THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

10 posts from July 2019

19 July 2019

‘My Other Piano’ – the classical side of Winifred Atwell

ACL 1018 cropped

Winifred Atwell in the late 1950s  (1LP0248992 BL collections)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Uchenna Ngwe who is studying Black classical musicians in Britain before 1960

Little is known about the early years of Winifred Atwell but she is thought to have been born in either 1910 or 1914. By the 1950s the Trinidad-born pianist had become a household name in Britain and Australia but has become a forgotten figure today.

Although various sources claim that Atwell arrived in London in 1946, BBC documents show that she actually appeared on at least two episodes of the radio programme Calling The West Indies in 1945, and was already living in London by this time. Her first appearance was as piano accompanist to a fellow Trinidadian, renowned singer and actor Edric Connor. In 1993, his widow, Pearl Connor, spoke to Stephen Bourne in this unedited interview about Atwell for the BBC Radio 2 programme Salutations.

Pearl Connor C1019/16

Following the 1945 broadcasts, Atwell was asked to perform on the radio on a number of occasions over the next year before her inaugural TV appearance on the BBC’s Stars in Your Eyes on the afternoon of 21st October 1946.

RT 21101946

Winifred Atwell made her name mainly from popular music but, as she continued to show in her stage act, she was also well-versed in standard classical repertoire. Soon after her arrival in Britain, she began taking piano lessons with Harold Craxton (1885 – 1971), a well-respected teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and sought-after accompanist. In another unedited interview for Salutations, Michael Craxton, Harold’s son, described Atwell’s visits to the family home to study with his father.

Michael Craxton C1019/16

After working with a variety of agents from early on in her career, Atwell was represented by Bernard Delfont Ltd from July 1948. Delfont was a former music-hall dancer and theatrical agent before embarking on a career as a successful theatre and leisure impresario – his brothers Lew and Leslie Grade were also theatrical agents before both becoming television executives. This collaboration proved to be very successful and Atwell was in huge demand for her TV, radio and live theatre performances. By the late 1950s she was earning the equivalent of around £4,000 per TV appearance.

Michael Craxton also refers to Atwell's work with his father on Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. On the 28th November 1954, Atwell made her classical debut at the Royal Albert Hall performing this piece with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Stanford Robinson (1904 – 1984). A few days later on the 1st and 2nd of December, Atwell recorded the work for the Decca label with the same ensemble and conductor. These sessions were Decca’s first ever UK stereo recordings but sadly this experiment remains unpublished and the concerto was only issued in mono.

Grieg Piano Concerto

Despite her abilities and considerable public draw, assumptions made due to her race and success outside of the classical genre meant that Atwell was not taken seriously as a classical musician. However, her work mainly with pop and jazz-influenced music led to the achievement of a remarkable amount of success during her career, including two British no. 1 singles – Let’s Have Another Party (1954) and Poor People of Paris (1956). Her highest-ranking classical recording was of the 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsodie on a theme of Paganini, which was performed on the soundtrack of the film The Story of Three Loves by Jakob Gimpel. Atwell’s version, with Wally Stott and his Orchestra, peaked at no. 9 in the UK charts in 1954.

Atwell Rachmaninoff

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1LP0239366 (BL collections)

I was pleased to correct details of Atwell’s early career through my Edison Fellowship research at the BBC archives at Caversham and to be able to put this into context with the rest of my work on Black music in Britain before 1960.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

Memories of the Moon Landing

50 years ago, on 20th July 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on its surface. Live television pictures broadcast from the Moon turned this into a global event, memories of which are captured in numerous interviews held in the British Library Oral History collections. This blog explores just a few of the diverse perspectives on this event that these interviews reveal.

Earth Rising over the Moon's Horizon, Credit: NASA

Earth Rising over the Moon's Horizon, Credit: NASA

Gerald Myers (b. 1934) was interviewed by Jill Wormsley for the Millennium Memory Bank. He recalls that for those of his generation who grew up rarely travelling far from home, the idea of people visiting the Moon seemed ‘incredible’. This was certainly not something he expected to happen in his lifetime. For others such as Paul Ward (b. 1962), interviewed by Wendy Rickard in 2007 for the HIV/AIDS Testimonies project, watching the Moon landing was integral to his recollections of family life in the late 1960s alongside memories of family meals and birthdays.

Materials scientist Julia King (b. 1954) interviewed by Thomas Lean for An Oral History of British Science, recalled the Moon landings as part of a wider focus on the latest achievements in science and technology that permeated her childhood:

Julia King on the Moon landing in 1969 (C1379/43) [Track 1, 01:24:14 – 01:85:05]

‘Well I remember being taken to meet Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space, a Russian cosmonaut, and getting her autograph. She must have been speaking at Wigmore Hall or something like that. And of course there was, when I was at school, when I was at Godolphin, where we all sat in the hall to watch the Moon landings. So there was all that going on as well. It was a time of, of real, really intense time for discovery in science, and new, new things happening. And the papers were, were absolutely full of it. They weren’t full of footballers and, and, TV shows, talent shows on television and things; they were, they were full of, a lot of achievements in science.’

Julia King

Julia King, interviewed for An Oral History of British Science

One of the people behind this press coverage was Dennis Griffiths (1933-2015). Griffiths was the driving force behind An Oral History of the British Press, and was interviewed for the project by Louise Brodie in 2006. In 1969 he was a member of The Evening Standard production department. At a time when a lengthy setting up process was required to generate colour copy, the paper’s managing director Jocelyn Stevens took a gamble that the landing would be successful. The production team raced into action to pre-print a facsimile colour picture of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon ahead of the event itself so that the paper’s front page was already in place before any official pictures were released. As Griffiths recalled:

Dennis Griffiths on the Evening Standard front page (C638/06) [Track 6, 00:10:42 – 00:11:20]

‘I mean the adrenaline was flowing and when I’ve given talks on newspapers all over the world when I come to the Moon landing and I show them the paper how it was actually done and they disbelieve that anybody would produce a national newspaper days before it happened and gamble and then absolutely slay the opposition. Yes, that was without doubt the highlight.’

Dennis Griffiths describes working on that day (C638/06) [Track 1, 02:28:53 – -2:29:10]

‘You would have paid to have worked on that day. It was the most exciting day of my career. And at the end of the day when they blasted back off, the editor Charles Wintour threw a champagne party in his office to celebrate.’

For his efforts Griffiths received a bonus cheque which he used to buy a pearl ring for his wife, Liz.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Credit: NASA

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Credit: NASA

A sense of how the Moon landings continued to resonate many years later emerges from furniture designer Tom Dixon’s (b. 1959) interview with Frances Cornford, part of Crafts Lives. In 2004, as Creative Director of Habitat he developed a line of products in collaboration with celebrities. Most of them were prominent individuals from the creative industries or sport, but one of the more successful products in the range was ‘a moon lamp with Buzz Aldrin, you know, for kids’. Sold as the ‘Moonbuzz’, Dixon saw a clear story behind this product which strengthened its appeal with the public. It also suggests just how firmly embedded in popular culture the events of July 1969 remain.

Extracts from interviews with British Space Scientists can be found on our Voices of Science Rockets and Satellites theme page with full interviews on British Library Sounds under the subject heading space science and engineering.

Blogpost by Dr Sally Horrocks, Senior Academic Advisor, National Life Stories, British Library

16 July 2019

Magnetic Tape Alert Project

The Magnetic Tape Alert Project is an initiative of the Information for All Programme (IFAP) Working Group on Information Preservation.

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Photo: Bernhard Graf, Vienna Phonogrammarchiv

 

Today’s knowledge of the linguistic and cultural diversity of humanity is widely based on magnetic tape recordings produced over the past 60 years. Magnetic audio and video tape formats are now obsolete, replay equipment in working condition is disappearing rapidly and the supply and service of spare parts is fading. As a result, the routine transfer of magnetic tape recordings is likely to cease around 2025. The only way to preserve these sounds and images in the long term, and to keep them accessible for future generations, is to digitize them and transfer to them to safe digital repositories.

While many professional memory institutions have already secured their audiovisual holdings, or have plans to do so in time, a great number of audio and video recordings are still in their original state, kept in small academic or cultural institutions, or in private hands.

With the Magnetic Tape Alert Project, the Information for All Programme (IFAP) of UNESCO, in cooperation with the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA), aims to alert stakeholders to the imminent risk of losing access to their audiovisual documents.

Part of this is to conduct a survey, focusing on unique recordings, to assess the scale of the risk. The information obtained through the survey will serve as a basis for future planning for the safeguarding of these irreplaceable original documents in the long-term. Information gathered will be used to compile a report that will be made publicly available.

For further information and to respond to the questionnaire, please go to the project website.

Deadline for completion: 30 September 2019

The project coordinator, Andrew Pace, can be contacted at: MTAP@iasa-web.org

IFAP logo IASA logo

Alan Turing on the £50 note

One of the computers used by Alan Turing during his time at Manchester. Courtesy of Ferranti/Computer Conservation Society.One of the computers used by Alan Turing during his time at Manchester. Courtesy of Ferranti/Computer Conservation Society.

This week mathematician Alan Turing was announced as the new face of the £50 bank note. Turing’s impact on the modern world is astonishing: In the 1930s his mathematical theories about an abstract “universal machine” presaged the general purpose computer; he played a key role in ultra secret wartime code breaking at Bletchley Park, contributing to work that probably saved millions of lives. In the postwar years he designed one of the earliest modern computers, the Automatic Computing Engine, and pondered if machines could think, helping to lay the foundations for the study of artificial intelligence. At the University of Manchester he was one of the earliest users of the pioneering Manchester Baby, the world’s first modern computer. A gay man at a time when such relations were illegal, he was prosecuted for homosexual acts in 1952, and died at his own hand in 1954 after consuming a cyanide laced apple. His eventual pardon in 2013 after a popular campaign was followed by ‘Turing’s Law’ in 2017, which granted a pardon to tens of thousands of gay and bisexual men previously convicted under laws that have now been repealed.

Several of those who worked with Turing in his time at Manchester were interviewed for An Oral History of British Science, recording unique personal reflections on a man who was far less well known at the time. For example, electronics engineer Geoff Tootill was one of the team who build the Manchester Baby, and found himself in the unique position of debugging Turing’s first computer program:

Geoff Tootill on working with Alan Turing (C1379/02/02) 

Research student Dai Edwards, was another who helped Turing use the Manchester computer:

Dai Edwards on helping Alan Turing use the Manchester Mark 1 (C1379/11/03)

Mathematical prodigy, heroic wartime codebreaker, tragic LGBT icon, a father of computing, now the subject of a Hollywood film; as time passes it gets increasingly difficult to separate the man from the legend, which makes the memories of those who knew him invaluable for helping to understand the real Alan Turing.

15 July 2019

Recording of the week: Rinding gumbeng from Central Java

This week's selection comes from Michele Banal, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Rinding gumbeng is a style of Central Javanese folk music that, although not widespread, is still common in the rural Gunungkidul area, about 50 km east of Yogyakarta, where it is performed at harvest rituals and other festivals. Both the name of the style and the music itself result from the combination of two main ingredients: the rinding and the gumbeng.

Rinding gumbeng framed horizontalRinding photo (left) by DAN MOI, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 / cropped from original. Gumbeng photo (right) by Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The rinding is a mouth harp built from a single piece of bamboo, often with a piece of string attached to one end of the instrument’s frame. It is an idioglot instrument, meaning that both the vibrating reed and the main body of the instrument are carved from a single piece of bamboo (mouth harps made of metal, more common in Europe, are generally heteroglot, because the vibrating tongue and the frame of the instrument are two separate pieces that have been joined together). As with all mouth harps, the mouth cavity acts as the main resonator but, unlike heteroglot mouth harps where the musician plucks the vibrating tongue directly, the rinding is played by plucking the frame of the instrument instead (or, where present, a piece of string attached to it). Because the instrument is made of a single piece of bamboo, the resulting vibration is directly transmitted from the frame to the inner reed. The sound-producing vibration is then caused by the very flexible reed as it catches up with the frame, which, being more rigid, stops vibrating much earlier than the reed.

The gumbeng is a tube zither made from a single piece of bamboo (which also makes it an idioglot instrument). A small number of strings (normally three) are carved from the outer layer of the bamboo, and raised from the body of the instrument by means of small bridges. The strings are then struck with a thin bamboo stick and, depending on the placement of the bridges, a limited number of different tones can be produced.

A rinding gumbeng ensemble normally comprises several rinding and at least a few gumbeng, and it can also include bamboo scrapers, large bamboo slit drums and an end-blown bamboo gong (thus called not because of its physical characteristics, but due to its function of signalling the beginning of a music cycle). In most cases, the ensemble is then fronted by a small number of singers.

This week’s recording was made by David Hughes in 1995 at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (Institut Seni Indonesia) of Yogyakarta, and features a rinding gumbeng ensemble from Duren in the Gunungkidul region. It is an instrumental version of rinding gumbeng, to better showcase its sound, and, judging from the audio, this specific ensemble may also include one or two slit drums carved out of bigger bamboo tubes.

Rinding gumbeng (C1450/27 S2 C1)

The David Hughes Collection holds other performances from the same group, including examples of rinding gumbeng with singing and solo performances on the rinding (see shelfmark C1450/27).

The David Hughes Collection has been digitised as part of the British Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. The digitisation of this and many other recordings in this collection was sponsored by Eddie and Chris Dapré in memory of Eddie’s father Patrick Alfons Dapré, as a reminder of his love for all kinds of music and particularly the zither - an instrument that he played.

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

10 July 2019

Partition memories and the power of oral testimony

BBC journalist and author Kavita Puri reflects on the power of oral testimony. Hear more from Kavita at the British Library on Tuesday 16 July at 7pm, where she will discuss Partition Voices in conversation with Kirsty Wark. Book here: https://www.bl.uk/events/partition-voices.

In the summer of 2017 I ran a BBC project called Partition Voices. It marked the 70th anniversary of the division of British India into the independent states of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. I collected testimonies of colonial British and British South Asians who had lived through that tumultuous time. Their eye-witness accounts document the end of empire. They also tell of living through partition – where over ten million people were fleeing: Hindus and Sikhs to India, Muslims to Pakistan. It was accompanied by terrible violence where people of the “other” religion were targeted. Many thousands whose lives were disrupted by partition migrated to post-war Britain. They brought their stories of grief, loss and trauma with them, but kept silent about it for many decades. I also interviewed children and grandchildren of the partition survivors about its continuing legacy in Britain. I have now published a book arising from the interviews.

Partition Voices book cover

Central to the project was having a place to keep these testimonies, so future generations could access them, for interest or scholarly work, and I am delighted that 32 of the interviews are now archived in the British Library Sound Archive. Why did this matter? Partition memories in Britain were only just emerging with the 70th anniversary. When the migrants came over to post-war Britain, people were getting on with their lives here, fighting to be accepted and there was little time to talk of the past. There was also an institutional silence pervading empire and its demise, no one spoke of it, so there was no public space to discuss it. And so many partition memories are bound up in honour and shame – it became difficult to speak of. Many from that generation are elderly, and as they finally open up, it has become a race against time to record their stories for posterity.

These accounts – the lived experience – are important. These voices are harder to find in the official documentary evidence kept in the British Library India Office Records that speaks more loudly of the “high politics” of partition. Crucially, the interviews paint a complex picture from that time. Of course they speak of the horrors, but they also talk of how closely the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities were in pre-partition British India. How people would share in each other’s festivals, happiness and sorrows. There were deep friendships across religions. The place that people left may have been land that generations of their family members had lived on. Even though people may not have returned in seventy years there is still a visceral pull to their place of birth. It’s a place they still say they feel they belong to. The precise details of the testimonies reveal so much. The musings out loud, of what happened to a childhood friend; the longing to go back to visit a mother’s grave; the wish to have your ashes scattered where you were born.

These stories are significant because they show another side of history. And for second and third generation British South Asians it paints a nuanced picture of that time, and helps inform their identity today. The South Asian community in Britain can be fractured, and what these accounts reveal is how much they shared and had in common. These testimonies of former subjects of the British Raj who are now British citizens are British history. It is a part of history that is still difficult to talk of, and is not yet taught in schools. Yet it is vital to understand why contemporary Britain looks the way it does today. There will be a time, I hope, where the history of empire and its end is taught widely and these accounts will be a valuable resource.

There is something wonderful in knowing these original interviews on which my book Partition Voices is based upon will live in the British Library, and that when I am an old lady, around the age of the people I interviewed, they will still exist there, and for many generations to come.

The Partition Voices collection (reference C1790) sits alongside many existing oral history collections which contain powerful testimonies of migration and the impact of the colonial British past. The Partition Voices radio series is available from BBC Sounds and won the Royal Historical Society Public History Prize 2018, which you can read about on the Sound and Vision blog. Partition Voices: Untold British Stories is published by Bloomsbury on 11 July, 2019.

08 July 2019

Recording of the week: discovering Victorian coins in a Leeds butchers shop

This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

As a boy the artist Norman Ackroyd (born 1938) developed a fascination with Victorian coins such as the Godless florin and Bun Head penny. He helped out in his family’s butchers shop in Leeds, and vividly describes in his life story interview how he cashed up the till one Saturday afternoon, and came across an ‘eccentric’ coin…

Norman Ackroyd on old money (C466/293)

Ackroyd had discovered the Godless florin. He goes on to describe how this coin was the first indication that decimalisation would be coming to Britain: the florin was worth 1/10th of a pound and was issued from 1849. The coin, unlike others from this period, doesn’t say ‘Dei Gratia’ (by the grace of God) and so is referred to as being ‘Godless’.

Godless_florinGodless florin, dated 1849, saved by Norman Ackroyd from working in his father’s shop. Courtesy Norman Ackroyd Collection (Image not licensed for reuse)

Another coin mentioned in this audio clip is the Bun Head penny. First minted in 1860, this coin depicts a young Queen Victoria with her hair styled in a bun. Ackroyd makes the link between his early interest in Victorian coinage – ‘some of the most beautiful coins that we’ve ever produced’ – and his interest in etching, which he went on to develop during his artistic training.

Bun_pennyBun Head penny, dated 1862, saved by Norman Ackroyd from working in his father’s shop. Courtesy Norman Ackroyd Collection (Image not licensed for reuse)

To learn more about Norman Ackroyd, his background, education and work, see the article ‘A sense of place: The work of Norman Ackroyd’, published on British Library website Voices of art in June 2019. This article was written by Cathy Courtney, and features seven audio extracts from Ackroyd’s oral history interview and a series of images from his private collection.

Cathy Courtney recorded Norman Ackroyd for the National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2009-2012. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Listen to the full interview on BL Sounds.

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

04 July 2019

Chernobyl: Perspectives from the British Nuclear Industry

021I-C1495X0051XX-0001M0Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988, as part of an international delegation led by Lord Marshall. Courtesy of Peter Vey

A new television series has once again brought public attention to the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, when an explosion in one of the RMBK reactors caused one of the worlds worst nuclear disasters. Today, our attitudes toward nuclear power are forever overshadowed by Chernobyl, and it’s easy to forget that the early days of nuclear power were marked by tremendous optimism. In 1956 the Queen opened Calder Hall, the first full size nuclear power station to provide electricity to the public in the world, declaring that the terrible power of the atom bomb had now been, “harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community.” Nuclear power, futuristic and apparently clean and economical, promised an age of “electricity too cheap to meter.” Yet gradually the mood changed, as Granville Camsey, a nuclear engineer caught up in the early optimism, and then the backlash against nuclear power, recalled in his interview for An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

"It became very difficult to say you were a nuclear engineer" (C1495/09/05)

The Chernobyl disaster was a major issue for the British Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), which was trying to obtain permission to build a new nuclear plant at Sizewell to join the fleet of older reactors it already operated at the time. In this age of Cold War secrecy, the Soviets initially attempted to cover-up the disaster. But European nuclear power stations started to detect inexplicably high levels of radiation as a radioactive cloud spread across Europe. With the Soviet Union underplaying the severity of the situation, other countries scrambled to figure out what had happened, reassure the public, and to assess the risks of a Chernobyl happening at their own nuclear plants. As recalled by Peter Vey, head of public relations at the CEGB, the days after Chernobyl were very busy ones, particularly for the CEGB chairman and nuclear scientist Walter Marshall.

"The cloud by then had reached Dungeness" (C1495/51/11)

In the aftermath of Chernobyl, nuclear industries around the world united to try and improve the safety of nuclear power stations. Two years after the disaster Peter Vey travelled to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation visiting to sign a nuclear safety agreement. The trip included a visit to Chernobyl itself.

"People had just dropped everything" (C1495/51/11)

Chernobyl, and the later Fukishima disaster in Japan, had a profound effect on the nuclear industry across the world. Although the high cost of nuclear power has been a major factor in there being no new nuclear plants built since Chernobyl, higher safety standards and negative public opinion have undoubtedly been a factor too. Various countries have attempted to phase out nuclear power. No new nuclear plants have been built in Britain since Sizewell B was completed in 1995, and the planned Hinkley C station under development still faces uncertainties. Most of Britain’s existing nuclear stations, built between the 1960s and 1980s, are due to run at least another decade or more. When they are finally shut down, radioactive contamination means they will not be simply demolished, but carefully dismantled and decontaminated. The most radioactive parts will be sealed up and left as nuclear landmarks for decades, until they become safe enough to remove entirely. In this short video, former manager Peter Webster explores the silent control room and reactor hall of one such decommissioned station at Oldbury near Bristol.

If you would like to know more about the history of the public relations of nuclear power, you might be interested in this academic article by Tom Lean and Sally Horrocks based on An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

Blog by Tom Lean, project interviewer for An Oral History of British Science and An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.