Sound and vision blog

7 posts from July 2020

27 July 2020

Recording of the week: The secret song of the skylark

This week’s selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Wildlife and Environmental Sounds Curator.

Birds are much like people when it comes to using sound to express themselves. Some are measured and mellow while others go at it hammer and tongs.

The Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) is a songster that firmly believes in sonic bombardment. Not that this is a bad thing; its complex song is an almost continuous stream of beauty that has been enjoyed by humans throughout the ages. Though pleasing to our ears, the skylark’s sweet song is actually a lucky byproduct of evolution.

19th Century Colour Illustration of the Eurasian Skylark
Eurasian Skylark colour plate from Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands, Vol 4, issued by Lord Lilford, London 1885-1897 (via the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

During the breeding season, males use their songs to attract potential mates. Speed, stamina and complexity act as indicators of fitness and help females decide who to settle down with. Sadly our ears are not designed to fully process the vast amount of information contained within these aerial serenades but, thanks to technology, we can get a little closer to the detail. How do we do this? By slowing things down.

The following clip contains both the normal song of a skylark and a slowed down version. The original was recorded by Alan Burbidge on the Hebridean island of North Uist during May 1997 (BL ref 145065).

Slowing down a skylark's song

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

23 July 2020

Oral History of British Science and transnational history

Dr Sally Horrocks writes about her recent talk at the Global Digital History of Science Festival.

Earlier this month the British Society for the History of Science hosted a successful online ‘Global Digital History of Science Festival’ in place of is usual annual conference. This event prompted me to reflect on how the interviews collected for An Oral History of British Science might be used to explore transnational histories of science and to think about what happens when we view our interviewees as nodes in transnational networks rather than as ‘British scientists’. I was also interested to see what oral history, particularly the extended life story approach used in An Oral History of British Science, might contribute to the project of writing transnational histories of science.

Interviews reveal the ways in which individuals moved across borders at all stages of their lives and for many reasons, sometimes several times- as child refugees, as students, as postdocs, to take up new employment opportunities, as a consequence of the regulatory state.

As a collection these interviews show how individual, family and state decisions, accrete to create a transnational scientific community that is constantly in flux. They also reveal the individual costs of these moves and the barriers that had to be navigated during such transitions that are often not discussed elsewhere.

Oral histories also reveal how individuals who make these moves create their own sense of individual identity. Lithuanian born, South Africa raised Aaron Klug, 1982 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, reflected on his multiple identities: ‘All these things co-existed. But I didn’t feel any contradiction between feeling Jewish and being South African and also a British subject.’

The ways in which personal relationships were developed and sustained across national borders, and how these relationships acted as facilitators of knowledge exchange also emerge strongly. The cartoon below, presented to physicist Mike Forrest by his Soviet colleague Boris Kadomtsev, a Lenin Prize winner, suggests a sense of fun and camaraderie which also emerges from the interview and shows us a different side of prominent figures:

A black and white cartoon of scientists on a train

Mike Forrest on his first day in the USSR (C1379/48)

So we had this very formal invitation from the Russians, and that was my first trip to Russia. We were met at the airport by Volodiya Sannikov the young Russian who was going to work with us. I think it was December the ninth, so it was a type of deepest Russian winter, a cold one as well, quite a blast when you got off the plane, and even more so when we got out the car to go into the hotel. The first day, I think the first day we went out to see the Park of Achievements, and the second day we went to the lab. Peter Wilcock has a different [laughs] he has a complete reverse, so this is one of these memory things where we remember totally different things. My version, this chap Dennis Ivanov who was the engineer physicist who designed T3, he picked up us up at the hotel and took us to the Park of Achievements in Moscow. This is where they show off all the latest – exhibitions of all the latest stuff. And of course then it was all space. So we actually saw Gagarin’s space capsule, which is fairly horrific. It was like a cannonball with leather straps inside, you just couldn’t imagine, you know, going inside that. I think – it’s a huge, it must have been about a 100 acre site, and it’s the middle of winter, and I think we were about the only tourists there. Anyway, Dennis said “lets go and eat and we'll start talking about the project.” So he took us to this restaurant and plied us with vodka. By the time the food had come [laughs] we were getting a bit sloshed, I think is the right word. Anyway, and then we started chatting, you know, technicalities and we ended up drawing – we didn’t have any drawings of the machine there, so we ended up drawing things on the paper tablecloth. In fact I can recollect carrying bits of this back so we’d have a record, because we honestly wouldn’t have remembered the conversation [laughs].

Oral histories also reveal the significance and involvement of scientists families in these relationships. Dennis Higton, who spent time as technical liaison to the British Embassy in Washington recalled the significance of his wife to his career, describing her as ‘the heroine of the whole trip’:

Dennis Higton on dinner parties in the USA (C1379/41)

I was posted to America in a hurry, but the reason for the hurry was the chap I was replacing had been thrown back home. I was told when I got there – well, I was told by the Foreign Office before I left. They said, ‘Look, we’re bringing you over, the last chap in the world we want to see really, but the real reason for getting you there, what they called the social side, was crashing fast and your task is to put that straight. It doesn’t matter what you do on the technical side.’ But they worried about my wife, but they shouldn’t have done. They thought she was – unable to cope with dinner parties every other night and go out nicely dressed, but she was – she was the heroine of the whole trip, I’m pleased to say. In fact the Americans, they all said, ‘We don’t want to see you, Dennis,’ they said, ‘We want old Joy Bells back, you see.’ And these parties, you see, they not only enable you to talk to people in your discipline, but you’ll meet all sorts of people in all the other disciplines, you see. They’d always be... In your house you’ll always have a meal. Sometimes there are little parties. Sometimes the house would be full of people drinking and eating.

What reasons do you have for throwing a party?

Well, to get to know people. There’s no point in shaking hands at the airport, you’ve got to know them so that they talk to you and you can talk to them. It’s all about talking to people and people that you trust and they trust you. And you’ve got the energy to do it. That’s the – that’s the requirement of a Washington chap.

These personal relationships helped when it became necessary to circumvent the regulatory state. Interviews with John Scott-Scott and John Nye capture details that out of necessity would never have been committed to paper; of clandestine meetings on benches between British and US scientists, or with Soviet dissidents:

John Scott-Scott on a trip to California (C1379/32)

But they were jolly good, and that’s where you can meet these informal people in the corridor over a cup of tea, where we’d pretend to forget all about security. Yeah, well you’d check that the fellow’s not Russian for a start, but generally speaking you can have a better meeting than you have in a formal sense. Now on one of these things I fixed up with someone to go and see them another day, after the conference, and in the meanwhile some wretch, I don’t know whether it was the British Embassy who used to play us up a lot, had decided, they’d found out about me, and they were going to ban my visit. So I had to turn up at the gate of this place, and they said, ‘You can’t come in, John, sorry, we’re not allowed to do this, that and the other.’ I said, ‘Well that’s a bit daft, I’ve come 6,000 miles,’ because it was on the far side, ‘to have a chat with you.’ ‘Ah, don’t worry about it,’ he said, ‘you just can’t come on site.’ I said, ‘What am I going to do then?’ He says, ‘Drive back half a mile,’ he says, ‘and you’ll find there’s a sort of park area with one or two benches. Just go and park down there.’ I said, ‘All right,’ try anything once. Well you won’t believe it, by the time I got down there half the bushes had got blokes in them. And these blokes all walk out, and they come and sit on these benches round in a circle, and we have a wonderful meeting out there, where someone brought a cold box so we got something cold to drink, and we had our meeting outside in the sun of California. So it just shows, if you know a few people, you know, and they were always very good to me that way.

John Nye on handing over offprints on a bench (C1379/22)

I also discovered that there was a Geophysics Seminar on similar lands in Moscow, and I was invited to, er, address them. I went out there, and we sat round a table and talked about geophysics. And one of the chaps there said please could he have reprints. And I said, ‘Of course, certainly I can, but I’ve left them, I’ve got them all in the hotel.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’ll pick them up tomorrow morning.’ I was staying in the big hotel where all the foreigners stayed at that time, near the Kremlin. And I said, 'well, I’ll give them to you at my hotel'. ‘No, I can’t come into your hotel,’ he said, ‘we’ll meet outside.’ So we met outside. And he had this carrier bag that all Russians carry around with them in case there’s a bargain going in the shops, so something just come in. And he said, ‘We will walk,’ and we walked, and we walked, and we walked to a park. And traditionally we sat down [laughs] on the park bench. And I took the reprints out of my briefcase and he put them into his carrier bag, just like [laughs] they do in the movies. [Laughs] And I’m sure we were not being observed, but that was his concern. And I went back to my hotel and he went back to his lab.

Written records tell us much about how transnational communities and institutional structures have been constructed and maintained, interviews reveal the practical everyday tasks required to sustain longstanding collaborations such as the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) or World Ocean Circulation Experiment. They also show the many individual contributions that enabled some institutions to develop a reputation as important nodes in international networks

David Davies, editor of Nature from 1973 to 1980, noted of the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics in Cambridge during the early 1970s, ‘they need somebody in a department who will make things happen. You know, who will organise the symposia, who will meet the visitors, who will organise the expeditions’:

David Davies on doing departmental donkey work (C1379/60)

My – I think my job at the department was [laughs] – I sort of knew I wasn’t going to be a brilliant scientist, I sort of knew, I knew I wasn’t, I’d be – and I knew that there were good, really good people coming through all the time like – like Dan for instance who – but all departments in every scientific discipline, every discipline, they need somebody in a department who will make things happen. You know, who will organise the symposia, who will meet the visitors, who will organise the expeditions, this that and the other. And I think – I sort of knew at that stage that that was my role, read the stuff in the library and tell other people about. Being the – being the sort of gatekeeper in a way, friendly gatekeeper, not an unfriendly gatekeeper, and I sort of fitted into that role. I mean Teddy, Teddy sort of was brilliant in all sorts of directions but somebody needed to sort of take onto his bright ideas and move them somewhere else or say, no it wouldn’t work, or let’s try it out. And everybody else really, all the research students, said you needed some – somebody in the department who just knew broadly what was going on and could organise things. And I suppose I slipped into that role ‘cause nobody else did it but, you know, inviting speakers to colloquium and driving people from the station [laughs] and all that kind of stuff. So – and departments do need that as well as brilliant minds, they do need people who will do the donkey work.

Interviews also capture how these practices have changed over time. Physicist Ann Wintle reflected on how email and Skype had enabled her to remain active in her field after retirement, remarking ‘you can discuss things with anybody anywhere’ - allowing her to participate in a transnational research community without leaving her own home in the same way that I was able to do as an attendee at the Festival.

Ann Wintle on laboratory work via Skype (C1379/57)

I guess when I turned sixty in 2008, I was by then thinking, I’ve got to do something with my life, I can’t actually sit in Aberystwyth forever. You know, there are two perfectly competent people running a lab here but, you know, I will feel like the - you know, the sort of – the ghost that creeps in from time to time and this isn’t right, they need to be – not have me anywhere in sight. So yeah, I decided coming to Cambridge would be a good idea and just made the move, so … still have the same interests but no sort of – nobody to go talk to every day, but when you can do it on Skype or on the phone or send emails, it’s not – not a problem. I can still think and work and write, so that’s good. You know, I can download from libraries. That means that, you know, all the information is still at your fingertips. It’s only when you’re wanting to have a detailed discussion with somebody, equivalent to having a discussion with them in the room, that the Skype comes in and then you’re – you can do instant texting. You can almost write – you can almost type as fast as you can talk. So you can just, you know, talk like we are now but you’re just doing it on a keyboard. And that person is instantly there engaging with you, whereas if it’s emails it might take a little bit and they may have wandered off somewhere. But I mean, in this case it’s – it’s absolutely instant. And then we send – we’re still sending emails with files on them if we want to know, you know, 'what does that dataset look like?' and, ooh, 'go check your email box, I’ve just sent it to you'. So you can get that and then you can look at it and then you can both talk about it. That – that’s how it works. It’s really – it’s great. I mean, it’s, you know, you’d – I can see why in the past some people might have either gone very solitary when they retired or they disengaged totally from their academic field, because they didn’t have any interactions that – in this way, because you didn’t have the communication. Now you’ve got the communication, you know, you can discuss things with anybody anywhere. So you’ve I think probably got more chance of staying involved with your – with your research ideas. Though you don’t have the equipment to do it yourself, you’ve still got the ideas and if you hit it right you can persuade somebody to do the experiment you would do if you were there. They think it’s their experiment but, you know, you know you’ve just pushed them in that little direction, saying, ‘Ooh, I think I’d look at that, yeah.’ So that’s – that’s great fun. It also means they have to go off and spend physical time doing the experiments where you can go off and read a book [laughs].

Dr Sally Horrocks is the Senior Academic Advisor for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science. All the clips featured in this blog can he found on the Voices of Science website.

22 July 2020

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage preserves 200,000 endangered sounds

Article written by: Nina Webb-Bourne

Thanks to the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) team's dedication to sound conservation, 200,000 of the nation’s most endangered recordings are now preserved for generations to come.

This major milestone has arrived at a significant moment. Along with our ten hub partners, we are now over half-way through a National Lottery Heritage Funded five-year project to restore and catalogue half a million rare and at-risk sounds. However, the vital work of curators, cataloguers and audio engineers around the nation was recently impeded by the challenges of lockdown life.

Despite these obstacles, or perhaps in spite of them, the UOSH team was spurred on to find that extra momentum and make this impressive breakthrough. Each and every hub across the nation played a part and contributed a substantial 20,000 recordings to the total. The audio heritage safeguarded and digitised by the project now includes recordings as varied as a survey of traditional Irish dialects by the National Museums Northern Ireland, and the British Library’s Glastonbury New Bands Competition collection.

To celebrate this achievement, we are sharing with you the striking sound of the Ecuadorian Yellow-billed Jacamar, the 200,000th recording to be catalogued and preserved in our archive. This recording was originally archived on audio CD and is one of over 5000 Ecuadorian bird sounds recorded by Niels Krabbe.

Listen to the Yellow-billed Jacamar

Yellow-billed Jacamar, Ecuador, 1994. Held in the Ecuador birds WA 2003/003 collection.


 [Image: The Biodiversity Heritage Library]

Niels Krabbe is an ornithologist, bird conservationist, and skilled recordist. He has worked extensively in the Andes and has a developed a keen interest in the biodiversity of Ecuador, where he became the first person in 80 years to scientifically record an observation of endangered Yellow-eared Parrots. The collection held by the British Library also includes the calls of endangered and endemic species, such as the El Oro and White-necked Parakeets.

As a result of Niels Krabbe’s prolific and sustained work in the region, we have obtained a valuable treasure trove of recorded history, rich in breadth and depth, and one that showcases much of Ecuador’s bird life and natural environment. These sounds are also an authentic representation of that habitat. Krabbe prides himself on ‘preferring to get a good tape recording of a bird rather than a good look at it’.

A similar dedication to conservation has ensured the UOSH team's recent success in cataloguing its 200,000th sound. As we emerge from lockdown, there is a renewed focused on the task ahead as there are many more recordings at risk, and thousands more to digitise before the project is complete.

Follow project updates at @BLSoundHeritage on Twitter and Instagram.

20 July 2020

Recording of the week: Barnacle geese at Mersehead Reserve

This week's selection comes from Harriet Roden, Digital Learning Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Human imagination has often shaped colourful tales. Superstitions are born from the indescribable and the unexplained. Even the call of seals has been woven into legend and folklore, transforming into sightings of mermaids, sirens and selkies.

Birds, similarly, have not escaped this fate.

For instance, consider the Barnacle Goose, a medium-sized goose with a white face, black neck and striped back. Strangely, it shares its namesake with the Goose Barnacle, an organism with which it seems to share barely anything else. How did this come to be?

Barnacle geese at Mersehead Reserve

Due to their appearance, it was once believed that these geese were born from the barnacle. The shells, discarded from the rocks after a storm, were taken as a sure sign that a goose had hatched.

Much of this myth was believed as fact – documented in studies of nature – and stemmed from confusion over what a Barnacle actually was.

For instance, rather than nests on driftwood and rocks, John Gerard’s Great Herball from the 16th Century illustrates a barnacle tree that bore geese. Gerald of Wales also described in his Bestiary how barnacle geese develop in the water and hang from trees, enclosed in their shells, until they could grow feathers and fly.

Illustration of goose barnacles
The Barnacle tree that bore Geese. From Gerald of Wales’ Bestiary (Harley MS 4751, f.36r)

Later Edward Heron-Allen’s book, Barnacles in Nature and in Myth, describes how this legend was used to the advantage of meat lovers. On fast days, meat is not usually allowed to be consumed. However, some claimed that because the goose was not born from an egg it was perfectly acceptable to be eaten during times of fasting. Many were dubious of this claim.

The real secret of the barnacle was eventually revealed by Dr. J. Vaughan Thompson through his research in the 1830s, which showed what barnacles actually were and how they develop. However it doesn’t stop this white and black striped goose from sharing its name with the barnacle.

This recording was made by Richard Beard, at Mersehead Reserve, in 2005. Discover more superstitions around the sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.


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

13 July 2020

Recording of the week: Women’s workwear in the 1960s

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

Cover of 'Speeding The Mail: An Oral History of the Post Office', CD published by the British Library and the British Postal Museum and Archive, 2005.
Speeding The Mail: An Oral History of the Post Office, CD published by the British Library and the British Postal Museum and Archive, 2005.

In 1969 Morag Simpson MacDonald responded to an advert in the Sunday Times for a graduate trainee programme with the Post Office. The advert was for ‘telecoms management entrants’ and there were twelve successful applicants, including five women. Despite being managed through a modern recruitment process the trainee programme was controversial – unions hadn’t been informed that the Post Office were recruiting non-engineering graduates. Morag Simpson MacDonald was a law graduate, and she began her traineeship in the telecoms personnel department.

In her life story recording Morag describes her experiences of working for the Post Office, including reflections on encountering chauvinism from male colleagues in the 1970s. She begins with a brief but revealing description of the women’s dress code when she first joined the programme, and her reaction to it:

Morag Simpson Macdonald on the 1960s Post Office dress code (C1107/83 Part 4)

When I arrived I suppose it was late sixties. Many of the women, there were many women working in the Post Office, they were almost entirely single and they were mostly in their fifties. There was a very, there was certainly a male atmosphere in that the directors, all the senior staff that I knew when I started were all male. And women were allowed to wear trousers to work providing they asked everybody else who worked in their office if they minded or not. [laughs] And it seems quite extraordinary. Although when I complained about this to another woman, unmarried woman, she said, well you have to remember, it’s not very long since women had to leave work when they got married. So she didn’t find it extraordinary at all that I had to ask permission if I wanted to wear trousers, but that was how it was and if somebody said no, they objected, then that was it.

Morag Simpson MacDonald was interviewed by Rorie Fulton for An Oral History of the Post Office in 2002. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

This collection comprises 116 life story interviews with a sample of the Post Office's 200,000 staff in the UK, recorded between 2001 and 2005. The recordings cover postal sorting, transportation and deliveries; stamp design, printing and marketing; legal, purchasing and property departments; plus lesser-known aspects such as the Post Office Rifles, the Post Office Film Unit and the Lost Letter Centre. There is an emphasis on change within living memory: the separation of post from telecommunications, computerisation and automation, new management practices and the diversification of new services offered by Post Office. You can hear more extracts from An Oral History of the Post Office on the British Library Sounds website, under the heading ‘Speeding the Mail’.

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

07 July 2020

Linton Kwesi Johnson awarded PEN Pinter Prize 2020

Linton Kwesi Johnson has been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2020. He will receive the award in a digital ceremony co-hosted by the British Library on 12 October, where he will deliver an address. To coincide with the award Sarah O’Reilly looks back at Johnson’s career through his life story interview for the National Life Stories oral history project ‘Authors’ Lives’.

Headshot photograph of Linton Kwesi Johnson

Image credit: Maria Nunes Photography

For Linton Kwesi Johnson, the recipient of the 2020 PEN Pinter Prize, writing has always gone hand in hand with political activism. Widely regarded as the first artist to give a voice to second generation black Britons – the children of the West Indian migrants who travelled to England in the postwar period – his poetry articulates the struggle against racial and social injustice that has energised him for fifty years:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on poetry as the cultural side of politics (C1276/60)

Poetry has always been a way of articulating anger, and ideas about injustice and the struggle against it. It was always the cultural dimension of what I was doing on the streets, the demonstration, the picket line. It was always the cultural side of politics.

Whether protesting police brutality in poems such as ‘Sonny’s Lettah’, reacting to the National Front in ‘Fite Dem Back’ or celebrating the 1981 uprisings in Brixton, Liverpool and Bristol in ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’, Johnson’s work stands as an evolving account of race relations in the UK over the past half century. His subjects have included Blair Peach (a teacher killed by police at an anti-racism rally in 1979), George Lindo (framed for robbery in Bradford), and the New Cross Fire of 1981 in which 13 young party-goers lost their lives. For many, Johnson has been an alternative poet laureate, using his experiences to give voice to the pressures and alienation felt by a generation of young black Britons, expressed in a new form, ‘reggae poetry’.

Johnson was born in Chapeltown, Jamaica, in 1952 to Sylvena, a domestic worker, and Eric, a baker and sometime sugar estate worker. At the age of seven, after his parents’ separation, he moved to live with his grandmother, a subsistence farmer in Sandy River. He described the years spent with her as ‘the happiest time of my life’, recalling days spent tending his grandmother’s crops and nights outside in the yard under a full moon listening to her stories and folktales.

In 1961 Sylvena moved to England and two years later Johnson followed in her footsteps. Arriving in the country on a grey November day in 1963, the ugliness of the buildings and the cold were a shock:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on arriving in England (C1276/60)

From the books that you saw at school, you really didn’t know what England was like, but I’d have read the story of Dick Whittington, and you’d see pictures of horse drawn carriages and all that, and you’d imagine that England was something like that. Great big mansions and literally the streets of London paved with gold. It was a bit of a rude awakening when I arrived and saw these grey ugly looking buildings on the drive from the airport to Victoria station where my mother met me. And it was a grey November day. I came here the 8th November 1963 and it was one of those overcast, cold days. I thought to myself my God, is this England? My mother was there to meet me and when I saw her at first I didn’t recognise her. How long had it been since you’d last seen her? It seemed like a long time, but I don’t think it was more than two years. But it seemed like a very long time. And she looked as if she’d changed a lot over that time. But it was my mother. First thing she did was take me to Littlewoods and bought me a duffle coat. Because of the cold? Yeah.

In England, Johnson attended Tulse Hill Comprehensive where he was relegated to the bottom stream in spite of his academic achievements in Jamaica. He had ambitions to become an accountant, though in a sign of the school’s low aspirations for boys from the Caribbean, the idea was greeted with incredulity by his careers adviser. Johnson would later compare the elation of finishing a poem with the pleasure of balancing the books:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on "aspirations above my station" (C1276/60)

We all wanted to make something of our lives, cos we didn’t come to this country to... in Jamaica we say Me no come here for cow, me for come here to drink milk. So we didn’t come here to loaf, we all wanted to make something of our lives and try and get a good education, and me, well I always loved learning, you know, I had a very inquisitive mind, I wanted to know, I had this thirst for knowledge. So I can’t speak for anybody else, but for myself I wanted to become an accountant because I loved the figures. I was good at it, at school, and I was good at economics and commerce. I liked the feeling that you got when your books balanced. And later on, when I started to write verse, I realised that once you struggle with a poem and then the poem is finished it’s the same kind of feeling of elation, the same feeling that you get when you’re doing your accounts and your books balance [laughs]. Strange comparison but there you go. Anyway, within the schooling system, with maybe one or two exceptions, it was understood, it was the general understanding, I think, that boys from the Caribbean, from working class backgrounds, would do a similar job to their parents. Work in the factories, on the buses, in the hospitals and so on. So me wanting to become an accountant, I was having aspirations above my station, or at least that’s the impression I got from the careers teacher. I guess I am a second generation immigrant child, what am I talking about, accountant? The idea must have sounded absurd to him.

It was whilst he was a pupil at Tulse Hill that Johnson first encountered Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the Trinidadian research scientist who played a leading role in the British Black Panther Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Panthers championed racial equality in housing, the justice system, immigrant rights and employment practices, and focused on educating their members in Saturday schools. It was here, in the movement’s Youth League, that Johnson discovered the work of Eric Williams, CLR James and Franz Fanon - ‘an astonishing discovery for me because I didn’t realise that black people even wrote books’. It was in the Panthers’ library that he found ‘the beautiful poetic prose’ of WEB du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. It ‘stirred something within me, and made me want to use language myself’.

If Black Panthers gifted Johnson an intellectual and political education, it was his experiences on the streets of Brixton that gave him something to write about. He recalled a ‘war against the Black youth’ up in the 60s and 70s, facilitated by legislation such as the ‘sus’ laws, which allowed for the arrest and punishment of anyone on the streets suspected of criminal intent. In 1972, he was wrongfully arrested himself, ‘thrown in the Black Maria, kicked all over’ by three police officers and taken to Brixton police station where he was charged with assaulting a police officer and Actual Bodily Harm. His crime had been to note down the details of two officers who were harassing acquaintances from his local club in Brixton Market. The experience ‘certainly didn’t endear the police to me.’ Though the charges against him were later dropped, the experience has a long-lasting impact: ‘Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent a substantial part of my life campaigning against injustice.’ He would later become involved in organising watershed events such as The Black People’s Day of Action in 1981, and working as a campaigning journalist with The Race Today Collective and Channel 4’s Bandung File. Alongside this activism, poetry became his ‘cultural weapon’.

Inspired by the Caribbean poets he discovered in the magazine Savacou 3/4, whose writing was powered by the use of non-standardised English, as well as the music of The Last Poets, Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari and the reggae DJs in Jamaica who declaimed their spontaneously improvised lyrics over dub music mixed down with sound effects, Johnson began writing ‘Jamaican English’ verse. Replacing iambic pentameter with the beat and bassline of reggae music, he created a new poetic form in which to describe the Black experience as he perceived it: ‘I’m writing about the Caribbean experience in Britain, black people’s experience in Britain. Why should I try and do so in the rarified language of English poetry?’:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on finding a language for poetry (C1276/60)

What I took from music was beat and rhythm, I guess the closest thing one gets to beat and metre. And by the time I began to write Jamaican verse, it was the bassline in the reggae that did it for me. I tried to write words that worked against the bassline or words that sounded like a bassline in reggae music, you know? I mean there was this whole idea of ‘blues poetry’ and ‘jazz poetry’, I wanted to write ‘reggae poetry’, so the one drop beat of reggae came into my verse and the bassline, how the bass sounded. And I guess those things, those two things, beat, bassline, determined the structure of the verse I wrote, and that came out of the language itself. I guess what I was trying to do is find the reggae in the Jamaican speech when I was writing the verse.

To critics who accused him of inciting violence in the streets, Johnson’s response was that he was ‘describing reality as I see it’: ‘I was an activist, I saw myself as being part of a radical and revolutionary struggle of resistance. It was part and parcel of that.’ In the words of Fred D’Aguiar, his poems were ‘a call for fair play on the political level with an accurate rendition of the mood among young people on the psychological level’.

The front cover of the book Dread Beat and Blood

Dread, Beat and Blood, published by Bogle L’Ouverture

Johnson’s first collection of poems, Voices of the Living and the Dead, came out in 1974 and was followed a year later by Dread, Beat and Blood. The latter became a bestseller for its publishers, the radical publishing house Bogle L’Ouverture, and was assisted by Johnson’s growing fame as a recording artist and performer. In 1977 he released The Poet and the Roots through Virgin Records, followed by Dread, Beat an’ Blood, Forces of Victory, Bass Culture, LKJ in Dub and Mekkin Histri with Island Records, before establishing his own record label in 1981. The performance of the work in front of an audience – delivered in a gravelly voice, almost monotone – became an important part of the creative act:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on the importance of reciting poems aloud (C1276/60)

When you write a new poem, you know, it’s the saying of it. Although it’s a finished poem it’s not really finished until you hear it properly. When you can hear it properly, all the nuances of inflection, of breathing, of pauses - cos that’s all a part of it you know, it’s not just simple words strung together - it’s the saying of the poem. And for me, poetry doesn’t come alive anyway unless it’s read aloud. It’s just dead words on the page... the hearing of the poem is important.

In subsequent years, Johnson would address increasingly personal subjects in his poetry, from the end of a relationship in ‘Hurricane Blues’ to elegies for his nephew and father, and friends May Ayim and Bernie Grant, a change in direction that reflected both an evolution in race relations in the UK, and his own shifting relationship with his writing:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on moving to the centre ground of poetry (C1276/60)

It’s just what comes along with getting old, it’s the age thing.... I mean in the political poems you want to convey anger, you want to capture the vibes, the mood, the sense of the period and the rage people feel. With the later poems now it’s about remembering, it’s about reverence, it’s about love. Perhaps it’s a way of dealing with your own sadness, a way of coping with one’s own sense of loss and feelings of sadness, or even guilt. It’s a long time now since I’ve understood that that’s the centre ground of poetry, really – it’s the personal.

In 2002 Johnson became only the second living poet to have work published in the Penguin Modern Classics series. With his unique form of language and body of work he has provided a commentary covering over three decades of contemporary history, and used, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech, his ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world to ‘define the real truth of our lives and our societies’ - a force to be reckoned with.

Sarah O’Reilly interviewed Linton Kwesi Johnson in 2014-15 for National Life Stories’ ‘Authors’ Lives’ oral history project at the British Library. The interview can be found by searching the catalogue reference number C1276/60 at 

06 July 2020

Recording of the week: Barbara Kruger in conversation

This week's selection comes from Dr Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings and Digital Performance.

Barbara Kruger, ‘You Are Not Yourself’, 1981
Barbara Kruger, ‘You Are Not Yourself’, 1981 © Image: callejero / / CC BY-NC-ND

Listen to a recording of visual artist Barbara Kruger in conversation with the art historian Griselda Pollock at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London,1991.

Barbara Kruger ICA London 1991

Barbara Kruger is best known for her found photographs in black-and-white, overlaid with eye-catching text, displayed on billboards, banners, bumper stickers, postcards and the likes. Her work addresses social issues, gender representation, violence against women, misogyny, power politics and the pitfalls of capitalism and consumerism. She deconstructs commonly held assumptions with forthright eloquence, bold humour and open-ended meaning:

‘I shop therefore I am’.

‘Your body is a battleground’

‘It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it’

In addition to her photographic and collage work she makes large-scale immersive installations covering all areas of the exhibition space. She also creates works on film and video.

Kruger has exhibited both outdoors in public spaces and indoors in galleries and museums. Some of her more recent creations include the design of the cover of the New York Magazine pre-election issue (2016 USA elections), published on the 31st October, showing a closely cropped image of Donald Trump’s face overlaid with the word 'LOSER'; an installation entitled Untitled (Skate) at the Coleman Skate Park in New York in 2017; and in 2018, a large-scale mural painted in the colours of the Argentinian flag covering an abandoned grain silo in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, Untitled (No Puedes Vivir Sin Nosotras / You Can’t Live Without Us).

Barbara Kruger started making art in the 1970s leaving behind a successful career as a graphic designer for magazines such as Mademoiselle. She first exhibited in London at the ICA in 1983. Later in 2014, she had a large solo exhibition Untitled (Titled) at the Modern Art Oxford Gallery, and her next show, set to open at the Art Institute of Chicago this November 2020, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You, is expected at the Hayward Gallery in London, in 2021. This will be her biggest exhibition in 20 years, featuring four decades of her work.

In this 1991 recording at the ICA she talks about the importance of making art that is accessible to everyone and why she challenges being called a feminist conceptual artist:

‘I’ve never felt myself defined or defined myself as a maverick girl, feminist artist, and nobody was searching for women artists to take up, you know. Perhaps they are beginning to do it now in NY, but we made our presence known and forced the issue. No one was looking for us, in fact they were looking the other way’ (20:59).

This recording is part of the ICA collection C95, available online on British Library Sounds. It is made up of 889 sound recordings of talks and discussions with prominent writers, artists and filmmakers, which took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, between 1982 and 1993.

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