THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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277 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

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.

Follow @soundarchive for all the latest news.                                           

19 July 2019

Memories of the Moon Landing

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50 years ago, on 20th July 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on its surface. Live television pictures broadcast from the Moon turned this into a global event, memories of which are captured in numerous interviews held in the British Library Oral History collections. This blog explores just a few of the diverse perspectives on this event that these interviews reveal.

Earth Rising over the Moon's Horizon, Credit: NASA

Earth Rising over the Moon's Horizon, Credit: NASA

Gerald Myers (b. 1934) was interviewed by Jill Wormsley for the Millennium Memory Bank. He recalls that for those of his generation who grew up rarely travelling far from home, the idea of people visiting the Moon seemed ‘incredible’. This was certainly not something he expected to happen in his lifetime. For others such as Paul Ward (b. 1962), interviewed by Wendy Rickard in 2007 for the HIV/AIDS Testimonies project, watching the Moon landing was integral to his recollections of family life in the late 1960s alongside memories of family meals and birthdays.

Materials scientist Julia King (b. 1954) interviewed by Thomas Lean for An Oral History of British Science, recalled the Moon landings as part of a wider focus on the latest achievements in science and technology that permeated her childhood:

Julia King on the Moon landing in 1969 (C1379/43) [Track 1, 01:24:14 – 01:85:05]

‘Well I remember being taken to meet Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space, a Russian cosmonaut, and getting her autograph. She must have been speaking at Wigmore Hall or something like that. And of course there was, when I was at school, when I was at Godolphin, where we all sat in the hall to watch the Moon landings. So there was all that going on as well. It was a time of, of real, really intense time for discovery in science, and new, new things happening. And the papers were, were absolutely full of it. They weren’t full of footballers and, and, TV shows, talent shows on television and things; they were, they were full of, a lot of achievements in science.’

Julia King

Julia King, interviewed for An Oral History of British Science

One of the people behind this press coverage was Dennis Griffiths (1933-2015). Griffiths was the driving force behind An Oral History of the British Press, and was interviewed for the project by Louise Brodie in 2006. In 1969 he was a member of The Evening Standard production department. At a time when a lengthy setting up process was required to generate colour copy, the paper’s managing director Jocelyn Stevens took a gamble that the landing would be successful. The production team raced into action to pre-print a facsimile colour picture of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon ahead of the event itself so that the paper’s front page was already in place before any official pictures were released. As Griffiths recalled:

Dennis Griffiths on the Evening Standard front page (C638/06) [Track 6, 00:10:42 – 00:11:20]

‘I mean the adrenaline was flowing and when I’ve given talks on newspapers all over the world when I come to the Moon landing and I show them the paper how it was actually done and they disbelieve that anybody would produce a national newspaper days before it happened and gamble and then absolutely slay the opposition. Yes, that was without doubt the highlight.’

Dennis Griffiths describes working on that day (C638/06) [Track 1, 02:28:53 – -2:29:10]

‘You would have paid to have worked on that day. It was the most exciting day of my career. And at the end of the day when they blasted back off, the editor Charles Wintour threw a champagne party in his office to celebrate.’

For his efforts Griffiths received a bonus cheque which he used to buy a pearl ring for his wife, Liz.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Credit: NASA

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Credit: NASA

A sense of how the Moon landings continued to resonate many years later emerges from furniture designer Tom Dixon’s (b. 1959) interview with Frances Cornford, part of Crafts Lives. In 2004, as Creative Director of Habitat he developed a line of products in collaboration with celebrities. Most of them were prominent individuals from the creative industries or sport, but one of the more successful products in the range was ‘a moon lamp with Buzz Aldrin, you know, for kids’. Sold as the ‘Moonbuzz’, Dixon saw a clear story behind this product which strengthened its appeal with the public. It also suggests just how firmly embedded in popular culture the events of July 1969 remain.

Extracts from interviews with British Space Scientists can be found on our Voices of Science Rockets and Satellites theme page with full interviews on British Library Sounds under the subject heading space science and engineering.

Blogpost by Dr Sally Horrocks, Senior Academic Advisor, National Life Stories, British Library

10 July 2019

Partition memories and the power of oral testimony

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BBC journalist and author Kavita Puri reflects on the power of oral testimony. Hear more from Kavita at the British Library on Tuesday 16 July at 7pm, where she will discuss Partition Voices in conversation with Kirsty Wark. Book here: https://www.bl.uk/events/partition-voices.

In the summer of 2017 I ran a BBC project called Partition Voices. It marked the 70th anniversary of the division of British India into the independent states of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. I collected testimonies of colonial British and British South Asians who had lived through that tumultuous time. Their eye-witness accounts document the end of empire. They also tell of living through partition – where over ten million people were fleeing: Hindus and Sikhs to India, Muslims to Pakistan. It was accompanied by terrible violence where people of the “other” religion were targeted. Many thousands whose lives were disrupted by partition migrated to post-war Britain. They brought their stories of grief, loss and trauma with them, but kept silent about it for many decades. I also interviewed children and grandchildren of the partition survivors about its continuing legacy in Britain. I have now published a book arising from the interviews.

Partition Voices book cover

Central to the project was having a place to keep these testimonies, so future generations could access them, for interest or scholarly work, and I am delighted that 32 of the interviews are now archived in the British Library Sound Archive. Why did this matter? Partition memories in Britain were only just emerging with the 70th anniversary. When the migrants came over to post-war Britain, people were getting on with their lives here, fighting to be accepted and there was little time to talk of the past. There was also an institutional silence pervading empire and its demise, no one spoke of it, so there was no public space to discuss it. And so many partition memories are bound up in honour and shame – it became difficult to speak of. Many from that generation are elderly, and as they finally open up, it has become a race against time to record their stories for posterity.

These accounts – the lived experience – are important. These voices are harder to find in the official documentary evidence kept in the British Library India Office Records that speaks more loudly of the “high politics” of partition. Crucially, the interviews paint a complex picture from that time. Of course they speak of the horrors, but they also talk of how closely the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities were in pre-partition British India. How people would share in each other’s festivals, happiness and sorrows. There were deep friendships across religions. The place that people left may have been land that generations of their family members had lived on. Even though people may not have returned in seventy years there is still a visceral pull to their place of birth. It’s a place they still say they feel they belong to. The precise details of the testimonies reveal so much. The musings out loud, of what happened to a childhood friend; the longing to go back to visit a mother’s grave; the wish to have your ashes scattered where you were born.

These stories are significant because they show another side of history. And for second and third generation British South Asians it paints a nuanced picture of that time, and helps inform their identity today. The South Asian community in Britain can be fractured, and what these accounts reveal is how much they shared and had in common. These testimonies of former subjects of the British Raj who are now British citizens are British history. It is a part of history that is still difficult to talk of, and is not yet taught in schools. Yet it is vital to understand why contemporary Britain looks the way it does today. There will be a time, I hope, where the history of empire and its end is taught widely and these accounts will be a valuable resource.

There is something wonderful in knowing these original interviews on which my book Partition Voices is based upon will live in the British Library, and that when I am an old lady, around the age of the people I interviewed, they will still exist there, and for many generations to come.

The Partition Voices collection (reference C1790) sits alongside many existing oral history collections which contain powerful testimonies of migration and the impact of the colonial British past. The Partition Voices radio series is available from BBC Sounds and won the Royal Historical Society Public History Prize 2018, which you can read about on the Sound and Vision blog. Partition Voices: Untold British Stories is published by Bloomsbury on 11 July, 2019.

08 July 2019

Recording of the week: discovering Victorian coins in a Leeds butchers shop

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

As a boy the artist Norman Ackroyd (born 1938) developed a fascination with Victorian coins such as the Godless florin and Bun Head penny. He helped out in his family’s butchers shop in Leeds, and vividly describes in his life story interview how he cashed up the till one Saturday afternoon, and came across an ‘eccentric’ coin…

Norman Ackroyd on old money (C466/293)

Ackroyd had discovered the Godless florin. He goes on to describe how this coin was the first indication that decimalisation would be coming to Britain: the florin was worth 1/10th of a pound and was issued from 1849. The coin, unlike others from this period, doesn’t say ‘Dei Gratia’ (by the grace of God) and so is referred to as being ‘Godless’.

Photograph of a Godless florinGodless florin, dated 1849, saved by Norman Ackroyd from working in his father’s shop. Courtesy Norman Ackroyd Collection (Image not licensed for reuse)

Another coin mentioned in this audio clip is the Bun Head penny. First minted in 1860, this coin depicts a young Queen Victoria with her hair styled in a bun. Ackroyd makes the link between his early interest in Victorian coinage – ‘some of the most beautiful coins that we’ve ever produced’ – and his interest in etching, which he went on to develop during his artistic training.

Photograph of a bun pennyBun Head penny, dated 1862, saved by Norman Ackroyd from working in his father’s shop. Courtesy Norman Ackroyd Collection (Image not licensed for reuse)

To learn more about Norman Ackroyd, his background, education and work, see the article ‘A sense of place: The work of Norman Ackroyd’, published on British Library website Voices of art in June 2019. This article was written by Cathy Courtney, and features seven audio extracts from Ackroyd’s oral history interview and a series of images from his private collection.

Cathy Courtney recorded Norman Ackroyd for the National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2009-2012. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Listen to the full interview on BL Sounds.

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

04 July 2019

Chernobyl: Perspectives from the British Nuclear Industry

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021I-C1495X0051XX-0001M0Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988, as part of an international delegation led by Lord Marshall. Courtesy of Peter Vey

A new television series has once again brought public attention to the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, when an explosion in one of the RMBK reactors caused one of the worlds worst nuclear disasters. Today, our attitudes toward nuclear power are forever overshadowed by Chernobyl, and it’s easy to forget that the early days of nuclear power were marked by tremendous optimism. In 1956 the Queen opened Calder Hall, the first full size nuclear power station to provide electricity to the public in the world, declaring that the terrible power of the atom bomb had now been, “harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community.” Nuclear power, futuristic and apparently clean and economical, promised an age of “electricity too cheap to meter.” Yet gradually the mood changed, as Granville Camsey, a nuclear engineer caught up in the early optimism, and then the backlash against nuclear power, recalled in his interview for An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

"It became very difficult to say you were a nuclear engineer" (C1495/09/05)

The Chernobyl disaster was a major issue for the British Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), which was trying to obtain permission to build a new nuclear plant at Sizewell to join the fleet of older reactors it already operated at the time. In this age of Cold War secrecy, the Soviets initially attempted to cover-up the disaster. But European nuclear power stations started to detect inexplicably high levels of radiation as a radioactive cloud spread across Europe. With the Soviet Union underplaying the severity of the situation, other countries scrambled to figure out what had happened, reassure the public, and to assess the risks of a Chernobyl happening at their own nuclear plants. As recalled by Peter Vey, head of public relations at the CEGB, the days after Chernobyl were very busy ones, particularly for the CEGB chairman and nuclear scientist Walter Marshall.

"The cloud by then had reached Dungeness" (C1495/51/11)

In the aftermath of Chernobyl, nuclear industries around the world united to try and improve the safety of nuclear power stations. Two years after the disaster Peter Vey travelled to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation visiting to sign a nuclear safety agreement. The trip included a visit to Chernobyl itself.

"People had just dropped everything" (C1495/51/11)

Chernobyl, and the later Fukishima disaster in Japan, had a profound effect on the nuclear industry across the world. Although the high cost of nuclear power has been a major factor in there being no new nuclear plants built since Chernobyl, higher safety standards and negative public opinion have undoubtedly been a factor too. Various countries have attempted to phase out nuclear power. No new nuclear plants have been built in Britain since Sizewell B was completed in 1995, and the planned Hinkley C station under development still faces uncertainties. Most of Britain’s existing nuclear stations, built between the 1960s and 1980s, are due to run at least another decade or more. When they are finally shut down, radioactive contamination means they will not be simply demolished, but carefully dismantled and decontaminated. The most radioactive parts will be sealed up and left as nuclear landmarks for decades, until they become safe enough to remove entirely. In this short video, former manager Peter Webster explores the silent control room and reactor hall of one such decommissioned station at Oldbury near Bristol.

If you would like to know more about the history of the public relations of nuclear power, you might be interested in this academic article by Tom Lean and Sally Horrocks based on An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

Blog by Tom Lean, project interviewer for An Oral History of British Science and An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

25 June 2019

Michael Ryle and the development of the House of Commons select committee system

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Forty years ago, on 25 June 1979, members of the House of Commons debated proposals to restructure its select committee system to align with the way government departments were organised.

A Select Committee of the House of Commons in session at Portcullis House, circa 2010-12

A Select Committee of the House of Commons in session at Portcullis House, circa 2010-12. Courtesy of UK Parliament. Licence: CC BY 3.0

In the words of the then Leader of the House, Norman St John-Stevas, these reforms were intended 'to redress the balance of power to enable the House of Commons to do more effectively the job it has been elected to do'.

Calls to redress that balance went back to the early 1960s. Among the academics, parliamentary staff and parliamentarians advocating procedural reform at that time was Michael Ryle, a clerk in the House of Commons whose 40-year career culminated in becoming Clerk of Committees in the late 1980s.

Michael Ryle

Michael Ryle. Photograph courtesy of the Study of Parliament Group.

Ryle joined the House of Commons in 1951, and in his oral history interview recorded in 2003 he remembers how as a new clerk he was made to feel particularly welcome by a long-standing member of the House.

Michael Ryle on Churchill (C1135/13) [Part 2, 00:06:30 – 00:09:04]

Ryle describes his role as a founder member of the Study of Parliament Group (SPG) as one of his greatest achievements. In this clip he tells the story of how it came to be established in 1964 and early proposals for parliamentary reform.

Michael Ryle on the SPG (C1135/13) [Part 3, 00:19:16 – 00:22:46]

Within a few years some of those proposals were in motion when Richard Crossman, Leader of the House, introduced a handful of new select committees in the late 1960s. Some focused on a particular subject area, such as science and technology, but in 1979 the concept of specialist subject committees was shelved in favour of a system that mirrored government departments.

From his time serving in the Committee office, Ryle experienced first-hand how the work of committees changed. 'The main changes I saw during my working life in the Committee office­ – which was most of my life­ – was this move towards the select committees becoming much more public, much more influential, much more concerned with the policy matters, much more testing of Ministers than they were in the old days. I saw real significant changes, especially of course after 1979.' [Part 2, 00:11:40 – 00:12:11]

A recent Liaison Committee inquiry has examined the effectiveness and influence of the departmental select committee system. The committee’s chair, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, will deliver the annual Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture at a conference being held later this week where delegates will reflect on how successful those 1979 changes have been in meeting the reformers’ original goals.

Michael Ryle was recorded for the House of Commons staff oral history project in 2003. The interviewer was Gloria Tyler, a member of the House of Commons Library staff @commonslibrary. These short extracts come from an in-depth interview which can be accessed in the British Library reading rooms. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005. Emmeline Ledgerwood is a member of the Study of Parliament Group @StudyofParl.

24 June 2019

Recording of the week: Frank Land OBE - from Nazi Germany to the tea shop electronic brain

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This week's selection comes from Dr Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

Amongst the awards in this month's Queen's Birthday Honours list was a much deserved OBE for An Oral History of British Science interviewee Frank Land, Britain's first professor of information systems and a pioneer of business computing.

In this clip from his interview, Frank recalls the path that led him from a childhood in 1930s Nazi Germany to become one of the early programmers of Lyons Electronic Office, or "LEO", the world's first business computer, created in the 1950s by catering company J Lyons & Co to automate the business operations of their chain of tea shops.

Photograph of Frank Land with his twin brotherFrank Land with his twin brother

Frank Land on emigration, education and working for Lyons (C1379/17)

The full interview with Frank Land can be listened to here.

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