Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

4 posts from June 2023

26 June 2023

Recording of the week: Death's-head hawk-moth (Acherontia Atropos)

Elizabeth Anne Kemp watercolour

Lifecycle of the Death’s-head hawk-moth in Elizabeth Anne Kemp, Drawings and watercolours of English insects. 1803–25. Add Ms 17696-17698.

On Monday 22 May, I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week. It was on ‘birds and moths’ and featured the British Library’s very own Wildlife and Environmental Sound curator, Cheryl Tipp, making an inspiring representation of the Library’s Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition. She talked about the importance of sound as documentation of the natural world, making it possible, for example, for now extinct species to live on.

Alongside Cheryl on the programme, was Tim Blackburn, an ecologist specialising on the world of moths. He’s author of the forthcoming (June 2023) The Jewel Box: How moths illuminate nature’s hidden rules (Orion Publishing Co.). His ‘jewel box’ is a moth trap he puts out on his roof terrace in London. He can find more than 20 different moth species in the box with the right conditions. (He lets them go once he has documented them.)

Listening to these two contributors led me to think about what the jewel box might sound like. Apart from perhaps audible flapping of wings of the larger moths, what noises to moths make? I went exploring on the Library’s new Sounds website and found this, recorded in 1955 by English folk music collector, Russell Wortley:

Recording of a death's-head hawk-moth

The death’s-head hawk-moth is the largest moth to be found in the UK, with a wing-span of c.13cm. It gets its name from the rather sinister pattern on its thorax resembling a human skull. It can also be singled out by its ability to squeak when it becomes alarmed. 

Visitors can see Elizabeth Anne Kemp’s watercolour in the exhibition.

Today’s post was written by Janet Topp Fargion, Head of Sound & Vision.

19 June 2023

Recording of the week: Windrush Voices

For this week’s ‘Recording of the Week’ the Library’s Schools Team celebrates Windrush Day.

Windrush Day is this week on June 22nd, the date in 1948 when the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury.  This week, and all year round, the British Library Schools Team run a session that looks at the some of the personal stories of the Windrush Generation.  ‘Windrush Voices’ engages GCSE and A-Level students with oral history recordings and written sources to offer a different perspective to that found in textbooks.  Our session uses testimony from a wide range of the Library’s oral history collections.  Learners can hear the voices of people including educator and writer Beryl Gilroy, novelist Andrea Levy and photographer Vanley Burke.

My favourite recording though comes from, appropriately enough, An Oral History of Oral Histories.  It is a 2012 recording of Donald Hinds by Robert Wilkinson, and all 38 parts of it are available in the Sounds Collection.

Red double decker bus in London

A photograph of a London bus.

Donald, who died in March this year aged 89, was a writer, journalist, historian and teacher.  Listening to his recordings you get the impression of an incredibly clever man, sharp, interested in everything and with a very wry sense of humour.  Even when describing some very difficult subjects you feel an amused laugh is not far away.

Listen to Donald Hinds talking about being a bus conductor

Download Donald Hinds (bus conductor) transcript

Listen to Donald Hinds talking about being a history teacher

Download Donald Hinds (teacher) transcript

We use two clips of Donald, which you can listen to here, one about his experiences as a Bus Conductor and one about his experiences as a History Teacher.  So what do we get our learners to do with these recordings?  If you’d like, why not try yourself?

Read the transcript of each clip and think about what stands out for you from what Donald is saying.  Then listen, ideally twice, to the clips.  Think about whether something different stands out now and why?  With learners we delve into the power of the voice and the layers of understanding this can add to what is being said.

Did something different stand out for you?  It certainly does for us.  We find learners are often surprised by Donald’s wry detachment when recounting his stories, and a sense he is self-editing his account.  I’d really like to question Donald more about Sid Norris.  There seems so much more there he is not telling us.  As with many of the clips we use, racism is ever present in Donald’s experiences.  You do get the sense of a man who refused to be cowed by it at any point.

As an amazing History teacher himself, we think that it is fitting that Donald Hinds voice continues to be heard by young people studying the history of the Windrush Generation.

Today's post was written by Kate Fowler, Learning Facilitator.

12 June 2023

Recording of the week: False Lamkin

A person hanging from the gallows; a witch burning a sleeping couple while a demon carries of a child. Woodcut  1790’

An illustration of a person hanging from the gallows; a witch burning a sleeping couple while a demon carries off a child. Woodcut, 1790.

Death and murder are hardly rare events in British folksong, but there’s something uniquely disturbing about the implacable way in which the bogeyman Lamkin goes about his deadly business in this old ballad; sung here by Arthur ‘Hockey’ Feltwell of Southery, Norfolk to Russell Wortley on 22 April 1960 in the Nag’s Head, Southery.

Listen to False Lamkin

Download False Lamkin transcript

The song tells how the eponymous villain sneaks into a castle and murders the Lady inside, before being hanged by the returning Lord.

In some versions, Lamkin is a mason exacting revenge for unpaid work, helped by the false nurse inside the castle. There is also a theory that the name ‘Lamkin’ refers to a leper’s pallor (lambkin) and that the character seeks a cure by bathing in the blood of an innocent.

Whatever the origins of the song, my first encounter with the tale was in the form of Steeleye Span’s version - ‘Long Lankin’ - which appears on their 1975 album ‘Commoner’s Crown’. A sort of prog-folk  mini-epic with tempo changes galore, it begins with an eerie scene-setting vocal by Maddy Prior, building up to a rockingly melodramatic denouement.

Despite the anthemic climax of the Steeleye Span version, I’ve always been haunted by the song’s underlying bleakness: there’s not much in the way of redemption in this story and the hanging of the antagonist offers little in the way of catharsis.

When I came to catalogue Arthur ‘Hockey’ Feldwell’s version of the ballad (part of the Russell Wortley Collection (C777)), I was therefore struck by the compressed drama which Feldwell’s unaccompanied singing delivers and how his unadorned version shows that no embellishment is needed to convey the central horror of the story.

In Feldwell’s version, the details about Lamkin being a mason are omitted, heightening the sense of motiveless malignity behind the killing, while also removing any obvious moral lesson (always pay your builders). The nursemaid is mentioned, but her role as an accomplice is left ambiguous: she might just be too tired or frightened to go downstairs.

I did notice a possible silver lining: in this version it’s not clear whether Lamkin kills the baby with his ‘silver pin’, or just uses it to make the infant cry so that the lady comes to see what the matter is (or maybe that’s just my wishful thinking.)

More recent recordings prove that the song continues to exert its fascination.  Alasdair Roberts’ dramatic rendition of ‘Long Lankin’ on his 2010 album ‘Too long in this condition’, emphasises the macabre elements of the ballad, while Shirley Collins’ version, ‘Cruel Lincoln’, which appears on her 2016 album ‘Lodestar’, seems to get to the tragedy at the song’s core.

In the album’s notes, Collins describes how during the song’s recording, the sound of birds singing from the bank at the back of her garden outside was also captured on tape.  It was decided to leave the birdsong on the finished record, to act as a kind of hopeful counterweight to the grim events inside the castle walls.

In a similar way with Feldwell’s version, you feel that you need to hear the laughter and applause at the end. The listeners’ cheers and shouts of ‘Hockey!’ express not just an appreciation of the power and clarity of his singing but relief that the tale is over.

This week’s selection comes from Andrew Ormsby, Metadata Support Officer at the British Library.

05 June 2023

Recording of the week: Seabirds in a plastic world

Northern Gannet with plastic

A northern gannet, a seabird with a white body, beige head and blue eyes, sits on a pile of blue and red fishing rope and holds a clump of it in its beak. Photo credit: Thomas Haeusler. 

Today is World Environment Day 2023. This year, it is hosted by Côte d'Ivoire, and the theme is focussing on tackling plastic pollution. By now, we should all be aware of the dangers around plastics entering the environment. The 2017 series Blue Planet II, brought our attention to the plight of our oceans due to the amount of plastic being introduced. We saw disturbing footage of albatross chicks perishing after being fed small pieces of sharp plastic. Since then, hard hitting assessments have regularly been in the headlines like “more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050”, “humans ingest the equivalent of a credit card worth of plastic every week”, and “microplastics found in human blood”. World Environment Day in 2018 also had the same theme and tagline: “Beat Plastic Pollution”. Yet despite this awareness, frustratingly little progress has been made in reducing plastic production and consumption. Worse still, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in plastic waste in the form of PPE.

Plastic affects all life on all parts of the planet, but some more than others. This recording of the week selection (British Library reference WA 1999/058/075 S1 C1) comes from a group of animals especially affected by human actions; seabirds. The northern gannet (Morus bassanus) is an iconic seabird, famous for their incredible fishing technique. As seen in the recent Wild Isles series, gannets catch their food by diving at high speed in to schools of fish, leaving trails of bubbles in their path like avian torpedoes.

Like most seabirds, gannets nest on cliff sides in large and often very noisy colonies, typically alongside other species such as kittiwakes, fulmars and guillemots. As such, getting a clean recording of an individual calling can be very challenging. The recordist responsible for this recording, Victor Lewis, used a long cable and careful field-craft to get his microphone as close as possible to the subject with minimal disturbance. The raucous calls of a pair at the nest is easily lost to our ears in the cacophony of other bird calls and sea sounds, but this is how they communicate with one another, so to hear it from the birds’ perspective gives better context to the sounds.

Listen to Gannets calling

Gannets courting

A pair of northern gannets face each other with their necks extended and beaks touching. Photo credit: Marco Federmann.

Gannets mate for life, and they have a unique mating ritual which they perform each season to re-affirm their bonds. They face each other, extend their necks, touch bills and shake their heads. If you are lucky enough to see this display when watching a colony, you may just hear the subtle clattering of their bills.

Over half the world’s gannets nest around the UK coast, estimated at around 220,000 pairs. That sounds like a healthy number, but it is declining due to a complex array of man-made problems. Overfishing depletes their food source and even ends with gannets caught in trawler nets as bycatch. Bird flu has been devastating to gannets in recent years, spreading through colonies very quickly and leaving thousands of dead chicks and adults. While plastic continues to be a terrible threat. In 2019, the scientists in the British Ornithologists’ Union studied 7280 gannet nests across 29 colonies, and found 46% contained plastic. A gannet colony on the island of Alderney was found by the Wildlife Trust to contain plastic in almost every single nest. Most of this is in the form of fishing gear lost or abandoned at sea. Chicks and adults can get entangled in fishing ropes or even end up ingesting plastic, and this is often fatal.

Every year people visit seabird sites like Bempton Cliffs, the Farne Islands, and Bass Rock in Scotland to marvel at the spectacle of thousands of birds breeding and feeding on the UK shores. To lose this annual festival of nature would be so devastating it doesn’t bare thinking about. As well as addressing other threats, we must stop plastic entering the ocean. Large scale solutions like new laws and legislation must come from higher up, but, in case you need a reminder, we can all play our part. Be mindful of what you are buying and throwing away. If you can afford to, always choose reusable alternatives to single-use plastics. You can also do a lot of good by helping to clean up your local spaces or joining in with a beach clean. The future lives of these beautiful birds, like so many other species, depends on all of our actions now.

Northern Gannets on rock

Several dozen Northern Gannets and their chicks sat at the top of a cliff with the sea in the background. Photo credit: Dr. Georg Wietschorke .

You can learn all about humans’ understanding and interpretation of animals in our exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound, open until 28th August 2023.

Today’s post was written by Greg Green, Metadata Support Officer.