THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

5 posts from January 2021

15 January 2021

Grace Robertson, a pioneer of women’s documentary photography

It was when Glenda Jackson fixed me with her frankly intimidating glare and barked, ‘Is that enough for you?’ that I knew I was in way above my head. What on earth was I doing on London’s South Bank, not only with a national icon of stage and screen but with one of the pioneers of documentary photography, Grace Robertson? What on earth did I think I was doing? Luckily Grace (who sadly died on 11 January aged 90) came to my assistance, accustomed no doubt to dealing with tricky customers, and calmly said that yes she’d got the images she needed, thank you. Glenda was pacified.

Those times in 1993 took us around the country for the National Life Story Awards, part of the International Year of Older People, to meet and photograph ‘champions’. Jackson, Richard Branson and Lord Soper were amongst them, and it was a huge learning curve for a young and relatively inexperienced oral history curator. Grace, then aged 63, agreed to take part in the project to ‘celebrate the role of older women photographers’ and I got to know her gentle and unobtrusive technique (despite her considerable height: she was six feet two inches).

Lord Donald Soper being interviewed by his granddaughter as part of the 1993 National Life Story Awards
Lord Donald Soper being interviewed by his granddaughter as part of the 1993 National Life Story Awards. Image courtesy of Grace Robertson/British Library

Grace was fearless but great fun and with her husband, photographer Thurston Hopkins, was enormously generous to me when Val Williams and I were starting up our Oral History of British Photography (OHBP) project at the British Library in 1990. At exhibition openings she’d say to me: ‘Have you met XYZ [famous photographer]’, and then whisk me off to meet my heroes. She and Thurston played an important part in OHBP: both were interviewed themselves (see the BL Sounds website at Grace Robertson and Thurston Hopkins), and Grace trained up to become an interviewer herself, capturing recordings for the collection with Mark Gerson, Penelope Anne Tweedie, Humphrey Spender and Margaret Harker.

Born in 1930, the daughter of journalist Fyfe Robertson, Grace Robertson was one of the few women photographers to work for the magazine Picture Post, which did so much to promote documentary photography’s role in documenting ‘ordinary’ lives before, during and after the Second World War. Her father gave her a Leica camera in 1949 and Grace worked as a freelance photojournalist for Picture Post (initially under the pseudonym Dick Muir) from 1951 until it closed in 1957. She was often allocated commissions about women’s lives. Her 1955 images of childbirth were truly pioneering and she later remarked that ‘I felt I was an observer of society. I never thought about my presence in it. My driving force in photographing women was to find out what made them tick.’

Photograph of women from ‘Mothers’ Day Off’, Picture Post 1954
From ‘Mothers’ Day Off’, Picture Post 1954. Image courtesy of Grace Robertson

Grace went on to work for other British and American publications including Life, retraining as a teacher in the mid-1960s, and only returning to photography in the 1980s. Latterly she lectured on women photographers and published an autobiographical monograph, entitled Grace Robertson – Photojournalist of the ‘50s. Shirley Read, another OHBP interviewer, remembers that Grace was also the Chair of ‘Signals, the Festival of Women Photographers’ in 1996, and ‘she could be formidable in that role’. In retirement she and Thurston moved to Seaford in Sussex where he died aged 101 in 2014.

Grace Robertson was interviewed by Alan Dein in 1993 for An Oral History of British Photography.

Blogpost by Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History @BL_OralHistory

13 January 2021

Building a National Radio Archive - in Hastings

The British Library's National Radio Archive pilot is collaborative venture, involving curators, technologists and three software and data partners. The day-to-day work of managing the capture of programmes, however, is mostly done by one person, our Broadcast Recordings Curator Neil McCowlen. Here he describes what it has been like keeping a pilot radio archive going, under lockdown, in Hastings.

Neil McCowlen recording radio programmes

Caption: Neil McCowlen recording radio programmes at home in Hastings

On Monday 21 March 2020 a new way of working began for most areas of the British Library, as well as many other workplaces in the UK as work shifted from office to home. This threw up many challenges. This was certainly so for the newly formed National Radio Archive at the British Library. It had started in September 2019, and in those first six months a new system had been adopted to record and archive radio programmes across 50 UK radio stations. As with all new procedures and set-ups, there had been challenges and teething difficulties as all parties began to co-operate together and a good working pattern became established. However, that all changed with Coronavirus lockdown. Now, the Library’s resources became one laptop in Hastings and remote working had to be established.

The radio stations themselves had to adapt to new working practices. The national stations continued their coverage of the main news and talking points of the day, but more importantly, the general interest programming became an important way for people to find entertainment and solace during days of isolation. For many people, being confined to their homes meant a dependence on radio for a voice to listen to as they faced a long period of isolation from friends and relatives. Keeping up with national news was important, but being aware of the local situation in their areas and nearby support and guidance became a necessity.

This is where local stations, and in particular, community stations, came to the fore. At first, many struggled with their studios having to close and volunteer presenters being confined to their homes along with the rest of the population. This proved a huge problem for the National Radio Archive too, as great community programmes were suddenly disappearing from the airwaves. The published schedules of many stations still listed shows that were now no longer being broadcast and automated playlist music now took their place. Trying to discover what was actually being broadcast became a headache, especially as only one person was now monitoring all 50 stations squashed in a corner of one room in a flat nearly a hundred miles from the St Pancras office. Social media provided a way of finding out about some of the new programmes being broadcast, but often blocks of time were recorded to see what programmes might be found in those slots, as many shows were replaced by chart music.

As things settled down, a lot of programmes were being produced at home where presenters set up equipment that allowed them to broadcast from a room at home. This led to some very interesting broadcasts. Suddenly street sounds outside windows and noises around the house were heard rather than the noise free recordings made from a studio. Some stations were able to provide equipment for some presenters, others made do with programs on their personal PCs or phones. This led to a large variety in sound quality. Many such programmes were archived by the NRA to show the range of quality across all stations.

However, the most important thing was that local information and help for the community was being broadcast. Some regular programmes returned, serving branches of the community generally not covered by national and local commercial stations. Programmes devoted to mental health, carers, those living with HIV or other specific heath matters, race, age and gender specific programming and hobbies and interests were being broadcast, giving people a chance to find ways to get them through the isolation of lockdown and discover new ideas to do in the home to boost their morale. Many of these programmes were initially discovered on social media as the schedules were still incorrect in the early months of lockdown, so it was a challenge to archive these shows, but over time patterns emerged and series became easier to follow and record.

National Radio Archive management system

Caption: National Radio Archive management system

One of the most important additions to the schedules were specific community programmes linked to COVID-19 itself and the help and advice that the health authorities within the community could provide the listeners. They also gave out helplines and gave ideas for leisure and fitness activities to help during lockdown. Stations such as Future Radio (Norwich), Resonance FM (South London), Academy FM (Folkestone), All FM (Manchester), Cornwall Hospital Broadcasting Network, Calon FM (Wrexham), Manx Radio (Isle of Man) and Radio Reverb (Brighton) broadcast such programmes, and Manx Radio also had their own government daily updates, along the same lines as Downing Street were giving out. BCB in Bradford adapted their local information show and added a further show in the afternoon to give out even more local information and stories. Siren Radio, based in the University of Lincoln, even broadcast virtual lectures for the students as term time neared its end.

These were all archived, and as the lockdown continued, stations were swapped within the NRA, so that other stations responses to the pandemic could be recorded, whilst still maintaining the maximum of 50 stations that can be recorded from at any one time on the system. Some local festivals and outdoor events had to be cancelled, but they then became virtual events and were covered by the community stations, often broadcasting parts or all of the events. 24-hour marathon broadcasts were set up to raise money, and broadcasts in different languages found within the local area became available again on several stations.

As schedules had not been updated since March on many station websites, the programme information still had to be obtained from social media, causing problems with keeping on top of the broadcasts being taken. Some replaced scheduled programmes at the last minute, due to technical problems at presenters’ homes, or they were unable to record their show due to family issues. So, even the more reliable of station schedules could not guarantee to be 100% accurate. A lot of metadata became generic and detailed programme information was no longer available on shows that were previously rich in available details. Therefore, the research to find that data became more labour-intensive.

Then there were technical issues with our equipment to contend with. There would be some days when the remote access would drop out and the laptop would need to be restarted. There could be quite a gap before a connection could be re-established. Most of the time the connection was stable, but new working practices had to be adopted. Internet speeds could become an issue, with some tasks taking longer to perform than on previous days. Meetings with colleagues were held via Zoom; technical problems were handled remotely (the NRA’s main software provider, SCISYS, is based in Germany).

The main thing is that even with a new way of working, the National Radio Archive continues to grow and has an invaluable range of broadcasts across this strange period in our lives. It mirrors the nation’s reaction to events in phone-ins, interviews and the programmes produced to help during lockdown. Radio has risen to the challenge of being a valuable friend in a trying period for many and has shown ingenuity and dedication in producing helpful and entertaining material. We are proud to say that those programmes and the story of this time in Britain’s history has been captured fully by the Radio Archive and will provide researchers with a rich vein of information in the future. As it now passes 140,000 recordings, the National Radio Archive continues to gather the nation’s words and give a fully rounded picture of not just Coronavirus, but all world and national events as they happen.

Neil McCowlen

11 January 2021

Recording of the week: The voice of Robert Browning (1812-1889)

This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

Portrait of Robert Browning
Above: British Library digitised image from The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (1888).

Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright born in Camberwell, London.

Like his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), whose great success as a poet exceeded his, at least in her lifetime, he was one of the most popular poets of the Victorian era.

This cylinder recording of Robert Browning is the earliest recording of a major British literary figure that we know of.

It was made at a dinner party given by Browning's friend, the artist Rudolf Lehmann on 7 April 1889, on a phonograph brought to the party by Thomas Edison’s representative in Europe, Colonel Gouraud.

Here is Browning attempting to read his poem ‘How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’.

Unfortunately, he runs into a bit of trouble trying to remember how it goes, but all is resolved in good-humoured fashion.

Listen to the voice of Robert Browning

Download Robert Browning transcript

Browning was then in the last year of his life. He was to die that December.

It is not unusual nowadays for a recording of the deceased to be played at a memorial event honouring a poet or a writer. Recording technology is now more than 140 years old. It no longer brings with it the shock of the new.

In 1890, however, when this recording was replayed at an event held on the first anniversary of Browning’s funeral, it was by no means common to hear a voice from ‘beyond the grave’.

It was all too much for Browning's sister Sarianna, who called it 'an indecent séance', and wrote to a friend:

Poor Robert's dead voice to be made interesting amusement! God
forgive them all. I find it difficult.

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

06 January 2021

Albert Roux (1935-2021)

Albert Roux was interviewed in 2007-08 for 'Food: From Source to Salespoint', a National Life Stories oral history project. The full interview with Albert Roux can be listened to online at the British Library Sounds website.

Black and white photo of Albert and Michel Roux in the kitchenAlbert and Michel Roux in the kitchen

Albert Roux, born in 1935, has died today. As a young man, his classmates dismissed his desire to become a chef as ‘woman’s work’. Now eating out is a regular social activity for many people and chefs and cooking programmes feature frequently on primetime television. When he arrived in the 1950s, most food eaten in Britain was locally produced. Now we have embraced dishes from across the globe. Albert was not just a witness but also a protagonist in these changes.

His knowledge of food began early, as both his father and grandfather were charcutiers in rural France. After training as a chef, Albert arrived in Britain in 1953. This was before the European Union and the Eurotunnel linked us with Europe so emphatically. Albert had to apply for a travel permit and have a medical before being allowed entry. Imported goods such as oranges and bananas were the exception. A greater proportion of the weekly budget was spent on food and shopping was done several times a week as domestic refrigeration was limited. Albert worked for the wealthy Astor family at their estate in Cliveden. He noted how class played into diet:

“On the day off, I would go into town … it didn’t take me too long to realise… there was a very strong division; there was the super rich, who I was working for, who lived like kings. Then you had the middle class, who lived nicely but the food was not an important subject for them. And then you had the majority who were not rich, making ends meet.”

He was also struck by the limited availability of items he assumed were kitchen essentials.

“There were commodities that we could not get in this country. If you wanted olive oil there was one or two places that sold it, otherwise you went to the chemist and bought a little bottle to put in your ears. I remember going in to a chemist shop and asking for all that they had, twelve bottles. He looked at me as though I was an elephant!”

However, tastes were changing. As more people were able to enjoy foreign travel, they were exposed to a variety of new tastes and textures, and were becoming increasingly adventurous in what they ate. In the same period, increased migration, particularly from the Commonwealth, meant wider availability of food from across the globe. When Albert and his brother Michel (1941-2020) established Le Gavroche restaurant in central London in 1967 they were aware of changing attitudes both inside and outside the kitchen.

“Nobody knew the name of the chef. They stayed at the stove and they cooked. The maitre d’s were luminaries. They were well known, you went to see John of The Connaught, or Paul of the ... the idea of the chef plating the food was unknown. That would have been scandalous to get food plated from the kitchen, cheap! There was a ceremony when the food came out, presented; put on the gueridon (trolley) there was a lot of flambé, of carving…”

The Roux brothers were at the forefront of turning chefs into national figures through their cookbooks and particularly their television series, which received several million views in the 1980s. They also influenced a generation of young chefs who passed through the kitchens of Le Gavroche: Marcus Wareing, Marco Pierre White, Pierre Koffmann, Gordon Ramsay and others. Training was hard, Albert commented, “the kitchen is the SAS of catering. It is painful. It is hard, precision work.” Despite this comment – or perhaps because of it - during Albert’s lifetime, Britain transformed itself from a ‘culinary desert’ and can now boast of some of the most diverse and adventurous cuisine in the world.

Blog by Niamh Dillon.

'Food: From Source to Salespoint' documented the changes at every level of the UK food sector through interviews with some 300 people involved in the production, distribution and retailing of food, including ready meals, poultry, sugar, meat and fish, the UK wine trade, cookery writers, restaurateurs and chefs, and employees of Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway, Northern Foods and Nestlé. Interviews from the collection can be listened to online at the British Library Sounds Website.

04 January 2021

Recording of the week: Happy New Year!

This week's selection comes from Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Centre label of African Acoustic Vol.1 - Guitar Songs From Tanzania  Zambia & Zaire
'Bonne Année' was released on the album African Acoustic Vol.1 - Guitar Songs From Tanzania, Zambia & Zaire by record label Original Music

In this recording made by John Low, three boys in their late teens perform a song called 'Bonne Année', which means Happy New Year in French, that they composed for the New Year celebrations of 1979.

Bonne Année recorded by John Low (BL C27/5 S1 C9)

Singing are Mukuna, Chola Piana and Soki Nambi, who also plays the guitar. Normally they would have played together in their electric guitar band, Orchestre Makosso (possibly named after another band that was famous in the 1970s) but on the night of the recording, they borrowed the recordist’s guitar.

John Low had been staying in Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to study the guitar music of Jean-Bosco Mwenda. While he was there, Bosco arranged for Low to go to Likasi, where Bosco was brought up, with a Cultural Officer called Tshibuyi Katina. This was to see more of the region, and record there if possible. Likasi is in the Katanga copper belt, and it was in a neighbourhood called Zone Mpanda that Low and Katina unexpectedly met the three boys.

In John Low's forthcoming book ‘Two Guitars to Katanga’, he describes this moment with beautiful clarity –

Perhaps the best things in life are always unexpected. What followed was a performance of rare beauty. Soki picked intricate and varying patterns on the guitar, full of melodic interest. The boys sang in three parts: low tenor, high tenor and falsetto. Their young voices blended perfectly and the vocal lines soared and floated unhurriedly above the more urgent, choppy rhythms of Soki’s guitar work. The relationship of the vocal parts to the guitar patterns was very complex, yet Soki played and sang effortlessly. He was supremely talented.

These teenagers would have honed their musical skills already as young boys, almost certainly by playing in banjo groups like Yumba and his friends who we’d recorded earlier on. But now they’d moved up into a different league, and were avidly absorbing the idioms of modern Congolese dance music. Their first song, the more beautiful of the two I recorded, was called Bonne Année, and had been composed for the New Year celebrations that year.

The song, in Kikongo language, was published  on the album 'African Acoustic Vol. 1 - Guitar Songs from Tanzania, Zambia and Zaire' on John Storm Roberts' record label Original Music. In fact, all the tracks on that album are field recordings made by John Low and these, and many more, are available to listen to at the British Library as part of the John Low Collection (C27).

Thanks to John Low for allowing me to feature his recording and for his generous correspondence over email, which I've paraphrased in this post.

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