Sound and vision blog

4 posts from March 2022

28 March 2022

Recording of the week: Virginia Woolf's voice

This week’s selection comes from Sarah O’Reilly, oral historian and interviewer for National Life Stories on the Authors’ Lives project.

Enter the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery on the upper ground floor of the British Library in London and on your left you’ll find a pair of headphones. Through it you can listen to the only extant recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice, the writer who died on this day 81 years ago.

Woolf made the recording in 1937 for The Third Programme (now Radio 3) as part of a series of talks produced for the BBC by George Barnes. The broadcast – called ‘Craftsmanship’ - went out on the evening of the 29th April at 8.40pm and lasted around 20 minutes. Sadly only eight minutes of Woolf’s talk survive, due either to a conscious decision on the part of the BBC to record only a small part of the whole, or the accidental loss of the rest of the recording.

Download Virginia Woolf transcript

Oral historians deal in the oral and the aural, and Woolf’s broadcast is fascinating on both counts. To modern-day listeners the voice is extraordinary - her accent upper-class, her tone formal. A short transcription made by American scholar Emily Kopley and published in the Times Literary Supplement as part of a longer article captures its bygone cadences perfectly: 'Wehrrds, English wehrrds, are full of echoes, memories, associations.'

Woolf’s nephew, Quentin Bell, felt the broadcast misrepresented his aunt’s voice: ‘the record is a very poor one,’ he wrote later: ‘her voice is deprived of depth and resonance; it seems altogether too fast and too flat; it is barely recognisable. Her speaking voice was in fact beautiful…and it is sad that it should not have been immortalised in a more satisfactory manner.’ If Bell is right, this may have been the result of Woolf’s discomfort with the medium of radio itself: ‘it could have been a good article,’ she later wrote about ‘Craftsmanship’, ‘[but] it’s the talk element that upsets it’. She promised herself in her diary that she would ‘refrain from the folly’ of broadcasting ever again.

Barnes had suggested the title of the talk and Woolf immediately responded by taking issue with the very idea of the writer as a craftsman. In Woolf’s view, words did not yield to the efforts of the author as easily as materials might yield to the craftsman’s tools: ‘Words,’ she said, ‘resist efforts to constrain their meaning or define them exhaustively’. They had a life and a history - ‘They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries’ and as such could not be pinned down: ‘They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things’. As the Radio Times’ previewer put it on the 23rd April: ‘In Virginia Woolf’s opinion, craftsmanship is a word that can be applied to the making of pots and pans, but not to words in the way in which writers use them’. What, you might wonder, would Woolf have made of the proliferation of creative writing courses from the 1970s onwards? On this the previewer was equally clear: ‘Mrs. Woolf is a believer in the importance of a large choice of words, but she deplores all attempts to teach people how to write.’

Woolf’s characterisation of words as slippery and alive is an idea that comes up often in the National Life Stories Authors' Lives collection of oral history interviews. Here Peter Porter characterises writing as a kind of ‘fighting’ with words, whilst Maureen Duffy compares it to a high-rise tight-rope walk:

Peter Porter 'writing is fighting' [BL REF C1276/09)

Download Peter Porter transcript

Maureen Duffy 'tightrope' [BL REF C1276/03]

Download Maureen Duffy transcript

The aerial tightrope-walker is a good metaphor - one wrong step and you lose your footing and fall. The craftsman becomes a circus performer, carrying out a daring and dangerous highwire act.

If, as Woolf believed, writing could not be taught, how are writers made? Writer Penelope Lively suggests an alternative route:

Penelope Lively 'writing out of reading' [BL REF C1276/07]

Download Penelope Lively transcript

For Woolf, words are wary of the glare of attention: ‘All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live — the mind — all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious.’ So too are writers, when questioned too closely about their work, as the poet Anthony Thwaite argued when reflecting on the writing process:

Anthony Thwaite 'the arrival of a poem' [BL REF C1276/15]

Download Anthony Thwaite transcript

‘Words Fail Me’ was the title of the series in which Woolf’s broadcast was placed and the suggestion of the battle between words and their speakers is a theme which echoes throughout the Authors’ Lives recordings. Prompted to reflect on her life and her work in her Authors’ Lives recording, the novelist Hilary Mantel described the experience of being lost for words, in a manner that resonates perfectly with Woolf’s sentiments:

Hilary Mantel 'the problem with language'

Download Hilary Mantel transcript

For writers then and now, the struggle continues.

You can listen to a selection of extracts from Authors' Lives on British Library Sounds.   

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

21 March 2022

Recording of the week: George V in 1933

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

A close up photograph of disc containing the recording of George V

As a curator in the British Library’s sound archive, members of the public often contact me about records or tapes that they might want to donate to the national collection.

Often, we will already have a copy of the item in question, and have to politely decline. Other times, we are happy to say thank you very much.

The record I am highlighting today came to us via the British Library’s Donations department, around this time last year.

In this case, it is not so much the attributes of the disc itself that made it attractive. As it happens, we already held several copies of the record. Rather, it was the unique packaging and presentation, and the very special provenance of the item, which made it an exciting acquisition.

Photograph of the George V disc presentation album

The donor, Ishbel Lochhead, is a granddaughter of Ramsay MacDonald, who was Prime Minister at the time the record was issued.

This copy of the disc was given to Ramsay MacDonald in a special personalised album, which includes, inlaid, the signature of the King.

The signature of George V

Listen to the voice of George V [BL REF 1CS0053198]

Download Transcript

This is just a short excerpt. Please go to our Sounds site for the full recording.

With grateful thanks to Ishbel Lochhead for this kind donation.

Follow @soundarchive for all the latest news.

14 March 2022

Recording of the week: A time for nursery rhymes

This week’s selection comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist.

If you could choose to go back in time, where would you go?

A black and white photo of children looking at a fantasy illustration in a bookPhoto by Adam Winger on Unsplash.

Nursery rhymes are something we never forget over the years. They hold memories of our school games and playful times with friends. They sound familiar to us even after a long time. 

In this collection of oral history recordings, Iona Opie interviews a group of children from Capri. Being Italian, I’ve chosen an excerpt that sounds familiar, in which I recognise the words and rhymes.

Children singing recorded in Capri, Italy [BL REF C898/44]

The centrality given to children, to their voices, is the particularity of this collection: the subjects are the children themselves. Hence these recordings assume a different perspective for an oral history of nursery songs and games: the story is one told by the very protagonists. Ultimately, this creates an altogether more diverse kind of storytelling.

Simple and evocative: these compositions are designed to be easy to remember, thus they have an educational value.

Nursery rhymes are language acquisition opportunities, we master them with our peers throughout childhood, and we can recall them years later.

More information about the Iona and Peter Opie works can be found on the Playtimes website. Playtimes is part of a wider Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project entitled Children’s Games and Songs in the New Media Age.

Follow @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 March 2022

Recording of the Week: Filling in the gaps of the feminist movement in the 1980s – Southall Black Sisters

This week’s selection comes from Amal Malik, Community Research Intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Content warning: this blog contains references to domestic violence.

This Recording of the Week for International Women’s Day looks at the work of Southall Black Sisters activist and case worker Pragna Patel.

A pink, purple and orange banner featuring outlines of five women and the words 'Hate is your weapon, courage is ours - Southall Black Sisters fighting inequality and injustice since 1979'‘Let’s put race back into equality’, designed by Shakila Taranum Maan, 2008. Banner © Southall Black Sisters.

Southall Black Sisters (SBS) formed in 1979 and is a campaigning group that was established by women from African, Caribbean, South Asian and other minority backgrounds in West London. Faced with the onslaught of violence and marches by members of The National Front in Southall, the organisation formed as an anti-racist campaign group, influenced by the Black Power groups in the US and UK. As a result, they used ‘Black’ as an umbrella political term for all minorities, ‘born out of common experiences of colonialism and imperialism’.1 SBS addressed both the gap within the wider feminist movement concerning race and the neglect of gender in anti-racist movements. A Black feminist space gave women an environment to articulate their concerns with gender-based violence in the context of their racial identities. It emerged at a pivotal moment, with the important rise of feminist consciousness from 1979. Through active organisation, including conferences and the establishment of activist groups, British society was made to hear women’s demands.

Pragna Patel was interviewed by Rachel Cohen for Sisterhood and After: the Women's Liberation Oral History Project. The interview Patel gave encouraged internal discussions about the place of SBS within the wider feminist and anti-racist movements. Patel raised important questions of how the SBS dealt with the difficulties of confronting issues of domestic violence within minority communities, whilst avoiding wider racial stereotyping. Women of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds are, statistically, disproportionately affected by domestic abuse, and Patel’s work sought to address why there was a gap in support for Black and Asian women in cases of gender-based violence.

Patel joined SBS in 1982, at a point where the group had lost steam, but also at a time when concerns of addressing domestic violence had increased due to cuts in support and welfare services.2 In an interview with Granada TV in January 1978, soon after she became Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher asserted that the population were fearful of being ‘swamped by people of a different culture’.3 Thatcher presented foreign cultures as an ‘alien’ threat to the British way of life, in rhetoric that one can argue further fuelled racial stereotyping of minority communities.4

In this clip, Patel explains how SBS emerged at a time when Black feminists were seeking to assert their identity in the activist space by discussing issues such as Black female sexuality and domestic violence. At the time, despite a growing anti-racist movement and the rise of feminist consciousness, few organisations focused on the specific challenges faced by Black and Minority Ethnic women at the intersection of those two identities.

Pragna Patel on Black feminism [BL REF C1420/18] 

Download Transcript

Patel discusses the first meetings of the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) and the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Most of the literature focusing on South Asian feminist activism has looked at 'two streams of South Asian political organising in Britain'. One, class solidarities in trade union mobilisation in the face of increasing privatisation; and the other, the anti-racist mobilisation of the Asian Youth Movements (AYM). These relationships have been mainly focused on male-dominated organisations, where the cultures were 'distinctly patriarchal'.5 SBS created a safe space for women to address the issues within their community and criticised the wider state’s handling of gender-based violence. In Britain in this period ‘it was the black women that helped keep the names’ of women suffering deportation threats within the public consciousness. Patel’s interview brings in the legacy and continuing ‘living history’ of British imperialism, cemented further by hostile anti-immigration policies. SBS and OWAAD looked to battle hostile immigration policies, challenged the targeted use of the dangerous contraceptive Depo-Provera for minority communities and established trade union solidarity in a period of rising women’s employment. SBS, alongside the organisation AWAZ (‘Voice’ in Urdu), also played a major role in protesting against the virginity testing at Heathrow airport and the ‘X-raying of immigrants’.6 SBS enacted effective campaigns to challenge government policies; in 1992 they gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into the one-year rule in immigration, showing how it could trap newly married women in violent relationships.7

Confronting the visceral effects of racist polices on Black and Asian women immigrants, these organisations implemented important grassroots campaigns to support their communities. In breaking the silence on domestic violence in Asian Communities, the public campaigns of SBS showed the faults in the systems that let vulnerable women slip through the cracks.

References

  1. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/racism-racialisation/transcript-conversation-pragna-patel
  2. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/racism-racialisation/transcript-conversation-pragna-patel 
  3. Sivanandan, A., and Jenny Bourne, ‘The Case for Self-Defence,’ Race & Class 58, no. 1 (2016): p. 65.
  4. Avtah Brah, ‘Women of South Asian origin in Britain: issues and concerns,’ South Asia Research 7, no.1 (1987), p. 45.
  5. Anitha Sundari, and Sukhwant Dhaliwal, ‘South Asian feminisms in Britain: Traversing gender, race, class and religion,’ Economic and Political Weekly 54, no. 17 (2019), p. 2-4.
  6. Ambalavaner Sivanandan, ‘From resistance to rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain,’ Race & Class 23, no. 2 (1981), p.147-8.
  7. https://southallblacksisters.org.uk/about/southall-black-sisters-timeline/

You can listen to more clips from Pragna Patel's interview and oral history interviews with other feminist activists in our two digital resources, Sisterhood and After and Women's Rights.

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