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318 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

07 July 2020

Linton Kwesi Johnson awarded PEN Pinter Prize 2020

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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

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 sami.bl.uk 

30 June 2020

The Santals, Scandinavian missionaries, and salvage ethnomusicology: an encounter of three worlds

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Since 2015, Christian Poske has conducted his PhD research on the Bengal recordings of the Arnold Bake Collection. A Collaborative Doctoral Scholarship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, situated his PhD within two institutions: the British Library Sound Archive and SOAS, University of London. He conducted his fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Bangladesh from April to October 2017, revisiting the locations of Arnold Bake’s fieldwork. Christian's fieldwork investigated the aims and methods of Bake’s research in the early 1930s and studied the continuity and change in the devotional and folk music and dance documented by Bake. Christian is completing his PhD in Music this year at SOAS and in addition to his research has been engaged as a cataloguer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. He currently works as Bengali Cataloguer at the Department of Asian and African Collections at the British Library.

The audio recordings from the Christian Poske Collection have recently been catalogued and will be available for on-site listening at the British Library when the Reading Rooms re-open. For now, those interested can access the descriptions of the recordings by browsing the Sound and Moving Image catalogue for catalogue entries under collection number C1795. This blog post written by Christian Poske is an insightful introduction to the collection through his fieldwork in Jharkhand and West Bengal.

The restudy of historical sound recordings often gives unexpected results. During my research on the cylinder recordings of the Dutch musicologist Arnold Bake (1899-1963) at the British Library Sound Archive, I came across a number of sparsely documented recordings made at a Christian mission for the Santals, a South Asian aboriginal people centred in the Indian state of Jharkhand today. When I conducted my fieldwork in 2017, I found out that one of the church songs recorded by Bake is still popular among converts in the region.

'Recently, I had the opportunity to start recording Santal music… To really get in touch with the Santals, I have turned to the currently most important authority in this field, Dr Bodding... However, he is a missionary, and as he helped me along, we arrived at a huge boarding school for Santals. But it looks worse than it is. The mission has the policy to change as little as possible. Language, music and customs are, if anyhow possible, retained. All melodies used in the church are pure Santal melodies, although the words were made Christian... The music as such is quite unlike Hindu music, and their whole musical sense is very different. They love polyphony a lot when they get to hear it. I have recorded a sample (which hardly has any scientific value) how the Santal singing master of the school edited a song with four voices without actually ever having a European education, he does not speak a word of English, for example. The boys sing it with passion, which you could never expect from the Hindus…'
(Arnold Bake, letter to Erich M. v. Hornbostel, 15.4.1931, Berlin Phonogram Archive)

With these words, Bake explained his fieldwork at the Kairabani mission to Erich M. v. Hornbostel (1877-1935), the director of the Berlin Phonogram Archive. The Norwegian missionary Paul Olaf Bodding (1865-1938) of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches had arranged Bake’s visit to Kairabani.

1. Kairabani Church 1926
'The new Kairabani Church at the consecration, 1926' (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen/ International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

In the letter to Hornbostel, Bake referred to the church song 'Boge gupi do' ('The Good Shepherd') that had been composed by the Norwegian missionary Lars Olsen Skrefsrud (1840-1910) around 1886 (Gausal 1935: 70). Skrefsrud, one of the founders of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches, settled in India to make sustained efforts to convert the Santals from animist belief to Christianity. He learned Santali language from 1867 onwards and published the first comprehensive grammar of the language a few years later (1873), which introduced a romanisation system providing the language with the first standard script that is still used by converts today, with minor amendments made by Bodding.

Skrefsrud group photo
From left to right: Missionaries H. P. Børresen, H. J. Muston, L. O. Skrefsrud, with Santali hunting priest, chiefs (with turbans), hunters, and musicians (Santal Parganas, 1874) (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen / International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

Bake recorded solo and choral renditions of the song 'Boge gupi do', which is based on a traditional Santali melody, as he correctly noted. However, the choral version had not been arranged by the Santali choir leader of the Kairabani mission, but by an organist of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches (Rạṛ Puthi 1929: preface).

'Boge gupi do' performed by male singer, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/1641)

'Boge gupi do' performed by male choir, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/2128)

Arnold Bake’s views on the Santals and their music and dance were influenced by colonial ethnographic clichés of aboriginal peoples that he replicated in his correspondence and publications (Bake 1936-37: 68), where he portrayed the Santals as a natural and pleasure-loving people, fond of music, dance, and drinking, and overall in a half-civilised state. One month after his visit to Kairabani, he filmed Santali dances at a Hindu festival in the village Kankalitola near Santiniketan. In a letter to his relatives, he described what he had seen in Kankalitola as 'a real nature dance':

'I am so curious what you will think of the films from Kankalitola that we left behind in Calcutta last week to reproduce. It was the typical male and female dances. You will see, I think, why the missionaries are against this dancing, it is very sensuous, yet it has great charm… And so entirely unaffected, a real nature dance.' (Arnold Bake, letter to his mother-in-law, 20.5.1931, Mss Eur F191/8, 191)

In Kairabani, he photographed Santali pupils playing their instruments at the mission, but he seems to have been dissatisfied with the sober ambience of the premises. To also have a picture of a Santali musician in a natural environment, he probably arranged a photo with one of the musicians outside:

Santali flute player by pond
Santali flute player by a pond, photograph by Arnold Bake (Kairabani mission, March 1931)

In this period, Hornbostel and other comparative musicologists collected recordings from musicologists and ethnographers worldwide at the Berlin Phonogram Archive 'to save what can be saved' of the traditional musics of the world threatened by the spread of Western culture (Hornbostel 1904-5: 97). Such recordings were expected to be made in surroundings free from European cultural influences. Therefore, Hornbostel marked all of Bake’s recordings from the mission as “worthless” (Ziegler 2006: 101-2), notwithstanding whether these featured traditional Santali or Christian songs. The reason for Hornbostel’s drastic measure was his suspicion that exposure to western church music had affected the Santals’ renditions of their own traditional songs. In his reply to Bake, he only hinted at his reservations:

'I am already very excited about the recordings and hope that you will have more opportunity for interesting recordings... of the Santals. In general: the more you record, the better, provided that the music is not europeanised yet.'
(Erich M. v. Hornbostel, letter to Arnold Bake, 5.7.1931, BPA)

When I began to evaluate Bake’s recordings at the British Library Sound Archive in 2015, I could not distinguish traditional from Christian songs among the Kairabani recordings due to my lack of knowledge of Santali language. Through my fieldwork, I was able to find out more. In Jharkhand, I visited the Kairabani mission school that still exists today. Here, I met the Santali language teacher Ignatius Besra, who helped me with the evaluation of the recordings at his home in Dumka. As he recognised the song 'Boge gupi do' (C52/2128), he rushed from the desk in the living room to another room to bring the church song book Sereń Puthi. He showed me the lyrics and said it was a 'hit' still popular among converts today. When I left, he gave me his copy on the way. I visited the Kairabani mission for the last time the following day and asked a schoolteacher to sing the song for me:

'Boge gupi do' performed by Nalini B. Hansdak Kairabani, May 2017 (C1795/11)

Mansaram Murmu, a doctoral researcher from Visva-Bharati University, translated it for me in Santiniketan two months later:

            Boge gupi do / A good shepherd -
            Ac’ren bhiḍhiko, boeha, / for his sheep, brothers,
            Ạḍiy’ jotonko; / he cares a lot.
            Sahre jaegate / Towards a good place,
            phạria dak’ jharanatey’ / to a spring of clean water,
            Ạyur idiko. / he leads them.

            Mit’ bhiḍiy’ at’len khan, / When a sheep gets lost -
            Ạuri ńame dhạbic’ doe / until he retrieves it,
            Gupi pańjaye. / he searches it.
            Uni ńamkate / When he has found it,
            Tarenrey’ ladeye / he carries it on his shoulder
            Rạskạ monte. / gladly.

            Ac’ak’ oṛak’te / At his home,
            Seṭerkate do boeha / when he has arrived, brothers,
            Peṛae jarwako, / he invites its kin,
            Onkoe metako / and tells them,
            Rạskạk’pe iń tuluc’, / Rejoice with me,
            Bhidin ńamkede. / I have found the lost sheep.

            Tạruc’e hec’len khan /When the tiger comes
            Ṭheṅga epelkate doe / he brandishes the stick
            Teṅgo darame; / and saves them. .
            Ac’ren bhiḍiko / His sheep,
            Maraṅ mũhim khongey’ / from huge danger
            Aḍ bańcaoko. / he saves them.

            Bhiḍi ńutumte / For the sheep,
            Boge gupi do boeha, / a good shepherd, brothers,
            Jiwiy’ alaea; / sacrifices his life.
            Jisui nonkaket’, / Jesus does like this
            Bańcao akat’bonae, / he has saved you
            Soetan tạrup’ khon. / from the grasp of the devil-tiger.

            Sereń Puthi (2015: 168)

Carrying out fieldwork with Bake’s recordings showed me the advantages of reconnecting cultural heritage communities with historical sound recordings that are insufficiently documented. Apart from the ethical imperative of making recordings from the colonial period accessible in countries of origin again, community engagement often brings valuable information to light that makes it possible to enhance the archival documentation of recordings, which ultimately makes the material more meaningful to everyone.

This blog is derived from my PhD research “Continuity and Change: A Restudy of Arnold Adriaan Bake’s research on the devotional and folk music and dance of Bengal 1925-1956”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, Award No. 1664039.

Further Reading:

Rạṛ Puthi: Book of Melodies (Choral Book). 1929. Dumka: The Santal Mission of the Northern Churches.

Sereń Puthi ["Book of Songs"]. 2015. Dumka: Dumka Diocesan Council (NELC).

Bake, Arnold A. 1936-7. ‘Indian Folk-Music’. Proceedings of the Musical Association 63: 65– 77.

Gausdal, Johannes. 1935. Contributions to Santal Hymnology. Bibliotheca Norvegiæ Sacræ 11. Bergen: Lunde.

Hornbostel, Erich Moritz von. 1904-5. ‘Die Probleme Der Vergleichenden Musikwissenschaft’. Zeitschrift Der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft 7: 85-97.

Skrefsrud, Lars Olsen. 1873. A Grammar of the Santhal Language. Calcutta: Calcutta School Book and Vernacular Literature Society.

Ziegler, Susanne. 2006. Die Wachszylinder Des Berliner Phonogramm-Archivs. Veröffentlichungen des Ethnologischen Museums Berlin. Berlin: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

29 June 2020

Recording of the week: A charm to ward off evil

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

Fairies dancing in a ring
Unknown author (unidentified "17th-century English chapbook") / Public domain

Staverton Bridge - Holy water (C604/19 C8)

In the 1970s, folk song collector Peter Kennedy taught at Dartington College of Arts in Totnes, Devon. He recorded folk group Staverton Bridge in 1974, when the band (made up of three former students from the college) played a concert at Foxhole school, in the grounds of Dartington Hall. Taking their name from one of Devon’s oldest bridges, Tish Stubbs, Sam Richards and Paul Wilson created a sound characterised by a mixture of vocal harmonies and acoustic instruments, including drum, guitar, recorder, concertina and field organ. The concert rambles freely across the highways and byways of the English folk song repertoire, featuring a lively mix of shanties, dance tunes, wassailing songs, ballads and madrigals. The featured recording, which is based on a poem by Robert Herrick, is introduced by Sam Richards who describes how he found the words, set to a tune by an anonymous composer, in a book in Ealing Public Library. The whole concert is charming in every sense of the word, but this piece has an atmospheric magic of its own.

Holy water come and bring;

Cast in salt for seasoning

Set the brush for sprinkling

Sacred spittle bring ye hither

Meal and now it mix together

Add a little oil to either

Give the tapers here their light

Ring the saints bell to affright

Far from hence the evil sprite

UOSH

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24 June 2020

Working from home

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For those of us who usually travel to work every day, working from home takes some getting used to. Fortunately we’ve been able to consult our collections for some advice. The British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue lists 56 oral history recordings, across 19 different collections, that mention ‘working from home’. In interviews recorded for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science, three interviewees describe their approach to being productive, creative, and professional in a domestic environment.

Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley

Portrait of Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley
Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley as the first ever national Ambassador for Philanthropy, 2009. Photo credit: Unlimited Photography

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley set up a tech company in the 1960s to enable women with children to work as programmers from home. She had a novel approach to creating a professional atmosphere, which included playing pre-recorded office sounds while making phone calls. In her recording she describes how she got her business off the ground at a time when women with families were expected to forego their careers.

'…I recorded sort of, office type noises… so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going…' (C1379/28)

Audio clip: Stephanie Shirley on programming from home (C1379/28)

At the end of January in ’64, or something like that, we had a tiny mention in the Guardian newspaper, Manchester Guardian it probably still was then, that mentioned this extraordinary woman, Steve Shirley, writing computer programs in Chesham in between feeding her baby and washing the nappies. And that was really the sort of phraseology that was used. And that brought in a flood of women who liked the idea of working from home, and had computer skills, and had, as I always projected I suppose, the need or the – or might be financial need of course, to go on working without being a conventional employee. I had a secretary who came in one afternoon a week and, erm, engaged her through an agency that specialised in part-time work which largely meant women. And, so I got hold of this secretary, who’s still a friend today, called Barbara Edwards, and she arrived, was at home, in my home. She brought her own little portable typewriter. Later on she brought her own baby in a carrycot. And she was instructed really to make sure that I looked – that the correspondence and stuff went out looking as if it came out of a chairman’s office. And I know if I had difficult phone calls to make, or senior phone calls to make, I would wait until Barbara was in, so that she could connect me and give the impression of some sort of infrastructure behind me. The phone was pretty well how business was done, and sometimes of course there would be very domestic noises going on in the background. And so I took a tape recording, which we had a large tape recording then, tape recorder then, which I was using for dictation and other things like that. But I recorded sort of, office type noises, I recorded Barbara at her typewriter, so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going, because although there was a market there, although I did have skills, it wasn’t developed, and I did not have the commercial skills, but I sort of had some marketing skills. I changed my name from Stephanie to Steve, because I felt that I wasn’t really getting any responses from the letters that I was sending out to people offering services. My husband actually suggested that perhaps it was the good old-fashioned sexism, they saw a letter from Stephanie Shirley and it just went in the bin. So I started writing as Steve Shirley. And it seemed to me that I was getting some better response, well I was getting some responses and the work did start slowly to flow in as distinct from just all those private introductions.

Stephanie Shirley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Richard West

Richard West, Quaternary botanist and geologist, continued his research into environmental change after his retirement by working from home. No longer able to access university equipment, and steering clear of distractions on the internet ('I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought'), he continued his work using ‘kitchen science’:

'…if you’re in post you’re – so much of your university time is taken up with committee work, going to meetings, teaching, trying to get money for research, but I can do all the things I need to do with the aid of a low power microscope and these measuring cylinders, sorting out sediment.' (C1379/34)

We moved into this house in 1958. And this part of the building was derelict. Erm, where I am sitting now were two loose boxes, and where you are now is the tack room and it was full of horse medicines and all that sort of thing. And a next door neighbour used to keep a pony in one of the loose boxes at that time. And – but in 1965 we decided to make it into living space. So this room came into operation in about 1967 I think and I used it for my writing and reprint collection and so on and books. There’s not much apparatus here. This microscope is the kind of cheapest version of a low power microscope you can get and I’ve only had it since I started working in Beachamwell. I’ve got several old microscopes going back to the 1930s which used to be used, but they’re all packed away. Those are in boxes in the room somewhere. This is the only one I use. I used to spend a lot of time looking at pollen grains underneath a high power binocular microscope but I haven’t done that for twenty years or so. The drawing board I got very early on in the early 1960s, ‘cause I was engaged in drawing a lot of drawing of sections at that time, and so that’s lasted me very well. I don’t think there’s anything else here, except this computer and so on on. I used to be on the internet and on email but I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought, so I’m not on the internet now, which annoys everybody ‘cause they have to write to me or ring me up. But at least I’m not constantly being bothered by things. I can also go across the road to the public library where I can use a computer and Google and so on as much as I want to. Apart from that, I don’t think [laughs] I don’t think there’s any apparatus here at all. It’s all books and reprints.

Richard West was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Paul Merchant. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Sir John Charnley

Photograph of John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel
John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel, 2012. Photo credit: Matt Casswell, British Library

Sir John Charnley, aeronautical engineer, would continue working at home in the evening, after dinner, and after a full day in the office. 'If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it.' In the clip below Charnley describes waiting until he was at home, late at night, to do his most creative thinking as a senior scientific civil servant:

John Charnley on problem solving at home (C1379/30)

I wasn’t of the mind that said that you didn’t take your work home with you, that you left it all behind in the office. If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it. When I was in London, I’d catch a train home about half past six, I’d be home half past seven till eight, we’d have supper, which would've been beautiful, prepared, beautiful, drink. And if there was a problem going, there was something on my mind, Mary would go to bed and she’d leave me with a cup of coffee and I would work on. I can easily, and it isn’t a problem, to work in the night. I don’t like working first thing in the morning. There are those people who are that way inclined, but I’m a late night person - in my youth, I don’t know if I can do it now. But then I’d certainly work until one, two – and the fact that I’d been at meetings with, and particularly when I was in London, and meetings of all sorts, technical, financial, with the Treasury, you name it, lots – with the Services, I had the feeling I didn’t have time to think of where I was going, and I would do that at home. So as far as I was concerned, when I was in the office I was at the beck and call of other people, but when I wanted to be creative myself, in satisfying myself I was on the right path and I was going in the right direction, in whatever element of my job, that sort of thinking I did at home, late at night or early morning if you wish. So a) my job came home with me, I could stay late in the office if that made sense, but I’d certainly bring it home with me and work on it at home. And I had a very long suffering and forbearing wife. Bless her. Yep, oh yeah, sure, sure, sure, did a lot at home.

John Charnley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley, Richard West, and Sir John Charnley all feature on the British Library website Voices of Science.

22 June 2020

Recording of the week: Underwater sounds from Cromer Pier

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This week's recording of the week comes from Emma Burman, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

Having spent many a childhood holiday on Cromer Pier in Norfolk, you’d think I would know the sounds of the area well. However, having never been adventurous enough to fully submerge myself in the freezing East Coast waters, I was unaware of the beauty of its underwater sounds until now.

Cromer Pier
Courtesy of BurlyBullet via Pixabay

This Underwater recording from Cromer Pier captures the entrancing rhythm of the waves as they flow between the pillars of the pier. The sound of the swirling water moving weathered stones is almost orchestral, like a delicate percussion section, with tinkling xylophones.

Underwater recording from Cromer Pier

The ability to capture these underwater sounds is possible thanks to a device called a hydrophone. The modern hydrophone’s development can be traced back to the First World War, as scientists were developing methods to sense and reveal the bearing of enemy submarines. By the end of the war, Britain had thirty eight hydrophone officers and 200 qualified listeners. The hydrophone continued to be the sole method for submarines to detect targets while submerged until the introduction of the active sonar in the early 1920s.

Modern day recordists still use hydrophones to document and learn more about the underwater world. Sadly, through this research, they have identified that recordings are often ‘polluted’ by the sounds of human noise, which has now become a recognised global problem. Shipping noise has been shown to cause chronic stress in certain species of whales, construction noise has forced porpoises to leave feeding grounds and naval sonar can cause mass stranding of beaked whales.

One of the parts that stands out so much about this recording is the clash between the calm swirl of the natural waters and the metallic creaking of the Cromer Pier. To my ears, the pier didn’t seem like a ‘polluting’ sound in this musical underwater rendition. Nonetheless, this recording does highlight the question of how much our human lives impact upon the watery world below.

This recording was made by Peter Toll in 2012 and forms part of the British Library's wildlife and environmental sounds collection.

Discover more sounds from beneath the waves on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

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

08 June 2020

Recording of the week: Michiko Hirayama singing Scelsi

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

Between 1978 and 1994 the Institute of Contemporary Arts ran an annual series of contemporary music concerts called MusICA. Among the works programmed were those by Italian-born composer Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988). Little known and ostracised by music academic entourages of the time throughout his life - French composer Pierre Boulez branded him as an amateur - he became well known around the 1980s and is today considered one of the pioneering figures of minimalist and microtonal music.

Fascinated in the 1940s with the teaching of the Second Viennese school and its characteristic twelve-tone music, he shifted in the 1950s towards more radical and experimental avenues. His interest in mysticism and esoterism largely influenced him. Testament to this is a Zen symbol added to his signature on all of his scores. Oriental philosophies didn’t much influence his compositional methods, but rather provided concepts through which to compose music.

His main musical teaching was that the whole world depends on sound. The repetition of a single sound, in particular, is central to his ideas. He writes: ‘my music is not this, nor that, it’s not dodecaphony nor pointillism, it’s not minimalist either [...]. Notes are just wrappers […]. Sound is spherical, but we always tend to see it in terms of duration and frequency. That is not right. Every spherical element has a centre […]. We need to get to it. By hitting for a long time the same note, the note itself becomes bigger, it grows so much that its own harmony surfaces and enlarges within it’. A single sound loses then its status of one among equals with other notes in a piece, and becomes the essence of it, through the continuous elaboration of its frequency.

Scelsi's research determined, between 1952 and 1978, avant-garde compositional techniques which mainly involved improvisations both with piano and instruments producing quarters and octaves of tones, like the ondioline. His musical journeys were not only free of any constrictions, but also free from transcriptions (which he left to his collaborators, after recording his works on tape). The appreciation of the verticality of a sound, led him to further investigate musical timbre, and to appreciate the human voice as one of the most powerful instruments capable of breaking sonic structure.

Michiko Hirayama
Courtesy of Fondazione Isabella Scelsi

Among his closest collaborators was Michiko Hirayama (1923-2018), the Japanese singer historically associated with the performance of ‘Canti del Capricorno’, the 20-song cycle that Scelsi wrote specifically for her voice. The microtonal inflections in her technique while interpreting classical Japanese pieces had in fact soon captured him.

Scelsi officially wrote the cycle between 1962 and 1972. During an interview with musical artist Arturo Tallini though, Hirayama explains how it actually took her four decades to reach interpretative perfection of the cycle’s vocal part. Firstly, the manuscripts contained notes with just phonemes pencilled down to which she had to add her own improvisation and vocal experiments so as to become the instrument of the song itself rather than its interpreter, quite an open-ended task; secondly, she felt the intensity of both emotional and mental state required to make Scelsi’s work come to life was only achieved when she was 82. In 2005, towards the end of a performance of the entire cycle held in Berlin, she indeed found herself in a state of unconsciousness. Only then she considered ‘Canti del Capricorno’ finally completed.

C611/49 Scelsi No. 2

This is an extract from Michiko Hirayama’s performance of ‘Canti del Capricorno’, No. 2 performed at the ICA on 8 February 1981.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage for all the latest news from the project.

04 June 2020

Sea sounds

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Many of us find comfort in the sounds of the sea, particularly when we're feeling anxious, stressed or overwhelmed. Though it's not as easy as it was to just pack up and head to the coast, there are still always in which you can bring the sea to you.

The British Library has almost 400 recordings of waves in its sound archive. More if you count those recordings where they are just one element of a larger soundscape. Recorded on beaches and along coastal areas all over the world, these recordings demonstrate the sheer variety of sounds that the sea can produce. So many factors come into play here; the weather, type of coast, time of day, season etc. No two recordings of the sea will ever sound the same.

Below is a selection of some of our favourite recordings. So put on your sunglasses, grab an ice cream and let us transport you to the coast.

Gentle waves, Isles of Scilly, September 2009, Richard Beard (BL ref  163300)

Waves breaking on sand

Waves bubbling through rocks, Australia, November 2007, Richard Beard (BL ref 148677) 

Rocky coast

Waves flowing over seaweed, Republic of Ireland, August 1996, Nigel Tucker (BL ref 124878)

Seaweed

Lapping waves on Pak Bia Island, Thailand, March 2009, Richard Beard (BL ref 149165)

Small waves on a sandy beach

Waves breaking on rocks and shingle, New Zealand, February 2005, Richard Beard (BL ref 148299)

Waves breaking on a sandy beach with rocks

Some of these recordings were digitised as part of the Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. The project has also created a new web space dedicated to the sounds and stories of Britain's shores. Visit Coast to discover more.

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

25 May 2020

Recording of the week: Account from a Norfolk lifeboatman

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This week's recording of the week comes from Emma Burman, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

The role of a lifeboatman has never been an easy one. Before the widespread introduction of modern day lifeboats, with electronic mapping and covered shelter, men responded to calls in open topped boats. These boats had very little shelter from the harsh sea wind and splash, they were slow, and had no navigation systems. As soon as the boat launched, the men would look at their watches, put the charts on their knees and use their parallel rules to work out the tides. These men could spend five or six hours exposed to the elements during a call out, limiting their physical and mental ability to carry out their work.

Photograph of lifeboat station
Lifeboat station where Brian Pegg worked © J Gaiger / Stringer via Getty Images

In 1857, when with the originally established 1804 lifeboat organisation fell into financial troubles, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution took over the Cromer lifeboat station in Norfolk. Brian Pegg began working for the Cromer lifeboat station in 1964, continuing until he was 59 years old. Like many lifeboatmen, it was a job he loved.

Nonetheless, Brian maintained a very strong awareness of the sea’s unstoppable and merciless nature and the respect one must show it. In 1999, Brian contributed his voice to the Millennium Memory Bank, and spoke about the distress of losing someone at sea. Throughout the recording, he discusses the impact that two particular tragedies had on him, as well as the impacts felt by the wider community along the coast.

Account from Norfolk lifeboatman (BL REF C900/11583)

Brian described his life as divided into three, his church, his family and his work for both the RNLI and in later life, the Salvation Army. He believed that if you can get those three parts of life to work together ‘you're on a high’, and if someone asked him to divide them up, it would be very hard.

This recording is from the Millennium Memory Bank Project, the largest recording project in the history of British radio. It ran from 1998-99, capturing the pulse of the century through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life.

Discover more sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

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