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.”
24 April 2020
By Jessica Gregory, Curatorial Support Officer of Modern Manuscripts. The Grace Higgens Papers are found at Add MS 83198 – Add MS 83258. For more information on her life see The Charlton Trust. A biography of Higgens, The Angel of Charleston: Grace Higgens, Housekeeper to the Bloomsbury Group was published by British Library Press in 2013.
As the reality of working from home begins to set in — and a new, intensely domestic form of life begins to take shape — I’ve been thinking about how the Library’s literary collections can sometimes gloss over the day-to-day realities of life in favour more abstract or aesthetic concerns. In thinking through this, I was drawn again to Grace Higgens (1903-1983). Higgens spent most of her working life in the household of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (of Bloomsbury Group fame), where she was employed as a domestic servant from the age of seventeen until her retirement at age seventy. In 2007 the British Library acquired Higgens’ archive, consisting of her diaries, letters and photographs. Her papers shed light on a life dedicated to professional housekeeping in a time when the management of the domestic sphere was changing rapidly and remind us — especially now, if we needed to be reminded — that the cultural life of a society has always depended upon the (often unsung) labour of certain key-workers.
Grace Higgens’ Diary 1924, Add MS 83204 © Estate of Grace Higgens
Grace Higgens describes witnessing the Woolf’s on their bicycles looking ‘absolute freaks’. © Estate of Grace Higgens
As well as providing a a humourous insight into Higgens’ daily life and her opinions of the bohemian crowd that gathered around the house — including descriptions of Virginia and Leonard Woolf — her archives also show us what life dominated by domestic work looked like in the first half of the twentieth-century. When Higgens first entered employment, domestic service was one of the few careers open to her; and the knowledge that her life would be somewhat delimited by the house and garden came as no surprise to her. That so many of us are now struggling with the tighter borders around our own lives in part illustrates the profound changes that have taken place over the twentieth century, which have given many of us the privilege to choose how much we stay at home.
UK Government Stay at Home Advert, 2020 Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
The problem of keeping on top of the housework is only novel to those lucky enough to have not dealt with its pressures previously. The double burden of bread-winning and doing the housework has always been a reality to many working-class women. But for those who could afford to outsource housework, this was one way in which they could assume more control over their lives; to build the foundations for walls which could support the erection of a ‘room of one’s own’.
Through the ages, the upper-classes have employed servants to cook, clean, garden and child-rear, but it was with the new money of the Victorian middle-classes that many families could also employ domestic servants. The pre-modern kitchens of this era meant that supplying heat, food and clean clothes to a family was a full-time job for at least one, if not more, servants. The Victorian era emphasised ‘house-proudness’ as an aspiration for women and publications directed at women from the time explained ways to achieve this. Most famously Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, aimed to inform young wives of all the essentials needed to keep a husband happy and ensure that he would not stray. However, even Mrs. Beeton did not expect a wife to do all the work in the house, even going so far as to give advice on how much to pay domestic servants.
The title page of Mrs Beeton’s, Book of Household Management, 1861
By 1901, in the new Edwardian era there were upwards of 1.5 million domestic servants employed in households in Britain. This was the largest employment sector for women in Britain. Domestic service would dominate employment opportunities for women until the First World War. With work needed to be done on the home front, and more opportunities in the growing retail and clerical economy, more women left domestic service. This exodus was exacerbated through the Second World War as employment opportunities proliferated and the modernisation of the household kitchen meant much more labour-saving opportunities. Increasingly, the domestic servant was replaced with the housewife. By 1950, a third of women were in paid employment, but despite the advances of the era – the new NHS, smaller family sizes and an increased availability of part-time work - most women’s daily lives were still centred on the domestic sphere.
By the time Grace Higgens bought her own home and retired in 1970, the role of the housekeeper as she knew it had changed beyond recognition. Grace Higgen’s daily life had been dominated by household chores, but so too were the lives of many married women at the time; only they were not paid. This would become a major concern for the Women’s Liberation Movement which emerged in the nineteen seventies. As more women swapped the home for work, the domestic landscape changed once again. In households where both adults worked, domestic work came second to paid work and women increasingly contested assumption that the ‘extra’ work in the house automatically fell to them. With the eighties boom more families decided to outsource this work, much like their Victorian predecessors had. The domestic worker returned in a different guise, in that of the casual-contract cleaner, the au pair, nanny, cook, gardener and even the dog-walker.
Now, as we close our front door and return to the domestic sphere once again, many people are figuring out their relative positions for a life lived entirely in the home — if only for a short while. The full-time housekeeper like Grace Higgens may be — for the most part, at least — a relic of the past, but domestic work persists, and its division remains as always unequally distributed along lines of gender and class. Dynamics shift and change as we all adapt to the lock-down landscape. Preconceived roles of men and women in the home may be looser today than in Higgens’ day, but there is only one way to prove the hypothesis that nowadays we divide domestic work more fairly: roll up your sleeves, muck in and spread the load.
17 April 2020
by Helen Melody, Lead Curator, Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. Read more about E.R Braithwaite, and To Sir With Love on the Library's Discovering Literature pages, here.
How are you spending the lockdown? Being at home could mean a chance to read all those books that you have never quite got around to. Or then again it could be an opportunity to re-visit some old favourites which in my case includes E.R. Braithwaite’s To Sir With Love. Published in 1959 this semi-autobiographical book tells the story of Rick Braithwaite who finds work teaching in a tough East End school in the early 1950s. It is an exploration of prejudice, teenage rebellion and triumph over adversity which sees the teacher come face to face with racism and kindness in post-war London. This is a great book to read at any time, but the difficulties that Rick faces in trying to interest his teenage class in their education will probably ring especially true for anyone faced with home schooling their children at the moment.
I feel very lucky that the Library has an annotated typescript of To Sir with Love in its collections, which forms part of the archive of the publisher Max Reinhardt, who managed The Bodley Head Press. Selected pages from the typescript have been digitised for Discovering Literature which means that you can enjoy reading an excerpt from the book, complete with E.R. Braithwaite’s handwritten annotations, even when the Library is closed.
Typewritten draft, with copious manuscript amendments, of Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love, published by The Bodley Head, 1959. Add MS 88987/2/10
In this insert from Chapter IV, Rick goes to an interview for a job as a Communications Engineer only to be rejected because the interview panel feel that their white workforce would not wish to be managed by a black man. The incident highlights the racism that was present in Britain at the time but which Rick had not experienced whilst serving as an RAF serviceman during the war. His disillusionment is complete when he telephones the other companies to which he had applied for work to inform them that he is black, only to be told that the jobs (for which he had been offered interviews) have been filled. Rick reflects on his upbringing and the Britishness which he felt growing up but which he realises does not mean that he is British in the eyes of British people. His pain is palpable and upsetting, yet for the purposes of the story his decision to turn his back on his pre-war profession leads him to teaching, which forms the basis of the book.
I would whole heartedly recommend this book to anyone, along with its sequel, Paid Servant (1962), which Braithwaite wrote about his subsequent time as a social worker. Please do take a look at the Discovering Literature webpages and those relating to Beryl Gilroy, the pioneering teacher and writer. Gilroy’s autobiography, Black Teacher, was published in 1976 whilst her novel, In Praise of Love and Children written in 1959 and only published in 1996 was featured in the Library’s Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition in 2018. Hopefully it will provide inspiration for all those parent-teachers out there.
22 November 2019
a guest blog by Milena Borden, who has been engaged with the Evelyn Waugh Society, the University of Leicester and the British Library in research for the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh. and has published on the topic ‘Evelyn Waugh and the Second World War’. She completed her PhD at UCL and is interested in perspectives of intersections between history and fiction. These papers, and many more by Evelyn Waugh, are available to consult, for free, in our Reading Rooms.
Evelyn Waugh, photographed in about 1940
19 July (19)57
PTY 12.25 SLOANE
PRIORITY EVELYN WAUGH CARE FOLYLES 119 CHARINGCROSS ROAD WC2=
HOW WONDERFUL WE ARE GOING TO SEE YOU TODAY YOU
KEPT ME AWAKE NEARLY ALL NIGHT LAUGHING AND
CRYING AT YOUR MARVELLOUS BOOK LOVE = VIVIEN +
Add MS 81067
Vivien Leigh (famous for playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, 1939) sent this telegram a few hours before the Foyle’s Literary Luncheon dedicated to Evelyn Waugh’s novella, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957).  It is preserved in a collection of three related items at the British Library, and offers a glimpse into the celebrity milieu which both sender and receiver inhabited at the time (although Leigh’s husband, Sir Lawrence Olivier, who was implied in the 'we' of Leigh's telegram didn't turn up to the party, in the end). Despite its short length, this SMS-like burst of twenty-five words is packed with energy. One can almost see Leigh dictating it enthusiastically to the Sloane Square Post Office -- no-punctuation; cigarette in hand.
But what information can we glean from these papers about their friendship and the book? Leigh cabled that she had spent the night before reading and laughing and crying. Inevitably one wonders what did she, who suffered from a bipolar disorder from around the age of 25, find funny or not so funny in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold - a semi-biographical account of a deeply disturbed human being based on Waugh’s own experience with psychosis.
Gilbert is a carefully constructed character underpinned by a single and powerful belief, which is also a hallucination, that he is persecuted; because he is a German and a Jew; a Roman Catholic and a fascist; a communist homosexual and a suicidal drunk. Gilbert is more or less the same as Waugh. His hallucinatory conversations with imaginary enemies are full of distinctly autobiographical features. Like Waugh, Gilbert is somebody who “abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz”, a member of the S.O.E. during the Second World War and a fake aristocrat who allegedly sympathized with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.
Medically inclined readers of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold often find Waugh’s self-parodying style unconvincing as a description of a clinical psychosis or delusion, although they recognize that there might be an element of alcohol induced hallucinatory experience in it. Alexandra Pitman argues that the novel illustrates “the difficulty in distinguishing alcoholic hallucinations from psychotic illness” but proves that in the case of the former if one stopped drinking the problem would resolve quickly, as in the case of Gilbert.
Maybe Leigh could laugh and cry with laughter at the fictionalized telescopic look Waugh took towards his own character because it had very little in common with her own highly volatile life, which behind the scenes was dominated by battles with mental illness. Ten days after the Foyle’s event Leigh discovered that Olivier was having a affair and slashed him across the eyes with a wet face cloth while hitting her head on a marble bedside table.Her depressive and aggressive drinking habit drove her professionalism but also aggravated her illness and eventually killed her at the age of 53. She would die ten years later, a victim of her illness, at her flat at 54 Eaton Square, the very same place from which she'd sent the breezy telegraph to Waugh. What the actress Maxine Audley said about Leigh could probably be said about Waugh too: “When she was good, she was very good, but when she was bad, she was awful!” 
Also included in the collection is an earlier Leigh letter addressed to Waugh, dated 21 February 1955. This letter spreads over three square pages of blue letter-headed paper of enlarged handwriting, and thanks Waugh for his Spectator review of Peter Brook’s Titus Andronicus (1955).  “I am quite unaccustomed to such very pleasant laudatory language”, Leigh writes. She also asked Waugh if he would be going to see Macbeth, a production directed by Glen Byam Shaw in the same year in which she played Lavinia, offering to book seats and inviting him to dinner with her and Olivier afterwards.
The third item is a handwritten telegram dated 21 February 1957 addressed to Combe Florey House: “Hurray we are so delighted for you Vivien and Larry”. This is catalogued as being sent by Olivier and presumably congratulated the Waughs for the move to their new home in late 1956.
In the end, these telegrams -- constrained as they are by form and function -- can only gesture towards the deeper friendships between those that wrote them. Nevertheless, if we're willing to look at them more closely, certain currents become more visible; of shared troubles and triumphs; laughter and tears.
 Martin Stannard, Evelyn Waugh: No Abiding City 1939-1966, London: Dent,
1992, pp. 390-91
 BMJ, 337: a2791, issue 7683, 2008
 Hugo Vickers, Vivien Leigh, London:Hamilton, 1988 pp. 250-260
 Ibid., p.2
 Spectator, 2 Sept. 1955
By Laura Walker, Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1851-1950. The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is a free exhibition space at the British Library, which will feature a one case display on George Eliot until 26th January 2020.
Today (22nd November) George Eliot celebrates her 200th birthday. To mark her bicentenary a one case exhibition in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery displays five items relating to Eliot’s life and work.
Eliot was born near Nuneaton, Warwickshire and her contrasting experiences of rural and urban life during her childhood in the Midlands inspired many of her novels. Following a good education and the freedom to pursue her own scholarly interests, Eliot grew up well read, intellectually curious and a was gifted writer. She moved to London in 1851 to pursue a journalistic career, where she met and fell in love with the critic George Henry Lewes – a married man who was estranged from his wife. From 1853 Eliot lived with Lewes openly and started referring to herself as Marian Evans Lewes, in defiance of Victorian notions of propriety.
She began writing fiction in 1856, publishing all of her novels under the pseudonym George Eliot. She took her partner’s first name, George, and chose Eliot as 'a good mouth-filling, easily pronounced word'. Female authors did not need to write under a pseudonym, but Eliot wanted the freedom to write outside the romance genre. She was also a known radical living in an anomalous social position with a married man, Mary Evans Lewes as such, was compelled to protect her identity.
Letter from Charles Dickens to George Eliot, 18 January 1858, Add MS 41667 B
Following the publication of Eliot’s collection of short stories entitled Scenes of a Clerical Life in 1858, there was much speculation over who the author could be. Soon after publication Charles Dickens wrote to Eliot partly in praise of the author’s ‘extraordinary merit’ but also to propose that the writer was a woman. Dickens felt that there were ‘such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now’. Eliot revealed her identity as Marian Evans Lewes in June 1859 over a year after this letter was written, after persistent rumours that a Midlands man called Joseph Liggins was the author of Scenes of a Clerical Life and her first novel Adam Bede (1859).
Mill on the Floss was the second and the most autobiographical of Eliot’s novels. The characters of Maggie and Tom Tulliver greatly resemble Marian Evans (Eliot) and her brother Isaac. In the extract on display Maggie is visiting Tom at school where they discuss women's' education. Tom’s teacher, Mr Stelling, describes how he believes that women are ‘quick and shallow’, which leaves Maggie feeling ‘mortified’.
George Eliot, Mill on the Floss, Add MS 34023 f.291
Within the British Library’s collections are over 200 letters written to, by or about George Eliot and her partner George Henry Lewes. One correspondent of Eliot’s was Emilia Francis Strong (known as Francis), a writer, advocate of women’s rights and a close friend. Francis married Mark Pattison, a priest and Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford in 1861. There was speculation when Middlemarch was first published, that Francis was the model for Dorothea Brooke due to her strong religious views and unhappy marriage to a much older man.
Letter from George Eliot to Emilia Francis Pattison, 16 December 1872, Add MS 43907 f.56v
One volume of Middlemarch is currently on display at the Library alongside a letter from Eliot to Emilia Francis Pattison from 16 December 1872. This letter offers a glimpse into Eliot’s life with her ‘husband’ George Henry Lewes.
‘But it is a holiday to sit with one’s feet at the fire reading one’s husband’s writing- at least when, like mine, he allows me to differ from him’.
Eliot goes on to write that ‘I hope we are not the happiest people in the world, but we are amongst the happiest’. Eliot led an extraordinary life, full of difficult decisions and challenges, but she also found happiness and love. She took a strong interest in the world around her, which inspired the strong sense of the ‘ordinary’ and the attendant realism of her novels. The letters and manuscripts on display give a sense of the interrelationship between her life and her work. Eliot is one of the rare authors to achieve both critical and commercial success during her lifetime. She is undoubtedly one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian age and beyond.
21 November 2019
by Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives
In tribute to Peter Nichols who sadly died in September, Trafalgar Studios is staging an afternoon of readings on 27 November to celebrate his theatrical legacy, generously supported by the British Library Collections Trust. Directed by his grandson, George Nichols, and starring Roger Allam and other special guests to be announced, the event will take a look at Peter Nichols’ vast literary contribution with excerpts from his much-loved television and stage plays including Promenade (1959), The National Health (1969), Forget-Me-Not-Lane (1971) and Poppy (1982), as well as passages from his personal diaries and rare unproduced plays from Nichols’ archive at the British Library.
Peter Nichols, photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios
Also on show in the Trafalgar Studios’ bar is a display about the evolution of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Nichols’ most famous play which is currently being revived by the Trafalgar in a new production by Simon Evans. You can see reproductions from Peter Nichols’ archive in the Studio Bar, tracing the play’s difficult birth from initial doubts over the first draft, to wranglings with the Lord Chamberlain’s censors and its ultimate glowing reception at its premiere in 1967.
'The Evolution of Joe Egg', display curated by the British Library for Trafalgar Studios' Studio Bar, until 30 Nov. Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios.
If that has whetted your appetite for further research, the wider archive is available to consult at the British Library. Acquired 20 years ago this month, the Peter Nichols Papers comprises 256 volumes of personal and professional papers from 1945 to the 2000s. You can listen to Peter Nichols reflecting on his career on BL Sounds, and various other interviews and theatre recordings are available to listen to onsite at the Library (search our Sound & Moving Image catalogue for details).
In light of Peter’s recent passing, it’s difficult not to read fresh significance into his words. In the programme for the current production of Joe Egg, Jamie Andrews from the British Library recalls one particular email exchange amongst many:
I see that at one point, feeling the physical challenges of ageing, his subject line was a typically self-deprecating ‘Petering Out’; but that a few emails later, it had changed to ‘Anything But Petering Out’…. A far more accurate assessment of his later years.
Just as Peter’s words will live on in all who knew him, his work survives in the archive he left behind and the potential it holds for many more revivals to come.
Peter Richard Nichols CBE, playwright, born 31 July 1927; died 7 September 2019, aged 92.
08 November 2019
by Giulia Carla Rossi Curator of Digital Publications @giugimonogatari. Find out more about the New Media Writing Prize here. For more information about the Library's Emerging Formats project, click here.
On 18 July, The British Library hosted a Digital Conversations event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the New Media Writing Prize. Digital Conversations is a series of events that explores the way in which technology is changing how we experience our life and how we communicate. New media writing perfectly fits within this theme as an example of the impact innovative technologies have on how we tell stories and express ourselves.
Now in its 10th year, the if:book UK New Media Writing Prize (NMWP) started as a one-off event in a literary festival in Poole. After realising its great potential, the event was moved to Bournemouth University (where it’s based today), with the help of co-founder and organiser Jim Pope. The 2019 prize is now comprised of five strands: the if:book award is the main award and the Dot Prize is an award for project proposals connecting literature with the digital; both are sponsored by if:book founder Chris Meade. The Unicorn Training Student Award, the Journalism Award and the Skylab innovation award round out the compliment, making 2019 the first year where these groups and mediums will be explicitly and separately recognised.
In ten years of the prize, words have always been at the centre of these works, combined with all sorts of new media, in constantly changing and innovative ways. New media writing is not identifiable with a single practice: it’s a whole range of forms that happens across disciplines and cultures. Genres have also been extremely varied since the beginning of the award: journalism, poetry, games, fiction, non-fiction, digital connected to non-digital. The constant element throughout the years has been the different way of writing (and reading) which this combination of digital and literature creates, giving the reader new agency and allowing for things that cannot happen in print.
New media writing to engage diverse audiences and preserve obsolete technologies
The event kicked off with a presentation by Andy Campbell, Co-Director of arts organisation One-to-One Development Trust, and judge of the NMWP since its inception. Andy talked about working with technology and people from a variety of backgrounds to tell stories both fictionally and factually. One-to-One Development Trust is involved in a range of different projects – some of the most ambitious ones are created in their in-house digital fiction studio, Dreaming Methods.
The studio began as a personal exploration on writing and new media; with the rapid changes in technology, Dreaming Methods has now shifted into the realm of playable narratives and immersive experiences. The studio produces works that use game mechanics to improve readers’ engagement and draw them to new forms of storytelling. One example of this is Wallpaper (2015), a VR sci-fi ghost story that explores reading and immersion. Following game dynamics, readers will get a score once they finished the story, depending on how much of the narrative they managed to uncover – this encourages readers/players to come back to the narrative to try and improve their score. Another example is All the Delicate Duplicates (2016): defined as literary videogame, it explores family relationships and mental health.
New media writing, like any discipline dealing with emerging technologies, is closely linked to the question of digital preservation. Some of the submissions entered in the first years of the NMWP have been successfully preserved by the Internet Archive thanks to their Wayback Machine, while others have now vanished. The latest Dreaming Methods project stems from this very issue: Digital Fiction Curious is a virtual museum created to house and preserve Flash works in VR. Flash will disappear in 2020, which makes the risk of loss very real for a great number of interactive narratives. Digital Fiction Curious uses three early Flash literary works created by the founders of One-to-One Development Trust and Dreaming Methods as a proof of concept. The access to all source code made possible to retain all the original Flash features and interaction patterns in VR.
The virtual museum was conceived as an archive, but it has become more of an artwork in its own right. It gives its audience the possibility to not just experience obsolete works in their originality, but to also explore them in new ways: Digital Fiction Curious includes a VR-within-VR function, which allows us to imagine the different shape these work could have taken had VR technology been available at the development stage.
This project has proven that a VR environment can successfully support Flash technology – the aim is now to create a comprehensive archive of different authors. Flash appears quite frequently among the submissions to the NMWP, especially in the early years – in 2010, 70% of the entries were created using this tool, and they’re now at risk of becoming inaccessible.
New media writing to represent the multitude of our emotional landscape
One example of new media writing that uses Flash, is the very first winner of the NMWP, Underbelly, by Christine Wilks. Underbelly revolves around a woman sculptor working on the site of a former colliery in the North of England. The work mixes audio and video, overlapping the inner dialogue of the sculptor (expressing her most hidden desires and fears) with the sepulchral voices of 19th century women who used to mine on the site. The result is a haunting of voices, reflecting on womanhood and on how much control can women have over their own lives.
Revealing what is hidden under the surface is one of the main concerns of Underbelly – there is a variety of themes and historical remnants buried within the work, as layers for the reader to excavate, mirroring the mining process as well as the sculpting itself. Readers search the map for elements that trigger narrative events: historical images of mine workers inhabit the same space of old anatomical drawings of dissected bodies. Gynaecological imagery is also recurring as yet another example of excavation, in the anatomical sense of cavity in the human body. The map itself is reminiscent of a anatomical drawing, an adaptation of the medieval Hereford Mappa Mundi, with the colliery tunnels and cavities taking the shape of the womb of Mother Earth.
Christine also discussed a few of her new projects.Writing New Bodies is an international research project on bibliotherapy, currently in the process of being developed. It’s a work of interactive digital fiction which aims to address body-image issues, where her own text-driven game engine works to develop interactive narratives focused on the characters' psychology through a rich vocabulary of emotional states.
New media writing to democratise language and escape censorship
Amira Hanafi won the main prize in 2018 with A Dictionary of the Revolution. This work was driven by Amira’s desire to understand the language that was developing around her in Cairo during the Arab Spring: people were talking politics in the streets, openly expressing themselves in a way that hadn’t been possible before they took control of public spaces in 2011. Originally conceived as a book, A Dictionary of the Revolution took almost 5 years to reach its current form.
The writing of this work can be divided into two main steps: the first step consisted of collecting the words people used when discussing politics into 320 cards. Cards allowed for a fluid narrative that could be shuffled and recombined and were the perfect tool to spark conversation around how the meaning of words can change after great social and political events. The second step was to interview people interacting with the cards, and then use these recordings (of almost 200 interviews) to form a dictionary of language as a process – the aim was not to define terms, but to represent language as something that’s alive, pliable material that we revise and remake as collective. Amira’s process involved listening to interviews by term, not by interviewee, so that different voices could mix and provide multiple perspectives.
The final step was to assemble the text to understand the collective language, and find a way to organise the data and show the hidden patterns. Amira wanted her work to be available in Egypt first, but by the time she finished transcribing her audio archive the political atmosphere had changed, and it was hard to imagine the text would make it through censorship unchanged (if at all). Online publishing began to seem the best option, especially in terms of making the book accessible. Digital tools also opened up new possibilities for analysing the text and organising the narrative. She chose to visualise data through a core diagram, which represents connections between nodes (words) in a circular layout, using line weight to indicate the closeness of the relationship.
Machine reading found connections between words that weren’t obvious in print, and the website structure allows readers to explore the dictionary in a non-linear way, through a web of connected concepts, events, and characters. Although analytics tools for one-page websites tend to not be precise, it looks like people only spend a short amount of time on the website. This seems to suggest that most users are interacting with the diagram more than reading the full text. The project has translated into its visualisation; it has ‘gamified’. With the shift to visualisation as the main narrative, the act of reading has also transformed into navigating the web of relationships between words.
New media writing to own your narrative and renew civic identity
The 2018 Dot Award for a digital literature project proposal was won by Kayt Lackie (Burgess) for her VESSEL Project, a transmedia storytelling project and pervasive game set in her hometown of Elliot Lake, Ontario, Canada. The project is supported by the Vessel Transmedia Storytelling Lab, an initiative that uses new media storytelling to explore the history and culture of a community.
Elliot Lake was hit by a tragedy in 2012 when the roof of the local shopping mall collapsed causing a number of casualties. Suddenly the town jumped to the front of the news, with this story ending up defining the community to a national audience (and to the town itself), as well as negatively impacting its economy. Kayt’s project seeks to use counter narratives to re-appropriate media representation and progress community renewal and civic identities through multimedia writing and storytelling.
The VESSEL Project (Virtual Experience & Superimposed StoryWorld in Elliot Lake) is a transmedia story set in a fictionalised version of Elliot Lake, mixing folklore, science and environmental conservation. It draws upon the town history, as well as the cultures and languages of its community, bringing people together in a unified story world. The transmedia story will represent the first act of the VESSEL Project, created by a collective of writers through a series of new media and digital writing workshops (like the Ephemera Storytelling Box) and further developed by other participants to the project (artists, creators, schools, etc.) The transmedia story will be hosted online and unfold through a variety of art pieces, such as social media accounts, photos, blogs, art installations, videos and audio file.
The transmedia story will culminate in an alternate-reality festival weekend (scheduled for summer 2021), which will introduce the project to a wider audience. Elliot Lake will become the physical setting of a real world video game, where people can solve puzzles and overcome challenges while experiencing the story created and performed by the local community. A location-based app will also be developed as part of the festival, and hopefully help to preserve it and give it a long afterlife after the festival is over.
This pervasive form of new media storytelling is effective in bringing people together to create counter narratives and tell the story of a place and a community. It allows participants to recognise that powerful stories are all around them and not just controlled by the media – people feel seen through storytelling, which strengthens their sense of civic identity.
The Emerging Formats Project
The British Library, together with the other five Legal Deposit Libraries, is currently researching how to manage collections of innovative digital publications. For this purpose, the Emerging Formats Project was set up, looking at collection management requirements for complex new media.
Many of these publications present challenges linked to their software and hardware dependencies, which might affect long-term preservation as well as access to content. The rapid pace at which new technologies emerge and become obsolete also presents a risk to born-digital publications with no print counterpart.
The British Library is looking into different collection methods for different formats: we have recently collected files for inkle’s 80 Days, including contextual information that could aid preservation and future access. We are also testing web archiving tools for capturing online interactive narratives: Rhizome’s Webrecorder has proven effective in capturing some examples of early Flash works, and the British Library’s own Annotation and Curation Tool (ACT) has allowed us to create an Interactive Narratives collection on the UK Web Archive, with the option of nominating yours or someone else's work for inclusion.
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