THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

10 posts categorized "Writing"

17 August 2019

“That was our place.” - The Cambridge of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

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by guest blogger Di Beddow, PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London, researching Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Cambridge. The notebook containing the Hughes poem 'Cambridge Was Our Courtship' (Add MS 88918/1/2) is currently on display in the Library's Treasures Gallery, and available to view -- in part -- through our Discovering Literature site. 

Hughes Godwin BL COpy

Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin, Copyright British Library Board 

Ted Hughes omitted from Birthday Letters the poem simply known as “X” [1] which can be found in a notebook in the British Library.  It begins -

Cambridge was our courtship.
Not the colleges, or such precincts,
But everything from the Millbridge
Towards Grantchester.

The Cambridge of Plath and Hughes, as pictured in Birthday Letters (Hughes’s award winning 1998 poetry collection) is a place where the university and the academic life of the city are all but absent.  The landscapes of Hughes’s earlier poetry are also largely missing. No untamed Ireland, primitive or rural Devon; no ancient Elmet here, indeed, when such landscapes do make an appearance they tend to be used as a backdrop only for the central player on stage, who like Godot, never arrives. Sylvia Plath, Hughes’s first wife is however very much present in the poetry. Erica Wagner recounts in Ariel’s Gift [2] that Hughes in writing the work was not consciously writing poems, but the process was essentially about trying to, “evoke (her) presence to myself, and to feel her there listening.” [3] The collection travels from Spain to America, home to Devon and to Yorkshire, but when looking at the importance of Cambridge in Hughes’s work, the poem “X” has offered an entirely new and different pathway through the university city of the two poets and through Birthday Letters itself.

“Cambridge was our Courtship”, was brought to light by an article in The Times on Friday October 17 2008 (p.18) entitled “Rough-hewn genius of Hughes laid bare in unfinished verses”.  Jamie Andrews from The British Library is quoted at the time, as saying the poem was probably omitted from the final selection to balance the poems between earlier and later life.  We remember though as well that Hughes said the writing of the poems over the years was done with no view of publication and indeed in a letter to Keith Sagar, he reflects that, Hughes writes:

'I wrote them, months often years apart, never thinking of them as parts of a whole - just as opportunities to write in a simple, unguarded, intimate way - to release something!  Nor can I recall how I came to shuffle them into that order - following chronology of subject matter was the only rule, I think. [4]

It is important to note that this poem -- 'X' --  has no amendments, but is simply written out as though from dictation. The other poems in the exercise book bear the scars of much reworking, so this one was surely not omitted from Birthday Letters for lack of quality; it would seem that this significant poem is left out of the collection because it is so localised, too personal and specific.  Unless you live or had lived in Cambridge, this area of the city and its boundaries would not be known or be of any real importance to you.

From the Millbridge the Cam flows through Coe Fen on the left bank, a green grazing area with small tributaries and sluices, rough pasture and meadow vegetation. On the right, as you walk away from the city, the meadows open out into Sheep’s Green and the old course of the Cam, underneath Fen Causeway and across to Lammas Land; the river then strikes out to skirt around Newnham and then on to Grantchester Meadows.  Hughes describes this area as:

Ornamented with willows, and green level,
Full drooping willows and rushes, and mallard and swans,
Or stumpy pollard willows and the dank silence
Of the slippery lapsing Cam.  That was our place.

Picture1 Picture2
Picture3

Three maps showing the topography and layout of Cambridge, and especially the districts recorded in Hughes's poem, much as he and Plath would have known it. Copyright Jeremy Bays - awspublishing. 


The absolute alliteration of “willows” and the sibilance throughout the poem describes the Cam as a slow and natural river, with a wildlife that takes us away from the hard consonants of “Cambridge … courtship” and “colleges” which seem alien to the pair. Instead, Hughes focuses on the wildlife of the meadows; the three part description of the willows, for example, is significant: first they ornament the fen and one is reminded of Plath’s description in “Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows” : “It is a country on a nursery plate.” [5]  There is something quaint and unreal about the picture of river, willows and cows.  Then the second set of willows here are “Full drooping” almost Pre-Raphaelite in their evocation of sadness and elegiac fecundity.  Finally in the set of three, the willows have become, “stumpy pollard” and cut back much like the archaic symbolism of rebirth that enthralled Hughes, for example in his description of Shamanism in “Regenerations” in Winter Pollen:

'a magical death, then dismemberment…From this nadir, the shaman is resurrected, with new insides, a new body created for him by the spirits. [6]

This tone chimes with the “dank silence” of this environment, which suggests dark, dampness and decay, not an appropriate place for courtship and love one would have thought. The poets appear to have chosen this as their Cambridge because it was, “Not spoiled by precedent, for either of us.”  In this landscape they do not need to match expectations of the past, or of academia, but instead they indulged their love “In the watery weedy dream” which as Hughes describes, is metaphorically, “An aquarium”. In this watery world Hughes, as ever, knows his geography, that Cambridge rises only slightly above sea-level with much of the fens to the north, falling below sea-level:

Waltzing figures, among glimpses
Of crumbling parapets, a horizon
Sinking below sea level.

Flat and low-lying, Cambridge is depicted by Hughes as a water land from a dream, with other people beyond the couple merely performing a dance across the set.  The scenery and the horizon for Hughes is like an ancient monument of ruins, which has little relevance to him and his lover, indeed there is a nightmarish and chthonic quality to the vision. He weaves a spell of this scene with a perpetual repetition of “w” showing that their place was “willows…watery weedy dream…Waltzing figures…world…we…what…when…were,” and “wings.”  The poem finishes with a final rhetorical question:

We did not know what wings felt like.
Were what we felt wings?

But this is the final question of several; Hughes asks the ghost of Plath if she can recall what they talked about; if they were actually going somewhere: if they were “exploring” or if they were actually:

… talking away
Bewilderment, or trying word shapes
To make hopes visible.

The “word shapes” they made here, particularly Plath’s, concentrate on this piece of land and its nature. She uses the meadows in “Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows” to show how the idyllic university vision of Cambridge also bears the threat of the owl hunting the rat; it is here that Hughes suggests she hides “The Earthenware Head” which she narrates in 1959 and he uses again in Birthday Letters citing the spot where they placed it:

… Just past where the field
Broadens and the path strays up to the right
To lose the river and puzzle for Grantchester,
A chosen willow leaned towards the water. [7]

Again in “Chaucer” Hughes celebrates Plath’s performance of The Canterbury Tales to the cows in the Meadows.  He admits that they were enthralled, “twenty cows stayed with you hypnotised.” [8] Hughes recognised that Plath was very different to the history of the Cambridge colleges:

The Colleges lifted their heads.  It did seem
You disturbed something just perfected” [9]

Hughes contends that both poets started to formulate their futures, there, along the Cam and across the meadows. In Birthday Letters he returns to this place to settle in himself his responsibility for the vision of a shared future,that like the university in the poem, becomes, “crumbling parapets” and sunken horizons.  Poem “X” omitted from the collection, for me, conjures up the Cambridge of arguably English Literature’s most famous couple.  In a languid flow of the Cam’s willows and a “watery weedy dream” we find a landscape as personal and compelling as any that Hughes wrote of in earlier works.

[1]Ted Hughes “X” in notebook of the Hughes collection, labelled “18 Rugby Street” (Add. MS 88918/1/6 in the British Library) and published in an article in The Times  p.18 “Rough-hewn genius of Hughes laid bare in unfinished verses” Friday October 17 2008

[2] Erica Wagner Ariel’s Gift (Faber London 2000) 2001 paperback edition page numbers follow, hence forward abbreviated to AG

[3] AG p.22

[4] Ted Hughes to Keith Sagar 22 June 1998 The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar (The British Library London 2012) p. 267

[5] Sylvia Plath “Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows” in Collected Poems (Faber London 1981) pp. 111-112

[6] Ted Hughes “Regenerations” in Winter Pollen (Faber London 1994) p. 57

[7] Ted Hughes “The Earthenware Head” Birthday Letters (Faber London 1998) Hence forward abbreviated to BL

[8] Ted Hughes “Chaucer” BL  p.51

[9] Ted Hughes “God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark” BL p. 26

 

05 July 2019

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Archive: A Human Connection

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by Sarah Ellis, Archivist and Cataloguer of the Penelope Fitzgerald Archive (Add MS 89289). The archive is now available to consult, for free, in our Reading Rooms.

In 2017, the British Library acquired the archive of Penelope Fitzgerald (née Knox), English novelist, biographer and essayist (1916-2000). Her 1979 novel, Offshore, won the Booker Prize and the work acclaimed as her masterpiece, The Blue Flower, secured a National Book Critics Circle Award in the USA in 1997.

Penelope Fitzgerald by Jane Bown

Penelope Fitzgerald, by Jane Bown: copyright of Jane Bown Estate

Audiences loved Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels for the worlds they conjured into being; drawn – at least at first – from her own life experiences. Her biographical writing is similarly grounded. In one revealing note in her papers she outlines the necessary preconditions for beginning a work of biography: "if it's not possible to have had personal contact with the subject”, she writes, “then at least I need contact with someone who once knew him or her, however long ago." [1] Such an emphasis on personal connection was no doubt informed by the varied social contexts which make up Fitzgerald’s own biography. (A houseboat community at Chelsea Reach; the BBC during the Second World War; and a Southwold bookshop, to name but a few.) The archive reveals an artistry fuelled by human connection but informed and supported by wider documentary evidence gathered during intensive periods of research. As the two approaches collide, we can see how the rich worlds of her fiction and the sensitive portraits in her biographical writing become possible.

Behind the Silence
One of the qualities most frequently ascribed to Fitzgerald is that of 'reticence'. Terence Dooley, in his introduction to Fitzgerald’s posthumously published letters, tells how she could convey what she wanted in letters in a way she didn’t feel able to in person [2]. If the written word was where Fitzgerald’s communicative gifts lay, then her archive represents a relative wellspring of expressive power. Far from displaying reticence, Fitzgerald’s personal writings – from her earliest letters written to her parents from Wycombe Abbey School, to diary entries in her later years – reveal a voice free from constraint. Hers was a growing, industrious and expansive mind, constantly observing, recording and expressing itself through the written word, rather than through speech.

Add MS 89289-2-17_My China Diary & Small Memo Book

Add MS 89289/2/17 ‘My China Diary’ and ‘Small Memo Book’
© With kind permission of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Literary Estate

However expansive the archive might seem, though, Fitzgerald’s papers are fragmentary: the largest part is at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas and the British Library holds a smaller but significant portion (170 files). Tragically, some material was lost when her houseboat sank in the 1960s. The extant parts being dispersed in this way has resulted not only in a physical but also an intellectual disunity – but what we have here in London is both delightful and revealing. As with any archive, partial or not, Fitzgerald’s papers are mere glimpses of the author and her work – never a complete picture but perhaps as close as it’s possible for us to get.

Add MS 89289-6-2&1-11_Typewriter

Add MS 89289/6/2 Fitzgerald’s Silver Reed typewriter operating instructions &
Add MS 89289/1/11 Review of A N Wilson’s biography of C S Lewis (verso)
© With kind permission of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Literary Estate.

So, What's in This Archive?
The archive covers the period of 1965-2012, extending beyond Fitzgerald’s lifetime and including materials captured posthumously by her children and Literary Estate. The contents of the archive include research, draft and proof materials for a number of her works, 26 of her notebooks, correspondence (business and personal), her annotated library and collected writings about her life and literary endeavours.

In addition to illustrating aspects of her professional life and working practices as an author, the archive provides insights into her personal life, relationships, interests and other involvements outside, or predating, her writing career. For instance, Fitzgerald involved herself with literary societies and campaigned to support the local library in the face of funding cuts, channelling energy not just into her creative output but also into her local community.  

Further to the many facets of Fitzgerald’s personal and professional life, her papers reflect a selective cross-section of Knox family history in various documentary forms. Knox family members whose stories feature prominently are the subjects of the group biography which she composed about her father, ‘Evoe’, and his three brothers, published in 1977. Remarkable in their own rights, papers once belonging to those individuals now sit integrated with Fitzgerald’s papers, much gathered in research for The Knox Brothers. Another notable component of the archive is the material relating to Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child (1977), in her original notebooks. Initially called ‘The Golden Opinion’, the work was extensively cut by Duckworth Publishers.

Add MS 89289-2-1_Knox Book 1

Add MS 89289/2/1, Knox Book 1, from Fitzgerald’s notebooks.
© With kind permission of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Literary Estate

So much in the archive holds the potential for researchers to garner rich insights about the working practices, creative processes and day-to-day engagements of Penelope Fitzgerald during the period when she was a published author. These are complemented by items pre-dating that period which show the vital preparation building up to it, such as her committed studies of literature and art or copious notes relating to her teaching work.

An Invitation
“How does she do it?” asked Julian Barnes over a decade ago [3], about Fitzgerald’s ability to paint the vivid and entirely believable worlds of her novels, so succinctly. Come and see for yourself – the archive is now available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, Writing about Human Beings (London, British Library, Add MS 89289/1/15, undated; 1993?).

[2] Terence Dooley (ed.), So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), p. xiv.

[3] Julian Barnes, 'How did she do it?', Guardian, 26 July 2008, Culture - Books Section <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jul/26/fiction> [accessed 5 July 2019].

 

22 May 2019

Artists’ Books Now: Writing evening 13 May 2019

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Gill Partington, host of last week’s sell out Artists’ Books Now: Writing evening, shares some of her thoughts on the event the works and the artist in this guest blog

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Artist Sam Winston describing an example of asemic writing from his recent work Reading Closed Books.

Making Your Mark, the British Library’s current exhibition, is all about writing, its long history and the many varied techniques, systems and conventions that have evolved around it.  The latest event in the ‘Artists Book Now’ series on the 13th May approached writing from a different angle, however. It was all about forms of work that stretch these systems and conventions in unusual ways, pushing writing to its limits and beyond. The four artists presenting their work showed us some varieties of writing that sometimes looked very unfamiliar indeed.

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Dia Batal uses a range of media to create Sculptures based on Arabic script.

Dia Batal’s work is as much sculpture as writing, rendering Arabic script physical and three dimensional in metalwork and other media. The letters may be ornate but the materials have a strength and presence, perhaps because the force and impact of writing are her primary concern, dealing in text that details harrowing stories of conflict and displacement. Sam Winston creates work that hovers on the boundaries of drawing and writing, in durational performances that often take place in the dark, gradually covering the page surface in an intricate, unreadable filigree of pencil lines. Stevie Ronnie turned writing into a series of incongruous, witty objects: an ‘audiobook’, for instance, comprising a rope woven from strips of text.  Wound around a metal winch, it unravels, translating text into metallic clinks. Joumana Medlej created delicate folded paper forms adorned with the Kufic script, an Arabic calligraphy not meant to be read, but which instead has a symbolic potency, an aura rather than a literal meaning. These were diagrams and cosmological charts as much as texts.

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Stevie Ronnie’s infectious enthusiasm as he describes how employs a range of objects in the creation of an artists’ book.

In their various ways, these were all forms of ‘asemic’ writing:  that which can’t be read. The work seemed to ask the question of how writing communicates in other ways, and whether it needs to communicate at all. Does writing need a reader? The other major theme that emerged from the evening was that of discipline, and where exactly writing belongs. Maria Fusco, Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University talked about what happens when writing becomes an art practice rather than a literary one. She read from her new book, Nine QWERTY Bells: Fiction for Live Voice in which she puts art objects in strange kinds of dialogue with one another.

 

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Book artist and calligrapher Joumana Medlej opens her Book of Love.

The particular piece she chose focused on Ignacio Uriarte’s
The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow a video artwork in which the sounds of vintage typewriters are recreated orally, with uncanny accuracy. Maria’s reading was all about tracing this complicated network of crossed wires between voice, writing and object. Her aim is not to write about art, but rather to write through it, she explained. She described writing moving backwards through the gallery space and ‘bumping into things’. This collision between writing and objects - and the conjunctions that result from it - seemed to be what the evening was all about. Writing, we learned, can be stranger than you think.

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Gill Partington in conversation Maria Fusco.  

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.

Michael Marks Image

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.

Wodehouse pic 2

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.