 89363/8) records one of the great frustrations of Thomas’s career: the seeming impossibility of making a film adaptation of ‘The White Hotel’, in spite of at least three separate attempts by different producers over the years. The idea of a film first surfaced almost immediately after the novel’s overnight success, and at various junctures it seemed almost certain to be made. But each time the project ran into difficulties, including of the legal variety (Thomas even found himself being dragged unwittingly into an American court case). He relates the whole saga in his memoir ‘Bleak Hotel’ (2008), a typescript of which is also present in the archive (Add MS 89363/3/4-5).
Thomas has retained much of his correspondence with publishers and well-known writers (Charles Causley, Stevie Smith, Peter Redgrove, and others), along with hundreds of messages from his sister Lois (Add MS 89363/9/18-24). There are also dozens of family photographs (Add MS 89363/9/8-11), starting at the time of his parents’ courtship in Cornwall in the 1920s and continuing through his childhood and adult life. Lively scenes at home in Truro, where he returned to live in the late 1980s, are preserved for posterity. Most of the snaps are captioned by Thomas himself: ‘Rugby with Dad’ – ‘I was always distant at visits to beach / sea’ – ‘Singing my face off’. Family and friends too are fondly epitheted. There is even a calendar entitled ‘Singing Thomas’s’, each month with a different picture of the family singing, drinking and generally making merry. Thomas has still found time to write, however: the latest drafts and sketches in the archive (Add MS 89363/2/9-23) date from as recently as 2017.
The D. M. Thomas archive is available under shelf-mark Add MS 89363.
08 July 2022
By Alexander Lock, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts.
Today, 8 July 2022, marks the bicentenary of the death of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). One of the most politically radical of the Romantic poets, Shelley’s best known works include ‘Ozymandias’ (1818), ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ (1819), and ‘To the Skylark’ (1820).
Shelley died at sea, aged just 29, on 8 July 1822. Earlier that month Shelley had sailed in his boat, the Don Juan, from his home in San Terenzo to Livorno. On that voyage he was accompanied by a young boat hand, Charles Vivian, and two close friends Edward Williams and naval officer Daniel Roberts. Shelley sailed to Livorno to meet Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron in order to develop their plans for the publication of a new anti-establishment journal The Liberal. Having accompanied Hunt to his accommodation in Pisa, on 8 July Shelley, Williams and Vivian set sail for home. Within a few hours the Don Juan was caught in a severe storm and all three men were lost at sea.
Shelley's body washed ashore near Viareggio on 18 July 1822 and William’s body was found on the same day three miles further along the shore. The remains of Vivian were discovered some weeks later. According to the friend who found them, Edward John Trelawny, Shelley was identified by the ‘volume of Sophocles’ he had ‘in one pocket, and Keats’s poems in the other’. Initially buried in quicklime, Shelley and Williams were exhumed and cremated on 16 August 1822 on the beach near Viareggio where they were found. It had been decided that Shelley’s remains should be interred near John Keats’ in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, whilst the remains of Williams were to be returned to England. In order to facilitate the movement of their bodies and overcome the Italian quarantine laws governing the burial of bodies washed from the sea, it was decided that the men be cremated.
Following the funeral the ashes were collected for burial by Edward Trelawney who had also taken some of Shelley’s hair as a memento. He gave the hair and some of the ashes as a keepsake to Claire Clairmont – Mary Shelley’s stepsister and Lord Byron’s lover who was staying with the Shelleys in San Terenzo. These items would eventually pass to the British Library.
In the weeks leading up to his death, Shelley suffered from visions of drowning and death. In a letter written just after Shelley died – now in the British Library as Ashley MS 5022 – his wife Mary Shelley recounted how he dreamt that ‘the sea was rushing in’ and that he was strangling her whilst Edward Williams and his wife Jane looked on as corpses. After her husband's drowning, Mary began to consider how his visions might have foretold the future.
To mark the bicentenary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley, curators at the British Library worked with the poet Benjamin Zephaniah on a new Radio 4 programme ‘Percy Shelley, Reformer and Radical’. Presented by Zephaniah, the 2 part series brings a very personal take on Shelley’s work and how it influenced his own work and that of other poets. As part of this recording we showed Zephaniah the original draft of the ‘Mask of Anarchy’, Shelley’s annotated copy of ‘Queen Mab’, as well as the hair and ashes of the poet taken from his funeral pyre.
Episode 1 was broadcast on Sunday 3 July and episode 2 will be aired on Sunday 10 July, at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4. The episodes will be available online after broadcast.
21 June 2022
By Catherine Angerson, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts. A small display to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) can be seen in the Treasures Gallery until 25 September 2022.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner recounts the experiences of a mariner whose ship becomes trapped in ice during a long voyage. The mariner brings great misfortune on the ship and its crew by killing the albatross which helped to bring them to safety. Coleridge’s depression and own experiences of travel led to his increasing identification with the Mariner and he continued to revise the poem, first published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, at different episodes during his life.
A new temporary display in the Treasures Gallery brings together three of Coleridge’s manuscripts (a poem and two notebooks) and two 20th-century illustrated editions of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet.
The first item on display is a handwritten poem titled 'Dura Navis' which Coleridge said he composed at the age of 15 while he was a pupil at Christ’s Hospital in Sussex. The poem shows the poet’s early preoccupation with the isolation of the traveller and the dangers of travelling by sea. The manuscript is an autograph fair copy written down by Coleridge many years after he first composed the poem. A 51-year-old Coleridge added a comment at the bottom of the first page saying that the poem ‘does not contain a line that any clever school boy might not have written’ (Add MS 34225, f.1r).
At the centre of the small display are two of the 55 of Coleridge’s notebooks purchased by the British Museum from the descendants of Coleridge’s brother James in 1951. Coleridge used pocket-sized notebooks to record thoughts, feelings, quotations, travel accounts, language learning (especially German), philosophical musings, poems and more. Notebook No. 9 (Add MS 47506) contains Coleridge’s impressions of a voyage to Malta in April 1804. In a brief moment of calm in the Bay of Biscay, the poet observes ‘the beautiful Surface of the Sea in this gentle Breeze’ (f. 33v). A reference to his friend William Wordsworth’s poem The Female Vagrant can be seen near the bottom of the page: ‘And on the gliding Vessel Heaven & Ocean smil’d!’ (f. 34r)
In October 1806, Coleridge drafted a new version of a short section of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in his Notebook No. 11 (Add MS 47508). While the opening lines, ‘With never a whisper in the main / Off shot the spectre ship’, are close to lines 198–199 of the poem published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, the following two lines do not appear in the first or the amended version published in 1817:
And stifled words & groans of pain
Mix’d on each trembling ^ murmering lip
Other images are altered but recognisable from part III of the poem published in Sibylline Leaves (1817). ‘The Sky was dull & dark the Night’ in the 1806 notebook becomes ‘The stars were dim, and thick the night’ in 1817.
Many artists have been drawn to the creative force and supernatural imagery of The Ancient Mariner. The first illustrated edition on display was designed, decorated and illustrated by Hungarian artist Willy Pogány (born Vilmos András Pogány, 1882–1955) and published in 1910. The illustration of the ship struck by a ‘storm-blast’ is reproduced from Pogány’s watercolour and corresponds to Coleridge’s words on the opposite page. In the poem, the ship is driven by a storm, ‘tyrannous and strong’, towards the South Pole. Pogány’s storm has a suggestion of wings like the winged storm which chases the ship in the poem.
The display concludes with Mervyn Peake’s stark image of a suffering and repentant Mariner in an edition published by Chatto & Windus in 1943. In contrast to Pogány’s deluxe edition printed on vellum, this edition with seven black-and-white illustrations reproduced from Peake’s drawings was designed to be affordable. In Coleridge’s poem, the crew hangs the albatross around the Mariner’s neck to mark his guilt for killing the bird of good omen. Peake’s image hints at the possibility of redemption for the Mariner.
The Coleridge display at the British Library (until 25 September) overlaps by a few weeks with the loan of the manuscript of Coleridge’s other famous poem, Kubla Kahn, and a 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads to the Museum of Somerset for the exhibition In Xanadu: Coleridge and the West Country (until 25 June). The anniversary is also being marked at the British Library on 20 October with the Wordsworth Trust annual lecture by renowned Coleridge biographer Richard Holmes. Tickets will be available from mid-August.
Kathleen Coburn, Merton Christensen and Anthony John Harding, eds, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 5 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957–2002)
Seamus Perry, ed., Coleridge's Notebooks: A Selection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)
30 March 2022
Written by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives.
The British Library has been home to the P.G. Wodehouse archive since September 2016. It is a large collection of 481 folders and volumes, which provides a real insight into the life and work of the writer, humourist and lyricist.
The archive contains material relating to Wodehouse’s literary career, his theatrical and cinematic work, the Second World War period and his private life. Also included are papers relating to fans of Wodehouse, research and articles about his writing, events and commemorations organised after his death, and adaptations of his work.
The archive is catalogued and more information can be found by searching the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue using keywords or the reference Loan MS 129. Anyone with a reader’s pass can consult the archive in the Manuscripts reading room on the second floor of the Library. Please see the Reader Registration pages of the Library’s website for more information about how to register for a pass if you do not already have one.
The Wodehouse archive is a resource for everyone but it could be particularly useful for anyone who is planning to submit an entry for the international Essay prize that has been launched by the P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK). The initiative was launched in late 2021 to mark the 140th anniversary of Wodehouse’s birth and coincide with the 25th anniversary of the creation of the society in 2022. Two prizes of £1000 and £250 will be awarded to the adult and junior winners respectively by a judging panel that includes Paula Byrne, Stephen Fry and Sophie Ratcliffe.
The prize is open to all. The judges ask that entries focus on Wodehouse’s novels, stories, plays and journalism with the hope that they will throw scholarly new light on aspects of his writing.
Entries, which must be original and previously unpublished, should be submitted to [email protected] by 12 noon BST on Wednesday 1 September 2022. Full details and Terms & Conditions can be found on the Society’s website. Good luck to anyone who decides to enter.
25 May 2020
The eightieth anniversary of Dunkirk falls in May 2020 while here in Britain we are still living through the coronavirus pandemic. My artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk is the largest book in the British Library’s Contemporary British collection, and curators at the British Library had been planning some events with me to mark the moment, but since it became clear that no public events would be possible, I’ve been working with Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications, to make an artists’ film of my artists' book Thames to Dunkirk (below). Under lockdown conditions we have assembled the elements of the soundtrack - on which the soldier-poet Basil Bonallack is voiced by his grandson Christopher Peters, and Virginia Woolf’s questioning lines from The Waves by me Liz Mathews - over my own photography of the book, and the film was edited by Jeremy Jenkins.
Front cover of Thames to Dunkirk
Thames to Dunkirk, an artists' book by Liz Mathews, on film.
I made Thames to Dunkirk in 2009, and it’s been in the Library’s collection for a decade, a surreally large book to echo the extraordinary nature of an event shared by over 300,000 people, each with their own individual experience and their own story to tell. It’s made from twenty-four sheets of the largest handmade paper in the world, each 1 metre high and 1.4 metres wide - and it opens out to a free-standing paper sculpture 17 metres long and a metre high.
Looking at Thames to Dunkirk again now, as its maker I’m both reminded of my original aim, and struck by the many parallels with our current situation. Hearing Dunkirk 1940 invoked so often during the lockdown - exemplifying British ingenuity, courage and adaptability in a desperate crisis - has brought that long ago time vividly to mind. So what is it about Dunkirk that speaks so urgently to our times? Who could read the following accounts in these days without recognising the ‘absolute mayhem’, the fear and anxiety, the ‘public catastrophe’, the ‘terrible suspense’?
‘The Dunkirk crisis was unbelievable. A lot of people coming back had jettisoned their guns and vehicles, they just got there as fast as they could. There were lots of refugees coming in - it was absolute mayhem. Dunkirk had been bombed. We knew that a lot of troops were sheltering along the shore. We had no idea they were going to be rescued - it seemed the whole army was going to be captured. I was extremely upset, because it never occurred to me that we would survive. I though we were defeated, that we would surrender and sue for peace.’ (Corporal Elizabeth Quale, WAAF liaison officer, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Second World War, Ebury Press / IWM 2004)
Thames to Dunkirk, p.21.
On May 26th 1940 the rescue began, an event of such enormity that it has become one of our most potent national myths. The British army fighting in France and Belgium had been outflanked and surrounded by the invading army of Nazi Germany, and ‘there was nothing for it but to fall back, made almost impossible by the multitudes of refugees on the roads. Our men could only crawl back, while the enemy raced to cut them off from the sea.’ (John Masefield, The Nine Days Wonder Heinemann, 1940).
By 26th May a solid mass of men had already gathered on the beaches and in the dunes near the town, and thousands more were still struggling to get there. Churchill’s government had a plan for the Royal Navy to rescue them, with the help of a makeshift armada of ‘little ships’, privately owned boats, yachts, lifeboats and small ships from England’s south coast and the Thames, to ferry the men out from the beaches to the waiting Naval ships.
Thames to Dunkirk, p.10
But ‘when Operation Dynamo began it was thought that only a few thousand could be saved. The next day the situation was so much worse that we had to be prepared for a desperate scramble to pick up survivors from a great disaster.’ (JM, ibid)
Meanwhile at home, Leonard and Virginia Woolf were among the millions waiting for news: ‘In Rodmell Dunkirk was a harrowing business. There was not merely the public catastrophe, the terrible suspense with Britain on the razor’s edge of complete disaster; in the village we were domestically on the beaches. For Percy, and Jim and Dick and Chris, whom I had known as small boys in the village school and watched grow up onto farm workers and tractor drivers were now, one knew, retreating, driven back to the Dunkirk beaches. There they presumably were waiting, and we in Rodmell waited.’ (Leonard Woolf The Journey not the Arrival Matters The Hogarth Press, 1969)
And from Virginia Woolf’s diary: ‘Louie comes agog. [Her brother] Harry come back on Monday. It pours out - how he hadn’t boots off for 3 days; the beach at Dunkirk - the bombers as low as trees - the bullets like moth holes in his coat… He looted a Belgian shop & stuffed his pockets with rings which fell out in the sea; but 2 watches pinned to his coat survived… He was talking to a chap, who showed him a silk handkerchief bought for his joy lady. That moment a bomb killed him. Harry took the handkerchief. He saw his cousin dead on the beach; & another man from the street. Harry swam off, a boat neared. Say chum can you row? Yes, he said, hauled in, rowed for 5 hours, saw England, landed - didn’t know if it were day or night or what town - didn’t ask - couldn’t write to his mother - was despatched to his regiment.’ (Virginia Woolf, Diary Volume Five, ed. Anne Olivier Bell The Hogarth Press, 1984)
Virginia Woolf’s story about Harry West set me on a path of discovering first-hand accounts of that time, and gave me the idea of making Thames to Dunkirk. Along both sides of the huge book’s length are juxtaposed four significant lines: first, soldier-poet BG Bonallack’s eye-witness account of Dunkirk 1940 from his poem The Retreat; second, Virginia Woolf’s introspective questioning lines from The Waves flowing beneath as an undercurrent; and then on one side a watercolour map of the Thames from source to sea, lettered with the names of most of the little ships that went to the rescue; and on the other a 17m long watercolour of the great stretch of Dunkirk beaches and dunes, with the names of many people who were there during those nine days in 1940.
Thames to Dunkirk, p.18.
There’s Alexander Graham King, ‘the mad hatter’ who played his accordion to entertain the queues of waiting soldiers for seven days, and Captain NC Strother-Smith, who could spare a thought for the refugees on the roads ‘machine-gunned and attacked by Bombers and fighters’ in this impossible situation. There’s Philip Newman, the army surgeon who treated wounded men by the thousands in ‘the Chateau’, remained behind with men too badly wounded to be moved, was captured and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp as a POW. And there’s Louie’s brother Harry - his name lettered in a queue out into the sea; I see him with the water up to his armpits, worrying about his looted watches getting wet.
Marking Thames to Dunkirk book with a wooden clothes peg
Each person whose story I found is there in the crowd on the book; the letters of their names stand as individuals in the mass, marked with a wooden clothes peg, an incongruous domestic tool to reference a background of home for each person. The little ships’ names, too, are set along the watercolour map of the Thames in paint mixed with Thames water, the words lettered with a Thames driftwood stick, to draw the material presence of the river into the book, to bring in the stories not only of the gallant boats but of all those across Britain doing what they could to help, volunteering, nursing the wounded, waiting for news.
Card for the Dunkirk Project
As for my aims: I wanted Thames to Dunkirk to represent all the voices of Dunkirk, not a simplified impersonal official version; to catch the event in all its diversity and complexity. Once it was made, it became the central thread of The Dunkirk Project, an online installation that collects and shared hidden or forgotten stories from Dunkirk. Presented in the form of daily news from 26th May to 4th June, this River of Stories made up of many voices, many different perspectives, shows how this multi-layered event defies simplistic reduction but still has important truths for today.
The voices of Thames to Dunkirk speak to our uncertain times at an apt moment. It’s more important than ever to acknowledge the European, multi-national nature of Britain’s wartime struggle against fascism, as exemplified at Dunkirk, and to recognise how we, the inheritors of the world that was made then, are still living with the consequences of our past. In June 1940 when the Dunkirk evacuation had brought most of the army home again, the threat of invasion was at its most acute - and Britain was still at war for a further four years. The parallels for our wounded world are all too clear: while we’ve been struggling with Brexit and the pandemic, the Climate Emergency has not gone away.
Thames to Dunkirk, p.20-1
Now, coronavirus has forced us to re-examine our priorities. Another clear correspondence with Dunkirk 1940 is that amidst the devastation and the suffering there have been some positives: the many heroes we’ve met - Captain/Sir Tom Moore, every NHS doctor and nurse, three-quarters of a million volunteers, our bus drivers, our care workers and Andrea our local pharmacist, to name just a few - have outnumbered the villains, and we’ve found a renewed compassionate empathy and awareness of community.
Captain Tom Moore post-mark
British engineers and fashion designers are falling over themselves to adapt factories to make essential personal protective equipment and ventilators; universities and research institutions are vying to produce tests, vaccine, antibodies; our theatres, online arts and the BBC are keeping us sane - in short, the real maverick Dunkirk spirit is alive and well in Britain today. Now is a good time to look again at this parallel crisis in our nation’s past, in order to understand the present better, and prepare for the future.
29 April 2020
by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator of Digital Publications.
Are you spending more time indoors and hoping to get your creativity flowing? Thinking about writing fiction? Interactive Fiction is a fast-growing collection area for the Library, and myriad tools for all levels can help you to bring your story to life.
Interactive fiction (IF), or interactive narrative/narration, is defined as “software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment.”
The British Library has been collecting examples of UK interactive fiction as part of the Emerging Formats Project, which is a collaborative effort from all six UK Legal Deposit Libraries to look at the collection management requirements of complex digital publications. Lynda Clark, the British Library Innovation Fellow for Interactive Fiction, built the Interactive Narratives collection on the UK Web Archive (UKWA) during her placement, as well as conducting analysis on genres, interaction patterns and tools used to build these narratives.
Source: Clark, L. (2019). Interactive Narrative Reports, Appendix A. Internal report (The British Library). Unpublished.
Many of these tools are free to use and don’t require any previous knowledge of programming languages. Because of Legal Deposit Regulations, most of the items in the Interactive Narratives collection can only be accessed on Library premises (you can read more on what UKWA content is available while the Library is closed here). Luckily, because this a contemporary collection, many of the original websites are still live and accessible.
Some quality cat dreams. (from Emma Winston’s Cat Simulator 3000)
Charlie Brooker used Twine to plot out Black Mirror’s interactive episode Bandersnatch. As the most used tool in the UKWA collection, there are many examples of Interactive Fifction written in Twine, from cat and teatime simulators (Emma Winston’s Cat Simulator 3000 and Damon L. Wakes’ Lovely Pleasant Teatime Simulator), to stories that include a mix of video, images and audio (Chris Godber’s Glitch), and horror games made for Gothic Novel Jam using the British Library’s Flickr collection of images (Freya Campbell’s The Tower – NB some content warnings apply). Lynda Clark also authored an original story as a conclusion to her placement: The Memory Archivist incorporates many of the themes emerged during her research and won The BL Labs Artistic Award 2019.
While Twine allows you to write hypertext narratives (where readers can progress through the story by clicking on a link), Inform 7 lets you write parser-based interactive fiction. Parser-based IF requires the reader to type commands (sometimes full sentences) in order to interact with the story.
How to Play Interactive Fiction (An entire strategy guide on a single postcard) Written by Andrew Plotkin -- design by Lea Albaugh. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License
Inform 7 is a free-to-use, hopefully-soon-to-be-open-sourced tool to write interactive fiction. Originally created as Inform by Graham Nelson in 1993, the current Inform 7 was released in 2006 and uses natural language (based on the English language) to describe situations and interactions. The learning curve is a bit steeper than with Twine, but the natural language approach allows for users with no programming experience to write code in a simplified language that reads like English text. Inform 7 also has a Recipe Book and a series of well-documented tutorials. Inform also runs on Windows, MacOS and Linux and lets you output your game as HTML files.
While the current version of Inform is Inform 7, narratives using previous versions of the system are still available – Emily Short’s Galatea is always a good place to start. You could also explore mysterious ruins with your romantic interest (C.E.J. Pacian’s Love, Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower), play a gentleman thief (J.J. Guest’s Alias, the Magpie) or make more tea (Joey Jones’ Strained Tea).
Bitsy is a browser-based editor for mini games developed by Adam Le Doux in 2016. It operates within clear constraints (8x8 pixel tiles, a 3-colour palette, etc.), which is actually one of the reasons why it is so beloved. You can draw and animate your own characters within your pixel grid, write the dialogue and define how your avatar (your playable character) will interact with the surrounding scenery and with other non-playable characters. Again, no programming knowledge is necessary. Bitsy is especially good for short narratives and vignette games. After completing your game, you can download it as an html file and then share it however you prefer. There is a Bitsy wiki, as well as some comprehensive tutorials and even a one-page pamphlet covering the basics.
A harsh but fair review.
(from Ben Bruce’s Five Great Places to Get a Nice Cup of Tea When You Are Asleep)
To play (and read) a Bitsy work you should use your keyboard to move the avatar around and interact with the ‘sprites’ (interactive items, characters and scenery – usually recognisable as sporting a different colour from the non-interactive background). You can wander around a Zen garden reflecting on your impending wedding (Ben Bruce’s Zen Garden, Portland, The Day Before My Wedding), alight the village fires to welcome the midwinter spirits (Ash Green’s Midwinter Spirits), experience a love story through mixtapes (David Mowatt’s She Made Me A Mix Tape), or if you’re still craving a nice cuppa you can review some imaginary tea shops (Ben Bruce’s Five Great Places to Get a Nice Cup of Tea When You Are Asleep).
ink/inky & inklewriter
Cambridge-based videogame studio inkle is behind another IF tool – or two. Ink is the scripting language used to author many of inkle’s videogames – the idea behind it is to mark up “pure-text with flow in order to produce interactive scripts”. It doesn’t require any programming knowledge and the resulting scripts are relatively easy to read. Inky is the editor to write ink scripts in – it’s free to download and lets you test your narrative as you write it. Once you’re happy with your story, you can export it for the web, as well as a JSON file. There’s a quick tutorial to walk you through the basics, as well as a full manual on how to write in ink. ink was also used to write 80 Days, another work collected by the British Library as part of the emerging formats project.
inklewriter is an open-source, ready-to-use, browser-based IF “sketch-pad”. It is meant to be used to sketch out narratives more than to author fully-developed stories. There is no download required and the fact that is quite a simple and straightforward tool to experiment with IF makes it a good fit for educators. Tutorials are included within the platform itself so that you can learn while you write.
If you want some inspiration before starting to write your own story in ink, you can try selling real estates to supernatural creatures (Eleanor Hingley’s Unreal Estate) or understanding why there’s a ghost stalking your flat (Isak Grozny’s Dripping with the Waters of Sheol – NB some content warnings apply). In inklewriter, you can start by trying to kill your first giant (Lee Williams’ Your First Giant) or survive an interrogation (Jon Ingold’s The Intercept).
Genres of works built using ChoiceScript are again quite varied – from sci-fi stories exploring the relationships between writers and readers (Lynda Clark’s Writers Are Not Strangers), to crime/romantic dramas (Toni Owen-Blue’s Double/Cross) and fantasy adventures (Thom Baylay’s Evertree Inn).
BONUS LEVEL: sok-stories
Sok-stories is not a tool to write IF, but it offers a simple and straightforward perspective on game dynamics and the results of interactions. It was developed by Sokpop Collective on commission by Now Play This 2019. There is no expectation of programming knowledge and the output games are very lo-fi – you draw everything (characters, items, scenery) and set your own rules to create super-short games. There is no dialogue (unless you want to draw that as well): the main focus is the relationship between the player’s choices and the effects they cause in the game. You interact with the game by dragging and dropping characters on items, items on items, characters on characters, etc. The limited set of commands and the ease with which you can set up the tool and start drawing, make it a really good introduction for younger audiences to the cause-effect rules of games – and potentially an educational and entertaining way to spend some lockdown time. Sok-stories requires a fee to download ($3 at the moment of writing), but you can browse a library of already published games for free: you can dig dinosaurs at an archaeological site, play super-abridged versions of old videogames or maybe… make more tea? Anyone?
Setting rules in sok-stories
This is in no way a comprehensive list – there are a lot of other tools and platforms to write IF, both mainstream as well as slightly more obscure ones (Ren’Py, Quest, StoryNexus, Raconteur, Genarrator, just to mention a few). Try different tools, find the one that works best for you or use a mix of them if you prefer! Experiment as much as you like. To conclude, I’ll leave you with a quote by Anna Anthropy from her book Rise of the Videogame Zinester:
“Every game that you and I make right now [...] makes the boundaries of our art form (and it is ours) larger. Every new game is a voice in the darkness. And new voices are important in an art form that has been dominated for so long by a single perspective. [...]
There’s nothing to stop us from making our voices heard now. And there will be plenty of voices. Among those voices, there will be plenty of mediocrity, and plenty of games that have no meaning to anyone outside the author and maybe her friends. But [...] imagine what we’ll gain: real diversity, a plethora of voices and experiences, and a new avenue for human beings to tell their stories and connect with other human beings.”
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