28 March 2017
Polly Russell, Lead Curator for Politics and Public Life, reports on our event to mark International Women's Day 2017: 'Rebels in the Archives'.
Earlier this month, to mark International Women’s Day, the British Library hosted ‘Rebels in the Archives’, a sell-out panel discussion with four women who, in different ways, have uncovered the hidden histories of women’s lives in Britain’s past.
The evening kicked off with Heidi Safia Mirza, Professor of Race, Faith and Culture at Goldsmith’s College and author of Young Female and Black. Heidi discussed how Women of Colour have been rendered invisible by the absences and omissions which characterise most representations of the past. Attend to the archive, look beyond the obvious and take responsibility for finding and accounting for Women of Colour when researching women’s lives was her message.
Next up was Abi Morgan, BAFTA and Emmy Award winning writer and producer whose film Suffragette introduced cinema audiences around the world to the story of how working class women fought to get the vote in the UK. Abi described the process of writing the film’s script, how libraries and archives held the key to the narrative and character and of the totemic importance of archival objects – she described the tiny purse Emily Wilding Davison was holding when she fatefully stepped in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby on the 4th June 1913 and how this brought to life the fragility and courage of ‘extraordinary sacrifice made by the ordinary’.
From left to right the 'Rebels in the Archives' Panel: Heidi Mirza; Abi Morgan; Margaretta Jolly; Debi Withers; Jill Liddington. Image courtesy of Polly Russell.
Writer and historian Jill Liddington followed Abi and heroically compressed a life’s work into a splendid 15 minute presentation. Jill, the author of a seminal account of northern working-class women’s contribution to the Suffragist movement, One Hand Tied Behind Us, detailed how archives and libraries held the key to a history of women which had previously been omitted from historical record.
The final speaker of the evening, curator, researcher and digital expert Debi Withers, brought us bang up to date with a discussion of how digital archives and catalogues have the potential, if opened up to tagging and searching, to widen access to and enable links between feminist archives.
The evening’s discussions were expertly chaired by Margaretta Jolly, Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex and someone directly responsible for increasing the number of women rebels in the British Library archives – Margaretta contributed 60 Women’s Liberation Movement oral histories to the British Library as part of the Sisterhood & After project she led in 2013.
After audience questions Margaretta concluded the evening by noting that though the panel employed diverse approaches to understanding the past, worked across different formats and spoke to different audiences, their work was evidence that archives and libraries are places where the rebels of the past could b e uncovered so th at rebels of the future may thrive.
The event was developed in association with the University of Sussex and was supported by the Living Knowledge Network.
20 January 2017
Image: Joan Bakewell © Sukey Parnell
Chris Beckett, Cataloguer in Contemporary Literary Archives at the British Library, writes:
Joan Bakewell’s autobiography, The Centre of the Bed (2003), begins in a white room – a room as white as ‘a fresh sheet of paper’ – at the top of the house in which she has lived for many years. Boxes and packets of papers long-forgotten have been retrieved from cupboards and shelves. They hold evidence of the past, prompts for the play of memory. Can memory sew the fragments together, make good the gaps in the physical record? But Bakewell is conscious that memory is a construction of the present – a reverie of now – that that can deceive as well as illuminate:
‘Stacks of little diaries, a scattering of entries, a few oblique clues. School reports, a clutch of Cambridge bric-a-brac, invitations to sherry parties, a few enigmatic letters – who was Jonathan, who was Ben? And some from people I still know – Karl, Peter, Freddie. Serious boxes house the weightier matters – though just as transient – of a career in journalism and television.’
Those same boxes – the Cambridge ephemera and the ‘weightier matters’ (‘just as transient’) – have now made their way to the British Library, and their contents will soon be available to readers in another room, the Manuscripts Reading Room. ‘Karl’ is Karl Miller, ‘Peter’ is Sir Peter Hall, and ‘Freddie’ is Frederic Raphael (‘with whom I played tennis on long sunny, Cambridge afternoons’), three university contemporaries among many who quickly rose to become, like Bakewell herself, familiar figures in the British cultural landscape.
Joan Bakewell has been an enduring presence on British television for some fifty years, from the trail-blazing topical discussion programme ‘Late Night Line-Up’ (BBC2, 1964-72), which tumbled through the 1960s embracing the excitement and the risks of live transmission, to the retrospective and reflective interviews in ‘My Generation’ (BBC2, 2000).
Her television break began in a predictable place, in the limited daytime slots scheduled for housewives in the early 1960s, in programmes like ‘Table Talk’ and ‘Home at Four Thirty’. However, the conversation was not always about housework and babies: ‘one afternoon it fell to me to interview an eager young doctor with a shock of unruly black hair [….] In three minutes on air he outlined his theory that a dysfunctional family might be a prime cause of schizophrenia.’ The young doctor was R. D. Laing, author of The Divided Self. In the autumn of 1964, two evening appearances as chair of the BBC2 discussion programme ‘The Second Sex’ provided Bakewell with a further opportunity to demonstrate her range, and presaged an invitation to join the (otherwise all-male) ‘Late Night Line-Up’ team.
Since most of ‘Late Night Line-Up’ was transmitted live, few recordings have survived. Occasionally, items were pre-recorded, but even those have generally not been saved. In January 1969, Bakewell and camera crew spent a week in Lausanne, filming a series of interviews with Georges Simenon. Although the programme is lost, we have, in some small compensation, Bakewell’s Simenon notepads which provide a glimpse of the (fastidious and orderly) author of ‘Maigret’ at his Swiss home.
Image above: Red note book cover
Image above: Simenon notes, reproduced with the kind permission of Joan Bakewell.
At Cambridge (1951-54), Joan Rowlands, as she was then called, was heavily involved in the theatrical productions of the Cambridge Mummers. The archive includes posters, programmes and photographs from several plays, including (1952) The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Miss Rowlands played Cecily Cardew.
It was at Cambridge that Joan Rowlands met her first husband, Michael Bakewell, who preceded her at the BBC, quickly establishing himself a highly-regarded radio and television drama producer, champion of the new theatre of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, John Hopkins and David Mercer. Although acting was not to be Bakewell’s profession, certainly the art of performance – and the construction of a robust public persona – have been integral to her remarkable television career.
Bakewell’s autobiography is keyed to a larger narrative, to events and trends in the social and cultural history of her time. Her diaries include a number of yellow ‘post-it’ notes, marking where her memory has been prompted. The pocket diary for 1960, for example, includes the following highlighted entries: 18 April (Aldermaston Protest, Trafalgar Square); 27 April (Arts Theatre, Pinter, The Caretaker); 28 June (Wesker, Roots); 1 August (opening in Stratford of Michael Bakewell's production of Faustus).
Image: Aldermaston diary entry
Bakewell later recalled: ‘The Easter I was pregnant with Harriet we joined the Aldermaston marchers as they came into Trafalgar Square. Our near neighbour, the American poet W. S. Merwin, had walked all the way. His plimsolls were frayed and his feet blistered, but his wife, Dido, offered us supper that night with another young couple who’d recently moved into the area, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.’
In recent years, Bakewell has taken to writing fiction as another way of re-imagining the past, weaving new narratives from her archive. All the Nice Girls (2009) takes it cue from a World War II initiative (unimaginable today) that encouraged schools to ‘adopt’ a merchant navy ship and their pupils to exchange letters with sailors, raising pupil awareness and sailor morale. The Ship Adoption Scheme, as it was known, is recorded in the magazines of Stockport High School for Girls, which played an active part; there is a set of school magazines in Bakewell’s papers (again with ‘post-it’ notes attached). All the Nice Girls is – like the novel that followed, She’s Leaving Home (2011) – a story of love and changing sexual mores. CND marches feature in She’s Leaving Home, and so does the vividly remembered detail of Bill Merwin’s frayed plimsolls. A potent emblem from the past that has clearly lodged in Bakewell’s memory, the worn shoes make an anonymous but recognizable reappearance in a brief snatch of dialogue (p. 130): ‘I saw one bloke whose plimsolls had shredded by the time we got to Trafalgar Square’.
The comprehensive archive of Joan Bakewell at the British Library testifies to a pioneering career in television journalism and records a remarkable personal and professional journey, from pre-war Stockport to the post-millennial corridors of the House of Lords.
16 January 2017
Rachel Tavernor is a Media and Cultural Studies PhD Researcher at the University of Sussex. In this post, she discusses her PhD Placement at the British Library.
At the start of 2016, I did not imagine that I would be finishing the year at the British Library. For the last three months, I have been based in their Research Development team, as part of their new PhD Placement Programme.
My placement focused on exploring twentieth and twenty-first century anti-poverty activism in the British Library Collections. After a preliminary mapping of the archives, and discovering how much material was available, I narrowed the focus of my placement to housing activism. Struggles for decent and affordable housing, with secure and fair tenancies, are at the forefront of many anti-poverty movements and are often led by women. I developed two strands of the project to explore the ways in which radical, feminist, and at times illegal, protest actions are archived.
Firstly, I traced housing activism, including rent strikes, squats and housing cooperatives, across the British Library Collections. Working with diverse materials, including oral histories, manuscripts, music and news media, I was able to map the differing voices in the archive. In particular, investigating the tensions between protesters, mainstream media and government narratives. A guide to the materials found in the collections will be available on a new project website, Archiving Activism (launching in Spring 2017), which will include images of relevant collection items.
Secondly, I developed a small research project on the practices of archiving activism. To understand and propose ways to archive activism, I conducted a series of nine interviews. Many very enjoyable hours were spent listening to campaigners, feminist archivists and academics who engage with archives of activism. The interviews informed an internal report that I produced for the British Library on potential ways to archive contemporary activism.
We will be discussing archives, activism and feminism movements on 8 March 2017 with a panel discussion on Rebels in the Archives. One of the privileges of working with the Library was the opportunity to invite inspiring feminists, Jill Liddington, Abi Morgan, Heidi Safia Mirza and Deborah Withers, to contribute to this event (booking now open).
I recently presented my research project to PhD students at the annual CHASE conference, Encounters, and to British Library staff as part of the British Library Bitesize Talk Series. Both events gave me the opportunity to share my research and reflect on my time at the British Library. For those of you considering applying for a PhD Placement in 2017, here are my reasons for taking part:
- Research Skills: you get a chance to use the skills that you’ve learnt conducting your PhD research in a new environment. You will also learn new research skills by working on a short-term project with industry outputs.
- Rich Resources: you get the time to explore the rich resources of the British Library Collections. You also get to find out about the resources that are yet to be made public or are soon to be acquired… watch this space for some exciting new acquisitions.
- Public Engagement: you get to engage people with your research and the British Library Collections. You may have the opportunity to create your own event, possibly presenting your research or supporting the Library with their large events programme.
- Colleagues and Collaborators: you get to work with some fantastic colleagues who are passionate about the British Library and research. You also get to be part of a cohort of PhD Placement researchers and learn about a wide range of research that is conducted at the Library.
- Inspiration: finally, the British Library is packed with inspiring people, both past and present. I return to my PhD research this week with new ideas, skills and experiences.
The British Library have just published a new call for applicants for 2017/2018 British Library PhD Placements. Included in the programme are placements on:
- Independent, DIY, and Activist BAME Publishing, in Print and Online, in 21st century Britain
- 21st Century British Comics
- Researching the EU Referendum Through Leaflet and Web Archive Collections
If you have any questions about the placements, contact Research.Development@bl.uk