THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

7 posts categorized "Writing"

15 April 2019

‘What Do I Know About Beckett?’: B.S. Johnson’s Beckett Notebook

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a guest blog by Patrick Armstrong, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.The Papers of BS Johnson are available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room (Add MS 89001).  Learn more about some of the Libraries collections related to Beckett and Johnson here

B.S. Johnson’s Samuel Beckett notebooks perform an act of remembering. Principally, Johnson wonders what it is possible for him to know about Beckett, an epistemological problem he tries to work out through writing. The scraps of paper and notebook entries show Johnson trying to remember all he can about his onetime friend and major influence: when he read his work, who he was with, what it meant to him at the time.

Johnson’s idea of writing a literary biography of Beckett aligns with his famous authorial declarations. In The Unfortunates (1969), for example, he writes ‘in general, generalization is to lie, to tell lies’, while similarly, in Albert Angelo (1964), the narrator states that ‘telling stories is telling lies’. The notes, written mainly between 1971 and 1973, show Johnson instructing himself on how to write truthfully, without 'generalisation': 'Work conversation into this – as exactly as I can remember – use as interludes in conjecture material, in different type – that is, it is part of the “no generalisation” idea, which […] stated very carefully – somewhere – It was in MURPHY […] that I first saw the word SOLIPSISM'.

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A page from Johnson's small pocket-book detailing his first encounter with 'solipsism' (Add MS 89001/8/8). All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.


In philosophical terms, solipsism is the theory that one’s own self or consciousness is all that exists or all that can be known. Initially encountered in Beckett’s witty early prose (Murphy is described as a ‘seedy solipsist’), the word offers Johnson ‘a mode of being’ and, crucially, ‘a mode of GOING ON’ (a reference to Beckett’s later, post-war prose). The evocative term is then connected with the process of biographical writing, as Johnson states:

'Experiment/Venture into BIOGRAPHY
What do I know about BECKETT?
Solipsistically
i.e. only what he told me/what I saw for myself CAN BE ACCEPTED as true.'

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A page from Johnson's small pocket-book where he thinks through the limits of the biographical form (Add MS 89001/8/8)All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.

 The confessional mode seems to have become the only truthful method of writing, as for Johnson all that can be known about Beckett is what he himself saw and heard. Thinking about Beckett sharpens Johnson’s own conception of his literary project; it allows him to work out his own position, offering a means of finding an acceptable form, as Beckett put it, ‘to accommodate the mess’. The ‘idea’ (one small green notebook purchased in Paris is simply entitled ‘Beckett Idea’) of writing a biography becomes an expansive, Proustian process of remembering one’s own life: ‘How everything gets tied in with everything, how here I am trying to write about Sam, and it is [he lists other friends] - just to get it down before I forget it, for some bits of it no one else could get down, obviously. […] All is digression’. The potential biography becomes a kind of autobiography, a project in both solipsistic remembrance and Sternean digression. Does Johnson genuinely consider writing a biography of Beckett, or does he instead use the ‘venture’ and ‘experiment’ of doing so as a prompt for memory and material, as a mode of ‘going on’?

Evidently, Johnson had a deep affinity with Beckett’s thought, and the Irish writer’s life and work seems to intimately intertwine with Johnson’s own. The latter even associates space with Beckett’s company: ‘The way B came to the Hotel […] the way I associate that little waiting room with him – no, with his PRESENCE.’ The writing is self-corrective, as ‘him’ becomes the more impressive and aggrandizing ‘his presence’. As Jonathan Coe writes in his biography of Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson (2004), ‘the friendship of Beckett, his unfailing kindness and supportiveness, would become one of the cornerstones of Johnson’s life’. On several occasions, Beckett’s work uncannily ‘fitted’ Johnson, connecting to his own experiences in unexpected ways. On seeing Waiting for Godot for the first time in Autumn of 1955, Johnson modestly recalls how it ‘echoed (+ said more + better than I could) things I had been talking […] about before we went in’. Another time, when he telephones his girlfriend to say that it is ‘all finished’, Johnson remembers holding his colourful copy of Watt in the phone box, describing its ‘splendid purple/blue/pink’ jacket and ‘bloodred cut paper’. In reference to his separation, Johnson declares: ‘Beckett’s solipsism/stoicism fitted! […] I read him with an intensity to try to shut out what she had done’. The two ‘isms’ separated by an oblique stroke, stoicism and solipsism, are arguably two of the most important concepts that Johnson takes from Beckett.

A year after first seeing Godot,Johnson remembers being in a Parisian bookshop unable to afford a copy of Molloy. Still drawn to the book, he sifts through the first few pages in the bookshop: ‘read and felt the first few pages’. Like the memory of holding his copy of Watt, the experience seems both tactile and emotional. This emotive episode is ironic given that the notes reveal how Beckett, well-off after winning the Nobel prize, later offered and sent money to the struggling writer in London. This is the same kind and generous Beckett that we find in his letters, and in André Bernold’s portrait of the author in Beckett’s Friendship (2015). Johnson’s note that Beckett ‘again offered financial help’ are eerily the last words recorded in the notebook. In fact, when reading through these notes, their temporal closeness to Johnson’s suicide in November of 1973 is hard to ignore. Of a notebook with 144 leaves, just ten are written on, and there is a sadness about the mostly empty book. Johnson and Beckett eventually fell out after the former assured his publishers that they could use some of Beckett’s enthusiastic comments about his work (‘a most gifted writer’) as an endorsement on the dust jacket of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973).

Yet, Beckett’s influence permeates Johnson’s notes - one loose scrap of paper could be mistaken for one of Beckett’s mirlitonnades, an irregular small poem. In addition, there are notes (something about Joyce and Yeats) on the back of receipts from French restaurants, specifically ‘Le Moulin Noyé’ in Glénic (Creuse), which is, appropriately, a ‘Hôtel isolé’: a solitary, solipsistic residence. On another scrap of paper Johnson reveals how significant he finds Beckett’s ‘idiosyncratic’ use of words: 'once when I rang him about 11.30am he said “Could you ring back? I’m trying to wash myself” Am I alone in finding that idiosyncratic? Or does all he say seem significant for me in the light of what I know he is, of what I believe him to be?'


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A collection of receipts and loose-leaf scraps on which Johnson recorded his thoughts about the biography of Beckett (Add MS 89001/8/8)All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.

Again, there is the sense of doubt about what Johnson knows of Beckett, as he corrects himself with the verb ‘believe’. Yet, it is arguably this belief in the significance of Beckett’s language and thought that provided Johnson with a fitting mode of writing.   

 



21 March 2019

World Poetry Day – listen to new readings from Michael Marks Awards

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To celebrate World Poetry Day, and 10 years of the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets, we have added four new readings to our Michael Marks playlist.

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The judges and shortlisted poets and publishers for 2018 Michael Marks Awards. Photograph by Jonathon Vines

The readings are from four of the five shortlisted poets for the 2018 Michael Marks Poetry Award. In each of the recordings, our poets read from their pamphlet and also talk about the poems and the pamphlets.

Carol Rumens reads from ‘Bezdelki’, winner of the 2018 Michael Marks Award for Poetry. The title of the pamphlet, meaning ‘small things’, refers to a poem by Mandelstam, and the poems in the pamphlet are written in memory of Carol’s partner, Yuri Drobyshev. In this recording, Carol describes the pamphlet, and reads the poems ‘Vidua’, ‘Shapka and spider’, ‘He drank to naval anchors’, and ‘King Taharqa’s Last Thoughts’.  ‘Bezdelki’ is illustrated by Emma Wright and published by the Emma Press.

 

If Possible’, by Ian Parks and published by the Calder Valley Press, is a collection of translations of Constantine Cavafy, and poems inspired by Cavafy’s understanding and engagement with the stories and literature of Classical Greece. In this recording, Ian Parks reads, ‘Candles’, ‘Windows’, ‘Ithaka’, ‘The god abandons Antony’, ‘Come back’, and ‘The shades’.

The republic of motherhood’ records Liz Berry’s experience of becoming a mother, and the support from other women during the early weeks and months of motherhood. In this recording, Liz Berry talks about the pamphlet form as accessible, a ‘passport to this strange new Queendom’. Liz reads her poems, ‘Horse heart’, ‘The visitation’, and ‘Placenta’. ‘The republic of motherhood’ is published by Chatto and Windus.

Gina Wilson reads from her pamphlet, ‘It was and it wasn’t’, published by Mariscat Press. Gina explains that the poems in the pamphlet reveal the ‘rich uncertainty of all things’, with the poems often being about more than one thing at the same time. Gina reads, ‘Grit’, ‘Child’s play’, ‘I haven’t seen this boy before’, and ‘Reunion’.

These new readings join our recordings from the past four years of the Michael Marks Awards, including from past winners Richard Scott, Gill McEvoy and Charlotte Wetton.

08 February 2019

P.G. Wodehouse in Translation

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by Rahul Bery, Translator in Residence at the British Library for 2018-19. The British Library’s Translator in Residence scheme, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), offers a translator the opportunity to become part of the British Library’s multilingual community of staff, readers and visitors for one year. The exhibition, P.G. Wodehouse: The Man and His Work, runs until February 24th. 

One thing I feel not sufficiently covered by the BL’s otherwise wonderful mini-exhibition on the life and works of P.G. Wodehouse, currently running in the treasures gallery, is his appeal beyond the Anglo-American world, both in English and in translation. Wodehouse’s popularity in India is well-known: a childhood friend of my father’s – and an avowed superfan of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings & co – once recalled the sage advice given them by the English teacher at their Himalayan boarding school: “Want to write good English? Read P.G. Wodehouse!” But far less has been written about his appeal beyond the Anglosphere.

Initial research on Google revealed, among other things, a thesis by one Petronella Stille which was quite rightly concerned with the question of how Wodehouse’s Japanese translator, Morimura Tamaki, had  “adapted such…expressions such as Right ho’, ‘By Jove’, ‘Tinkerty Tonk’, ‘Dash it’ or ‘What ho’?”  Well, in case you are curious, the answer for the first example is ‘Yoshikita’. She also handily highlights some of the unique features of Wodehousian prose that make it so enchanting and absurd, and also difficult to translate, including my personal favourite, the ‘transferred epithet’, that is, the ‘strained forkful of salmon’, the ‘astonished cigarette’ falling from Bertie Wooster’s lips. Overall, she acknowledges both the heroic attempts of the translator whilst exploring in depth just what it is about this brand of humour that is so hard to recreate.

Inspired by this, I moved on to the BL catalogue to find out what translations there were in the collections, if any. Starting with a pre-1973 physical catalogue, I found a smattering of translations into Esperanto (La Princo kaj Betty), Italian (Jim di Piccadilly) Polish (Wielce zobowia̢zany Jeeves), and –in keeping with the Indian theme- Marathi, before finally finding some in a language I could understand, Portuguese.

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The front cover of Edmundo Paula Rosa's Portuguese translation of Leave it to Psmith (1938)

Isso é comigo! is the title of Edmundo Paula Rosa’s 1938 translation of Leave it to Psmith, originally published in 1923. From what I could tell, Rosa’s translation is fluid, and he seems to have had the skills to match not only the liveliness of the dialogue, but also the convoluted wit of Wodehouse’s descriptive prose. When translating Portuguese writing myself I often find myself marvelling at how the sentences can just go on and on, before then cursing the writer as I find myself torturously unpicking and reconstructing the sentences back into equally convoluted English. Perhaps, then, Portuguese is an equal match for Wodehouse’s opening, single-sentence paragraph:

“At the open window of the great library of Blandings castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.”

Rosa tackles this sentence admirably, adapting the wet sock simile, but preserving the structure of the sentence. But he leaves out ‘boneheaded’ entirely! And the quintessentially Wodehousian ‘Right ho!’ is paraphrased out of existence, leaving us with ‘Nesse caso, esta bem’ (“In that case, fine” or less literally, something like ‘As you see fit’). The meaning of ‘Right ho!’ in this context is more or less captured, but precious little else is. Rather interestingly, ‘your lordship’ is translated not into a Portuguese equivalent but into another English word, ‘milord’. One can only assume that for whatever the latter would have been more recognisable than the former to the Portuguese reader of 80 years ago.

There is, I’m sure, far more work to be done on this. But don’t believe people when they claim that Finnegans wake  or a similar tome is ‘untranslatable’. I suspect that even Joyce himself would have been flummoxed by ‘tinkerty tonk’!

09 November 2018

C M Taylor on ‘keystroke logging project’ with British Library

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a guest blog by Craig Taylor, whose latest novel, Staying On, is published by Duckworth in 2018. In 2014 he began a project with the British Library to document the creative process of writing the book, using key-logging software. You can reach Craig on Twitter at @CMTaylorStory.

Re-entering the academic world after starting work as an Associate Lecturer on the Publishing degree at Oxford Brookes University, I began speculating about writer’s archives. Did previous scholars have access to more hand-written and typed drafts of works in progress - actual objects showing the shaping of works of art - but with the normalisation of computerized authorship, were these discrete drafts abolished in the rolling palimpsest of write and digital re-write?

Plus, I was considering a new novel myself, but as I have written elsewhere, emotionally I was daunted by the long-haul loneliness of novel writing, a process I considered in my most despairing moments as like wallpapering a dungeon.

I spoke to my friend Mark about these two things - the lost drafts and the loneliness - and in a flash he had the answer: ‘Put a piece of malware on it.’

He meant that if I put some malware, or spyware, on my computer to note everything I did, it would record all changes made to an evolving manuscript, plus it might offer a weird kind of company for me in my wallpapered dungeon.

It was worth a shot.

I contacted the digital curation team at the British Library in April 2013 and they could not have been more transparent, accessible and curious. We started talking about how digital production intersected with the scholarly recovery of the creation of works of art, and it turned out that my first view of things was off. Forensic curatorial techniques for salvaging the development of a manuscript on a hard drive did exist. It was just that they could not often be used, due to issues of privacy. How could you go into a writer's hard drive if they were writing and receiving email from multiple others from the same computer they were writing on, and writing on topics that might be of a personal sensitivity to one or more of the correspondents? Without complex legal initiatives and sensitive multiple consent, you just couldn’t.

But a simple solution was available. To save us from running into privacy issues, I would just buy a separate machine on which I wrote only the novel. I’m not the world’s richest guy, so I bought a pretty basic reconditioned laptop. After all, I was only going to write prose.

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The reconditioned keylogging laptop on my writing desk at home.

We negotiated a contract where (to put it crudely) the data was the British Library’s but the resultant book was mine, and then we looked round for some software. The curation team found a piece of keylogging software called, Spector Pro about which Jonathan Pledge, a curator of contemporary archives at the British Library has recently written:

"The software used for capturing the writing process on the Craig Taylor project was the keylogging software, Spector Pro produced by SpectorSoft. In 2015 the company was rebranded as Veratio; Spector Pro is no longer part of the product range and is no longer supported. Spector Pro works with Windows variants from Windows XP to Windows 7.

After installation on a host computer, Spector Pro works by running undetected as a background application and cannot be accessed via the normal Windows user interface (it is not visible in the Applications folder). Access to the programme is by a default keyboard combination Control-Alt-Shift which brings up a password dialog box. The password is set by whoever installs the programme.

As keylogging software Spector Pro is not terribly sophisticated and seems to have been specifically designed for low-level company surveillance of employees, potentially without their knowledge. It is possible to run Spector Pro as a visible programme but this would seem to negate its original stated purpose.

Spector Pro can track and record chat conversations (as transcripts), emails (sent and received), websites visited and, most importantly for this project, keystrokes made, not only what has been typed within an application; but mouse and keystroke usage across the whole computer system."

The software was installed on my empty computer and I set to work.

But what had I done? I’d offered myself as a guinea pig, with my every wrong-turn, reappraisal, edit and mistake noted, recoverable and time and date stamped. Not only that but the novel proved punishingly hard to write. It wasn’t just that I was also writing a film script and an app, plus working as an editor of fiction and a university lecturer, and it wasn’t just that one of my young daughters was often to be found perched on my desk asking me questions, it was also the content of the book. I was aiming for a clarity of prose and of story, and for a universal relatability of protagonist, that I had never sought before.

The going was slow, but when I got the chance, and when I had chunk of work, I would arrange to come in to the British Library to download the data. I visited on eight separate occasions. My first visit was in October 2014, and my last was in March 2018. By the time we had finished we had generated 222GB of date, captured across 108, 318 files.

So, what exactly do we have?

We have information on every keystroke typed:

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This shot shows the raw data usage as a list. By far the largest number of keystrokes concerns writing/typing as well as work on editing (Find & Replace) with the remainder comprising system activity including backups.

 

Plus, we have thousands of screenshots, one captured every few seconds each time activity on the host computer is detected.

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From the moment the computer is logged into until the moment it is shutdown. Screenshots allows an output as either still images (.jpg or .BMP) or as black and white video (.avi).

And we have text outputs:

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Text output from ‘Keystrokes Typed’ for a single tracked session. As seen from the detail below the header provides information on the Application used, the start of activity and the title of the file being worked on. The greyed text represents the tracked movements with typed words rendered in bold. Time stamps are given, with the green text signalling the start of activity and red the end.

During the writing I had no access to the software on my computer and I had no clear sense of the data being produced. But while I never knew what it was doing, it actually did help me begin again with novel writing, to get over that initial hump in the road. Somehow the writing felt collaborative, not only because the software was recording me, but also because of the digital curation team who were taking the data.

I have been asked if knowing that the work was being recorded made me self-conscious, and, sure at first, I was minding my Ps and Qs a bit, trying to seem like a more competent writer. But that didn’t last. Soon I realised that I quite wanted mistakes to show. It seemed an act of solidarity with the writers I was teaching, to really show them what I had often told them, that writing is born from repetition, that every writer has blind spots – weak theme, two dimensional characters, flimsy plotting – and that only re-writing cures these ills. It seemed like honesty to uncover the tottering beginnings of what most people would only consume as the solid, finished article.

Not only that. I forget about the keylogging software recording my every character because of the story itself. I wrote earlier that it was a difficult novel to write, because I aimed to write as simply and truthfully and compassionately as I was able. Aims I found to be not as readily available to me as I would have flattered myself to hope. I forgot about the keylogging going on as I wrote because the difficult writing became immersive – as I hope the reading of it will be - because my story and my characters - Tony and Laney, Jo and Nick - absorbed me, and in the end it was their story that cured me of my wallpapered dungeon, the keylogging project being the booster to get the journey started.

And so now, what are we going to do with the data? Well, I’m not going to do anything with it, I don’t have the skills. The data is now placed in the public domain, under a Creative Commons BY license, running free at :  https://data.bl.uk/cmtaylorkeylogging/. So, if you are a scholar of digital humanities, or a digital artist or a creative visualizer, be our guest. The data is there to be played with. It would be lovely to know what you did with it.

 

 

04 July 2018

Keitai shousetsu: the first mobile phone fictions

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by Alastair Horne, a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD student based at the British Library and Bath Spa University. His research explores how mobile phones are changing storytelling.

The launch of the iPhone in June 2007 marked a turning point for mobile phones. It transformed the smartphone, previously a business tool exemplified by the dull but effective Blackberry, into a desirable consumer product. This transformation was embodied in the phone’s most striking feature: on a Blackberry, the screen shared the front of the phone with the physical keyboard that had given the device its name, its keys resembling the drupelets of a blackberry; on the iPhone, that screen had now consumed the keyboard to occupy the entire front of the device.

This symbolised the smartphone’s conversion from a tool for writing emails to a consumer device: one on which media could be consumed easily and pleasurably. That is one of the reasons why I take the iPhone’s launch as the starting-point for my research, which explores how storytelling – the kinds of stories we tell, and how we talk about stories – is being transformed by these devices and their affordances: their connectivity and ability to respond to our input, their capacity for playing different kinds of media, and their portability and the fact that they know where we are.

These highly capable devices seemed a world away from the first mobile phone I’d owned when working as an English teacher in Japan at the turn of the millennium, its tiny square screen able to display maybe a hundred or so characters, and its twelve or so keys rendering typing an awkward, sometimes painful experience. And yet as my research progressed, I discovered that these very basic phones had given rise to their own kind of mobile-specific storytelling, which had some surprising elements in common with the new kinds of stories I was examining.

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Credit: Joi Ito

The first mobile phone fictions had begun to appear even before I left Japan in 2001: the first, Deep Love, was written by a former teacher who posted it to his mobile-friendly website in 2000, using the pseudonym Yoshi. Telling the story of a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl who takes up prostitution to pay for an operation for her boyfriend, and dies after contracting HIV, the novel established the template for the stories that would later form the cellphone novel genre: colloquial and confessional in tone, like the messages people were used to reading on their phones; dark, sensational, and sexual, in content.

The cellphone novel – ‘keitai shousetsu’ in Japanese – had two parents: the long and crowded journeys silently endured each day by Japanese commuters, and the enthusiastic adoption of comparatively advanced mobile phones by the country’s young people. Serialised in short chapters of between fifty and a hundred words that could be downloaded quickly and cheaply and read between stops, these stories rapidly became a massive participatory phenomenon in Japan. Inspired by Yoshi, thousands of Japanese people began to publish their own stories using homepage building sites – the local equivalent of Geocities – which responded by developing templates to suit these new types of serialised fictions.

Like the smartphone stories that are the main focus of my study, these stories refashioned the roles of author, text, and reader in fascinating ways. Their writers bore little resemblance to the authors published by established Japanese publishers and had rather more in common with their readers. Mostly women in their teens and twenties who had never written before – the modest cellphone seemingly unlocking the creativity of an entire demographic – they often wrote their novels in just the same context as their readers consumed them, typing them out on their phones’ tiny keypads on their journeys to and from school and/or work.

Their readers, also mostly women in their teens and twenties, few of whom read traditional print fiction, had correspondingly little in common with conventional Japanese readers. Most intriguingly, they enjoyed relationships with the stories’ authors that go considerably beyond what we see today on social media, even though most authors, like Yoshi, used pseudonyms to hide their true identities not only from readers but also from schoolfriends, colleagues, parents, and their fellow commuters. The websites that published these novels enabled readers and authors to send each other messages: consequently, readers offered authors their thoughts on the novels, pointing out errors and offering suggestions for future developments. (Most cellphone novels were written, as they were published, in instalments.) The writing process correspondingly became collaborative, as writers incorporated these ideas into their work. (Yoshi, for instance, has said that the idea of his heroine contracting HIV came from a reader who told him of her own experiences.)

With their colloquial language and shocking storylines, the stories themselves were also very different to traditional Japanese novels. Significantly, when these cellphone stories began to be published in print form, enjoying such phenomenal success that at one point four of the five bestselling novels in Japan had begun life on a cellphone, it was by newer, less conventional publishers who retained the left-to-right, top-to-bottom formatting the stories had had on-screen, rather than the top-to-bottom right-to-left reading order of traditional Japanese script; unlike the conventional publishers who had approached Yoshi soon after Deep Love became a mobile success, they did not attempt to censor their content, either.

Though the cellphone novel was in many respects a peculiarly Japanese form, drawing upon the specific cultural and technological conditions in Japan at the start of this millennium, its influence can still be seen today. Its most obvious heir is Wattpad, the storytelling site whose 65 million users now spend 23 billion minutes every month reading its 400 million stories. Originally envisaged as a way to read on mobile phones, Wattpad retains the collaborative, community, and episodic aspects of cellphone novels; newer apps like Hooked, Tap, and Yarn, meanwhile, have updated the colloquial tone and mobile-specificity of keitai shousetsu by telling stories through text and multimedia messaging; the reader taps the screen to read the next part of the story.

Compared to the interactive, multimedia, location-aware fictions of today – stories like Eighty Days and The Cartographer’s Confession – the Japanese cellphone novels of the 2000s may seem limited. In their use of the admittedly limited mobile technology available to them, however, to tell new kinds of stories and rework the roles of author, text, and reader, they set the scene for today’s mobile fictions, and for my own research.

Alastair tweets as pressfuturist and blogs at www.pressfuturist.com.

Anyone interested in mobile fictions might be interested in attending the British Library Interactive Fiction Summer School, which begins on Monday 23 July and runs for five days; booking details are available here.

20 June 2018

Virginia Woolf's Haunted Walk

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A guest post by artist Liz Mathews describing the inspiration and process behind her recently acquired book, The Strand of the Thames, as part of World Refugee Day.  For more information about Liz Mathews' work, including Paper Wings -- a collaboration with Maureen Duffy -- see her gallery blog, Daughters of Earth.

 

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Wednesday 23 June 1937
I went shopping, whitebait hunting to Selfridges yesterday, & it grew roasting hot, & I was in black ... As I reached 52 [Tavistock Square], a long trail of fugitives—like a caravan in a desert—came through the square: Spaniards flying from Bilbao, which has fallen, I suppose. Somehow brought tears to my eyes, tho' no one seemed surprised. Children trudging along; women in London cheap jackets with gay handkerchiefs on their heads, young men, & all carrying either cheap cases, & bright blue enamel kettles, very large, & saucepans, filled I suppose with gifts from some Charity—a shuffling, trudging procession, flying—impelled by machine guns in Spanish fields to trudge through Tavistock Square, along Gordon Square, then where? —clasping their enamel kettles.  -- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5 1936 - 1941

Virginia Woolf's chance sighting of refugees from the Spanish Civil War in London at midsummer 1937 brought tears to her eyes - 'tho' no one seemed surprised' - and burnt on to her mind's eye an unforgettable image: children, women and young men driven from their country by war, trailing homeless, displaced, dispossessed through the Bloomsbury Square that was her home. This sight, with its implications and consequences, was to return to her vividly on another solitary walk many months later in the winter of 1939:

Tuesday 31 January 1939
Took the bus to Southwark Bridge. Walked along Thames Street; saw a flight of steps down to the river.  I climbed down—a rope at the bottom. Found the strand of the Thames, under the warehouses—strewn with stones, bits of wire, slippery; ships lying off the Bridge (Southwark? —no, the next to Tower Bridge [London Bridge]). Very slippery; warehouse walls crusted, weedy, worn. The river must cover them at high tide. It was now low. People on the bridge stared. Difficult walking. A rat haunted, riverine place, great chains, wooden pillars, green slime, bricks corroded, a button hook thrown up by the tide. A bitter cold wind. Thought of the refugees from Barcelona walking 40 miles, one with a baby in a parcel.

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These two entries from her extraordinary diary - both so observant of detail, so evocative of the physical setting and of her state of mind - stayed with me, and I was reminded of them in Gordon Square one afternoon some 70 years later, like Woolf combining shopping - but not for whitebait - with a walk through Bloomsbury observing the London summer.  We, too, met small groups of refugees, some aimless, some more purposeful: one grizzled man sitting on a box playing a melancholy Balkan air on a battered accordion, one old woman in black sitting on the pavement outside the Co-op, her hands joined in the international gesture of supplication, one young man on a bench in Gordon Square who, when we'd given him some change, asked hopefully if we would buy him a mobile phone, another older man - speechless, wordless, with hunger and despair in his eyes.

Virginia Woolf's discovery under the warehouses was the inspiration for my artist's book, Strand of the Thames, which has recently been acquired by the British Library. In setting this text, the sense of history repeating itself was very strong for me. My partner Frances and I are inveterate mudlarkers, and the Thames low-tide beaches between Waterloo and Southwark Bridges have long been a favourite haunt, yielding a rich and often rather pungent harvest of driftwood, eternal claypipes, button hooks, and yes, the green slime that Woolf observes, along with the occasional shard of ancient terracotta or exquisite porcelain.

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One sunny winter's day in 2009, we followed Virginia Woolf on that sacred bus-route and then in her footsteps, choosing our time so that the river would be at low-tide, seeing the sights that she saw - still all there - and reminded inevitably of the other sight she had recalled in that place - perhaps by the river itself, running through time and linking all our days. I photographed each stage of her journey, trying to catch something of the transient light on the water, the darkness of the slippery flight of steps, the ships lying off the bridge, the solid ironwork of the bridge itself, the crusted warehouse walls, just as weedy and worn, the great chains, the immensity of the wooden pillars and the curious sense of separation from the bustling world of the city. We looked for and found the bits of wire, broken glass, stones and chains. We slipped on the ancient wharf stones, smelt the green slime, flinched at the bitter cold wind, and felt ourselves at some unimaginable distance from the clear-lit city we could see through the wooden pillars. 

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And at the end of our walk together, with the winter sun low on the water silhouetting a couple deep in talk with their patient dogs waiting beside them, we too thought of the refugees, Virginia Woolf's fugitives, homeless exiles with their precious burdens and their useless well-intentioned charity kettles fleeing from machine guns to our home city, and as she says - then where?

Back home in my studio, I translated the photos into 15 grisaille watercolours on sheets of rough handmade paper approximately 21 x 30cm. To draw the material presence of the river itself into the views, I mixed the watercolour paint with Thames water, drawn in a jam-jar from the river as Turner did, and I used a small driftwood stick - picked up on the strand, carved by the tides into a rudimentary nib - as my pen, dipped in ink made from the same paint and Thames water. I looked for individual textures, flaws and quirks of the handmade paper pages that I could use to reflect aspects of the text - for example, the page with the strewn-about stones and bits of wire has a gnarled knotted fibre within the fabric of the paper that I just highlit with paint to embody a bit of wire, so that you can feel it with your fingertip; similarly the textured paper surface produces either a flickering effect of light on water when painted with a fairly dry brush, or the chiaroscuro of stones and rubble when painted with a wet one, as the liquid paint puddles darkly into the shadowy hollows between small raised clumps of paper-pulp. (This kind of paradoxical effect that materials can produce unexpectedly is the sort of thing that fascinates me - I enjoy collaborating with materials in making a physical embodiment of the words, allowing the materials and the words to do their own thing.)

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After I'd made the paintings and lettered them, I constructed the lettered images into a battered book made from black handmade paper like our grandparents' photograph albums with their precious wartime portraits and sepia views. And then I made a quarter-size (10 x 15cm) facsimile edition (limited to 20 signed and numbered copies), identically constructed, with the grisaille images re-translated back into black and white photographs, fixed to the album with acid-free photo-corners. The original and one of the edition copies is now in the British Library's permanent collection. Most of my work is one-off, but a few of my artist's books lend themselves well to editions; and this is one of them, where the photo-album concept gives a reference point for both the original and the edition, and a uniting rationale. As an artist, my concern is to make work where form and concept are fully integrated, where words and images are as one, inseparable, rather than co-existing as text and illustrations. Typically, this results in books and artworks whose individual material form is of its nature an expression of the text and therefore difficult or impossible to reproduce; but I do like to enlarge the scope of my books in terms of audience and affordability where it's possible to do so without compromising their integrity, particularly where, as here, the edition adds another aspect to the original, and enhances the meaning of the work.

I have shown Strand of the Thames at many of the artists' book fairs I've been to in the last 10 years, each time hoping that it won't still seem as though nothing changes - that we will have found an answer better than the metaphorical enamel kettles. And every time, with each audience, this book really strikes a chord with people, and together we say again 'Nothing changes', and we honour Virginia Woolf for her engagement with her world, her refusal to ignore the plight of her fellow humans, her recognition of their humanity and her un-fatigued compassion in weeping for dispossessed exiles seeking refuge in Tavistock Square.

 

 

12 March 2018

The Lives of Typewriters and Large Data-sets: The Will Self Archive

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by Chris Beckett, Manuscripts Cataloguer at the British Library currently working on the Will Self archive. The archive, which was acquired by the Library in 2016, consists of 24 large boxes of papers along with artwork, audio-visual material and the author’s computer hard drive. The first tranche is now discoverable through our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89203

On 24 June 2007, Will Self typed a letter to J G Ballard. It included, in passing, remarks on a German film he had just seen, set in East Berlin in 1984, some five years before the Fall of the Wall: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006). ‘The film would be worth seeing for the furniture alone,’ Self suggested, ‘but best of all is that the entire plot hinges on a typewriter, specifically a Groma Kolibri. A portable of beautiful compact sleekness, which our hero is able to hide from the Stasi.’

The ‘hero’ in question is a writer under state suspicion. He keeps his sleek portable hidden under the floorboards. Powerful tools of communication, all typewriters in East Germany were registered and numbered. The writer is unaware that his apartment is bugged. As the Stasi agent listens, and begins to log what he hears, he learns more about the writer’s life in the round. Invisible and increasingly engaged with the life of another, agent HGW XX/7 – for he too has a number – begins a dangerous moral journey from surveillance to active protection.

Blog image 1 Blog image 2The Lives of Others (2006)

I first came upon Self’s letter in the course of cataloguing Ballard’s papers some eight years ago (Add MS 88938). It particularly caught my attention because by coincidence I had only just seen the film myself. Of course, the film is about rather more than East German interiors and a manual typewriter, but Self had reason for his emphasis. Towards the end of 2002, he abandoned using word-processing software for the early stages of writing fiction, turning instead to the typewriter. His papers at the British Library supply the date (September 2002), the location (Liverpool), the occasion (a resident community arts project called ‘Further Up in the Air’), and the typescript that was produced (the story ‘161’), subsequently included in Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe (2004).

‘For some time an urge had been growing in me to write on a manual typewriter,’ Self has recalled more recently (LRB, 5 Mar 2015). ‘I didn’t know why exactly but it felt a strangely inappropriate lust, possibly a form of gerontophilia. I disinterred my mother’s old Olivetti, dusted it off, and resolved to type my daily word count, Blu-Tack the sheets to the scarified wallpaper of my Liverpool gaff, and invite the other residents up to view them.’ Leaving to one side the teasing Freudian slide across lust, mother and disinterment, it can be reported that bits of that ‘scarified wallpaper’, and flakes of the plaster beneath it, still cling to the pages of the draft in Self’s archive at the British Library. Unfortunately, instead of the more-forgiving Blu-Tack that Self mis-remembers, he used double-sided adhesive pads (‘holds securely and permanently,’ runs the strapline). They now form an obdurate bonded pile that hides all its words. The stuck pages are a material reminder that a paper archive is fundamentally a set of physical records: conservation expertise will be required to un-do part of that physical record – the fused pages with tiny bits of Liverpool embedded – to reveal another and more important part, the text itself (a text that is also physically rendered, by the hammered registration of the typewriter).

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First draft of the story ‘161’, pages stuck firmly together (Add MS 89203/2/4/95).

I didn’t appreciate the full context of Self’s letter to Ballard until more recently when – this time, in cataloguing Self’s papers – my frame of reference switched. There, the letter appears again as a carbon copy, together with 41 postcards from Ballard. Among the postcards is one that is undated but is clearly contemporaneous with Self’s letter. Untypically for Ballard, the postcard is typed. It begins by announcing itself as: ‘Olympia Monica – it doesn’t have the deep Monotype bite of your Olivetti, but it’s still deeply satisfying. I feel I could be setting Genesis for the first time. You’ve really started something in the Guardian.’ Ballard is referring here to Self’s ‘Writer’s Room’ remarks (6 Apr 2007) in which he said that he ‘loathe[s] computers more and more’ but owns two ‘beautiful’ Olivetti Lettera 32.

The writing space captured in Eamonn McCabe’s photograph for the Guardian is evocative of the archive. The yellow post-it notes in orderly rows on the walls are an integral part of Self’s method of work, his composition pathway: ‘My books begin life in notebooks, then they move on to Post-it notes, the Post-its go up on the walls of the room […...]. When I'm working on a book, the Post-its come down off the wall and go into scrapbooks.’ Those scrapbooks and notebooks, and multiple drafts of all Self’s fiction – up to and including the novel Shark (2014), word-processed and typed – are the fascinating spine of the papers.

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Pages from How the Dead Live scrapbook of ‘post-it’ notes (Add MS 89203/2/4/68)

Far from being only a paper resource, however, the complete archive is in fact a typical contemporary hybrid collection, with ‘data’ – to use an apposite, if rather flat and unpromising term – stored in every conceivable form of media, from micro cassettes to obsolete floppy disks. Fading faxes, once a seemingly magical means of attaining immediacy, now evoke only a sense of faded urgency: copy deadlines and last-minute corrections, promotional itineraries, and pages of draft artwork from Ralph Steadman that once sped along the enchanted fibre-optic cabling before billowing out, grainy and faint. There are audio recordings on cassette (interviews for journalism assignments, with subjects as varied as Ballard, Morrissey, Damien Hirst and Cate Blanchett), radio and television broadcasts, and there is also a computer hard-drive awaiting a spot of digital forensic attention. Flatly pictured, the hard-drive makes an elegant image in yellow, green, orange and black. Inside the coloured box, drafts and distractions are captured indiscriminately. For the time being, only the paper archive is available to readers whilst work continues to transfer the remaining material to – in the irreducibly metaphorical language of the digital world – accessible platforms.

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Will Self’s computer hard-drive.

 

Self associates his disenchantment with writing on the computer with the coming of broadband. For some years now, he has been appraising the impact of the internet on the ways in which we write, read and think. In this, he has not been, of course, a lone enquiring voice – for an engaging overview of the issues, see, for example, Nicholas Carr, The Shallows (2010) – but Self has addressed the subject specifically as a writer of fiction: ‘when broadband came along in 2004 I understood intuitively it was inimical to the novel, an art form that depends upon the codex for its inception as well as its reception’ (Guardian, 18 June, 2016). On-line distraction is viewed as literary imagination’s worst adversary, the enemy of uninterrupted composition and the enemy of sustained reading. For Self, the novel is an experience best bounded by its paper covers.

In Phone, the final novel in Self’s recently completed trilogy, the information age is fully-fledged, and the smartphone is a ‘five-hundred quid worry bead’ in the hand. The looping and interwoven narratives of Umbrella (2012), Shark (2014) and Phone (2017) span the 20th century. Written in an ever-continuous present tense – it is always now – the novels explore the impact of technology on psychopathology, especially the technology of war and communications. They also tell a veiled and invented family history insofar as the three generations of the De’Ath family the trilogy portrays are based loosely upon three generations of Selfs, beginning with Sir (Albert) Henry Self (1890-1975), who is ‘Sirbert’. A substantial body of family letters and papers in the archive provides an illuminating documentary foreground to the transformation. Punning on the fictional family name, Phone ends with the word ‘death’, and concludes with a particular death – off-page – the death of weapons expert David Kelly.  

In Phone, a generation raised on Space Invaders goes to a war mediated by the screen: ‘Sitting in the transport’s booming fuselage, listening to the squaddies clustered round a laptop, who’d be watching one of the video montages it’s become de rigueur for your comrades to compile when you finish your tour: footage of the grunt footing it down dusty alleys, bracing a few rag heads, rattling around in an aypeesee and playing videogames – all to the accompaniment of the tinny-synthy chorusing you’re outta touch – you’re outta time …’ (p. 564).

MI6 agent Jonathan De’Ath, aka The Butcher, has broken the golden rule of tradecraft. He has sentimentally kept an ill-judged ‘data-set’ (yet another hybrid archive) of his clandestine affair with Lieutenant-Colonel Gawain Thomas, field commander of a regiment deployed in Iraq: ‘cassette tapes, compact and digitally versatile disks, external computer hard disks, photographs and photocopies which constitute his large data-set: an electroencephalogram of his and Gawain’s entire relationship, registering the rise and fall of their passion for one another’ (p. 556). With a memory as extraordinary as the retentive capacity of his grandfather (sage Sirbert), Jonathan remembers everything, yet still falls anxiously prey to the reassuring quiddity of evidential records. Gawain has been a lover under surveillance.

Returning to the German film, perhaps the ‘star’ of The Lives of Others is not the typewriter after all but the novel as book, an increasingly marginalised artefact in a digitally-driven culture, as Self has lately lamented. After German Reunification, the writer visits the Stasi archive (opened to public access as soon as 1992) to read his files. A trolley piled high with folders is wheeled out. Confused at first by the official record (part truth, and evidently part fiction), he soon realises that HGW XX/7 had protected him from arrest, even removing the concealed typewriter from his apartment just before it had been searched. The agent is now a postman. The writer tracks him down, intending to speak to him, but finds himself unable to do so. A couple of years later, HGW XX/7 – still walking his post around a much-graffitied Berlin – passes a bookshop. Prominently displayed in the window is a new novel by the writer, Die Sonate vom Guten Menschen [Sonata for a Good Man]. Intrigued, he enters the shop and examines the book. He discovers that it is dedicated ‘To HGW XX/7, in gratitude’. The shop assistant asks if he would like it gift-wrapped. ‘No,’ he replies, ‘it’s for me’. Here’s the film clip.

As for Will Self, he soon succumbed. Typewriterly lust got the better of him and he bought not one but two sleek Groma Kolibris. His ‘large data set’ at the British Library includes all the paper drafts they have so far produced. In 2015, however, he intimated that his German love affair may have run its course. You can’t get the parts, and engineers are hard to find. Now there is (or was) a new passion. It’s an old flame re-ignited: ‘for years I’ve had a twinkle in my eye when I gaze upon the slim, silvery forms of the Mitsubishi propelling pencils I customarily use to take notes’.

The first tranche of the Will Self archive is now available at the British Library: Add MS 89203. I spy graphic adventures, in a difficult hand, on the horizon.