THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

29 posts categorized "Humanities"

30 June 2020

The Santals, Scandinavian missionaries, and salvage ethnomusicology: an encounter of three worlds

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Since 2015, Christian Poske has conducted his PhD research on the Bengal recordings of the Arnold Bake Collection. A Collaborative Doctoral Scholarship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, situated his PhD within two institutions: the British Library Sound Archive and SOAS, University of London. He conducted his fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Bangladesh from April to October 2017, revisiting the locations of Arnold Bake’s fieldwork. Christian's fieldwork investigated the aims and methods of Bake’s research in the early 1930s and studied the continuity and change in the devotional and folk music and dance documented by Bake. Christian is completing his PhD in Music this year at SOAS and in addition to his research has been engaged as a cataloguer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. He currently works as Bengali Cataloguer at the Department of Asian and African Collections at the British Library.

The audio recordings from the Christian Poske Collection have recently been catalogued and will be available for on-site listening at the British Library when the Reading Rooms re-open. For now, those interested can access the descriptions of the recordings by browsing the Sound and Moving Image catalogue for catalogue entries under collection number C1795. This blog post written by Christian Poske is an insightful introduction to the collection through his fieldwork in Jharkhand and West Bengal.

The restudy of historical sound recordings often gives unexpected results. During my research on the cylinder recordings of the Dutch musicologist Arnold Bake (1899-1963) at the British Library Sound Archive, I came across a number of sparsely documented recordings made at a Christian mission for the Santals, a South Asian aboriginal people centred in the Indian state of Jharkhand today. When I conducted my fieldwork in 2017, I found out that one of the church songs recorded by Bake is still popular among converts in the region.

'Recently, I had the opportunity to start recording Santal music… To really get in touch with the Santals, I have turned to the currently most important authority in this field, Dr Bodding... However, he is a missionary, and as he helped me along, we arrived at a huge boarding school for Santals. But it looks worse than it is. The mission has the policy to change as little as possible. Language, music and customs are, if anyhow possible, retained. All melodies used in the church are pure Santal melodies, although the words were made Christian... The music as such is quite unlike Hindu music, and their whole musical sense is very different. They love polyphony a lot when they get to hear it. I have recorded a sample (which hardly has any scientific value) how the Santal singing master of the school edited a song with four voices without actually ever having a European education, he does not speak a word of English, for example. The boys sing it with passion, which you could never expect from the Hindus…'
(Arnold Bake, letter to Erich M. v. Hornbostel, 15.4.1931, Berlin Phonogram Archive)

With these words, Bake explained his fieldwork at the Kairabani mission to Erich M. v. Hornbostel (1877-1935), the director of the Berlin Phonogram Archive. The Norwegian missionary Paul Olaf Bodding (1865-1938) of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches had arranged Bake’s visit to Kairabani.

1. Kairabani Church 1926
'The new Kairabani Church at the consecration, 1926' (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen/ International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

In the letter to Hornbostel, Bake referred to the church song 'Boge gupi do' ('The Good Shepherd') that had been composed by the Norwegian missionary Lars Olsen Skrefsrud (1840-1910) around 1886 (Gausal 1935: 70). Skrefsrud, one of the founders of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches, settled in India to make sustained efforts to convert the Santals from animist belief to Christianity. He learned Santali language from 1867 onwards and published the first comprehensive grammar of the language a few years later (1873), which introduced a romanisation system providing the language with the first standard script that is still used by converts today, with minor amendments made by Bodding.

Skrefsrud group photo
From left to right: Missionaries H. P. Børresen, H. J. Muston, L. O. Skrefsrud, with Santali hunting priest, chiefs (with turbans), hunters, and musicians (Santal Parganas, 1874) (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen / International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

Bake recorded solo and choral renditions of the song 'Boge gupi do', which is based on a traditional Santali melody, as he correctly noted. However, the choral version had not been arranged by the Santali choir leader of the Kairabani mission, but by an organist of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches (Rạṛ Puthi 1929: preface).

'Boge gupi do' performed by male singer, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/1641)

'Boge gupi do' performed by male choir, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/2128)

Arnold Bake’s views on the Santals and their music and dance were influenced by colonial ethnographic clichés of aboriginal peoples that he replicated in his correspondence and publications (Bake 1936-37: 68), where he portrayed the Santals as a natural and pleasure-loving people, fond of music, dance, and drinking, and overall in a half-civilised state. One month after his visit to Kairabani, he filmed Santali dances at a Hindu festival in the village Kankalitola near Santiniketan. In a letter to his relatives, he described what he had seen in Kankalitola as 'a real nature dance':

'I am so curious what you will think of the films from Kankalitola that we left behind in Calcutta last week to reproduce. It was the typical male and female dances. You will see, I think, why the missionaries are against this dancing, it is very sensuous, yet it has great charm… And so entirely unaffected, a real nature dance.' (Arnold Bake, letter to his mother-in-law, 20.5.1931, Mss Eur F191/8, 191)

In Kairabani, he photographed Santali pupils playing their instruments at the mission, but he seems to have been dissatisfied with the sober ambience of the premises. To also have a picture of a Santali musician in a natural environment, he probably arranged a photo with one of the musicians outside:

Santali flute player by pond
Santali flute player by a pond, photograph by Arnold Bake (Kairabani mission, March 1931)

In this period, Hornbostel and other comparative musicologists collected recordings from musicologists and ethnographers worldwide at the Berlin Phonogram Archive 'to save what can be saved' of the traditional musics of the world threatened by the spread of Western culture (Hornbostel 1904-5: 97). Such recordings were expected to be made in surroundings free from European cultural influences. Therefore, Hornbostel marked all of Bake’s recordings from the mission as “worthless” (Ziegler 2006: 101-2), notwithstanding whether these featured traditional Santali or Christian songs. The reason for Hornbostel’s drastic measure was his suspicion that exposure to western church music had affected the Santals’ renditions of their own traditional songs. In his reply to Bake, he only hinted at his reservations:

'I am already very excited about the recordings and hope that you will have more opportunity for interesting recordings... of the Santals. In general: the more you record, the better, provided that the music is not europeanised yet.'
(Erich M. v. Hornbostel, letter to Arnold Bake, 5.7.1931, BPA)

When I began to evaluate Bake’s recordings at the British Library Sound Archive in 2015, I could not distinguish traditional from Christian songs among the Kairabani recordings due to my lack of knowledge of Santali language. Through my fieldwork, I was able to find out more. In Jharkhand, I visited the Kairabani mission school that still exists today. Here, I met the Santali language teacher Ignatius Besra, who helped me with the evaluation of the recordings at his home in Dumka. As he recognised the song 'Boge gupi do' (C52/2128), he rushed from the desk in the living room to another room to bring the church song book Sereń Puthi. He showed me the lyrics and said it was a 'hit' still popular among converts today. When I left, he gave me his copy on the way. I visited the Kairabani mission for the last time the following day and asked a schoolteacher to sing the song for me:

'Boge gupi do' performed by Nalini B. Hansdak Kairabani, May 2017 (C1795/11)

Mansaram Murmu, a doctoral researcher from Visva-Bharati University, translated it for me in Santiniketan two months later:

            Boge gupi do / A good shepherd -
            Ac’ren bhiḍhiko, boeha, / for his sheep, brothers,
            Ạḍiy’ jotonko; / he cares a lot.
            Sahre jaegate / Towards a good place,
            phạria dak’ jharanatey’ / to a spring of clean water,
            Ạyur idiko. / he leads them.

            Mit’ bhiḍiy’ at’len khan, / When a sheep gets lost -
            Ạuri ńame dhạbic’ doe / until he retrieves it,
            Gupi pańjaye. / he searches it.
            Uni ńamkate / When he has found it,
            Tarenrey’ ladeye / he carries it on his shoulder
            Rạskạ monte. / gladly.

            Ac’ak’ oṛak’te / At his home,
            Seṭerkate do boeha / when he has arrived, brothers,
            Peṛae jarwako, / he invites its kin,
            Onkoe metako / and tells them,
            Rạskạk’pe iń tuluc’, / Rejoice with me,
            Bhidin ńamkede. / I have found the lost sheep.

            Tạruc’e hec’len khan /When the tiger comes
            Ṭheṅga epelkate doe / he brandishes the stick
            Teṅgo darame; / and saves them. .
            Ac’ren bhiḍiko / His sheep,
            Maraṅ mũhim khongey’ / from huge danger
            Aḍ bańcaoko. / he saves them.

            Bhiḍi ńutumte / For the sheep,
            Boge gupi do boeha, / a good shepherd, brothers,
            Jiwiy’ alaea; / sacrifices his life.
            Jisui nonkaket’, / Jesus does like this
            Bańcao akat’bonae, / he has saved you
            Soetan tạrup’ khon. / from the grasp of the devil-tiger.

            Sereń Puthi (2015: 168)

Carrying out fieldwork with Bake’s recordings showed me the advantages of reconnecting cultural heritage communities with historical sound recordings that are insufficiently documented. Apart from the ethical imperative of making recordings from the colonial period accessible in countries of origin again, community engagement often brings valuable information to light that makes it possible to enhance the archival documentation of recordings, which ultimately makes the material more meaningful to everyone.

This blog is derived from my PhD research “Continuity and Change: A Restudy of Arnold Adriaan Bake’s research on the devotional and folk music and dance of Bengal 1925-1956”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, Award No. 1664039.

Further Reading:

Rạṛ Puthi: Book of Melodies (Choral Book). 1929. Dumka: The Santal Mission of the Northern Churches.

Sereń Puthi ["Book of Songs"]. 2015. Dumka: Dumka Diocesan Council (NELC).

Bake, Arnold A. 1936-7. ‘Indian Folk-Music’. Proceedings of the Musical Association 63: 65– 77.

Gausdal, Johannes. 1935. Contributions to Santal Hymnology. Bibliotheca Norvegiæ Sacræ 11. Bergen: Lunde.

Hornbostel, Erich Moritz von. 1904-5. ‘Die Probleme Der Vergleichenden Musikwissenschaft’. Zeitschrift Der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft 7: 85-97.

Skrefsrud, Lars Olsen. 1873. A Grammar of the Santhal Language. Calcutta: Calcutta School Book and Vernacular Literature Society.

Ziegler, Susanne. 2006. Die Wachszylinder Des Berliner Phonogramm-Archivs. Veröffentlichungen des Ethnologischen Museums Berlin. Berlin: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

20 May 2020

Exploring the sounds and stories of Britain's shores

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Last week the British Library launched Coast, a new web space dedicated to sounds and stories from Britain's incredible coastline.

Covering everything from superstitions and working conditions to wildlife and entertainment, this collection brings together field recordings, interview excerpts and music from across the sound archive. Many of these recordings have been digitised as part of Unlocking our Sound Heritage, a UK-wide project that will preserve and provide access to thousands of rare and unique sound recordings.

Without wanting to spoil the adventure, here are a few choice recordings to whet your appetite.

In May 2012 field recordist Peter Toll made this underwater recording of a rock pool. It includes the sounds of limpets, periwinkles and anenomes and lets us listen in to an otherwise silent world.

Rock pool ambience recorded on Bantham Beach, Devon, England (BL ref 212536)

Colour photograph of a rock pool(c) Avalon/ Contributor via Getty Images

All Aboard For Margate perfectly captures the excitement and popularity of visiting the British seaside in the first years of the 20th century. This version was performed by music hall star Florrie Forde,

All Aboard For Margate sung by Florrie Forde (BL ref 1CYL0001004)

Colour photograph of holidaymakers at the seaside(c) PhotoQuest / Contributor via Getty Images

The bright sounds of the amusement arcade is often one of the first things you'll hear when approaching the seafront. For me it's like a siren and very rarely am I able to resist its enticing call.

Better luck next time (uncatalogued)

Colour photograph of the inside of a seaside amusement arcade© Prisma by Dukas / Contributor via Getty Images

Fishermen are a superstitious bunch and are always on the look out for potential harbingers of misfortune. In this interview extract from The Listening Project, Wilfred Keys asks his friend Thomas Kyle about some of these superstitions.

Fishermens superstitions (BL ref C1500/416)

Black and white photograph of fisherman in a fishing boat(c) Image: Hulton Archive / Stringer via Getty Images

Seabird colonies are a seasonal highlight of the coastal calendar. This recording was made in 1986 by Chris Watson and is dominated by the raucous calls of nesting kittiwakes. 

Seabird colony at Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland, England (BL ref 24697)

Guillemots at nesting colony© Education Images / Contributor via Getty Images

Sound is such an evocative medium. It has the power to transport us to a completely different time and place. And, at a time when so many of us are confined to our houses and local areas, being able to escape, even for just a few minutes, has never been more important. 

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

All Aboard For Margate: Public Domain; Sounds from a seaside amusement arcade: CC-By-NC; Fishermen’s superstitions: © BBC; Rock Pool: © Peter Toll; Seabird Colony: © Chris Watson.

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03 February 2020

Recording of the week: 'If Not, Not'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin St. John Wilson on tapestry

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

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

27 January 2020

Recording of the week: Trude Levi and Holocaust liberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Everything was still unsure, everything was chaotic”

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

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

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

11 November 2019

Recording of the week: English spoken here

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

‘At the chemist’s’ is an early example of a sound recording made for the purposes of teaching English as a foreign language. Recorded in the 1930s by two UCL phoneticians, J.R. Firth (1890-1960) & Lilias Armstrong (1882-1937), it represents a typical conversation in a shop.

At the chemist's (BL reference 1CS0089829)

Black & white photograph of the interior of an early 20th century chemistsInterior of an early 20th century chemists (via the National Library of Ireland)

The voices capture period Received Pronunciation (RP), the regionally neutral, middle-class British accent that dominated educational publication and broadcast output in the UK for much of the 20th century. RP is still considered a prestige accent by some, but like any other accent it has changed considerably in the intervening years. Some of the vowel sounds we hear in this recording are now rare in present-day RP – most notably the <a> sound both speakers use in words like madam, packet, bandages and tablets, while the pronunciation of Vaseline with a medial <z> sound is particularly striking.

Compared with modern audio teaching materials (and exchanges in shops) the language also seems extremely formal and the dialogue a little unnatural – the idea, for instance, that students should understand, let alone use, phrases such as compress with arnica and tincture of iodine is fascinating. Nonetheless, anyone with experience of learning a second language will instantly recognise the genre. The recording also offers a glimpse of contemporary pharmaceutical products and terminology. Court plaster – as opposed, simply, to plaster or sticking plaster – is particularly intriguing and J.R. Firth’s endorsement of the brand New-skin ('you see what it is from what it says on the label') bears an uncanny resemblance to the famous 1990s TV slogan for Ronseal wood preserver (‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’). Finally, Lilias Armstrong’s use of good morning as a farewell might seem particularly unusual to modern ears.

Find out more about RP on our British Accents and Dialects website and follow @VoicesofEnglish for tweets about language.

21 October 2019

Recording of the week: turning down Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers

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

In his life story recording the artist Michael Rothenstein related a remarkable story about an encounter between his teacher A. S. Hartrick and the artist Vincent van Gogh.

Michael Rothenstein (1908-1993) was a painter, printmaker, and teacher. He taught at Camberwell School of Art for many years and is known for using experimental printing techniques in the 1950s and 1960s. He was recorded for the National Life Stories project Artists' Lives in 1990. While Rothenstein was studying at Chelsea Polytechnic (now Chelsea School of Art) he was taught by several artists, including A. S. Hartrick (1864-1950).

Rothenstein had fond memories of his teacher, ‘Well, he was a delightful man. He seemed very much a human being to me, and he liked talking about his past, and he loved talking about van Gogh…’

In the late 1880s, A. S. Hartrick, a painter and talented draughtsman, was studying in Paris. He became friends with the artist Toulouse-Lautrec – who drew a portrait of Hartrick from memory in 1933 – and the painter Vincent van Gogh. One summer Hartrick had no need for his rented room and decided to offer it to van Gogh. In Rothenstein’s recording he describes how this place was ‘just the job for van Gogh’, as the room had a window overlooking the street and ‘he loved making notes of anything that excited him, you know, a woman carrying a bundle of faggots, or an old horse trotting down the street with sacks of coal, or whatever it was.’ Apparently when van Gogh felt inspired by something he had seen, he would begin to hiss… while reaching for something to draw with.

At that time, when reaching for something to draw with, van Gogh would have been likely to fish out a homemade wax crayon from his pocket ‘…he'd get hold of candle ends, and he'd melt them down in a metal spoon, and he liked to use either red, scarlet, or blue powder, and that gave him a big chunk of wax crayon that he carried in his pocket…’ Rothenstein puts this inventiveness down to van Gogh’s poverty: ‘He really did have no money, and he wanted to use big, big things to draw with…’

When presented with the newly whitewashed walls surrounding the window in Hartrick’s room, van Gogh apparently couldn’t resist filling this blank canvas with scenes from the street below. By the time Hartrick returned to Paris the walls of his room were completely covered in van Gogh’s drawings, created, of course, using candle wax.

Van Gogh, as a thank you to his friend (and one can assume, perhaps as an apology for the state of the walls) turned up with a selection of his canvases and offered one to Hartrick. This selection happened to include one of van Gogh’s paintings from his ‘Sunflowers’ series. However Hartrick ‘couldn’t stand his work’ and politely declined, later explaining to his student Rothenstein that ‘It would have been agony to me, to have to walk away, or hang up one of them, or to live with it.’ Hartrick encouraged van Gogh to ask his brother to sell the paintings, perhaps anticipating their value. Little did he know that in 1987 one of van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ paintings would sell for $39.85 million.

Michael Rothenstein on Hartrick and van Gogh (C466/02)

Vincent van Gogh's 'Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers', painted in 1888Vincent van Gogh, Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, 1888. Image courtesy National Gallery (NG3863)

Visit British Library Sounds to listen to Michael Rothenstein's  10-part life story recording which was conducted as part of Artists' Lives, an ongoing oral history project which documents the lives of individuals involved in British art, including painters, sculptors, curators, dealers and critics.

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

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.

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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