THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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283 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

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.

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18 September 2019

Ernö Goldfinger at Open House 2019

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‘He was rational about absolutely everything, down to how you sharpened your pencil.’

British architects and architecture in Britain have long been affected by influences from overseas. In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, a traditional training was based on the classical architecture of Greece and Rome and students spent hours painstakingly copying capitals and columns. Classical orders from the Encyclopedie, engravings of capitals and columns

Capitals and columns. Classical orders, engraving from the Encyclopédie vol. 18. 18th-century French engraving, 1761

By the early twentieth century, some architects responded to the technological changes occurring in infrastructure, communications and engineering. They argued that architecture should reflect these changes by using new forms and materials, and by mirroring how people lived in the present, rather than looking to the past. In this period, Britain experienced the arrival of a small but significant wave of European architects such as Berthold Lubetkin and Serge Chermayeff from Russia, and Ernö Goldfinger from Hungary. These architects created some of the most important buildings of the modern movement in Britain: Highpoint in Highgate, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill and Willow Road in Hampstead. A small and inter-connected group, they knew each other and even lived in each other’s houses. Ernö Goldfinger lived in Highpoint in North London before creating his family home nearby at 2 Willow Road. This home, built in 1939, received much public criticism when built, but has now become a local landmark and was opened to the public in 1996. Iris Strachan remembers her first visit to the house, ‘it was a revelation!’

Iris Strachan describes 2 Willow Road (C467/60)

2 Willow Road, Hampstead. Photographed by Niamh Dillon.

2 Willow Road, Hampstead. Photographed by Niamh Dillon.

Later, after the Second World War, Goldfinger designed larger residential blocks in London, notably the Trellick and Balfron Towers, both of which are open as part of Open House 2019. Often fiercely criticised when built, Goldfinger’s works are now increasingly in demand both as homes and visitor attractions. Here, long-time collaborator Jacob Blacker recalls working with Goldfinger, ‘he was a geometrician’.

Jacob Blacker describes Goldfinger as a geometrician (C467/52)

Trellick Tower. Photographed by Mark Ramsay.

Trellick Tower. Photographed courtesy Mark Ramsay. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Open House London takes place this weekend, 21-22 September 2019. Hundreds of buildings will be open to the public for free – including five designed by Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1987). For information about visiting 2 Willow Road see the National Trust website. For information about visiting Trellick Tower see the Open House London website.

Blog by Dr Niamh Dillon, Architects' Lives Project Interviewer

09 September 2019

Recording of the week: representing Britain at the Venice Biennale

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

Every two years since 1895 the Venice Biennale has been bringing together artists from across the globe to take part in an almighty exhibition. This year is the 58th exhibition, and 89 countries are taking part. For our Recording of the Week we’re returning to 1956, when Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003) won the International Prize for Sculpture.

Chadwick was described as the ‘breakthrough artist’ when he first exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1952, and in 1956, Alan Bowness described him as ‘a figure of international artistic importance’.[1]

Lynn Chadwick, surrounded by sculptures, at his home in GloucestershireLynn Chadwick, surrounded by sculptures, at home in Lypiatt Park, Gloucestershire, where his Artists' Lives recording took place. Courtesy Cathy Courtney.

Despite being awarded such a prestigious prize, when asked about the Biennale Chadwick’s response is humble. Clearly delighted for his work to be exhibited internationally, he remembers how it felt to be the centre of attention.

Lynn Chadwick on the Venice Biennale and the life of an artist (C466/28)

The second half of this audio extract comes from a different part of Chadwick’s interview – and reveals a different side to the life of an artist. Chadwick recalls a conversation shared with German surrealist Max Ernst, and reflects on how artists fall in and out of fashion.

Lynn Chadwick CBE RA was interviewed for the National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives in 1995. Despite his wish to go to art school, which was refused by his parents, Chadwick began his working life in an architect’s office through a placement organised by his school headmaster. He trained to be an architectural draughtsman before realising that he would not succeed as an architect, and after the war moved to a small cottage in Gloucestershire where he began experimenting with mobiles (partly inspired by the work of fellow artist Alexander Calder). Gradually Chadwick’s work became more fixed as he developed his own techniques for working with metal, and is he known today for his distinctive sculptures in bronze and steel.

These clips and image are taken from Michael Bird’s essay, ‘Opening up to international influences: British art in the 20th century’ on the website Voices of art.

[1] UK Artists at the Venice Biennale in the 1950s. British Council.

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06 September 2019

Ernest Shackleton and the Farthest South

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The ‘Nimrod’ expedition (1907-1909) was the first of three expeditions to the Antarctic led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. The mission was very much a private affair and at the time didn’t receive the support of the major scientific organisations. The ship itself didn’t meet Shackleton’s expectations, as we can tell from his appraisal when he first caught sight of it on the Thames on 15 June 1907:

I must confess that I was disappointed when I first examined the little ship, to which I was about to commit the hopes and aspirations of many years. She was dilapidated and smelt strongly of seal-oil, and an inspection in dock showed that she required caulking and that her masts would have to be renewed.1

Nimrod sailed from England on 7 August 1907. This was the first attempt made by the British to reach the Antarctic. However the Nimrod (named after a great biblical figure ‘the first on earth to be a mighty man’2, as written in Genesis) didn’t actually make it to the South Pole. The most southern point was reached on 9 January 1909 at latitude 88ᵒ23’S and longitude 162ᵒE.

Listen to the voice of Shackleton recorded on 23 June 1909 (Bl ref. 1CL0029071)

The Nimrod, having the party of the British Antarctic Expedition, left New Zealand on 1 January 1908. We landed at Cape Royds in the Antarctic under the great volcano Mount Erebus at the beginning of February. On 3 March a party ascended that mountain, encountering severe blizzards, and for the first time in human history the great Erebus, 13,350 feet high, was ascended by men.

The Southern journey started from Cape Royds on 28 October 1908 and on January 9 of this year, 1909, the British flag was hoisted in latitude 88 23 South and longitude 162 East. We retraced our steps over crevasses through soft snow encountering blizzards till eventually on 1 March of 1909 we arrived at winter quarters, having covered 1,708 miles on the journey...

Black and white photograph of the ship Nimrod off Cape RoydsPhoto of Nimrod off Cape Royds. From Shackleton, E. H. “Some Results of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-9.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 34, no. 5, 1909, pp. 481–500. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1777278.

The dash to the South Pole is certainly the central episode of the whole expedition.3 Even though the main target of reaching the South Pole was not attained, the expedition represents the first ever registered record to reach the South Magnetic Pole.

The expedition was also a product of the Empire: the British flag was now flying over the Northern and Southern Poles for the first time.

Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton at their Farthest South latitudePhotograph of Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton at their Farthest South latitude, 88°23'S, Nimrod expedition 9 January 1909. From the book The Heart of the Antarctic by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Men go out unto the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have taken thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices’, the mysterious fascination of the unknown. I think that in my own case it was a combination of these factors that determined me to try my fortune once again in the frozen south.4

This recording is part of the UCL Phonetics Collection (British Library ref.: 1CL0029071), original issue: Gramophone (HMV) D 377. The collection was acquired by the British Library Sound Archive from the UCL Department of Phonetics and Linguistics.

Blogpost by Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist, British Library

[1] Shackleton, E. (1909). The Heart of the Antarctic, etc.

[2] Riffenburgh, B. (2004). Nimrod: Ernest Shackleton and the extraordinary story of the 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition, Beau Riffenburgh. London: Bloomsbury.

[3] British Newspaper Archive, Globe - Wednesday 10 November 1909.

[4] Shackleton, E. (1909). The Heart of the Antarctic, etc.

05 September 2019

Sir Isaac Pitman – phonography and the phonograph

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Isaac Pitman

Sir Isaac Pitman (The Pitman Collection, University of Bath)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

When Isaac Pitman delivered a speech to the Phonographic Association in 1891 one would think it was to an assembled gathering of enthusiasts of Edison’s discovery of sound recording in the form of the newly invented phonograph.  However, Pitman was the inventor of phonography – a system of phonetic shorthand that he developed in 1837 which came to be known as Pitman’s shorthand.  By 1886 he had sold one million copies of his Phonographic Teacher in Britain.  

Book cover 1900

Pitman Shorthand 1900 edition

Indeed, for most of the twentieth century hundreds of thousands of women learnt to read and write shorthand and use a typewriter to gain employment as secretaries. 

Book cover 1970Pitman Shorthand 1970 edition

Isaac Pitman was born in 1813 in Trowbridge, Wiltshire.  In 1835 he became a teacher, married a widow twenty years his senior and opened a small school in Bath.  He married again in 1861 a woman twelve years his junior.  By the age of thirty Pitman, an advocate of spelling reform for the English language, had his own publishing firm and gave up teaching.  His system of shorthand was used worldwide and during the 1840s he originated the idea of correspondence courses due to the uniform postal rate adopted in the United Kingdom at that time.  He set up the Phonetic Institute at Bath – a printing office and publishing house for the dispatch of books to all parts of the world, a business managed by his two sons.

In 1894 Pitman was knighted by Queen Victoria and he died in 1897 at the age of eighty-four.

Although similar names, but completely different scientific paths, it seems that Pitman’s phonography and the phonograph actually were brought together, for by 1891, when he was nearing eighty, Pitman was unable to travel from Bath to London to give his lectures at the National Phonographic Society meetings. 

The London Daily News reported on 20th October 1891 that the Earl of Albemarle would preside over the meeting and that

The speech of Sir Isaac Pitman, who is unable to attend personally, will be delivered by the phonograph, a special messenger having been dispatched by Colonel Gouraud to Bath for the purpose of recording it.

Two days later the Aberdeen Free Press reported that

The two ingenious inventions for mastering the human voice were brought in contact tonight at the annual meeting of the London District of the Phonographic Society.  Mr Isaac Pitman was unable to be present in the flesh, yet his spoken message was entrusted in Bath yesterday to Edison’s phonograph, and was delivered tonight in London to his disciples.  Before the phonograph delivered Mr Pitman’s speech, Colonel Gouraud explained on its behalf that, in order to be heard in the hall, it was not necessary to speak loudly into the instrument, but that one ought rather to pronounce one’s words clearly and deliberately.  Mr Pitman, knowing that his remarks were to be uttered in a large hall, had attempted to raise his voice in proportion, with the result that his speech came in a somewhat vague and husky manner from the phonograph.  Nevertheless, it could be heard by an attentive listener at the back of the building.  The diplomas of the Phonographic Society were afterwards distributed, and there was an exhibition of typewriting, which is becoming a vast industry for young women in the Metropolis.

However, the correspondent of the Coventry Evening Telegraph disagreed about the quality of the recording and thought that

Phonography and the phonograph were in pleasant companionship last night.  The occasion was the first annual meeting of the National Phonographic Society – an association founded to advance a well-known system of shorthand writing, and to test, and attest by diplomas, the efficiency of public teachers of the art.  The venerable founder – Mr Isaac Pitman – was unable to be present, but the speech that he would have delivered was spoken by him at Bath on the previous day, and recorded by one of Edison’s phonographs.  By this means it was reproduced with such clearness that every word was heard by the audience which filled the Memorial Hall, London.

Cylinder box lid

Cylinder box lid

The first cylinder of Pitman’s recorded speech has survived so we can now hear the voice of a man born more than two hundred years ago.  Here is the commencement where he thanks the Earl of Albemarle, a transcript of which is below.

Isaac Pitman opening speech

Isaac Pitman, to the phonographers speaking here tonight.  My Lord Albermarle, Ladies and Gentlemen, phonographers all, I greet you right heartily.  I would be present in person if I could leave my desk with a clear conscience so that, even from a hundred miles from London, I can speak to you without writing thanks to Mr Edison, Colonel Gouraud and his assistance.   And especial thanks are due from the, the disassociation for obtaining thus my invisible presence.

And here is the least worn part of the cylinder where he speaks about phonographers are phonography bringing him into contact with people across the world.

Isaac Pitman closing remarks

Their labours, by extending phonography to all parts of the earth where the English language is spoken have brought me into communication with a great number of people who reside in distant countries extending from California in the West to Japan in the East and Tasmania in the South.

There is a memorial plaque to Pitman in Bath Abbey the inscription of which reads:

Inventor of Pitman’s shorthand.  His aims were steadfast, his mind original, his work prodigious, the achievement worldwide.  His life was ordered in service to God and duty to man.

Bath Abbey - Memorial plaque of Isaac PitmanMemorial Plaque to Sir Issac Pitman, Bath Abbey (By GraceKelly - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

19 August 2019

Recording of the week: securing the right to read

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This week's selection comes from Josie Wales, Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Along with many other libraries around the world, the British Library celebrated LGBTQ+ Pride this summer, with staff from St Pancras and Boston Spa joining the parades in York and London.

This Recording of the Week takes us back to 1985, when Pride was a very different kind of event with a much stronger political tone. With around 10,000 people in attendance, the 1985 march was considered to be the biggest to date. In comparison, an estimated 1.5 million people gathered in central London to mark the annual parade this year.

This recording comes from a collection of brief street interviews conducted at the 1985 Pride March, through which we can gain an insight into the atmosphere of the event and the thoughts and preoccupations of those attending. A recurring concern were the raids and seizure of imported books by UK Customs and Excise, which most famously involved independent bookseller Gay’s the Word in Bloomsbury, but also affected other organisations that sold or distributed gay and lesbian reading material. More than one hundred imported titles were deemed ‘indecent or obscene’ under the 1876 Customs Consolidation Act, and confiscated.

Photograph of rows of books in a bookshopPhoto of neatly stacked books placed in front of a wall of bookshelves by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash. Click here to view image credit.

In this short clip, a marcher from the Gay Christian Movement, a charity founded in 1976, describes the impact  of this state censorship and the expensive legal battle against it, and shares their thoughts on our right as people in a free society to read and, most importantly, to choose what we read.

Securing the right to read (C456/121)

Both the Gay Christian Movement and Gay’s the Word faced charges of conspiring to import indecent material, but mounted successful opposition to these acts of repression with the strong support of both authors and publishers and the wider community of readers.

Technology has altered the way in which many of us engage with and access reading material, but the sense of community and solidarity that can be created through literature, particularly for LGBTQ+ and other marginalised populations, remains just as important. This theme will be explored over several events at the British Library in the upcoming season, including Banned Books Week in September, which examines censorship and other barriers to self-expression. More information and tickets can be found on our events page.

Discover more LGBTQ history at the British Library.

This recording belongs to the Hall Carpenter Oral History Archive, which has been digitised as part of the British Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project

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

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29 July 2019

Recording of the week: kids say the funniest things

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

Watching a child acquire its first language is a fascinating process. At a certain age, children naturally apply rules drawn from their exposure to their mother tongue to create forms which ‘seem’ right. The most obvious example is how some young children initially form past tenses such as drinked and falled. The fact that children don’t hear these forms from adults around them proves that they are not just ‘learning’ language and copying others, rather that they have an in-built language faculty and can intuitively apply rules to words, albeit in some cases not producing conventional forms.   

As children begin to experiment creatively with language, they often produce the kind of innovative construction discussed here. As their ability to express themselves grows they sometimes invent original expressions, such as the phrase fully-handed [= ‘overladen/carrying too much’].

In the following clip, Terri Bond speaks about an original expression invented by her son:

FULLY-HANDED (C1190/39/02

'If a child has used a word wrongly that makes everyone laugh, it then becomes part of your family’s vocabulary. We have loads of them, we’ve got one of them where I once asked Jonathan to pick up his coat as he was getting out of the car and he’d got a book, a cuddly, and he was about four, he said 'I can’t mummy I’m fully-handed', so now if you’ve got too much to carry in our house you’re now fully-handed and you don’t realise that other people don’t know what you’re talking about and think you’re a bit odd.'
BBC Voices Recording in Jersey © BBC 2005 C1190/39/02

Photograph of Terri BondPhotograph of Terri Bond who speaks about original expressions and family vocabulary.

This word captures the concept perfectly and is in fact grammatically acceptable, but does not reflect idiomatic usage. The effect is often comical to adults and most families can list numerous examples of the wonderful expressions invented by young children that become part of their ‘kitchen table lingo’. One of several such expressions that have stuck in our family is the tendency to describe fresh food as on, since all three of our children when younger made a point of enquiring before pouring milk on to their cereals first thing in a morning: is this milk off or on?

We’d be delighted to hear examples of your kitchen table lingo, so do tweet us at @VoicesofEnglish.

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