THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

304 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

30 March 2020

Recording of the week: Dusting books

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This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

Three men dusting books
Three men dusting books, one bent over © New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library

John Milne, born in 1929 in Aberdeen, worked for Bisset’s Bookshop in the 1950s. In his life story recording he reflected on changing approaches to bookselling and book handling. He talks about the importance of looking inside the books on the shelves, and argues that bookselling has now become about retail rather than about expertise. ‘Books are now sold like bars of soap, and that’s not my phrase, it came out years and years ago in one of the marketing ploys.’ In the following audio extract he takes us through his method of dusting the books in order to get to know the stock.

John Milne recalls the value of dusting books

People don’t handle books in the same way they used to. In the old days you would dust the books, and that’s the best way to get to know your stock. The discipline of dusting, every morning you would start on the shelf where you had stopped the day before, and you would pick up a book and you would have your duster or your brush, and you look at the title of the book and you look at the author and you look the publisher, and if you are standing still you would open it and read, a couple of pages, and to try to get some hold of the book and say, right, that’s it, back on the shelf. And work your way along the shelf, and you would maybe do two sections that morning. And after a week somebody comes in and says, a book, you say, ‘Oh I saw that yesterday,’ and you can stretch out your hand and have that book. It’s not done nowadays. There isn’t the discipline of learning about the inside of books. Maybe I’m denigrating present book staff but I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s the depth of knowledge that was there in the great old bookshops like Thin’s, Wallace, and still is, I don’t want to denigrate anybody, but Thin’s is a great bookshop, full of people who were wrapped up in books and did nothing else but books. Blackwell’s was the same, Heffers was the same, any of the big important shops of the Thirties are more or less still there.

John Milne was recorded by National Life Stories for Book Trade Lives in 1999. The interviewer was Sue Bradley. For more information about this recording see the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

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23 March 2020

Recording of the week: Richard Attenborough on Michael Powell

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

Richard Attenborough at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival
Richard Attenborough at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. Photo by gdcgraphics at https://www.flickr.com/photos/gdcgraphics/ CC BY 2.0

In a previous blog post I introduced the Anwar Brett collection. This comprises interviews and press conferences featuring film directors and actors. The collection numbers around 2400 tape cassettes and CD-Rs. This 'recording of the week' marks the completion of the cataloguing of the collection. Thanks are due to my colleague Trevor Hoskins for this.

The recording features actor and director Richard Attenborough. It is a short excerpt from a 33-minute press conference given in Leicester, 4 October 2007.Ostensibly a press conference on Attenborough's last film Closing the Ring, its sensitive handling by Quentin Falk covers much more.

Attenborough discusses the difficulty of getting finance for film-making; his childhood in Leicester, and the two Kindertransport refugee children adopted by his parents; his coping with the loss of a daughter and granddaughter in the 2004 tsunami; his collection of Picasso ceramics, and their loan to Leicester Art Gallery in memory of his granddaughter; and his hopes of dying in harness on the film set. His wife, actress Sheila Sim, aka Poppy, was present in the audience.

In this clip Anwar Brett asks a question about the film A Matter of Life and Death. This prompts Attenborough to recall his first meeting with ‘the genius of British cinema’, director Michael Powell.

Richard Attenborough on Michael Powell

With thanks to Trevor Hoskins.

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16 March 2020

Recording of the week: 'I didn't catch any of that!'

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This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

In this audio clip, Iona McDonald describes a familiar experience – failure to understand someone from a different part of the country or English-speaking world. Extremely broad dialect speakers can occasionally seem unintelligible, even to speakers of closely related varieties, as this amusing anecdote illustrates:

Anecdote about Scots dialect

We used to have some friends from the Falkirk area who used to come up and stay with us every year in the summer time and they had a very very strong accent very strong Central Scots accent and Sandy had been playing outside and came running in very windy day came running in and he said to my mother yir streetcher’s fawin doun yir claes’re on the grund and we all looked at the poor boy blankly and he repeated himself again yir streetcher's fawin doun yir claes’re on the grund and we were still making absolutely nothing of it we had to say right slow it down Sandy and yir streetcher's fawin doun and yir claes are on the grund so oh right we've got it now it meant your clothes-pole has fallen down and your clothes are on the ground and he just stomped his foot and looked so put out and said yous are aw too polite.

Iona MacDonald
Iona MacDonald © BBC 2005

Dialects differ systematically from other varieties in terms of vocabulary, grammar and accent (i.e. pronunciation). Sandy’s animated description here contains words, such as streetcher [= ‘clothes-pole’] and claes [= ‘clothes’], a non-standard pronoun, yous, and numerous localised pronunciations that render his Central Scots dialect incomprehensible to family friends from Skye. Yous occurs in a number of Scottish dialects and indeed in places like Merseyside and Tyneside, but Standard English no longer distinguishes between singular and plural ‘you’. Sandy’s pronunciation of doun, grund, aw and fawin are also typical of many Scottish accents and, to a lesser degree, of varieties in North East England.

This passage comes from a BBC Voices Recording in Portree, Isle of Skye, and is one of 300 conversations about language, accent and dialect made by the BBC in 2004-5.

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09 March 2020

Recording of the week: The dominion of the salmon

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

Caitlín Maude was an Irish poet, playwright, actress and traditional singer from Rosmuc, Connemara, in the west of Ireland. Her version of the traditional Irish song ‘Liam O Raghallaigh’ was recorded by Peter Kennedy in London in 1968, when she was 27 years old.

Catilín_Maude
Caitilín Maude, an file © Daithi Mac Lochlainn

Maude was raised in the Gaelic language and sang unaccompanied in the sean-nós style, which means ‘in the old way’. Sean-nós singing from Connemara is usually characterised by a high degree of ornamentation, using melisma and grace notes to enhance the power of the song’s narrative. To my ears, what is striking about Maude’s voice is the restraint with which she uses this technique, her approach finely calibrated to lend power to the bleak beauty of the song – austere in its matter of factness about what happens to the body of a drowned man, but ornate in its expression of loss and sorrow, and fascinated by the strange transformations that death can bring.

Listen to 'Liam O Raghallaigh'

Maude’s comments before and after the song form a shrewd and witty counterpoint to the tragedy of the story. I particularly love the careful relish with which she translates some of the more gruesome images from the Irish, including my favourite line: ‘Your two snow-white hands are under the dominion of the salmon’.

Caitlín Maude died in 1982, at the age of 41, leaving a small but important legacy of writing and song. The recordings she made with Peter Kennedy are available for listening at the British Library.

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24 February 2020

Recording of the week: Elgar's Introduction and Allegro

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

This is an extract of a recording of Introduction and Allegro by Edward Elgar from 1940. Like many recordings in the Stuart Pollard Collection, it is an off air recording of a performance by Arturo Toscanini and NBC Symphony Orchestra. The piece is well known but that is not what made it get stuck in my head. Even from the first couple of seconds I recognised it and it triggered memories from my earlier life as a musician. I had not listened to the piece in nine years but it instantly felt so familiar again, hearing it in this new context, as part of this collection.

This piece featured prominently in my life during my final school year when I was 17–18 years old. This was a year of lots of change and stress but the constant in my life was my involvement with the local music trust and especially the chamber orchestra. We rehearsed Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro almost every week during that year and played it in several concerts in the UK and then Finland. The piece became so familiar to me that I formed a love-hate relationship with it. It was one of the most challenging pieces I had played at that point in my career. Despite the intense training at the music trust, I still felt insecure with particularly challenging parts of the piece such as passages in which semiquavers were passed intricately between both violin sections. I especially remember some delicate moments regarding those semiquaver passages at the Temppeliaukion Church (Rock Church) towards the end of our tour in Finland.

Temppeliaukio_Church
The Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki, Finland. Copyright  Matthew Duncan. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

A particular memory comes to mind when hearing this piece. I had innocently turned up to the first rehearsal of the year with my viola but on arrival I was told ‘wrong instrument’ and was shocked to find that without knowing it I had been appointed as principal second violin. I had to play the conductor’s violin on that day and the sudden change of plan made finding the concentration to sight read the Elgar very difficult. Being principal second violin added new pressures such as responsibility for starting the fugue. This became one of my least favourite parts of the piece and I was often very stressed by it because of the challenge of setting a good foundation for this part of the piece and for stopping everyone from rushing. Memories of my experience with Introduction and Allegro were triggered instantly on hearing the recording in the Stuart Pollard Collection but they intensified on hearing the fugue so that is why I selected an excerpt of the fugue to share this week.

Fuge excerpt from Elgar Introduction and Allegro C353-61_S2_C1

Having changed careers by gaining work experience and studying to become an archivist over the past three years, my time as a musician can start to feel distant. I had a great commitment to music so it can feel strange to no longer have such close connections with it. However, working at the British Library is a positive experience because discovering pieces like Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro in the collections of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project enables me to link what I am doing now to the childhood hobby that gradually took over my life.

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17 February 2020

Recording of the week: where there's a whip there's a will

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

Many birds are a dab hand when it comes to singing their name and the Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferous) is no exception. This nocturnal bird inhabits woodlands stretching from Canada to the southern United States and, due to its perfectly camouflaged plumage, is more likely to be heard than seen.

Whip-poor-will illustration 1921
Whip-poor-will illustration taken from Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music, 1921 (courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

This particular recording was made near the Canadian village of Kirkfield, Ontario in 2003 by Tom Cosburn.

Whip-poor-will - British Library reference 130412

Other birds with onomatopoeic tendencies can be found within the library’s online collection of wildlife and environmental sounds. And if you’re looking for somewhere to start, why not give the Cuckoo a try.

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

03 February 2020

Recording of the week: "If Not, Not"

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This week’s selection comes from Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World & Traditional Music.

Tapestry in entrance hall of British Library- If Not, Not

You may be familiar with the tapestry featured in this photograph if you visit the British Library every now and then. If its bright colours and mysterious symbolism haven't lured you in before, it’s a tapestry based on the painting If Not, Not (1975—1976), by the artist Ronald Brooks Kitaj RA (1932 – 2007), which hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. For me it has been a source of wonder and stimulus on countless wanders through the Library’s public areas, leaving me with many questions on what the man with the hearing aid in the lower left hand corner, the large, brick gatehouse in the upper left corner or the general atmosphere, which is both attractive and ghastly, might mean. It has felt like an endless source of ideas and stories when procrastinating away from my desk and it's led me to dig deeper and uncover more about R.B. Kitaj's life and remarkable work.

The tapestry rendition of If Not, Not was commissioned for the British Library by its architects MJ Long and Colin St. John Wilson, who were good friends of Kitaj’s. Kitaj painted their portrait The Architects, in August 1979, to celebrate the remodelling of his home by MJ Long. A book called Kitaj: The Architects, gathers diary entries and fragments of conversation from their sitting sessions.

The tapestry was woven on a bespoke loom at the Dovecot Tapestry Studio by the Edinburgh Weavers Company, it required 112 kilos of wool and 7000 hours to complete. Seven master weavers worked on different areas of the tapestry to create this impressive rendition measuring approximately 7 square metres. It was the largest tapestry to be woven in Britain in the 20th century. It was funded by the Arts Council of England Lottery Fund and others.

For Colin St. John Wilson, works of art were an integral part of the building’s design and not mere decoration: 'Tapestries and sculpture are absolutely part of the building, not afterthoughts or adornments to prettify it' (Independent). When the tapestry went on display in July 1997 (its original spot was on the opposite wall where the large exhibition poster currently hangs), its textural qualities not only contributed to the character of the space, serving as a contrast to the hard surfaces throughout the area, but also benefitted the space acoustically by absorbing the sound echoing and reflecting throughout the entrance hall.

In the following excerpt from a much longer interview, which is part of the National Life Story Collection: Architects' Lives, we can hear Colin St. John Wilson speak about some of the references woven into the tapestry's complex network of symbols. He also talks more broadly about the importance of visual imagery in public buildings and how the Library's readers might relate to the works on display.

Colin St. John Wilson on Kitaj's tapestry

This tapestry will be one of the many artworks featured in a series of site-specific tours which explore the Library’s public art collections through sound. Following David Toop's idea, as fleshed out in his book Sinister Resonance (2010), that it is possible to imagine a sound world within ‘mute things’, the tour guides have used sound recordings from the British Library Sound Archive to draw out or expand the stories within works by artists such as Barbara Hepworth, R.B. Kitaj, Eduardo Paolozzi or Antony Gormley. You can find more information on how to book yourself on to a tour on the British Library’s event page.

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

27 January 2020

Recording of the week: Trude Levi and Holocaust liberation

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This week's selection comes from Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archivist.

Today marks Holocaust Memorial Day, as well as the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. The National Life Stories oral history project ‘Living Memory of the Jewish Community’ includes many Holocaust survivors describing their experience of Auschwitz and of liberation. In this recording of the week Oral History Archivist Charlie Morgan looks at the testimony of Trude Levi.

Trude Levi and her husband Franz, London, 1989. Courtesy of Trude Levi.
Trude Levi and her husband Franz, London, 1989. Courtesy of Trude Levi.

Gertrude Levi (1924-2012) was born in Szombathely, Hungary, the daughter of a Hungarian father and an Austrian mother. Her parents were Jewish, irreligious, and socialist; her father, a gynaecologist, would perform abortions without payment at a time when this could land you in prison. Trude describes Szombathely as “the most antisemitic town in Hungary”, and when Hungary joined the Axis Powers in 1940 life became increasingly difficult for the Levi family. Then in March 1944, fearful that Hungary would abandon the war effort, the German army invaded Hungary.

Prior to 1944 Hungary had passed antisemitic laws, deported thousands of Jews, and been an active ally of the Third Reich, but it was after the German invasion that a concerted attempt was made to implement a ‘Final Solution’. In July, when Trude was twenty, she and her parents were forced into a ghetto, then to a local concentration camp and finally were placed onto a cattle truck and transported out of the country. On 7 July 1944, they arrived at Auschwitz; Trude was immediately separated from her parents and never saw them again.

When it became clear the Allies would win the war, the Nazi regime committed itself to ensuring as little evidence of the Holocaust remained as possible. Trude, like tens of thousands of others, was placed on a death march to Riesa, a town in Saxony, and around her the war effort collapsed:

“Anyway, I didn't, I think I didn't want to die by that time, I mean, the, not that I wanted to die before, but I didn't care. But by that time I, I decided that I really would like to survive, because, I mean, the Russians were here, the Americans were here, you heard them, you knew that it was the end, and you saw the Germans fretting, and so you knew it was the end, so now that was the point where you felt, "Well, there is no point in dying any more. And we won. So, one should remain alive. But I couldn't go on, I couldn't walk on in spite of it, and I knew that I would be shot, but they didn't shoot me, they said, "Dies keine Kugel mehr wert" - "She's not worth a bullet any more", and so they left me on the road, next to the bridge.”

After dragging herself away from the road, Trude managed to hide in a barn before she was liberated by Allied troops. In this recording of the week Trude explains some of complexities of liberation; she was adamant that she would not return to Hungary, but “somehow we were still in Germany”. Furthermore, even though she had escaped from German troops “I wasn’t yet sure whether it was really the end,” and although smoking a cigar “was freedom… I think the real freedom came when I arrived in France, when I felt that I was out of Germany”.

"Everything was still unsure, everything was chaotic”

Trude Levi’s story of liberation is different to other survivors of Auschwitz, but her sentiments are common. While liberation is often presented as a singular, joyful moment it was in reality a lot more complicated and harder to pin to one specific point in time. Trude’s oral history is just one way in which Holocaust survivors have been able to express these experiences in their own words, and even after her death her testimony remains.

Trude Levi was interviewed by Gaby Glassman for Living Memory of the Jewish Community in 1989, and she is featured on the online web resource ‘Voices of the Holocaust’. Her full life story interview can be found on sami.bl.uk, and can be listened to in Reading Rooms at the British Library in St. Pancras or Boston Spa.

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