THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

238 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

13 November 2018

Sound Seating: Colin St John Wilson’s Library Furniture

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In 1995, the British Library began documenting oral histories of British architects through the National Life Stories series Architects’ Lives. The following year the project looked close to home and published an interview with the architect of the library’s St. Pancras location. In twenty-seven parts available on the BL’s Sounds website, the librarian and curator Jill Lever (1935-2017) speaks with Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson (1922-2007), covering a wide range of subjects including his career, past projects and approach to creating public spaces.

Initially this series had been recommended to me by Oral History curator Mary Stewart after I asked colleagues if anyone knew anything about some wooden benches I had seen at the library. Simple and sturdy, reminiscent of mid-century modern Scandinavian design, initially I had just wanted to know who made them – was there a small British furniture company still making them? Had a well-known designer made a little-known range of furniture for the library? While still largely a mystery despite the enthusiasm of colleagues, I found something more interesting through this research. The original furniture to the building, much of it still here twenty years after its official opening, was a crucial part of fulfilling Wilson’s overall vision for the building and his idea of how a library should work and make its readers feel.

Bench1

Largely designed by Wilson himself, the original furnishings, built-in nooks, and other seating were important parts of his approach to scale. In one section of the interview, he describes the point of preserving a balance between a grand, large, space coming in at two hundred thousand square metres and one scaled for individuals:

“Eventually you have to accept that a lot of other Readers and the architecture makes the sort of spaces in which you can read, you can spend the whole day, you don’t feel claustrophobic, you have the chance of looking up from the close range of a book to the long distance of a big space.”

Readingroom

Wilson designed tactile, personal elements throughout the building in order to balance the large scale demanded of a building with innumerable collection items, which now greet over 1.5 million people annually through the compact front entrance into the spacious multi-storey lobby. Portholes throughout the building provide small windows onto the grand area of the main lobby on its main and upper ground floors.

One of the ways Wilson attempted to create this balance, and thus serve what he saw as the larger purpose of a public building, was through his use of tactile, natural materials. Inspired by architects of the English Free School, among them Sir George Gilbert Scott who designed St Pancras Chambers next door, William Morris, and John Ruskin, he chose wood panelling, leather-covered wooden benches and booths on nearly every floor of public space outside the reading rooms, and leather-wrapped brass railings a la Aalto, and carved person-sized seating into marble wall detailing on multiple floors.1

Other designers were commissioned to help create this balance. The reading room chairs still in use today are original to the library, designed by Ronald Carter. This was one of his largest commissions, although he also designed furniture for other cultural institutions in London like the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Shelflife st p_003 Oct 1996 cropped

Wilson thought that if this balance was struck correctly, he could create the kind of public building in which an initial feeling of getting lost would soon be replaced with an ability to “help yourself and get on with it,” much as many do every day at the library, arriving at the front door with their clear plastic reading room bags, ready to use for second, third, and forth times in the workspaces readers often come to think of as their own.

1The British Library by Colin St John Wilson, YK.2009.a.21930

Mary Caple is a postgraduate student in History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford, formerly Digitisation Workflow Administrator for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. Special thanks to Dave Stevens for scanning the copies of Shelf Life, the British Library staff newsletter, from which images of St Pancras came from. 

 

12 November 2018

Acrostic Challenge

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UOSH Volunteer and poet Amy Evans Bauer invites you to write your own creative response to the WordBank:

Calling all listers, logophiles, poets, crossworders and puzzleers!

The sheer variety of spoken English in the UK and beyond befits a celebration in kaleidoscopic form, so we’ve decided to host our first #acrostic challenge. Joining in won’t take long…

Picture

 

 

Simply brew, damp, draw, mash, scald, steep, stew or wet yourself a cuppa, browse the WordBank and compile a list, sentence or poem in acrostic form. Tweet us your entry to @VoicesofEnglish @amyevansbauer #acrosticchallenge or email us at Amy.Evans@bl.uk by 22nd November for the chance to feature in a selection chosen for a celebratory blog post this December. 

 

 

You may feel inspired independently or want to write in a pair or group.

We can’t wait to see your creations! Read on for guidelines and an example.  

Guidelines

  1. An acrostic form is one in which the first letters of each line spell out a word or phrase. For this challenge, you can choose to spell WORDBANK, VOICEBANK or UOSH. (See below).
  2. Your additional curatorial task is to include at the start of your line/s a word or phrase archived in the WordBank. (Minimum: please ensure at least one line opens with a word from the collection.)

Additional options

  1. Beginner/tea-break option: see how you go with a shorter list that spells WORD, BANK or VOICE.
  2. Advanced option: try your hand at an acrostic sonnet by spelling WORDBANK UOSH.

Submission

Tweet your composition to @VoicesofEnglish @amyevansbauer #acrosticchallenge by 22/11/18.

If your creation is longer than a Tweetable 35 characters, or you would rather send your submission as a short email or Word document attachment, then please send to Amy.Evans@bl.uk with the subject heading #ACROSTIC.

Maximum 3 entries per person. Hyperlinks are not required. If you would like your acrostic to remain anonymous, please indicate this in your email.

Example

To set pens in motion, here is my own here is my own WORDBANK acrostic. Presumptuously, I create enough slippage for the speaker’s voice to be either that of a caulkhead [= ‘someone born on the Isle of Wight’] or someone who, like me, grew up on the island belonging to the opposite part of my favourite pair of nouns:

Wumpert

Overner

ROFL

Deffo too

Brassic for

Argy-bargy and

Nithered

Kerfuffle

You may want to collate some of your own word memories from the collection, or to build with alien terms as your acrostic bricks.

In my version, each line begins with an item in the WordBank, including one contribution available online (Overner), and I have selected the rest from the hundreds more recordings that are accessible in the Library’s London and Boston Spa Reading Rooms via the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. Why not register as a British Library Reader and plan a visit? Feel free to include a similar combination of archived and/or online parts of the collection

Challenge!

We do not demand any poetic or puzzled complexity. Rather, we are looking for an acrostic form that achieves one of the following: conveys the variety of the collection, plays with sound, celebrates place, explores a linguistic point of interest, or delves into accent, dialect and slang in any other way that may appeal. Rest assured, the form ensures that yours will!

Spoken English Cataloguer Holly Gilbert @Collecting Sound has courageously accepted the mission to Tweet first with an attempt at VOICEBANK and Lead Curator Jonnie Robinson will throw his hat in the ring with UOSH. How about you? We hope you will join in.

Please share with friends and colleagues. All ages and dialects welcome!

Amy’s poetry installation SOUND((ING))S is available to hear online or to read in chapbook form as the transcript PASS PORT.

UOSH

07 November 2018

When the cows come home - a mooving translation

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British Library Volunteer, Dr Amy Evans Bauer, writes:

Have you ever had trouble explaining the definition of a word, and even more so, conveying an idiom in literal language? An idiom is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as:

a form of expression, grammatical construction, phrase, etc., used in a distinctive way in a particular language, dialect, or language variety; spec. a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words.

It is clear from this submission to the Library’s WordBank, and many like it, that thinking about how to deconstruct idioms can take us further and further out to sea. One London-based contributor, born in 1972, who defined her accent as belonging to Wigan in the North West of England, and who had also lived in the Midlands, explains Bun Tuesday. Appropriately enough, while listening to her recording, we avoid ever arriving:  

Cow

and I’ve also used the phrase Bun Tuesday as in never gonna happen as in when the cows come home that’s never gonna happen that’s Bun Tuesday so I imagine it’s got something to do with Easter time but I don’t know again the phrases are from the north-west

C1442X7237 WHEN THE COWS COME HOME 

 

 

I encountered my favourite equivalent of when the cows come home when visiting my friends Dana and Mike in Albuquerque. For this bilingual (Spanish-English) Coloradan-Nebraskan household based in New Mexico, an event that is never gonna happen is foretold with the kind counsel don’t hang your hat on it. This metaphor draws on the same idea that connects arrival, millinery and belonging in the phrase (and famous song lyric) wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home. The advice to not hang my hat on it conveyed the same message as don’t count your chickens, because the promised event we were discussing would happen when the cows come home.

Of course, for those of us who grew up on the Isle of Wight, there are certainly times in the year both when the cows come home and when they can be found further afield. Cows may not hibernate, but they do ‘winter’. This is why every year, at the start of autumn, the cattle population of Culver Down increases. The western side of the Down hosts a visiting herd, which comes from a nearby farm to enjoy its gentler southern—albeit extremely blustery—climes. (Some of us even remember the seasons years ago during which the Island’s resident highland herd could be found on the clifftop.) When the cows come on holiday is a good time for islander bovine enthusiasts. Domestic cattle are skilled at recognising individual animal and human faces over long stretches of time, so they have a sense of those who feed and, like me, visit them both home and away.

Cows are also highly intelligent animals. Tours of the American poet Robert Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire, recount how he trained his dairy herd to be milked at midnight rather than at dawn and dusk, so as to accommodate the writing schedule that he maintained alongside his other labours. Whatever time of day it is, and however familiar their human might be, cows rarely rush for anyone. Therein lies the origin of the phrase when the cows come home: the splendidly unhurried pace of a cow.  

If we agree, then, that like many idioms, when the cows come home enjoys the “poetic licence” of exaggeration, we can start to understand some of the issues involved in defining the phrase and its equivalents. Furthermore, that which is temporally ambiguous and indeed never going to transpire is in essence a challenge to pin down. There is poetry in this too, because poetic language from north to south makes similar demands: poet-translators have for centuries agreed that the full content of a poetic line is rarely, if ever, encapsulated entirely when grafted across to another language via definition, syntax and form only. The task of defining or explaining an idiom involves a similarly challenging ‘translation’ of sorts, from poetic language to literal terminology.

Although recordings preserved in the WordBank capture what linguists call the elicited speech (invited verbal information) of our contributors, rather than spontaneous speech (overheard conversations, as in the Listening Project and much of the Library’s Oral History collections), and the latter typically provides an unfettered example of accent and verbal patterns, the former is interesting in terms of what we might term spontaneous definition: our contributors became unscripted dialect translators. While thinking from the top of their heads, many naturally resist undoing the original dialectical structure to the very end.

The following definition-by-chain-of-similes stays true to its poetic form and takes us into more and more interestingly specialist territory:

Hemlock

 

right dry as whumlicks which means dry as oatcakes or dry as hemlock or dry as a member of the umbelliferæ it derives from the Scottish I believe 

C1442X1684 DRY AS WHUMLICKS

 

 

The contributor is a man, born in 1933 in Newcastle upon Tyne, who grew up in Ashington, Northumberland, and lived in Consett, County Durham at the time he made the recording. As he chews the cud [= ‘ponders’] over how to define his phrase, he moves from non-standard dialect to botanical Latin. Either side of oatcakes and poison are two less familiar words: the English Dialect Dictionary records whumlick as another name for hemlock, a highly poisonous plant of the parsley family. Umbelliferae, from the Latin umbella [= ‘parasol’] plus -fer [= ‘bearing’], are plants that bear umbels [= ‘flower clusters’], in which stalks of a similar length spring from a common centre – such as cow parsley. In some ways, his recording could itself be described as umbelliferous!

Finite definitions that emerge when the cows (or the cow parsley) come home are some of my favourite contributions to the WordBank collection. It is through listening to these that we can revel in the irreducible inventiveness of spoken communication. What about ewe? Are there idioms of the never-never that you find moove further and further away as you follow? Either way, we hope that you have enjoyed this deliberately labyrinthine set of recordings!

 

31 October 2018

Ghosts in the collections

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It’s Halloween, so what better time to delve into our oral history collections in search of accounts of the eldritch, mysterious and paranormal? In a branch of history often focused on the details and routines of everyday life it’s interesting to note the number of supernatural experiences that crop up in an average life story interview – especially when we consider that interviewees are rarely, if ever, asked directly for this sort of story. Accounts of spooky legends or personal encounters with the supernatural find their way into everything from descriptions of family dynamics in the Artists' Lives collection to accounts of rural postal routes in An Oral History of the Post Office. I selected four of my favourite ghostly clips I encountered during my time as an Unlocking our Sound Heritage volunteer at the British Library.

Nationalarchivesghost576Ghostly sighting? National Archives

John Carey, the literary critic and Oxford professor, interviewed as part of the Authors' Lives collection, describes an average day as a student at St Johns College. Stating that he would often study in the college library ‘a lovely library… [although] half of it [was] haunted’ he recalls the university legend of the ghost and a fully-fledged (albeit tongue-in-cheek) encounter with it.

John Carey and the St Johns College ghost (C1276/49/07)

If Carey seems sceptical as to whether or not his tale is true. Susanna Richmond (Artists' Lives) has no such doubts. She remembers in detail the haunted house her father grew up in which attracted the attention of Society for Psychical Research (‘[Arthur] Conan Doyle would come and sit in the garden hoping to see the fun!’) and which none of her family doubted they shared with The Grey Lady.

Susanna Richmond and The Grey Lady (C466/295/01)

In a more whimsical brush with the other side Clifford Mewett was a telegram boy in the Post Office in the mid-60s when he met a helpful ghost on a Kentish country lane who gave him directions to the house he was trying to find.

Clifford Mewett and the postal ghost (C1007/24/05)

And organic farmer William Best describes family legends of ghosts passed to him from his mother who lived in the ‘seriously haunted’ village of Wing and points out that it wasn’t so long ago that the mystical and spooky was part and parcel of English life.

William Best and rural legends (C821/197/01)

Best’s account of his mother experiences highlights an interesting point about ghost stories and their larger context within oral history. In the UK we don’t, generally, tell and retell stories, family events or local legends to anywhere near the extent that people in other countries do, but we make an exception for unexplainable experiences. The stories of headless horsemen and disembodied footsteps that Best’s mother passes down are revealing, not because they are convincing, but because she thought it was important to pass them down. What’s more they provide an insight into her rural community and its collective mind-set that might otherwise have been lost. Ghost stories then may be of particular interest to the student of oral history as a rare example of a strong, sustained oral tradition coming out of a culture where, generally speaking, these traditions are weak.

The cultural importance of ghost stories as oral tradition and our familiarity with them as spoken narratives may also explain why, in spite of a healthy modern scepticism, and never being asked directly for a tale of terror, interviewees giving accounts of their lives stray again and again to the supernatural. The clips here are only a small sample, and many more first-hand accounts of phantom artist models, premonitory visions and boarding house poltergeists lie buried in the BL collections for those brave enough to unearth them…

Anna Savory volunteered with the British Library as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. The interview with Clifford Mewett was digitised as part of the project and, along with the interviews with John Carey and William Best, can be listened to at the British Library. The interview with Susanna Richmond can be listened to online at BL Sounds.

30 October 2018

The words we live by

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British Library Volunteer, Dr Amy Evans Bauer, writes:

The Library’s Evolving English WordBank holds many imperatives, sage warnings and pick-me-ups. These reveal a strong relationship between idiomatic language and our behaviour, even our emotional responses, which is passed down through generations via spoken codes of conduct. While reflecting on this, I created a prose poem that envisages life with an altogether different set of instructions and reassurances. If you like riddles or puzzles, you may quickly spot the provenance of each rebellious little unit! I wish you all a stubbornly contrary day.

Idiom Undone

Shoot the messenger. Count your chickens. But me buts. It’s over ’til the fat lady sings. Look a gift horse in the mouth. Bet on it.

Look at me like that. Forget. Mention it. Stress. Dilly-dally on the way. This is the length of a piece of string.

People in glass houses throw stones. Look. Home, Jane and spare the horses. TOUCH. Be late. Delay. Despair.

Ever do that again. Show me up. Shit where you eat. Stay up late. Leave your vegetables. Leave the table. Come back. You worry. You dare.

At all. In my house. In my name. If I can help it. That I heard. That I know. That you’d know. NOW. For you. Again. In a month of Sundays.

Say never. Give up. I know whether I’m coming or going. I knew that. I could tell. Well I. Before seen. Used. Worn. Ending story. Land.

BALL GAMES. Way. Brainer. More. Worry, be happy. Offence. Taken. Tread on the grass. Enough. More. EXIT. 

Amy’s most recent chapbook of sound poems is PASS PORT (Shearsman, 2018).

Follow us @VoicesofEnglish

17 October 2018

Religious unbelief in the life of Professor Sir Fred Holliday

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Over half of respondents in the most recent British Social Attitudes survey indicated that they have ‘no religion’. All evidence suggests that the majority of this group are also either atheist or agnostic. We are able to say, then, that religious unbelief affects a very significant proportion of British people, but what else can we say about it? Religious Unbelief is little studied and not well understood, a situation that the £2.3m Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent seeks to change.

In a partnership with the Understanding Unbelief project, National Life Stories at the British Library is examining some of its collections of oral history recordings, with unbelief firmly in mind. What do interviewees – recorded in projects with no particular focus on religion – say about their lack of religious belief? This blog reports on one discovery: the presence of unbelief in an interview with Professor Sir Fred Holliday, recorded in a number of sessions between 2009 and 2011, part of the collection ‘An Oral History of the Water Industry’.

Fred Holliday [1935-2016] was a marine biologist who served as founding Chairman of Northumbrian Water, Vice-Chancellor and Warden of the University of Durham, Director of Shell and of British Rail. His obituaries tend to comment on his interest in science as a child, usually mentioning the decomposing snake under his mother’s bed. None that I have seen refer to his equally longstanding interest in and engagement with religion, strongly present in his British Library interview. In this interview he explains that from “about the age of twelve” he became closely involved with the family of the local Methodist minister (“they more or less adopted me [...] I learnt so much from him”) and that, because of this, he began to “announce hymns in the chapel, even try my best at a sermon”. The interviewer asks how he felt about giving these sermons, and Holliday’s reply stresses that he treated them as intellectual projects and as performances:

Fred Holliday on writing sermons (C1364/5)

FredHollidayRiverDec1960Sir Fred Holliday on the River Dee in Scotland as a young researcher, December 1960

In this clip, Holliday is keen to explain that in writing and giving the sermons, he was driven not by religious belief of his own (or even a valuing of religious belief in general), but by the enjoyment of cerebral work (“I did enjoy taking a really tough, tough Old Testament passage and – what I now know to call an exegesis – [laughs] and really unpicking it”) and the enjoyment of being looked at and listened to (“I liked attention I guess”). Nevertheless, he was clearly a Christian unbeliever (rather than, say, a nonreligious unbeliever); his unbelief was experienced through engagement with Christianity.

As the interview moves forward, Holliday confirms that he was not affected “in any [laughs] spiritual or religious sense” by the experiences in the chapel and that he differed from the Minister who “had a very, very strong inner faith” and from members of the “working class” congregation who were imagined (by himself and the Minister) as simply ‘having’ “belief”:

Fred Holliday on belief and on his scientific training (C1364/5)

In line with observations in Lois Lee’s Recognising the Non-religious (2015), we might note that while Holliday sees the (religious) worldview of others as a source of psychological comfort, he does not seem to see his own “science training” and its associated worldview as offering him anything analogous.

Holliday took his own “belief or lack of it” forward in a life that included more sermon-giving: “I’ve preached in the Church of Scotland and I’ve preached, God help me, in York Minster and Durham Cathedral since”. As Warden of the University of Durham, he interacted with the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who he says “agreed with me” on aspects of Christian non-belief but who “outraged the congregation at Durham cathedral, and he did what Mr Homer had told me never do: he attacked the widows and orphans, not willingly and knowingly but he was less willing to compromise than I was”. Holliday himself continued – at least until this first interview session in 2009 – to want to describe publically the shape of his Christian unbelief while not “upsetting” his audiences:

Fred Holliday on his belief in "Einstein’s god" (C1364/5)

FredHollidaybinocularsSir Fred Holliday

At this point in the interview, he expressed his opposition to the form of unbelief promoted by fellow biologist Richard Dawkins: “read his work, know it, sympathise with a lot of it, but why oh why does he become so evangelical in this atheism”. Two years later, in 2011, when he recorded the final interview session, his position may have shifted. A period of treatment for “quite an aggressive cancer”, involving hospitalisation, seems to have made him question the value of preserving conventional religious faith in others – an experience that runs counter to what is widely held to be the case, that personal crisis encourages religious belief (though this assumption is challenged in writing by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, as well as in emerging findings of research led by Christel Manning):

Fred Holliday reflects on his approach to religion (C1364/5)

Holliday’s generosity in giving up precious time to record a final interview session has afforded a relatively rare direct view of personal change over time. He shares the particular sights and sounds that unsettled a long-held combination of personal unbelief and valuing of religion. His reflections are detailed and multi-layered, but he certainly seems to have come to question the golden rule of his mentor: “don’t undermine the peace of mind of the widows and orphans”.

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, The British Library. Alison Gilmour interviewed Sir Fred Holliday for An Oral History of the Water Industry. The complete interview can be listened to on BL Sounds.

02 October 2018

Sound, stories and new perspectives: site-specific curated sound tours of the British Library

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Have you ever wandered around the British Library in St Pancras and been intrigued the art, architecture and spaces? Perhaps you’ve enjoyed an exhibition at the Library and wondered how it may have inspired other visitors? Have you ever wanted to hear more voices from the many narrators in the sound collections? Want to make the most of Black History Month 2018?

Then lucky you – we have the perfect way for you to spend 40 minutes of your time this October!

As part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project and inspired by the Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition four talented young scholars have been exploring the British Library oral history collections to highlight voices from Caribbean migrants. The sound tour guides will lead tours through the St Pancras building – playing excerpts from the sound recordings in key locations to shed new light on the architecture and artwork on display.

Kings Library - courtesy clive sherlockKing's Library, St Pancras. Photo courtesy of Clive Sherlock.

The sound tour guides; Korantema Anyimadu, Amelia Francis, Ayomide Oluyemi and Shani Page-Muir, each give a tour based on their own research – focussing on a variety of themes including – ideas of ‘home’, arrival and reception in the UK, identity and politics, community organisation and mid-20th century awareness in Britain of life in the colonial empire.

Ayomide gives an insight into just one of the clips she selected and edited, from the life story interview with Donald Hinds, (b. 1934 in Jamaica) who, after his move to Britain, became a published author reflecting on the experiences of West Indian immigrants. Ayo commented, “I found it striking in this section of the interview that some of pieces of literature Hinds found significant growing up in Jamaica were books that we see as very 'British.' He also touched upon two important Jamaican figures, Marcus Garvey and Harold Moody, who immigrated to Britain in the earlier part of the twentieth century which highlights the role pre-Windrush migrants.”

Donald Hinds reflects on his favourite literature, and the books he read whilst at school (C1149/25)

During her Sound Tour, Ayo chose to play the audio by The King's Library. She explains, “George III's collection spanning almost four centuries and many forms of writing, feels like the core of the British Library to me. It's probably the British Library's most visible text collection to the visitor and it felt appropriate to hear Donald Hinds’ voice there – as he is well known as a writer.”

Designing and leading the sound tour was a new experience for Ayo, “Although talking about history is one of my favourite things and I was very excited at the idea of getting to create my own tour, at the start I was very nervous. Feeling more confident with practice tours, being trained in how to edit sound clips and learning about oral history have been wonderful skills to gain. I'm going to miss this project when it's completed!”

After spending 40 minutes on a tour we are confident that you will see the British Library building with fresh eyes and will want to revisit the excellent exhibition and find out more about Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Public tours are available for tours on:
Wednesday 10 October 2018 at 18.00
Saturday 13 October 2018 at 14.00; 15.00 and 16.00
Tours last approximately 40 minutes and are free of charge:
https://www.bl.uk/events/windrush-sound-tour

Written by the BL leads on this project: Mary Stewart, Oral History Curator & Chandan Mahal, Learning Projects Manager for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

26 September 2018

What's that? Surely music - The Gerald Cavanagh Collection

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IMG_0825Magid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh Collection

By Edison Fellow Magid El-Bushra,

counter-tenor and Assistant Content Producer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Sudanese boys growing up in Willesden Green tend not to fall in love with opera. But an encounter with Miloš Forman’s classic film Amadeus was to awaken a passion which has, in many ways, guided my life. I searched out scraps of information for myself about the art form until eventually, in my early teens, I arrived at two cultural waterfalls – the Royal Opera House, and BBC Radio 3. So, when I recently discovered that there was a collection of recordings in the British Library of Covent Garden broadcast performances on Radio 3 from the Golden Age of opera, the 1960s-70s, I knew that I had to get my hands on it, and I am eternally grateful to Jonathan Summers and the British Library Edison Fellowship scheme for allowing me to do so.

Gerald (‘Gerry’) Cavanagh, the owner of this collection of recordings, was, like me, an opera fanatic. He died in 2016 at the age of 87, leaving behind a house, two bedsits and a storage unit crammed full of opera-related paraphernalia, which attested to a lifetime dedicated to music and concert-going. Stephen Conrad, a family friend who was charged with the unenviable task of clearing out these properties, told me that in disposing of Gerry’s collection, he had managed to sell 45 feet of LPs! He was an avid collector – what we might now call a hoarder – but we have to remember that Cavanagh was part of a generation starved of culture during the war; music was a vital means of relaxation – something to be held onto.

ROH-SOU-3-012 - Donald Southern - Midsummer Nights Dream - 555 folder - 29BThe Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1961) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.  Cavanagh was present at the first London performance on 2 February 1961

As a young man in the 1950s, Cavanagh would spend his evenings in his favourite seats in the Upper Slips, (high at the top of the Royal Opera House, but with the best acoustic), with a BOAC shoulder bag hiding a clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder at his feet. (I was desperate to get my hands on those recordings, but unfortunately they seem not to have survived the house clearance!) He loved the core German and Italian 19th century repertoire most of all, but was a child of his time, and took a great interest in the musical developments in opera which occurred during his era. After retiring from a career in scientific research at Imperial College, Cavanagh and his wife Flo increased their cultural excursions from East Croydon, seeing more operas and concerts in a month than most people probably see in a lifetime. If a performance they were attending was being broadcast, they would set their recorder to tape it from the radio.

The Cavanagh Collection (C1734) that has made its way to the British Library consists of 302 reels of such recordings, mainly of broadcasts of live opera performances. There are also a few broadcasts of song recitals and orchestral concerts. In any case, the majority are of performances given at the Royal Opera House, but there are also many from ENO, Sadler’s Wells, the Proms, and from much further afield.

I set about beginning to catalogue the collection over the winter, but with my fellowship coinciding with a busy new day job at none other than the Royal Opera House, I always knew I wouldn’t have time to log every reel. Therefore, I decided to set particular emphasis on the recordings of operas from the ROH itself, as well as the recordings of contemporary operas, and to see where and to what extent there was an overlap between the two. My aim was to get a picture of what the collection can tell us about the context in which Gerald Cavanagh was consuming this operatic content.

As the majority of the recordings are taken from BBC broadcasts, I knew that the possibility that some would already exist in the British Library archive would be quite high. There are duplicates, but this does not mean the exercise has been a waste of energy. For example, the ROH broadcast of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten conducted by Georg Solti from 17 June 1967, which already exists in the archive under the shelf mark 1CDR0028477, notes that ‘[the] recording has heavy distortion’, so it’s gratifying to know that backup now exists in Cavanagh C1734/044-045 for anyone who, like me, loves this opera. 

ROH-SOU-4-038 Roll 4  Strip 2  Frame 4Donald McIntyre as Barak and Inge Borkh as Barak’s Wife in The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (1967) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1967.  Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.

With few exceptions, each reel is accompanied by a clipping from the Radio Times with details of the performance, and the date helpfully written in Cavanagh’s neat hand. I say helpfully, but sometimes one has to account for human error; for example, he dates the first broadcast performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Taverner (C1734/210) as 15 July 1962, when the opera wasn’t premiered for another 10 years.

To demonstrate the breadth of the collection, I have included some entries from further afield, such as Szymanowski’s Hagith (C1734/128), which appears rather exotically in a live performance in Italian with the RAI Symphony Orchestra. Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto’s modernist masterpiece Juha (C1734/252, previously unknown to me) is also in the collection. The latter sounds a bit like Schoenberg orchestrating an opera written by Bartók to a libretto that Janáček would have been drawn to (young woman in small town is married to lame old man but gets seduced by dishy merchant. Tragedy ensues).

There are also opportunities to hear broadcasts which one would expect either to already be in the archive, or to already have been released commercially, such as Turandot, starring Birgit Nilsson and James King, broadcast on 15 January 1971, (C1734/282), and the world premiere of Tippett’s King Priam from 29 May 1962 (C1734/018). This performance was given by The Covent Garden Opera Company at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, ahead of its subsequent premiere at Covent Garden, and I am delighted to have been able to identify these and add them to the Sound and Moving Image (SAMI) catalogue.  Indeed, the works of Michael Tippett feature prominently in the Gerald Cavanagh Collection.  Here is an extract from Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage from 22 April 1968 with the following cast - Alberto Remedios, Joan Carlyle, Raimund Herincz, Elazabeth Harwood, Stuart Burrows, Helen Watts, Stafford Dean and Elizabeth Bainbridge with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Whats that? Surely music

Equally prominent are the key works of the 19th century Italian operatic repertory.  This excerpt, from Bellini's La Sonambula, broadcast on 20 March 1971, has the cast of Renata Scotto, Stuart Burrows, Forbes Robinson, David Lennox, Heather Begg, George Macpherson and Jill Gomez with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario.

La Sonnambula

But what was always most interesting to me in this venture was not so much the process of cataloguing the collection. What really captured my imagination was more what the collection itself says to us as a piece of historical evidence. Because C1734 is more than just a collection of old tapes – it’s actually a snapshot of a cultural attitude which speaks volumes about how the process of listening to opera is shaped by our cultural institutions, not only in the 1960s and 70s, but also today. Who gets to decide what we listen to?

Despite the many transformations BBC Radio has undergone since the BBC’s foundation in 1922, the guiding principle of Inform, Educate, Entertain is one which can still be perceived today. The decisions and cultural objectives of a handful of men during those early days (from BBC founder John Reith, to BBC Music Directors Percy Pitt and Adrian Boult) would go on to shape public attitudes towards music and culture for decades to come. The Third Programme (forerunner to BBC Radio 3) ran from 1946 – 1970, and quickly established itself as one of the major channels for the dissemination of culture in Britain, with its commitment to the erudite exploration of the fine arts for six hours every evening.

The period covered by Cavanagh’s collection of tapes broadly corresponds to that of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music (1959 – 1972). Under Glock, the Third Programme sought to define the BBC as an internationally recognised central point, from which the very newest music at the cutting edge of compositional trends would be broadcast into the living rooms of ‘ordinary’ people just like Gerry. During Glock’s tenure, those six hours every evening were expanded by 100 hours a week to a full daily schedule, which provided fertile ground for Glock (avoiding what he referred to as “the danger of musical wallpaper”) to support and nurture new music and new artists. This fit in squarely with the BBC’s lofty educational goal of forming and edifying the cultural taste of the nation.

The Royal Opera House, on the other hand, was then, and is now a completely different kind of cultural institution to the BBC, and with a completely different set of objectives and values. While there had been a recognised need to establish an opera company of international calibre at Covent Garden after the Second World War, music publishers Boosey and Hawkes (who acquired the lease for the building in 1944) and new Chairman and economist John Maynard Keynes all agreed that the fledgling permanent ensemble had to be run above all by a businessman. That businessman was David Webster, who had started his career in retail. Although the utopian dream was to create “a national style of operatic presentation which would attract composers and librettists to write for it” (according to John Tooley, Webster’s successor), “there were factors at work which would inevitably take Covent Garden down other paths”. In other words – the business objective of selling tickets took over from the cultural objective of nurturing new, indigenous work.

“In the fifty years since reopening after the war”, wrote Tooley in 1999, “less opera has been composed for Covent Garden than was originally hoped for”. Indeed, although contemporary opera is given space in The Royal Opera’s annual programming, the list of operas given their premiere at the theatre reads like a roll call of works which either met with critical disapproval, or simply sank without trace. Britten’s Gloriana (C1734/010, the Coronation gala premiere of which Gerry attended in 1953) was played to a “largely uncomprehending and unsympathetic audience”. Henze’s The Bassarids (C1734/192) was touted as an option for The Royal Opera but never made it (instead being recorded by Cavanagh from a concert performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), as Webster was unenthusiastic. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory (C1734/136) and Tippett’s The Knot Garden (C1734/227) were both premiered by The Royal Opera “and ideally should have been repeated, but unfortunately our limited resources made that impossible”. The commitment to contemporary opera during this period seems half-hearted, more like a secondary consideration.

ROH-SOU-1-0207 Roll 2  Strip 6  Frame 1Anne Howells as Lena and Donald McIntyre as Axel Heyst in The Royal Opera production of 'Victory' (1970) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House.  Used with permission.

Although there is a great deal of traditional operatic fare in C1734, what is fascinating to me is the sheer breadth and range of new opera that leaps out from the collection, most of which we simply do not hear any more. In the selection I have catalogued, there are four versions of Tippett’s King Priam alone, not to mention the four separate recordings of Britten’s Billy Budd. Among many other examples, Robin Orr’s Hermiston (C1734/238), Henze’s beautiful and witty Elegy for Young Lovers (C1734/280), and Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (C1734/213 – another new addition to the SAMI catalogue, I’m pleased to add) all rub shoulders with classics such as La Fille du Régiment, Otello and La Clemenza di Tito, painting a picture of a wonderfully eclectic and richly informed musical taste.

The irony is that Glock’s key policy of programming challenging, contemporary opera – the policy which seems to have done so much to shape Cavanagh’s musical interests – seems to have dwindled in recent decades. Conversely, since the refurbishment of Covent Garden, and the resulting addition of the Linbury Theatre nearly 20 years ago, The Royal Opera now has more space to devote to experimental work than it ever did. Glock’s idea that at the independent BBC, change should be preferable to stability, and that novelty guarantees value, has arguably been replaced by a ratings war with Classic FM, diluting the station’s content with what the Daily Mail calls “phone-ins and presenter chatter”.

The relationship between the two institutions, although necessarily symbiotic, has often been fraught by financial contretemps, usually, according to Tooley, when BBC budget constraints have forced the ROH to seek relationships with other broadcasters. But there still remain strong ties, with the BBC’s current chief Tony Hall having arrived direct from the equivalent position at Covent Garden being a prime example of this. These ties hint at my original question about who gets to decide what we listen to. It was a network of men from a certain background who assumed responsibility for curating the content which shaped Cavanagh’s musical horizons. Perhaps today we find something slightly distasteful in the idea of an Oxbridge-educated elite deciding what the cultural diet of an ‘ordinary’ listener should consist of, and yet it is possible to perceive that this is changing, and that people from more diverse backgrounds are now contributing, bit by bit, to the landscaping of the operatic ecology.

Nowadays, our musical resources exist digitally, to the extent that C1734 seems like an anachronism. I imagine most people under the age of 30 would regard one of Cavanagh’s reel tapes as an artefact from another planet. But there’s something hugely pleasurable about the process of setting up a reel-to-reel player, sitting back, and entering into Gerry’s analogue sound world. Maybe one day someone will catalogue the boxes of millennial minidisc recordings in my attic of the broadcast performances I used to record before the advent of online streaming. It’s comforting to know that there might be a place for them, in the same way that it’s comforting to know that Gerald Cavanagh’s collection – forged over a lifetime of discovery, shaped by a cultural landscape which valued investment both in operatic tradition and in operatic innovation – is now safe in the archives of the British Library, not surviving precariously in a damp storage unit in south London. The collection is a real treasure trove for anyone interested in opera, but more than that, it’s a window into another life, glimpsed through the prism of opera.

Gerald and Florence CavanaghGerald and Florence Cavangh at Glyndebourne.  Photo by Stephen Conrad

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