Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

23 January 2023

Recording of the week: Bob Cobbing (1920-2002)

This week’s recording of the week was selected by Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

Black and white photocopied image of Bob Cobbing

Above: Image of Bob Cobbing from a scan supplied by Jennifer Cobbing in 2008. Photographer not known.

This is a selection from the personal tape archive of the British sound poet Bob Cobbing.

The archive comprises recordings of Cobbing - solo and with various collaborators - in live, studio and home settings. The British Library acquired it in 2005.

The Library is also home to Bob Cobbing’s manuscript archive.  And we hold copies of many of the publications issued by Cobbing’s Writers Forum imprint, as well as books about his artistic practice.

This particular piece, ‘WORM’, was recorded in 1966. It was among the tracks issued by the Library in 2009 on a CD compliation of Cobbing’s work called ‘The Spoken Word: Early Recordings 1965-1973’.

That CD is now long out of print and hard to find. Soon though, we will be making available - for free online listening - a selection of further treasures from the vaults. Our thanks are due to Barbara and Patrick Cobbing of the Bob Cobbing Estate, and also William Cobbing, for helping this to happen.

Keep an eye on our social media channels for news on the launch of our new ‘sounds’ web site.

Listen to Bob Cobbing

Download Bob Cobbing transcript

Note: The downloadable transcript is for the benefit of people with a hearing impairment. It is not intended as a guide to how the words should appear on the printed page. Cobbing published various treatments of the piece over the years. One published version has the words in horizontal lines from left to right, but also in four columns. Another visualisation sees the words printed off-register and arranged in wiggly vertical strings. The impression given is of worms on the ground, viewed from above.

Text and recording are copyright of the Bob Cobbing Estate, Used with permission.

18 January 2023

Why do hammer-headed fruit bats honk?

The Hammer-headed Fruit Bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) is the largest of the African bats. Named for its unusual appearance, this species is a classic example of sexual dimorphism at work, with males and females displaying significant differences in both size and appearance. While females are smaller and possess the familiar fruit bat face that usually generates a stream of ‘awwww!’ comments on YouTube, males elicit a completely different response. Their large mallet-like faces, flaring nostrils, flappy lips and bulging eyes, teamed with a huge wingspan of up to a metre, undoubtedly influenced the selection of ‘monstrosus’ when zoologists named the species in the 19th century.

The first scientific description of the Hammer-headed Fruit Bat was published in 1861 in volume 13 of the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The article’s author, the American physician and anatomist Dr. Harrison Allen, provided a highly detailed breakdown of the bat’s anatomy, including everything from dental records to the stiffness of its fur. The specimen studied by Allen had been collected by the French-American explorer Paul Du Chaillu who had been sent on an expedition to Africa by the academy in 1855. A second description was published in 1862 in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, written by the Scottish naturalist and lawyer Andrew Murray. Murray only received a copy of Allen’s description after his own paper had gone to print (the journal had taken 7 months to arrive in the UK). In the postscript, Murray noted that if both were describing and naming the same species, Allen’s name of Hypsignathus monstrosus must take precedence (the name the species carries today). Their descriptions varied slightly, however Murray assumed this was due to differences in the preserved specimens being examined; Murray believed Allen was working from a dried skin whereas he had access to a specimen preserved in spirits. This enabled Murray to include a detailed illustration of the species alongside his written description.

Black and white illustration of a Hammer-headed Fruit Bat, taken from the 1862 edition of Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London

Being able to observe living individuals in their natural habitat was the next step. Field studies conducted in the 20th century revealed a surprising aspect of the bat's behaviour. During the breeding season, males were seen to congregate at dusk for an evening of intense vocal competition. A chorus of loud, monotonous honking would fill the night air as males used their calls as a way to prove their genetic fitness to nearby females looking for a mate. This recent recording of a Hammer-headed Fruit Bat lek includes the characteristic honking and was made by Michael Mills in Kumbira Forest, Angola on the 8th September 2013 (British Library reference WA 2014/001/001/431).

Hammer-headed Fruit Bat

An extremely long larynx, measuring half the length of its body cavity, is what allows males to take part in such sustained sonic battling. This gathering of displaying males in an arena-like setting, known as lek behaviour, is more commonly seen in birds. Though the mating system is also seen in mammals, only a handful of bats are known to use this process. Scientists continue to uncover previously unknown aspects of bat behaviour and so more species could be added to this list in the future. Our journey to fully understanding this complex and diverse group of mammals is far from over.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

16 January 2023

Recording of the week: ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ by Linton Kwesi Johnson

This week’s post comes from Daisy Chamberlain, Preservation Assistant for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in Chapelton, Jamaica in 1952. His mother, Sylvena, migrated to Britain just before Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, and Linton followed three years later, aged 11. His first home in the UK was in Brixton, South London, an area he described as ‘an oasis of resistance and rebellion’.

Photo of Linton Kwesi Johnson

Photo credit: Bryan Ledgard on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In the following recording, Linton Kwesi Johnson recites his poem, ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ (British Library reference: C1532/14), written in memory of the Black German activist and poet, and his personal friend, May Ayim, at his birthday reception at Homerton College, Cambridge in 2012. May Ayim was the child of a German mother and a Ghanaian father, but was adopted by a white German family at a young age. She died on August 9, 1996, when she was only 36 years old.

Listen to Reggae Fi May Ayim

Download Reggae Fi May Ayim transcript

Though Linton Kwesi Johnson often works with a live band or backing track, this recitation of ‘Reggae Fi Ayim’ is performed without any music. His words have a rhythm and a musicality of their own, though, and the absence of any backing adds to the solemnity of his elegy.

From hamburg via bremen / den finally / Berlin

Ayim moved to Berlin in 1984, where the self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde was working as a visiting professor in North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. Ayim attended Lorde’s seminars while working on her thesis on the cultural and social history of Afro-Germans. Lorde soon became a close personal friend and mentor to Ayim, and the following year the pair co-founded the West Berlin Chapter of the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (ISD), an organisation of Black Germans campaigning against racial injustice in Germany to facilitate bonds between Afro-Germans and create new cultural practices.

Photo of May Ayim (right) with her mentor Audre Lorde (left)

Photo credit:  Dagmar Schults / CC BY-SA 4.0

Afro-german warrior woman

The relationship between Johnson and Ayim was personal – the poem reveals that the pair met at a black radical book fair. It was also political – both Johnson and Ayim used poetry as a tool for inciting political change, and as a core component of their activism. Ayim’s own poetry dealt with the themes of classism, racism and feminism, and emphasised the potential of writing to build coalitions between Black Europeans and transform their social lives. As well as this elegy for May Ayim, Johnson has written poems for Blair Peach (‘Reggae Fi Peach’), a white teacher from New Zealand killed at a protest against the National Front in Southall in 1979, and George Lindo (‘It Dread Inna Inglan’), a Black man from Bradford who was wrongfully convicted of robbery despite a lack of evidence and a strong alibi. You can browse individual recordings of these poems in the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

Fallin screamin / Terteen stanzahs down

The opening stanza of ‘Reggae fi May Ayim’ sets the tone of the poem as a pained and emotional elegy for a close friend by highlighting the conspiracy between life and death to ‘shattah di awts most fragile diziah’ (shatter the heart’s most fragile desire). The lines ‘Fallin screamin / Terteen stanzahs down’ are a reference to Ayim’s tragic suicide in 1996. The poet jumped from the thirteenth floor of an apartment building after battling depression and a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Before Ayim died, she received invitations from across the world to attend and speak at conferences about feminism, anti-racism and human rights. It was through her global activism and her commitment to Afro-diasporic coalition that Ayim connected with individuals like Linton Kwesi Johnson. ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ is just one of many tributes sent by her friends and colleagues following her death.