THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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289 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

09 December 2019

Recording of the week: sheep gathering in Wales

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This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds.

Most of the library's wildlife recordings focus on the sounds of wild animals, whether that be singing birds in the Australian outback, echolocating dolphins in the Caribbean Sea or stridulating insects in the English countryside.

It's not all about wildlife though; a little corner of the collection is dedicated to the sounds of domesticated animals.

The following excerpt belongs to a series of recordings made by Richard Margoschis in the summer of 1994 near the Welsh village of Pontrhydfendigaid. Over the course of 3 days, a staggering 3000 sheep were rounded up by farmers and brought down from the mountains for shearing. Margoschis used sound to document each stage of the process and the result is a sequence of sonic snapshots that take the listener from the open countryside right into the shearing shed.

Two sheep

This particular example, recorded as the sheep were being gathered, throws us right into the middle of an energetic soundscape; the sounds of bleating sheep are joined by the excited barks of sheepdogs, as well as the shouts and whistles from farmers on horseback as they work together to round up the flock.

Sheep gathering recorded by Richard Margoschis (BL shelfmark 43558)

This recording, together with its counterparts, presents an evocative and alternative glimpse into the working life of farmers during this busy period in the agricultural calendar. The entire series can be listened to onsite at the British Library.

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

26 November 2019

A tribute to Stephen Cleobury by Jessica Duchen

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Portrait photograph of Stephen Cleobury

Sir Stephen Cleobury, photo credit: King's College, Cambridge

I am deeply saddened to hear of the death of Sir Stephen Cleobury last week, on the evening of - appropriately enough - St Cecilia’s Day. It was a great privilege to spend several days with this legendary musician at his home in York earlier this year, interviewing him in depth for National Life Stories at the British Library.

Sir Stephen was already terminally ill, and our sessions inevitably were punctuated by the need for rest. Yet to sit and remember the details of his musical journey through some of the finest religious institutions of the UK seemed to infuse him with remarkable vigour, despite his undoubted suffering.

From his childhood experiences as a chorister at Worcester Cathedral to his early posts at Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral and thence to the music directorship of King’s College, Cambridge, there seemed an infinite number of anecdotes to tell; and we spent some valuable time exploring the development and inner workings of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast annually live from King’s.

Stephen Cleobury on the tradition of choosing the solo choirboy for FNLC at the last moment (C464/99/09)

Our interview also encompassed Sir Stephen’s lucid explanations of musical techniques that are potentially in danger of disappearing - species counterpoint and the realisation of a baroque figured bass. We discussed his assessment of the personal qualities required to be a good organist and a sensitive choral conductor; and how to deal - or how not to - with a large group of excitable youngsters on a choir tour. There is much more besides.

As a music student in Cambridge in the 1980s, starting there only a few years after Sir Stephen began his music directorship at King’s College, I was aware of him and his work almost every day, though our paths crossed rarely (I was at a different college and I can’t sing!). The presence of King’s College Chapel at the heart of town and gown, the pervasive influence of the English choral tradition upon which he built so strongly, and my own sense of not quite belonging to this exquisite and rarified world all got under my skin. Talking to him this year was moving and cathartic on the personal level; and I hope that the interview recording will serve as a valuable memorial in perpetuity, and one that will inspire others as it inspired me.

My profound thanks to his wife, Emma, for her help and forbearance during the recording sessions and to King’s College, Cambridge for funding the interview.

Jessica Duchen interviewed Stephen Cleobury for the 'National Life Stories: General Interviews' collection. The interview can be listened to at the British Library in St Pancras or Boston Spa and found by searching C464/99 at sami.bl.uk

25 November 2019

Recording of the week: 'Power' by Adrienne Rich

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

This week’s recording of the week features American poet Adrienne Rich reading her poem ‘Power’. Rich is performing at the 1st International Feminist Book Fair, London, 1984. The poem was first published in 1977 in Rich's acclaimed collection The Dream of a Common Language.

Rich introduces ‘Power’ saying it's a poem about power (women’s power), considering both true and false power...

The poem also examines the quality of endurance, with reference to the life of scientist Marie Curie.

Adrienne Rich reading 'Power' at the 1st International Feminist Book Fair London 1984 (C154/2)

Marie Skłodowska Curie (7 November 1864 - 4 July 1934) was a Polish-born physicist and chemist.

She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, the only woman who has won it twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different fields.

Marie and her physicist husband Paul Curie did research on uraninite, a radioactive uranium-rich mineral and ore. The Curies isolated the uranium from its radioactive elements, which they named radium and polonium. The latter after Marie’s homeland in Poland.

As a result the Curies won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 (shared with physicist Henri Becquerel). Later in 1911, Marie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her services to the advancement of chemistry.

Marie Curie died from aplastic anemia. This was reportedly caused by her exposure to chemicals and radiation.

Marie Curie working in her laboratoryMarie Curie in her laboratory. Photo credit: National Archief on Visual Hunt / No known copyright restrictions

The 1st International Feminist Book Fair took place 7-9 June 1984 at the Africa Centre in London.

This was a public event with presentations on politics, class, race, gender, sexuality, social equality and women's place in the literary world.

Speakers included: Audre Lorde, Suniti Namjoshi, Toni Cade Bambara, Alifa Rifaat, Joan Barfoot, Susan Griffin, Nicole Brossard, Maureen Watson, Grace Nichols and others.

The  event was recorded by the British Library and the collection has been recently been digitised by the Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

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

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04 November 2019

Recording of the week: the lesbians aren't into dustbins

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

The British Library Sound Archive holds the most exhaustive oral history collection relating to LGBTQ+ lives in the UK: the Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project.

Set up in 1985, as part of the wider Hall-Carpenter Archive formed in 1982, it contains 121 interviews and ten recordings of meetings, covering the time from the 1930s to 1987. The project was coordinated by Margot Farnham and carried out by the two separate lesbian and gay oral history groups, which respectively published the books Inventing Ourselves and Walking after Midnight.

The title Inventing Ourselves was chosen because the book wanted to explore how lesbians had created their lives and contributed to the changes of their time.It stemmed from the need to question the past, become subjects and break silence and marginalisation, from the recognition of the complexities of lesbians’ experiences and from the necessity to provide their own social representation about lesbians.

This recording was made during a meeting whose nature, date and time could not be traced. It features Jackie Forster (06 Nov 1926-10 Oct 1998), contributor to the Arena Three magazine, and among the founders of its successor Sappho, established in 1972. The room is filled with women and contagious laughter. Amusement, freedom and togetherness seem to be the elements permeating the gathering. Jackie Forster delivers a talk which is a recollection of vivacious memories from the 1960s, a time where lesbians thought they were just women who happened to love other women. A time where no role models were available and nobody knew whether there were other lesbians or not. A time where, as a consequence, all that they thought they were and all that they wanted to achieve was to be ordinary, simple women. Perfectly ordinary. Perfectly invisible. Despite the effort, these women failed gloriously, and by doing so they bravely and decisively contributed to that visibility, both in public and in private lives, without which lesbian identity would today be weaker and more prone to external distortions.

Jackie ForsterPhotograph of Jackie Forster, courtesy of Jo McKenzie.

The story starts with that time Jackie Forster and Esmé Ross-Langley went to meet a businessman interested in advertising in the lesbian magazine Arena Three...

'Lesbians aren't into dustbins' (C456/62) - 6 min. 40 sec. 

'And I asked...are you lovers?' (C456/62) - 3 min. 59 sec.

We would like to thank Anne, Jackie's partner and Jo, Jackie's niece, for their help and support with this piece. We also wish Jo a happy birthday, a date which she shares with her aunt Jackie. 

The Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project has been digitised as part of the library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. Follow @BLSoundHeritage for all the latest news from the project.

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24 October 2019

Private Montford's army record

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Those of you who visited last year's British Library exhibition 'Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound' will remember a small display of one-of-a-kind voice-recording discs originally made by the public in coin-operated automatic booths.

Among these was a single 'Voices of the Forces' disc, loaned to us, like the other discs in this section, by the broadcaster Alan Dein.

The 'Voices of the Forces' scheme, which was inaugurated in April 1945, enabled members of the Forces to send messages home to their families. Each recording cost one shilling and ninepence, and the sender spoke into a microphone resembling a hand telephone, while the record was cut at a NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) club by a Sergeant recordist. The discs were 5" (12.5 cm) in diameter and played at 78 rpm, so were quite limited in duration.

Voices of the Forces disc
Until this year, the Library had no good examples of these discs (although there must still be many out there in private hands) so we were delighted to be contacted by Piran Montford, who offered as a donation an original 1945 disc featuring his father Adrian Raphael Montford (aka 'Monty'), complete with its original mailing envelope. Although the disc was damaged, our head audio engineer Robert Cowlin was able to digitize and restore the recording.

Adrian Montford, now aged 96, had not heard the recording since he was a young man. He didn’t remember the contents, but suspected he still retained a strong Australian accent (he was born in London, but raised in Melbourne, Australia, before he returned with his family to live in Sutton in 1938).

The disc was recorded in either North Africa or Palestine in September 1945 and was posted home to his mother in Sutton.

Voices of the Forces disc envelope
The son of the sculptor Paul Raphael Montford, Adrian studied at Sutton Art School and then entered the Royal Academy, London, to study painting, and later sculpture

After the war broke out, Adrian joined the Home Guard in Sutton. He was called up on his 18th birthday, and served the entire war as a Private in the East Surrey Regiment.

Adrian was injured by a mine in the first battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, and developed gas gangrene. He had penicillin injected directly into his leg, a very early use of the medicine. In an Evening Argus interview from 17 September 2006, Adrian described his war experiences as '...traumatic, but all wars are traumatic. I didn't expect to survive.'

The end of the war in 1945 found Adrian in Palestine. While in Palestine, he took two flights to Florence, Italy, to study the art there. It was around this time he made the postal record of his voice.

Listen to Adrian Montford in 1945

Adrian was retained in the army for at least a year after the outbreak of peace. He was moved to Greece (see photo below of him taking a break from directing traffic on Chalkida's Old Bridge near Athens). He ended up driving for a sergeant who patrolled the local brothels throwing out soldiers.

Adrian Montford resting from conducting traffic on Chalkida's Old Bridge  Greece  1945

After being demobbed, Adrian returned to study at the Royal Academy in London.  

In 1951, he was awarded a 1st Landseer Prize of £20 and silver medal for a composition in sculpture. His first attempt to win the Prix de Rome led to a Picture Post magazine cover photo of the sculpture being cast. He attempted again, and in 1954 won the Prix de Rome for Buddha’s Sermon on the Flower.

Adrian went to study at the British School in Rome for two years. He returned from Italy to London, riding his Lambretta scooter over the Alps. Upon his return, he applied for a driving licence. A period of teaching at Sutton Art School and at Folkestone Art School followed.

Adrian taught sculpture for over 30 years at St Martin’s School of Art, with colleagues such as Anthony Caro and David Annesley, under the headship of Frank Martin; at this time, it was the one of the most famous sculpture departments in the world.

In August 1962, he married Selma Hope Nankivell (1934-), an artist and art lecturer. She became involved in preserving Brighton’s heritage, and was granted an MBE for this in 2006. They moved to Brighton in July 1965 with a young family to a house with a large garden. His life passion has been gardening, planting many of the trees to be found in the street. They still live in the same house 54 years later in 2019.

Adrian came out of retirement to teach life drawing at the Royal College of Art, London, ca. 1990, for some years, and he appeared on ITV’s South Bank Show around the same time, and in an article in The Times of 5 February 1991. He exhibited at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition, continued to paint and make prints, and in later life, has been increasingly drawn to pottery.

Adrian has been a keen gardener, and although now more frail, he still takes great pleasure in the beautiful garden he has created. The photo below, taken by his son Piran Montford, shows Adrian in his garden studio, surrounded by both his sculpture and plants.

Adrian Montford in his studio  2019 - photo by Piran Montford

With grateful thanks to Piran Montford for the biographical information incorporated in this piece, and to Robert Cowlin for making the digital transfer of the disc.

23 October 2019

A privilege to be alive on Fair Isle

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Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds, writes: 

It may come as little surprise, but wildlife sound recordists are usually absent from their recordings. It makes perfect sense, of course; the primary aim of these recordings is to capture the vocalisations of a particular animal or the collective sounds of a habitat. Through the use of microphone grips, long leads and stillness, recordists can completely remove themselves from the sonic picture they're creating.

Occasionally a recording will begin or end with an announcement. Here the recordist may state the location, time of day, weather conditions or species heard. Sometimes we hear the animated protestations of a recordist under attack (trust me, this happens). Other times it might be the gentle snores of a dozing recordist. But, for the most part, recordings are dedicated to nature and nature alone.

The following recording is a little different. And it's one of my favourites. It was made by Patrick Sellar, co-founder of the British Library's wildlife sounds collection, in 1974 on the Scottish Island of Fair Isle. The main subject of the recording is the Great Skua (Stercorarius skua), or Bonxie to use its colloquial name, however throughout the recording Patrick gives us a running commentary of the events taking place. He speaks of a birdwatching group approaching the nest site and describes the aerial attacks that this approach elicits (the alarm calls of one of the birds can clearly be heard). He then turns his attention to the landscape itself, describing in detail the clear view, light wind and calm sea. Though the calls of the Great Skua, along with the sweet aerial song of a nearby Skylark, can be heard throughout the recording, it's Patrick's description of what can't be heard that really helps us, as listeners, recreate the scene in our minds. As the birds call out we can almost feel the gentle breeze on our face and see the tiny, white-crested waves below. 

Though I love the entire recording, it's Patrick's closing sentence that has really stayed with me. After describing the scene so evocatively, he signs off with the words ' It's one of those days that's a real privilege to be alive on Fair Isle'. For me, these words perfectly encapsulate the power of nature. To make us stop and remember just how lucky we are to be alive is really quite something. 

Patrick  Sellar recording Great Skuas on Fair Isle, 1974 (BL ref 02672)

Colour photograph of the north coast of Fair IsleFair Isle, photographed in August 1974 by Dr Julian Paren (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This recording is just one of many which has been digitised as part of Unlocking our Sound Heritage, an ambitious 5 year project which aims to preserve and provide access to 500,000 rare and at risk recordings from across the nation. 

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

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04 October 2019

Cable Street and after: memories of antifascism

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A red plaque commemorating the Battle of Cable Street

Image courtesy of Richard Allen

The Battle of Cable Street took place 83 years ago today, on 4 October 1936. The ‘Battle’ was a huge confrontation between antifascists and police who were protecting a march of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) through London’s East End – provocatively intended to carry Blackshirts into the heart of the area’s Jewish community. A vast counter-demonstration gathered, barricades were erected and antifascists invoked the slogan Dolores Ibárruri had used in July that year to galvanise defenders of the Spanish Republic – ‘they shall not pass!’

The Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) narrative of leading the counter-demonstration might be contestable (its original plan was to rally in Trafalgar Square against Franco and only after that to protest the BUF; after pressure from East End members, fliers were amended to urge gathering at Aldgate instead). Nevertheless, the communists played a key role on the day and the Communist Party of Great Britain Biographical Project, archived at the British Library, is a rich source for oral histories of communist antifascism. There are over 150 interviews in the collection, conducted in 1999-2001 by academics at the University of Manchester. I find it particularly useful for researching the motivations of communists of Jewish heritage, like my grandfather, who were attracted to the Party’s antifascism – were they primarily driven by class struggle or ethnic particularism in resistance to fascist antisemitism?

A 1936 CPGB leaflet, altered to read 'rally at Aldgate, 2pm

CPGB leaflet, altered to read 'rally at Aldgate, 2pm', Wikimedia Commons

Despite the militancy of communist antifascism at Cable Street, there was some feeling among British communists that it was not enough just to ‘bash the fascists’. Instead, it was the role of the Party to address the socio-economic conditions that produced fascism – the kind of thinking behind communist initiatives like the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League (1937) which would support tenants against landlords even when tenants were BUF members, using this as an opportunity to prove that it was the communists and not the fascists who championed their rights. Hymie Frankel (C1049/50) observed BUF supporters at close hand and provided an explanation for fascist antisemitism when he remembered that, “they look[ed] lost – they had no jobs and no life...and Mosley whips them up and says Jews are to blame”. Here, he talks about the way the CPGB married resistance to fascism with its answers to the economic problems of the 1930s:

Hymie Frankel on the communist answer to mass unemployment and fascism (C1049/50/01)

In contrast, it was the CPGB’s practical antifascism in the first instance, rather than its ideology, that first attracted Esther 'Hetty' Bower (C1049/22/01-02). Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Hackney in 1905, Hetty was to be decisively impressed by the manner in which communists helped her brother-in-law after his brutal treatment at the hands of BUF stewards at Mosley’s Olympia rally in 1934: “He joined the Communist Party without knowing anything about it except that these were communists who helped him and bandaged him.” Hetty, disaffected with what she saw as the failure of the Independent Labour Party to engage with militant antifascism, joined the CPGB the next year, in 1935.

For some communists of Jewish heritage, their personal experience of antisemitism fitted into a much larger picture. Here, Harold Rosen talks about how for him antisemitism confirmed the ‘general idea’ – an ideological interpretation of world injustice – and how internationalism and the Spanish Civil War, rather than the East End and the BUF, dominated his thinking:

Harold Rosen on the Spanish Civil War and communist internationalism (C1049/128/01)

In an interview archived at the Imperial War Museum, Lou Kenton (33028) remembered antifascism as, “the major thing in the life of most active political people in East London, certainly of my group”. He also explained his arrival on the Left as the “natural result of the social background of the period...it arouse naturally that you were either Labour or communist, and there was never a very sharp division, certainly not in my mind”. For Kenton, improving and changing society were motivations for joining the CPGB which transcended reaction to fascist antisemitism. Indeed, he remembered realising that the Battle of Cable Street “had to be a non-Jewish thing”; he emphasised not Jewish antifascism but the Battle’s display of working-class unity: “a certain togetherness, of warmth”.

Kenton had a long involvement in antifascism, from Olympia to Cable Street and then volunteering with one of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He was interviewed for the CPGB Biographical Project in 2001.

Here, in a sound clip archived at the British Library and taken from an interview in the Labour Oral History Project, Kenton talks about going to Olympia to heckle Mosley. It’s a wonderful extract, complete with a section of Mosley’s speech and the clamouring of the appreciative fascist crowd, as well as Kenton’s memories of the violence meted out to antifascist hecklers by the BUF stewards:

Lou Kenton on going to the BUF rally at Olympia in 1934 (C609/86)

Cover of an Independent Labour Party publication commemoration of Cable Street, titled 'They Did Not Pass'

Independent Labour Party commemoration of Cable Street, © Independent Labour Publications

My doctoral research explores motivations for postwar British antifascism, concentrating on the extent to which this was shaped by Holocaust consciousness. My interview with Monty Goldman, a communist of Jewish heritage, revealed some of the tensions between ideological and ethnic particularist motivations for antifascism that also surface in memories of interwar antifascism. Goldman was born into a Jewish family in the East End in 1931. He joined the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1949, aged 18. While still at school, Goldman got to know the militant Jewish antifascist ‘43 Group’. Here, he talks about the Holocaust as justification for the 43 Group’s violent tactics, although emphasising the Soviet, rather than the Jewish victims of Nazism (and conflating the wider war, the occupation of the USSR and the Holocaust):

Monty Goldman on the Soviet victims of Nazism, interviewed by Joshua Cohen

He remembered that communists were talking about the Holocaust in 1949 but as part of wider Nazi violence, as was consistent with the norms of the time: “You spoke about the atrocities; you didn’t speak about the Holocaust”. And when Goldman discussed Nazi antisemitism, he tended to follow this with immediate reference to the Nazis’ political victims, with reminders that the concentration camps were originally meant for communist prisoners.

All 154 CPGB Biographical Project interviews are available for listeners at the British Library. For more information on this and similar collections please see the collection guide to Oral histories of politics and government.

Dr Joshua Cohen has recently completed his PhD entitled ‘The Holocaust and British Antifascism, 1945-67’ at the University of Leicester.

23 September 2019

Recording of the week: The Beautiful Garden

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This week's selection comes from Adonis Lebotho, Social Media Intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

I recently came across Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, a book on the cultural, historical and philosophical significance of gardens. Throughout, Pogue reflects on the relationship between ‘care and gardens’.[1] The act of tending to and cultivating a certain special place, he says, frames gardening as a model for tenderness and responsibility, above all ‘as a counterforce to history’s deleterious drives’.[2] In other words, gardeners take time and effort to cultivate a small perfectible corner of the world, against the chaos and disorder around them.

I mention this book as gardens have come to my attention several times recently, namely through The Beautiful Garden'an acapella vocal piece performed by Valerie Chapman found in the Roy Palmer English Folk Music Collection and the opening of the British Library’s community Story Garden. Click here to learn more about the Story Garden, a temporary community-run garden giving space for people to plant, cook and be together.

Photograph of a woman planting flowers in a flowerbedA woman plants flowers in a flowerbed

‘The Beautiful Garden’ tells the story of a boy and girl from vastly different backgrounds who strike up a chance friendship while playing from either side of a garden fence. The song considers how unfortunate and petty the things that divide them are and imagines a time when the pair might happily walk ‘side by side.’

They played in their beautiful garden, the children of high degree
Outside the gates the beggars passed in their misery
But there was one of the children that could not join the play
And a poor little beggar maiden watched for him day by day
Once he had given her a flower and oh, how he smiled to see
The thin pale hand through the railing stretched out so eagerly
She came again to the garden to see the children play
But the little white face had vanished, little feet gone astray
She crept away to a corner down by a murky stream
But the thin pale face in the garden shone through her restless dream
But the thin pale face in the garden shone through her restless dream
That highborn child and the beggar maid passed onwards side by side
For the ways of men are narrow but the gates of heaven are wide
For the ways of men are narrow but the gates of heaven are wide

The Beautiful Garden (C1023/6)

Though there’s very little information about Valerie Chapman, there is a little more about her father, George Dunn. George’s recordings, from which ‘The Beautiful Garden’ is taken, form a significant part of the Roy Palmer English Folk Music Collection. A chain maker and traditional singer from the village of Quarry Bank, Birmingham, George was descended from a line iron workers. He performed at private parties and public houses, but once he’d retired from the life of a musician, even his daughter was largely unaware of his musical background.

Beginning in the 1960s, Roy Palmer dedicated himself to collecting and sharing traditional music and folklore, including soldier’s songs and folk drama. The Roy Palmer Collection consists of 140 hours of field recordings of traditional English music in 1549 sound items. These recordings were largely produced in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, and Birmingham, where Dunn was based.

Click here to find out more about the Roy Palmer English Folk Music Collection.

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[1] Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, (University of Chicago Press, 2008), pg. 7.

[2] Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, (University of Chicago Press, 2008), pg. X.

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