THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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357 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

15 January 2021

Grace Robertson, a pioneer of women’s documentary photography

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It was when Glenda Jackson fixed me with her frankly intimidating glare and barked, ‘Is that enough for you?’ that I knew I was in way above my head. What on earth was I doing on London’s South Bank, not only with a national icon of stage and screen but with one of the pioneers of documentary photography, Grace Robertson? What on earth did I think I was doing? Luckily Grace (who sadly died on 11 January aged 90) came to my assistance, accustomed no doubt to dealing with tricky customers, and calmly said that yes she’d got the images she needed, thank you. Glenda was pacified.

Those times in 1993 took us around the country for the National Life Story Awards, part of the International Year of Older People, to meet and photograph ‘champions’. Jackson, Richard Branson and Lord Soper were amongst them, and it was a huge learning curve for a young and relatively inexperienced oral history curator. Grace, then aged 63, agreed to take part in the project to ‘celebrate the role of older women photographers’ and I got to know her gentle and unobtrusive technique (despite her considerable height: she was six feet two inches).

Lord Donald Soper being interviewed by his granddaughter as part of the 1993 National Life Story Awards
Lord Donald Soper being interviewed by his granddaughter as part of the 1993 National Life Story Awards. Image courtesy of Grace Robertson/British Library

Grace was fearless but great fun and with her husband, photographer Thurston Hopkins, was enormously generous to me when Val Williams and I were starting up our Oral History of British Photography (OHBP) project at the British Library in 1990. At exhibition openings she’d say to me: ‘Have you met XYZ [famous photographer]’, and then whisk me off to meet my heroes. She and Thurston played an important part in OHBP: both were interviewed themselves (see the BL Sounds website at Grace Robertson and Thurston Hopkins), and Grace trained up to become an interviewer herself, capturing recordings for the collection with Mark Gerson, Penelope Anne Tweedie, Humphrey Spender and Margaret Harker.

Born in 1930, the daughter of journalist Fyfe Robertson, Grace Robertson was one of the few women photographers to work for the magazine Picture Post, which did so much to promote documentary photography’s role in documenting ‘ordinary’ lives before, during and after the Second World War. Her father gave her a Leica camera in 1949 and Grace worked as a freelance photojournalist for Picture Post (initially under the pseudonym Dick Muir) from 1951 until it closed in 1957. She was often allocated commissions about women’s lives. Her 1955 images of childbirth were truly pioneering and she later remarked that ‘I felt I was an observer of society. I never thought about my presence in it. My driving force in photographing women was to find out what made them tick.’

Photograph of women from ‘Mothers’ Day Off’, Picture Post 1954
From ‘Mothers’ Day Off’, Picture Post 1954. Image courtesy of Grace Robertson

Grace went on to work for other British and American publications including Life, retraining as a teacher in the mid-1960s, and only returning to photography in the 1980s. Latterly she lectured on women photographers and published an autobiographical monograph, entitled Grace Robertson – Photojournalist of the ‘50s. Shirley Read, another OHBP interviewer, remembers that Grace was also the Chair of ‘Signals, the Festival of Women Photographers’ in 1996, and ‘she could be formidable in that role’. In retirement she and Thurston moved to Seaford in Sussex where he died aged 101 in 2014.

Grace Robertson was interviewed by Alan Dein in 1993 for An Oral History of British Photography.

Blogpost by Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History @BL_OralHistory

06 January 2021

Albert Roux (1935-2021)

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Albert Roux was interviewed in 2007-08 for 'Food: From Source to Salespoint', a National Life Stories oral history project. The full interview with Albert Roux can be listened to online at the British Library Sounds website.

Black and white photo of Albert and Michel Roux in the kitchenAlbert and Michel Roux in the kitchen

Albert Roux, born in 1935, has died today. As a young man, his classmates dismissed his desire to become a chef as ‘woman’s work’. Now eating out is a regular social activity for many people and chefs and cooking programmes feature frequently on primetime television. When he arrived in the 1950s, most food eaten in Britain was locally produced. Now we have embraced dishes from across the globe. Albert was not just a witness but also a protagonist in these changes.

His knowledge of food began early, as both his father and grandfather were charcutiers in rural France. After training as a chef, Albert arrived in Britain in 1953. This was before the European Union and the Eurotunnel linked us with Europe so emphatically. Albert had to apply for a travel permit and have a medical before being allowed entry. Imported goods such as oranges and bananas were the exception. A greater proportion of the weekly budget was spent on food and shopping was done several times a week as domestic refrigeration was limited. Albert worked for the wealthy Astor family at their estate in Cliveden. He noted how class played into diet:

“On the day off, I would go into town … it didn’t take me too long to realise… there was a very strong division; there was the super rich, who I was working for, who lived like kings. Then you had the middle class, who lived nicely but the food was not an important subject for them. And then you had the majority who were not rich, making ends meet.”

He was also struck by the limited availability of items he assumed were kitchen essentials.

“There were commodities that we could not get in this country. If you wanted olive oil there was one or two places that sold it, otherwise you went to the chemist and bought a little bottle to put in your ears. I remember going in to a chemist shop and asking for all that they had, twelve bottles. He looked at me as though I was an elephant!”

However, tastes were changing. As more people were able to enjoy foreign travel, they were exposed to a variety of new tastes and textures, and were becoming increasingly adventurous in what they ate. In the same period, increased migration, particularly from the Commonwealth, meant wider availability of food from across the globe. When Albert and his brother Michel (1941-2020) established Le Gavroche restaurant in central London in 1967 they were aware of changing attitudes both inside and outside the kitchen.

“Nobody knew the name of the chef. They stayed at the stove and they cooked. The maitre d’s were luminaries. They were well known, you went to see John of The Connaught, or Paul of the ... the idea of the chef plating the food was unknown. That would have been scandalous to get food plated from the kitchen, cheap! There was a ceremony when the food came out, presented; put on the gueridon (trolley) there was a lot of flambé, of carving…”

The Roux brothers were at the forefront of turning chefs into national figures through their cookbooks and particularly their television series, which received several million views in the 1980s. They also influenced a generation of young chefs who passed through the kitchens of Le Gavroche: Marcus Wareing, Marco Pierre White, Pierre Koffmann, Gordon Ramsay and others. Training was hard, Albert commented, “the kitchen is the SAS of catering. It is painful. It is hard, precision work.” Despite this comment – or perhaps because of it - during Albert’s lifetime, Britain transformed itself from a ‘culinary desert’ and can now boast of some of the most diverse and adventurous cuisine in the world.

Blog by Niamh Dillon.

'Food: From Source to Salespoint' documented the changes at every level of the UK food sector through interviews with some 300 people involved in the production, distribution and retailing of food, including ready meals, poultry, sugar, meat and fish, the UK wine trade, cookery writers, restaurateurs and chefs, and employees of Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway, Northern Foods and Nestlé. Interviews from the collection can be listened to online at the British Library Sounds Website.

21 December 2020

Recording of the week: Sheffield’s pub carols, a secular tradition

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

Recorded by Ian Russell on Christmas Day 1974, in The Black Bull public house, Ecclesfield, Sheffield, this rousing rendition of ‘Six jolly miners’, followed by ‘Hark! Hark! What news’, captures the democratic and exuberant nature of the local ‘pub sing’, a tradition which goes back to the 19th century, and still thrives in certain pubs in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

Map displaying view of Sheffield from Park Hill in 1740
View of Sheffield from Park Hill in 1740, taken from ‘The illustrated guide to Sheffield and the surrounding district etc.’, published Sheffield, 1879

The Sheffield carol tradition has its roots in reforms carried out by the Oxford Movement, an influential group of Victorian clergymen, whose attempts to make worship more serious resulted in a purge of certain carols, which were thought of as not really suitable for singing at Christmas. The village musicians, whose presence was no longer required in the west galleries of their parish churches, took the rejected carols to their local pubs, where they have remained ever since. The pub carols often feature different words and tunes to the more familiar Christmas repertoire, and there are variations from pub to pub and village to village. Each area is proud of its own tradition, and some have their own carols, often named after the location itself, such as ‘Stannington’, written in 1950 by Mina Dyson, who was the organist at the local church in that part of Sheffield.

Despite the subject matter, the fervour you can hear in these songs is really an expression of community spirit and uninhibited enjoyment, rather than an outpouring of religious feeling. In many of the recordings you can hear the clinking of glasses, the exchange of Christmas greetings, general pub chatter (including the odd swear word) and an atmosphere of communal enjoyment that rings out in every line. ‘Awake to joy and hail the morn’, sing the locals in the Black Bull, sounding like they’re about to raise the roof. It’s hard to listen without wanting to join in.

Recording of carol singing in Ecclesfield, Sheffield, South Yorkshire 

Made by Ian Russell in 1974, as part of his research towards his Ph.D. thesis 'Traditional Singing in West Sheffield, 1970-1972', this recording is part of the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, which consists of sound recordings of the former Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies (IDFLS), part of the University of Leeds from October 1964 to September 1983, and dialect-related sound recordings made prior to the establishment of the Institute.

The sound recordings were donated to the British Library in 2019 for digitisation as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The Ian Russell Collection (C331), documenting traditional English carol singing in the north of England from 1984, will also be digitised and readily available as part of this project.

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17 December 2020

Public libraries in a pandemic year

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Hand drawn collage illustration of people using a public libraryLiving Libraries Project Illustration

In the last days of January, as the first two Covid-19 cases were confirmed in the UK, I visited Newcastle City Library. I shared the lift with a tired-looking man hugging a rolled-up sleeping bag. He’d lost his job as a builder, and with that, his home, he told me; his mum had died suddenly and his “head was all over the place”. He was looking for Citizens Advice on the fourth floor.

In times of crisis, it turns out, people often head to their local library.

Together with my colleague Professor Shelley Trower, I spent several months in late 2019 and early 2020 visiting libraries across the UK: in Falmouth, Colliers Wood, Newcastle, Peterborough and Chester. The primary aim of our project, Living Libraries, was to investigate the changes – both positive and negative – that public libraries have gone through, particularly over the last ten years. We set out to understand and communicate something of the multifaceted, responsive nature of contemporary public libraries in the twenty-first century.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, run by the University of Roehampton, and supported by National Life Stories and five public libraries across the country, Living Libraries has assembled an archive of oral histories focused explicitly on public libraries and the people who use, work in, and run them. We interviewed forty-seven people in total: library assistants and Heads of Service, librarians and volunteers, security and janitorial staff, and other professionals in the sector, as well as library users of all ages. The archive, which will be made available by the British Library in 2021, preserves these voices in perpetuity – all speaking up in various ways for public libraries and their unique, and perhaps unexpectedly complex, societal role.

At Chester’s multi-million pound library and arts centre, Storyhouse, I met Jolyne, a young woman who explained how visiting the library had eased her severe anxiety and agoraphobia: without the library in her life, she said, she’d be missing “an actual life... there would be just a huge hole”.

Jolyne Thomas on Storyhouse, Chester (C1868/21)

Download Jolyne Thomas on Storyhouse Chester Transcript

Alan, a Digital Inclusion specialist who had recently taken on a new, paid role at Newcastle City Library after a long stint as a volunteer, talked me through the need for access to technology that many take for granted.

Alan Robinson on Newcastle City Library (C1868/39)

Download Alan Robinson on Newcastle City Library Transcript

In Colliers Wood Library, in South West London, I spoke to Baha, who came to the UK as an adult, teaching himself English from the autobiographies of “footballers and pop stars... Arsene Wenger, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, George Michael”. As the library’s security guard, he takes on some library assistant duties too, such as reshelving books, switching the computers on in the morning. Growing up in Sudan, without a public library system, Baha is now a staunch advocate for libraries: the government, he explains, “should send someone to public libraries just to listen. The elderly would come and talk to you, the young would come and talk to you. Everyone here has their own story.”

Baha Sideek on Colliers Wood Library (C1868/15)

Download Baha Sideek on Colliers Wood Library Transcript

Since my encounter in the lift in Newcastle, back in January, the pandemic has pulled everyone’s year off course. Public libraries shut their doors in March, before gradually re-opening from July, and adapting speedily to the current uncertain present: operating click-and-collect services, limiting browsing, reducing fines, making it easier to join from home. Yet, even as physical library buildings were closed, libraries and library workers continued to provide for their communities. And not only by performing the kind of public service you might anticipate: diligently sharing accurate information about Covid in the early days of the pandemic, moving toddler ‘Rhyme Times’ online from the start of lockdown, and supporting older, vulnerable or marginalised members of their communities with phone calls, e-books and audiobooks. The Dudley Home Library service distributed urgent prescription medicine. Cambridgeshire’s mobile library took hot meals to rough sleepers. In Aberdeenshire and Gateshead, libraries’ 3D printers were repurposed to make visors for Personal Protective Equipment.

The assembled voices of the Living Libraries archive illustrate that libraries are valuable not only for the vital resources they offer – accurate information, printing facilities, the internet – but for other, less tangible reasons too. For community. For comfort. Libraries are warm, safe spaces where everyone is welcome and no one has to pay. At least, that’s the ideal. Interviewees speak of a reality compromised by budget cuts, restructuring and increasing pressures stemming from other public services being closed. Many workers are, as one interviewee put it, “sick and tired of managing decline, and constantly having to find more and more, to the detriment of the service”.

Yet even as Covid-19 exacerbates an already stretched and difficult situation, libraries continue to provide a space for all kinds of people to come together, even briefly, virtually, or at a distance. People take problems of all shapes and sizes to the library – personal, practical, environmental, epistemological – searching for answers, advice or support that they are often unable to access anywhere else. “Libraries are alive”, Jayne from Falmouth Library told us – and they’re essential to our post-pandemic future.

Blog by Dr Sarah Pyke, formerly Impact and Engagement Officer for the AHRC-funded Living Libraries project, University of Roehampton, which ran from 2019 to 2020. To find out more about the project, please visit the Living Libraries project website or search C1868 at the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Oral History of Jazz in Britain: Max Jones interviews Adelaide Hall

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By Sarah Coggrave, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) Project.

In 1988, jazz author, radio host and journalist Max Jones (1917–1993) interviewed jazz singer Adelaide Hall (1901–1993) for the British Library project Oral History of Jazz in Britain (British Library ref. C122). The audio recording of this interview has recently been cleared for online release as part of our National Lottery Heritage Fund-supported Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project. Previous blogs about this collection focused on Kathy Stobart, Major James Howe and Champion Jack Dupree.

Adelaide Hall was born in 1901, in Brooklyn, New York, where her father, a piano teacher, introduced her to music from an early age. Hall describes an upbringing filled with musicians, instruments and music. Sadly she lost both her father and sister at a young age, and sought out work to support her mother. Her early successes in theatre enabled her to do this, and more.

In her interview with Max Jones, Hall describes three of the professional jobs that kick-started her career. The first, Shuffle Along, was a hit Broadway musical by Noble Sissie and Eubie Blake, which according to Hall, involved some dancing and a few leading parts. This was performed in New York in 1921. She later became part of an all-black revue called Chocolate Kiddies, and the group toured Europe in 1925. Some of the songs were written by Duke Ellington, with whom she would later collaborate on a career-defining recording of the song Creole Love Call in 1927. In this excerpt from the interview, she describes how this came about.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 1

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 1

The third show that helped to cement Hall’s reputation as a performer was the Blackbirds production of 1928. Based on a production staged in London in 1926, starring Florence Mills, Blackbirds was created by Lew Leslie, who planned to develop the show on Broadway. However, his main star, Mills, died in 1927, aged just 31. Adelaide Hall took her place and became one of the show’s biggest stars in 1928, along with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who she is pictured with below.

Adelaide Hall and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson

Adelaide Hall with Bill Robinson. Image from the Richmond Planet, 15 November 1930, sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Blackbirds, like Chocolate Kiddies, took Hall back to Europe. This time her destination was the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris, France, where the show was a great success. She then spent much of the early 1930s on tour, both in Europe and in the U.S.A. on the RKO circuit. During this period Hall performed at the renowned Cotton Club, as well as being accompanied by a young Art Tatum on the piano, before he found fame. She recalls encouraging Tatum to accept his first big offer, in spite of knowing that she would lose a fine accompanist in the process.

Hall's accompanists also included Francis Carter and Bernard Edison, and the piano, as an object, became an important stage prop, when Hall began to request not one, but two pianos on stage when she performed.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 2

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 2

Adelaide Hall cites her husband Bert Hicks (1924-1963), a British sailor born in Trinidad and Tobago, as a major support and collaborator in her career. Together they devised clever, creative ways to present her performances, and thanks to his language skills (which included French), they were able to buy and run a club called the Big Apple (La Grosse Pomme) in France. Between 1935 and 1938 the couple made this venue into a success with visitors and locals alike. Hall was the resident star, performing a cabaret show nightly. Here she describes making a dramatic entrance, from a spiral staircase repurposed by her husband:

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 3

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 3

Such was Hall's popularity, it would not have been practical to keep the club open without her, so when she decided to take up performance opportunities in the U.K., her husband came with her and they closed the club in 1938. They soon found a new home in the Old Havana Club in London, which they took over and renamed the Florida Club.

However, this new life in the UK had a turbulent start, and coincided with the start of the Second World War. The couple’s club was destroyed by a landmine in 1939, and Hall remembers an eerie premonition before the event, which earned her the nickname 'Miss Ouija Board'. Feeling somehow that something bad was about to happen, she told everyone to leave the club. Her husband Bert was in the cellar when the explosion occurred, although miraculously survived.

In spite of the war, Hall’s career continued to go from strength to strength, with recordings, performances, broadcasts and even her own radio show with the BBC. She appeared in an Oscar-winning film (The Thief of Baghdad), and later added television appearances to her credits. The interview also covers her stage performances in the 1950s, including Kiss Me Kate and Love From Judy, as well as the Duke Ellington Memorial and Eubie Blake's 99th birthday. She describes visiting Billie Holiday shortly before the talented singer’s premature death, as well as her friendship with Louis Armstrong and his then wife Lil.

At the time of the interview, conducted in 1988, Hall would have been in her eighties, and was still actively performing, with plans to record an album the following year. She describes having to take more care with health and sleep, but otherwise feeling as fit as a woman in her fifties!

The interview reveals a warm, funny and talented artist, with a great zest for life. In one of many touching moments she sings a song with friend and interviewer Max Jones and suggests they have a drink together.

I would like to thank Nick Jones for help with the rights to this collection (you can read more about Max Jones’s work on the Max Jones Archive web site), and would encourage everyone to check out Adelaide Hall's remarkable career. The British Library’s collections include other interviews, copies of Hall’s many recordings and even some recordings of live performances, as well as Iain Cameron Williams’s book Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall (2002). Materials about her life and work can be found in various archives, including Indiana University (U.S.), Yale University Library and Archives (U.S.) and the National Jazz Archives in the U.K.

16 December 2020

British Library Sports Word of the Year 2020

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

In a move described as ‘unprecedented’ (a word we’re all too familiar with in 2020), the OED this year declined to nominate its Word of the Year choosing rather to provide a list of potential candidates. But, like the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards (SPOTY), I shall adopt the principle of Dinner For One – a British film, barely known in the UK, but a much-loved New Year tradition in Germany – and follow the ‘same procedure as last year’ in selecting the unofficial British Library Sports Word of The Year (SWOTY). Although pandemic-inspired vocabulary dominated sports media coverage this year (I first spotted furlough in the Guardian Sports pages in March, biosecure bubble in June and Covid-ball in August, to name but a few), I’ve restricted this selection to terms that reflect sport’s more enduring appeal. So, here are the ten nominees for SWOTY 2020, selected from a review of words and phrases gleaned from mainstream broadcast and press coverage in the last twelve months:

January (Vic Marks of England batsman Dom Sibley, Guardian Sport): 'England fans do not wish to watch any more repeats of the Nicker of Sibley.'

January (David Conn on the increasing influence of betting companies in elite sport, Guardian Sport): 'Football supporters, including young people growing into their love of the sport and its heritage, now have gamblification intervowen with it.'

January (Jamie Jackson citing Kevin Parker’s frustrations at Manchester City supporters’ perceived indifference to the Champions League, Guardian Sport): 'He’s playing into the hands of the ‘Emptyhad’ critics.'

February (Pommie Mbangwa’s commentary as England reached a score against South Africa of 111-2, Sky Sports Cricket): 'Nelson for two.'

March (Tumaini Carayol of Brighton manager Graham Potter’s post-match reaction to securing a long-awaited point, Guardian Sport): 'I hope it’s the old ketchup effect.'

May (Andy Brassell on the resumption of Bundesliga fixtures, Guardian Sport): 'The phrase Geisterspielen (sic) is about to become part of international, rather than just German, football.'

June (Robert Kitson citing Lord Myner’s review of RFU plans to introduce a salary cap, Guardian Sport): 'I’m certainly not saying they fell at the Melling Road.'

June (Martin Tyler of some footballers reaction when presented with a goal-scoring opportunity, Sky Sports): '[like a] jigsaw he goes to pieces in the box.'

Photo of jigsaw puzzle in pieces
October (Jonathan Liew of the England men's manager’s attempts to boost player confidence, Guardian Sport): 'You can see why Southgate is so keen to pump their tyres.'

December (Vic Marks of own final game of golf before second UK-wide lockdown, Guardian Sport): 'For my last shot on a golf course for at least a month I was confronted with a Dennis Wise.'

Inevitably, this year’s list comes from a reduced set of sources compared with previous years. As virtually no sport was possible for several months from March, broadcasters had little to offer beyond highlights reels and review shows, while newspapers typically reduced their coverage from multi-page pull-outs to one or two pages devoted to speculation about when sport might return and how it might need to adapt. Rather frustratingly, this year’s list therefore only includes four sports: golf, cricket, football and rugby union, although one of the entries attributed to rugby is in fact a horse racing metaphor. More frustratingly, the nominations also reflect the precedence given by sporting bodies in this ‘unprecedented’ year to (a) elite professional sport – possibly justifiable – and (b) men’s sport – extremely contentious, if depressingly predictable. In a year when sportsmen and women have united impressively in taking the knee to condemn racial injustice and inequality, the Library’s current exhibition highlights how the fight for a level playing field for women in sport, despite notable successes against the odds, remains Unfinished Business.

As ever, this year’s selection illustrates a range of linguistic phenomena and includes dialect (i.e. localised variants, e.g. pump someone’s tyres), slang (i.e. informal forms, e.g. Emptyhad and Dennis Wise) and jargon (i.e. specialised vocabulary, e.g. Nelson). Geisterspiele and ketchup effect offer a glimpse of the occasional welcome presence of languages other than English in British sporting discourse, while gamblification is a fascinating example of how we manipulate English grammar to create new words. The other three – Nicker of Sibley, fall at the Melling Road and jigsaw – are, I suspect, neologisms (i.e. unique expressions coined by the user for a one-off occasion), although fall at the Melling Road might enjoy wider currency. All ten demonstrate how sporting discourse in the press and broadcast media is a wonderful platform for exposing vernacular English to a mainstream audience.

The phrase pump someone’s tyres [= ‘to praise someone in order to boost their confidence’] might be unfamiliar to speakers of British English, but is common in Canadian sporting discourse, especially in relation to ice hockey, as confirmed by an entry at Wiktionary. Nelson [= (in cricket) ‘a score of 111’], originally an Australian dialect form according to the OED, is apparently a reference to Lord Nelson’s one eye, one arm and one leg (despite that not being an accurate reflection of his physical characteristics). As with many sporting terms it has gained wider currency and is now used throughout the cricketing world (i.e. parts of the Commonwealth) and a Nelson is considered, perhaps especially in England, an unlucky score.

As a former teacher of German, I’m always particularly excited to stumble across foreign words in English, hence the inclusion here of Geisterspiel [= ‘football match played without spectators’]. The word came to prominence in May when the German Bundesliga became the first major football league to resume competitive fixtures post-lockdown, albeit matches took place behind closed doors. Early reports of the phenomenon frequently include the original German word in italics or quotation marks, but a direct translation in the form of the calque, ghost-game, has now appeared twice in the Guardian this month alone. The fact it now appears in normal font suggests it has swiftly been absorbed into general sporting parlance, although a New Word submission to Collins suggests the Guardian’s use of a hyphen is not universal. Equally intriguing is ketchup effect [= ‘a period of minimal progress followed by a sudden wave of spectacular results’]. In Swedish, the expression ketchupeffkt is common in sporting circles to describe the conviction that a prolonged period of bad results or poor form can swiftly change to a period of sustained success, mirroring the frustration and anticipation we experience when pouring sauce from a bottle. It was even voted Swedish Word of the Day by The World News website in 2018.

Photo of ketchup bottle
Two forms, Emptyhad [= ‘Manchester City’s Etihad stadium’] and Dennis Wise [= (in golf) ‘deceptively awkward short putt’], capture the irreverent, tongue-in-cheek nature that often characterises sporting slang. Both require an intimate knowledge of recent sporting history and culture. Supporters of rival teams use the term Emptyhad to mock a perceived lack of atmosphere at Manchester City’s Etihad stadium for midweek Champions League fixtures, which are seldom as well-attended as one might anticipate, given the club’s fan base and recent dominance of English domestic football. Dennis Wise, on the other hand, is an ex-professional footballer, whose diminutive stature belied a skilful and combative talent, thus explaining the ironic nickname among golfers for a ‘tricky little five-footer’.

The neologisms, jigsaw [= (of footballer) ‘to display obvious signs of nervousness when close to goal’] and Nicker of Sibley [= humorous reference to the frequency with which England batsman Dom Sibley is dismissed caught behind the stumps], reveal a similar kind of linguistic playfulness. The image of a jigsaw puzzle ‘in pieces in the box’ is a wonderfully witty re-interpretation of the idiom ‘to go to pieces’, in the sense of to succumb to extreme nerves, in the corresponding box on a football pitch (i.e. the penalty box). In cricket, a ‘nick’ refers to a batsman making the briefest of contact with a ball, resulting in a simple catch to a wicket keeper or slip fielder. The fact one particular England batsman, Dom Sibley, became prone to ‘nicking off early’ explains the amusing allusion to the popular BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley, which by strange coincidence reappeared on our screens this month. The other potential nonce-form, fall at The Melling Road [= ‘to fail at an early stage of an enterprise’] is an imaginative extension of the idiom ‘to fall at the first hurdle’. As all horse racing fans will know, the Melling Road crosses the Aintree Grand National course on the approach to the first hurdle, so to fall at the Melling Road is to fail both spectacularly early and embarrassingly incompetently.

Finally, disquiet at the increasingly close relationship between elite sport and betting companies is reflected in gamblification [= 'process by which gambling industry pervades sport']. Not yet sufficiently well established to merit an authorised dictionary entry, gamblification is included in the crowdsourced Macmillan Open Dictionary from January this year. Clearly a recent coinage, its pseudo root verb, gamblify, feels unnatural and is, I suspect, only really likely to occur in the passive – hence I’ve noted several examples of derived forms, such as gamblified and de-gamblified – but the noun, gamblification, is to date by far the most common.

Several of this year’s entries are captured in The British Library’s Newspaper and Contemporary British collections, making the Library an incomparable resource for monitoring vernacular language. As far as the winner is concerned, I’m extremely tempted by Geisterspiel, especially as it came a disappointing 8th in the Duden Wort des Jahres list (behind the rather predictable Coronapandemie), but I’m going to plump for ketchup effect. At the end of such an unprecedented year it seems to convey a refreshingly positive view of how the immediate future can improve beyond all recognition, contrary to evidence from the recent past. And ketchup is, after all, very much a seasonal colour!

Follow Spoken English collections at https://twitter.com/VoicesofEnglish

15 December 2020

Robert Cox and The Golden Fleece

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Robert Cox photoRobert Cox

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Robert Ferdinand de Lesseps Cox was born into a family of gelatine and glue manufacturers based at Gorgie Mills in Edinburgh where they established their company in 1725.  Robert was born in Edinburgh on 12th June 1884.

Cox's glue posterFrom Whitaker’s Red Book

He was named after his godfather Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) a friend of his father.  Lesseps was a French diplomat and developer of the Suez Canal and, as head of the Franco-American Union, presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States and attended the dedication ceremony in October 1886.

As a boy Rossdhu House Scotland

Robert Cox as a boy at Rossdhu House, Scotland

Robert’s father, Robert J. Cox (1845-1899) was Liberal Unionist MP for South Edinburgh from 1895 to 1899.  However, his son Robert did not enter the family business or politics but spent time as a musician, primarily a conductor and composer for the musical stage.  He made his London debut at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Emmerich Kallman’s hugely successful operetta The Gypsy Princess (Die Csárdásfürstin) in May 1921.  It had premiered in Vienna in 1915 and on Broadway in 1917.  Cox’s wife was a niece of the great singer Dame Nellie Melba who wanted to attend Robert’s debut, but she was performing in Paris at the time.

Gipsy Princess London poster V&APoster of Gypsy Princess (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Cox began to compose at the age of fifteen when he was at Winchester College and whilst at St John’s College, Oxford, he wrote the music for a student dramatic society’s production of Measure for Measure.  Further musical studies took him to Dresden, Rome and the Royal College of Music in London.

Cox composed a Quartet in E flat, and between 1907 and 1919 wrote a handful of light piano pieces and a few songs.  Most of his output was for the musical theatre including The Love Girl, The Purple Lady, which toured the provinces for thirteen weeks, and The Magic Sword.  In 1923 Cox published a musical play in two acts, The Rose and the Ring, based on the book by William Makepeace Thackeray.  It is rather confusing as two previous works with the same title based on the same Thackeray work exist – by Walter Slaughter from 1891 (‘founded on Thackeray’s fireside pantomime’), and by American Caryl B. Rich in 1914.  There was also a light opera by Christabel Marrillier from 1928.

Rose and the Ring title pageTitle page of The Rose and the Ring (BL Collections)

Cox spoke many languages including Swedish and German and spent time in Sweden during the Second World War.  He was a member of the Bath Club during the 1930s, but it was bombed by the Germans in 1941.

From his first marriage Cox had three children - Robert Charles an aeronautical engineer, Susanna Winifred, a dancer, and Elizabeth Nicholas, a reporter and travel writer whose most well-known book is Death be not Proud about seven young women who served with the French Section of the Special Operations Executive who were betrayed to the Germans and eventually captured and murdered.

Score Overture editScore of the Overture to The Golden Fleece (BL Collections)

I received a donation last year from Susannah Baker, a relative of Robert Cox’s second wife, the artist, Ethelwyn Baker, via Cox’s granddaughter Jacqueline Shaun Cox Nervegna.  A hand written score of his composition Overture and Suite to The Golden Fleece was accompanied by an off-air recording of the only broadcast of the Overture given on 28th November 1937 by the BBC Orchestra under Joseph Lewis (1878-1954).  The Suite of four movements was broadcast on 23rd September 1938 by the same forces.  The Overture is a fine, well-crafted work, reminiscent of Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

Disc labelDisc label (BL Collections)

Radio Times listing 28 November 1937Listing in the Radio Times for 28th November 1937

Here is the off-air recording made more than eighty years ago.

Overture to The Golden Fleece

Robert Cox died 30th December 1951.  

Thanks to Jacqueline Shaun Cox Nervegna for information and the use of family photographs.

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14 December 2020

Recording of the week: Gut feelings in weather forecasting

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

Portrait photograph of Julia Slingo
Julia Slingo at the Meteorological Office in Exeter as its Chief Scientist, 2013

In her oral history interview Professor Dame Julia Slingo describes many aspects of her life and work as a climate modeller. Her research has focused on tropical climate variability and its impact on the global climate. She started her career at the Meteorological Office, where she received training in weather forecasting – developing a ‘gut feeling’ for the weather:

Julia Slingo speaking about 'gut feelings' in weather forecasting [C1379/61] 

Could you now then describe the practical training on this Met Office course at Shinfield Park?

Yes, so every afternoon we would take the current weather patterns and what we’d learn to do was to actually plot the charts, so in those days you learnt how to plot all the symbols that describe the weather at a particular location and then you’d draw up the chart with the pressure pat – the isobars and you’d use the observations to decide where the weather fronts must be from things about what the observations were telling you. And we learnt to work out things like … the difference between what the weather’s doing at the surface and what the weather’s doing in the middle of the troposphere, it would also tell you about how weather patterns would change with time. But we – it was all very practical because at that stage none of this was computerised; there was a lot of hand drawing and – and plotting observations and thinking about – and interpreting what they mean and so we would – that was – that was what we spent the afternoons doing and then we would make our own forecasts: what we thought was going to happen to the weather patterns over the UK the following day. And it was fascinating, because what you also learn is that – is that expert judgement comes into this as well, that it’s not just purely theory, there’s actually all sorts of local knowledge comes in. And I can still remember having drawn up this beautiful chart and put a cold front in where I thought it ought to be ‘cause of what the winds were doing and all of that and I remember the tutor, the guy who was taking the class coming round and he’d say – he’d say, ‘Well Julia, why do you think the cold front’s there?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh well that’s because, you know, the winds are doing this and the pressure’s doing that,’ and blah-de-blah-de-blah. And he’d say, ‘Well I think it’s probably going to be more over here,’ and I’d say, ‘But why?’ he said, ‘Well just because I just know.’ And there was all that – there was also that – all that element of experience that comes in so this idea that, you know, when you watch the weather day after day after day you learn about … you get a gut feeling for it, which has never left me actually. So it’s – it’s not only having the theoretical base but it’s also that sort of experience and the fact that we do experience the weather from day to day which so much of physics you can’t get that sort of feeling. And, you know, now I can sort of look at a weather map or I can look at a satellite picture and I just say, I've got that feeling that it’s going to do this.

This clip features on the website Voices of Science. Further extracts from Julia Slingo’s interview are available on her interviewee page. Voices of Science tells the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century, featuring extracts from over 100 oral history interviews.

Julia Slingo was recorded by interviewer Paul Merchant in 2011 for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

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