THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

9 posts from February 2019

25 February 2019

Recording of the week: rabbits and chickens by post!

This week's selection comes from Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History.

I recently went to post a letter in my local post-box and discovered that it had disappeared! Gone without warning or explanation. It had been there for as long as anyone could remember and it made me think about how post-boxes are such a fixture of our environment, both in the town and in the countryside (where I live), that we take them for granted. And behind every post-box is an amazing network of people and systems carrying our letters, packages and postcards all over the world. 

Photograph of a Royal Mail postboxPostbox and gatepost, Wainsford Road, Pennington / Robin Somes / CC BY-SA 2.0

National Life Stories’ ‘An Oral History of the Post Office’ interviewed 117 people working for Royal Mail from the 1930s (or the GPO, General Post Office, as it was then known). Working for the GPO was ‘a job for life’ and being a postman often ran in families. Seamus McSporran was Postmaster on the remote Isle of Gigha off the west coast of Scotland in the 1960s where people (long before Amazon) relied on mail-order catalogues for parcel post deliveries of everyday items. And at certain times of the year rabbits and chickens would also go through the post!

Seamus McSporran (C1007/09)

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

20 February 2019

Creative States of Mind: a new collection of interviews exploring artists and the creative process

Artist Patricia Townsend writes about her collection, 'Interviews exploring artists and the creative process', recently deposited and made available at the British Library.

What does it feel like to be an artist? Are there common threads between the experiences of individual artists or does each artist work in his or her own idiosyncratic way?

As an artist myself, I began to think about what happens in my mind as I create new artworks and to wonder whether my experiences are shared by others. Do other artists also begin with a vague intimation of what they want their subject to be, but with little sense of what form the potential artwork might take? Do they also sometimes have the experience of an idea for a new work bursting suddenly and unexpectedly into their minds? And if so, do they, like me, initially feel a sense of elation as if the new idea is perfect even though they know from experience that sooner or later (and usually sooner) this elation will evaporate and the idea won’t seem so wonderful after all? I set out to explore these questions and more in a series of interviews with professional artists working in a variety of media. These interviews, many of which are now archived in the British Library, formed the basis of my research for a PhD at the Slade School of Fine Art and for the book ‘Creative States of Mind: Psychoanalysis and the Artist’s Process’ (Routledge 2019).

BookCover

When I began this project I didn’t know whether the artists I interviewed would be able to put their experiences into words. After all, I was speaking to visual artists who have deliberately chosen a non-verbal medium in which to express themselves. Many of them were accustomed to being asked about their material processes and their motivations but I was asking them to talk about how it feels to make a work of art, something they might not have considered in depth before. Would it be possible to express this verbally? If the answer had been no, my whole project would have fallen flat, but as it turned out I needn’t have worried. Many of the artists were wonderfully articulate, often finding poetic images that vividly conveyed the qualities of their experiences. For instance, painter Hughie O’Donoghue used the metaphors of archeological digs and of dredging to describe his process of unearthing something from the subconscious as he paints:

Hughie O'Donohue interviewed by Patricia Townsend (C1801/17)

This recording adds another dimension to the understanding of O’Donoghue’s work that we might not have gained through the written word alone. His reflective way of speaking mirrors his deeply thoughtful engagement with his developing painting.

Another example is provided by photographer Sian Bonnell who describes how it feels to be immersed in her work, even to the point of making herself ill:

Sian Bonnell interviewed by Patricia Townsend (C1801/03)

This recording takes us, as listeners, inside this artist’s experience. Through the way in which Bonnell speaks, as much as through her language, we get a feel for the intensity of the state of mind she is in.

These examples attest to the individuality of each artist’s experience. And yet, the interviews reveal many shared threads too. O’Donoghue speaks of his painting as acquiring ‘some kind of life’ through his work on it. A number of other interviewees also speak of a point in their process when their developing artwork begins to come to life. And the state of complete absorption described so vividly by Bonnell is also referred to by many other artists, each of whom finds his or her own particular way to convey the quality of the experience.

In conducting the interviews, I wanted to find out whether there would be enough common threads in the artists’ accounts to enable me to trace the journey from the artist’s first inkling that he or she is onto something, through the artist’s work with a medium to the completion of the artwork and its launch into the outside world. It seemed clear to me that the making of a work of art involves unconscious as well as conscious processes but, of course, neither I nor the artists I interviewed could provide information about processes that are out of our awareness. Therefore I looked to psychoanalytic theory to try to fill the inevitable gaps and to shed light on the artists’ narratives. But in the interviews I was not attempting to analyse the artists as individuals (something that psychoanalysis has been accused of in the past). Rather I wanted to use psychoanalytic theory to analyse the creative process through factors in common across many interviews. This is what I aimed to do in the book ‘Creative States of Mind; Psychoanalysis and the Artist’s Process’.

It was a great privilege to have the opportunity to interview these artists and each encounter gave me enormous pleasure. I am delighted that 25 recordings are now available through the British Library so that others can hear the voices of these remarkable artists for themselves.

Patricia Townsend
www.patriciatownsend.net
www.routledge.com/9780367146160

To find 'Interviews exploring artists and the creative process' search C1801 at sami.bl.uk. For other collections of oral history interviews with artists, sculptors, craftspeople, theatre designers, photographers, and fashion designers explore our collection guide to Oral histories of visual arts and crafts.

18 February 2019

Recording of the week: croggy or backy?

This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

Sadly, despite growing up in Yorkshire and the West Midlands in the 1970s, I never owned a Chopper, although I certainly remember the thrill of a croggy [= ‘shared ride on handlebars of bicycle’] on my mate’s bike (including the obligatory football cards and lollipop sticks attached to the spokes). Online debate about the relative merits of croggy versus backy [= ‘shared ride on back of bicycle’] are numerous and invariably focus on the potential dialectal (i.e. geographical) preference for one or other variant. Curiously, these virtual discussions seem particularly animated on Teesside, where a third variant – tan – also exists, but submissions to the Library’s WordBank, a crowdsourced collection created in 2010/11 by visitors to the Evolving English exhibition, suggest croggy resonates particularly strongly with many contributors.

CROGGY [Middlesbrough C1442/6650]

CROGGY [Peterborough C1442/4353]

CROGGY [London C1442/3192]

Photograph of a woman riding on the handlebars of a bicycle

The form croggy arises by taking the first segment of the word, crossbar, changing the final consonant <s> to <g>, and adding the suffix <-y>; thus crossbar → cross → crog → croggy. This brilliantly playful hypocorism is a popular productive process in some British dialects, in which an underlying polysyllabic word containing a medial <-s-> (or <-st->) sound mutates to a <g> (or <k>) sound and the final syllable is replaced by the suffix <-y> (or <-ie>). The most widespread analogous form is probably plastic → placky, although there are other examples and the phenomenon is perhaps particularly common in adolescent speech. I certainly have very fond childhood memories of winters praying we would have enough snow to go plackybagging [= ‘sledging on a plastic bag/bin liner’] and I always kept a lacky band [= ‘elastic band’] in my school blazer pocket to fire paper pellets with.

As this type of linguistic creativity is restricted to very informal speech it is seldom documented in conventional dictionaries, although the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2006) has an entry for plaggy [= ‘plastic’] and The Lore of the Playground (Roud, 2010) includes laggies as one of several regional variants for 'French skipping' (i.e. skipping with a long elastic band round one's legs rather than with a skipping rope). Collins Dictionary categorises croggy as ‘Northern England and Midlands dialect’, while The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (Thorne, 2014) classifies croggie as ‘schoolchildren’s slang’, thereby implying, I suspect, a somewhat wider (geographic) distribution, which is supported by our WordBank data. The advent of social media offers far greater prominence to this kind of vernacular language and so, not surprisingly, croggy/croggie has several entries at Urban Dictionary (which also includes lacky band [= ‘elastic band’] and (like its counterparts, backy/backie and tan) warrants its own hashtag (#croggy and #croggie) on Twitter. A university friend from Newcastle once uttered my favourite ever example of this process: fantackerbacker [= ‘fantastic’], which kind of sums it up in a nutshell, really.

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

15 February 2019

Andrea Levy

We’re sad to hear of the death of novelist Andrea Levy who passed away yesterday, aged 62.

Andrea grew up in north London, the daughter of Jamaican-born Winston and Amy Levy. She attended Highbury Hill Grammar School before studying textile design at Middlesex Polytechnic. After working as a costume assistant at The Royal Opera House and the BBC she began to attend a writers’ class at City Lit and published her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’, in 1994. Today she is best known for the award-winning Small Island and The Long Song.

In 2014, Andrea agreed to make a recording for Authors’ Lives which will be made available to listeners in the weeks to come. She was at that time living with the knowledge that she had a life-limiting illness.

With typical courage and eloquence, she ended her Authors’ Lives recording by reflecting on mortality, and the impact she hoped her books might have had in the world:

‘Everybody dies, and everybody knows they’re going to die. But while other people have it in the back of their heads, I have it here, right in front of my face: I see it and I know it.

But in the meantime I’m fit and well and I’m loving life. There’s a certain freedom that comes from knowing that this is the time you’ve got, and every minute is going to be dedicated to what you want to do because you really don’t have long. If you can go day by day, there’s some sort of release in it.

[Living with cancer] is a process of forgetting and never forgetting that you have to do at one and the same time: I never forget, but I just get on with it. I’ve had a very good life, I’ve loved it. I’ve worked hard and produced some good work I think, and the confidence I have now is because of writing: because I was able to quietly, in my own time and my own way, to show my worth.

I hope my books have a life beyond me. I hope I made a contribution to something, to the end of racism and the coming equality. I hope that the life that I’ve lived goes some way to make things easier. That’s the only posterity.’

Sarah O’Reilly, Interviewer, Authors’ Lives

11 February 2019

Recording of the week: the endingidi and the erhu – two types of the spike tube fiddle

This week's selection comes from Tom Miles, Metadata Coordinator for Europeana Sounds.

The Hornbostel-Sachs classification system is a way of grouping types of musical instruments by structure and the way in which sound is produced, rather than the culture from which the instruments are made. This system reflects the classification of the animal kingdom by skeletal structure, rather than by size or behaviour. This means that similar types of musical instruments can be found in very different parts of the world and playing different styles of music.

The two instruments featured here are both spike tube fiddles. That is to say, the string bearer passes right through the resonator of the instrument. In this case, the resonator is a tube, at right angles to the spike.

One instrument is the endingidi (or ndingidi) from Uganda. The other is the erhu, a two stringed instrument from China.

Photograph of two types of spike tube fiddleTwo types of spike tube fiddle (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz - Ethnologisches Museum, CC-BY-SA-NC-ND)

Our recording of the week is an unidentified song for erhu and voice, recorded by Colin Huehns during a field trip to Xinxiang, China, in 1994.

Unidentified song for erhu and voice (C485/79)

There are quite a few other examples of both instruments on Europeana here. In addition, you can see the erhu played in this photograph of “Female Musicians and singers of Foo-Chow” taken around 1910, provided on Europeana by the Världskulturmuseet (CC BY-NC-ND). It’s played rather like a cello, but the bow is held with the palm facing upwards rather than downwards.

Photograph entitled 'Female musicians and singers of Foo-Chow'

Over 1000 recordings of music from Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as well as China, can be found in the Colin Huehns Asia collection on British Library Sounds.

Follow @EuropeanaMusic, @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 February 2019

Where our laws are drafted: 150 years of the Office of Parliamentary Counsel

On 8 February 1869 the Board of the Treasury met to discuss “the drafting or preparing of Bills introduced into Parliament on the part of Her Majesty’s Government.” The Treasury minute goes on to note “the advantage of bringing all important Government Bills under the view of one person,” and being “pleased to direct that the office as proposed shall be constituted to be called the “Office of the Parliamentary Counsel”.

The Office of Parliamentary Counsel has grown from one man and his assistant in 1869 to consist of a staff of 60, including some 50 experienced barristers and solicitors. Led by Elizabeth Gardiner, the team’s job is to assist government departments in preparing Bills.

In a BBC interview Gardiner remarked that, "what they used to say was that every Labour government legislated more than a Tory government but that every government legislated more than the previous one, of that colour.”

The experience of Patrick Macrory, director of Unilever, seems to corroborate that view. He worked as an assistant at the Parliamentary Counsel Office during the late 1940s under Granville Ram (known as the ‘Maestro’) and alongside Harold Kent who later became Treasury Solicitor.

Interview with Patrick Macrory, C408/005, Tape 1, Side 2, 00:23:18 – 00:24:31

In this excerpt from her 1988 interview for NLS Legal Lives, Baroness Hale explains how parliamentary draftsmen contribute to the work of the Law Commission on law reform.

Interview with Baroness Hale, C736/008, Track 4, 00:17:29 – 00:20:52

Baroness Hale
Baroness Hale. University of Salford Press Office [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Those currently working in the Office of Parliamentary Counsel are facing unprecedented challenges, drafting legislation to accommodate the constitutional novelty that is Brexit.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005. 

07 February 2019

The tale of the seven whistlers

Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds, writes:

The natural world is one of the cornerstone themes of British folkloric tradition. From familiar animals to mysterious creatures, our local tales and superstitions are full of references to nature.

For centuries birds, and especially their voices, have been a particularly strong focus of traditional beliefs. Depending on the community, the cry of a bird could mean anything from the approach of stormy weather to an untimely death.   

One tale which appears repeatedly in British and Irish folklore is the legend of the seven whistlers. Though occasionally linked to witches or other demonic entities, the seven whistlers were generally believed to be a group of mysterious birds, flying together at night, whose unearthly calls were considered a portent of impending disaster.

Coal miners were particularly susceptible to these supposed messengers of doom. In 1862, locals in the Northumbrian village of Hartley proclaimed to have heard the seven whistlers the night before a pit disaster which claimed the lives of 204 miners. Over a decade later, in 1874, the Coventry Herald reported on a mass walkout at the Bedworth collieries:

'On Monday morning, large numbers of the miners employed at some of the Bedworth collieries in North Warwickshire, giving way to a superstition which has long prevailed amongst their class, refused to descend the coal pits in which they are employed. The men are credulous enough to believe that certain nocturnal sounds, which are, doubtless, produced by flocks of night birds in their passage across the country, are harbingers of some impending colliery disaster. During Sunday night, it was stated that these sounds, which have been designated “the seven whistlers” had been distinctly heard in the neighbourhood of Bedworth, and the result was that the following morning, when work should have resumed, many of the men positively refused to descend the pits.'

Illustration of waiting families after the Hartley pit disasterHartley Colliery Disaster: the dead are brought up to their families (L'llustration, 1862, p 101)

But what were these birds that had the power to strike such fear into the hearts of those who heard their melancholy cries? Almost all accounts point the finger at wading birds, though the exact species differs depending on the region. Some believed the culprits to be groups of curlew or whimbrel. For others it was the golden plover or lapwing. Though this selection may seem an arbitrary one, there is a common thread which links these species together; their shrill, whistling calls.

Curlew 'curlee' call, recorded on the Derbyshire / Staffordshire border by Alan Burbidge (BL ref 144681)

Whimbrel flight calls, recorded in the Scottish Highlands by Richard Margoschis (BL ref 43516) 

Lapwing 'peewit' call, recorded in Hampshire by Phil Riddett (BL ref 66907)

When listening to the lapwing’s plaintive ‘peewit’ or the curlew’s haunting ‘curlee’, it’s quite easy to see how these birds became entwined with the tale of the seven whistlers. Other birds were occasionally added to the mix, most notably wigeon and swifts, however the migratory nature of these species meant that the association was debunked by most believers. The sharp whistles of wigeon could only be heard during the winter months, while the piercing screams of swifts were a sound of spring and summer. This just didn’t tally with the timing of some local tragedies, whereas birds like the curlew & lapwing could be heard all year round.

Illustration of a Curlew, published in 1811Illustration of a curlew taken from British Ornithology; being the history, with a coloured representation of every known species of British birds, George Graves, 1811

Despite being considered envoys of calamity, birds linked to the seven whistlers don’t appear to have suffered any negative repercussions. They weren’t persecuted or hunted down. But neither were they revered. They were simply listened to.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, superstitions such as these were more prevalent in rural communities with strong ties to the natural world. Though many people, especially those in towns and cities, scoffed at the idea of birds as omens of death and disaster, a Daily Telegraph comment from 1874 reminded readers to look to themselves before casting aspersions on the beliefs of others. Which is a lesson to us all.

"Sensible people should, of course, hold all such absurdities in contempt; but how many ostensibly sensible people are there who entertain the most peculiar ideas concerning Friday, and spilling the salt, and crossing the knives and walking under a ladder? It is natural to laugh at the superstitions of other folks, and to abide very earnestly by our own."

Follow @CherylTipp for all the latest wildlife & environmental news from the British Library.

06 February 2019

Hommage à Michel Legrand

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort LP cover(1LP0242247 BL collections)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Michel Legrand, who died a few weeks ago, was a prolific composer for the screen.  He won Academy Awards for Summer of '42 and music for Barbra Streisand's Yentl and penned the great hit Windmills of your mind for the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. One of my all-time favourite film scores is his baroque inspired theme and variations for two pianos and orchestra that he wrote for Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between in 1971.  Recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and coupled with the Symphonic Suite from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg this 1979 LP has long been a collector’s item.  Two copies reside in the British Library’s Sound Archive as does the CD version which was only released in Japan.

Legrand earned his first Academy Award nomination in 1964 for his score to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg notable for the dialogue being entirely sung throughout the film.  The film was extremely popular and won the Palm d’Or at Cannes so writer/director Jacques Demy teamed up again with Legrand in 1967 and tried the same formula with Les Demoiselles de Rochefort starring real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac. 

In 2015 I acquired a small collection from choreographer Domy Reiter-Soffer who had worked on the film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and had been given a tape of the studio recording.  Students of film scores may be interested to know that it includes the count-offs of the musicians and spoken cue numbers.  Some backing tracks also appear without the vocals. 

The piano solos are probably Legrand himself and it is good to hear them without the overlaid vocals.  This one has a click track introduction as it appears that Legrand is overdubbing the piano to give a fuller sound.

No. 10 piano with click track

Here is it with the vocal recorded on top.

No. 9 piano with vocal

Here is another orchestra only track ‘Our Affair’, followed by the vocal overlay.

No. 8 orchestra only

No. 8 with vocal

The soundtrack issue of the time (also donated by Mr Reiter-Soffer) was on two LPs and lists the singers whose voices were used on the recording to which the actors mimed on film. One of them is Legrand's sister, Christiane singing the role of Judith.  While certainly not the LP master, the tape is more of a working product giving an insight into the process that went into making a musical film in France in the 1960s.

List of singers from inside LP1LP0242247 BL collections)

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