THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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187 posts categorized "Oral history"

20 February 2019

Creative States of Mind: a new collection of interviews exploring artists and the creative process

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Artist Patricia Townsend writes about her collection, 'Interviews exploring artists and the creative process', recently deposited and made available at the British Library.

What does it feel like to be an artist? Are there common threads between the experiences of individual artists or does each artist work in his or her own idiosyncratic way?

As an artist myself, I began to think about what happens in my mind as I create new artworks and to wonder whether my experiences are shared by others. Do other artists also begin with a vague intimation of what they want their subject to be, but with little sense of what form the potential artwork might take? Do they also sometimes have the experience of an idea for a new work bursting suddenly and unexpectedly into their minds? And if so, do they, like me, initially feel a sense of elation as if the new idea is perfect even though they know from experience that sooner or later (and usually sooner) this elation will evaporate and the idea won’t seem so wonderful after all? I set out to explore these questions and more in a series of interviews with professional artists working in a variety of media. These interviews, many of which are now archived in the British Library, formed the basis of my research for a PhD at the Slade School of Fine Art and for the book ‘Creative States of Mind: Psychoanalysis and the Artist’s Process’ (Routledge 2019).

BookCover

When I began this project I didn’t know whether the artists I interviewed would be able to put their experiences into words. After all, I was speaking to visual artists who have deliberately chosen a non-verbal medium in which to express themselves. Many of them were accustomed to being asked about their material processes and their motivations but I was asking them to talk about how it feels to make a work of art, something they might not have considered in depth before. Would it be possible to express this verbally? If the answer had been no, my whole project would have fallen flat, but as it turned out I needn’t have worried. Many of the artists were wonderfully articulate, often finding poetic images that vividly conveyed the qualities of their experiences. For instance, painter Hughie O’Donoghue used the metaphors of archeological digs and of dredging to describe his process of unearthing something from the subconscious as he paints:

Hughie O'Donohue interviewed by Patricia Townsend (C1801/17)

This recording adds another dimension to the understanding of O’Donoghue’s work that we might not have gained through the written word alone. His reflective way of speaking mirrors his deeply thoughtful engagement with his developing painting.

Another example is provided by photographer Sian Bonnell who describes how it feels to be immersed in her work, even to the point of making herself ill:

Sian Bonnell interviewed by Patricia Townsend (C1801/03)

This recording takes us, as listeners, inside this artist’s experience. Through the way in which Bonnell speaks, as much as through her language, we get a feel for the intensity of the state of mind she is in.

These examples attest to the individuality of each artist’s experience. And yet, the interviews reveal many shared threads too. O’Donoghue speaks of his painting as acquiring ‘some kind of life’ through his work on it. A number of other interviewees also speak of a point in their process when their developing artwork begins to come to life. And the state of complete absorption described so vividly by Bonnell is also referred to by many other artists, each of whom finds his or her own particular way to convey the quality of the experience.

In conducting the interviews, I wanted to find out whether there would be enough common threads in the artists’ accounts to enable me to trace the journey from the artist’s first inkling that he or she is onto something, through the artist’s work with a medium to the completion of the artwork and its launch into the outside world. It seemed clear to me that the making of a work of art involves unconscious as well as conscious processes but, of course, neither I nor the artists I interviewed could provide information about processes that are out of our awareness. Therefore I looked to psychoanalytic theory to try to fill the inevitable gaps and to shed light on the artists’ narratives. But in the interviews I was not attempting to analyse the artists as individuals (something that psychoanalysis has been accused of in the past). Rather I wanted to use psychoanalytic theory to analyse the creative process through factors in common across many interviews. This is what I aimed to do in the book ‘Creative States of Mind; Psychoanalysis and the Artist’s Process’.

It was a great privilege to have the opportunity to interview these artists and each encounter gave me enormous pleasure. I am delighted that 25 recordings are now available through the British Library so that others can hear the voices of these remarkable artists for themselves.

Patricia Townsend
www.patriciatownsend.net
www.routledge.com/9780367146160

To find 'Interviews exploring artists and the creative process' search C1801 at sami.bl.uk. For other collections of oral history interviews with artists, sculptors, craftspeople, theatre designers, photographers, and fashion designers explore our collection guide to Oral histories of visual arts and crafts.

15 February 2019

Andrea Levy

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We’re sad to hear of the death of novelist Andrea Levy who passed away yesterday, aged 62.

Andrea grew up in north London, the daughter of Jamaican-born Winston and Amy Levy. She attended Highbury Hill Grammar School before studying textile design at Middlesex Polytechnic. After working as a costume assistant at The Royal Opera House and the BBC she began to attend a writers’ class at City Lit and published her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’, in 1994. Today she is best known for the award-winning Small Island and The Long Song.

In 2014, Andrea agreed to make a recording for Authors’ Lives which will be made available to listeners in the weeks to come. She was at that time living with the knowledge that she had a life-limiting illness.

With typical courage and eloquence, she ended her Authors’ Lives recording by reflecting on mortality, and the impact she hoped her books might have had in the world:

‘Everybody dies, and everybody knows they’re going to die. But while other people have it in the back of their heads, I have it here, right in front of my face: I see it and I know it.

But in the meantime I’m fit and well and I’m loving life. There’s a certain freedom that comes from knowing that this is the time you’ve got, and every minute is going to be dedicated to what you want to do because you really don’t have long. If you can go day by day, there’s some sort of release in it.

[Living with cancer] is a process of forgetting and never forgetting that you have to do at one and the same time: I never forget, but I just get on with it. I’ve had a very good life, I’ve loved it. I’ve worked hard and produced some good work I think, and the confidence I have now is because of writing: because I was able to quietly, in my own time and my own way, to show my worth.

I hope my books have a life beyond me. I hope I made a contribution to something, to the end of racism and the coming equality. I hope that the life that I’ve lived goes some way to make things easier. That’s the only posterity.’

Sarah O’Reilly, Interviewer, Authors’ Lives

08 February 2019

Where our laws are drafted: 150 years of the Office of Parliamentary Counsel

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On 8 February 1869 the Board of the Treasury met to discuss “the drafting or preparing of Bills introduced into Parliament on the part of Her Majesty’s Government.” The Treasury minute goes on to note “the advantage of bringing all important Government Bills under the view of one person,” and being “pleased to direct that the office as proposed shall be constituted to be called the “Office of the Parliamentary Counsel”.

The Office of Parliamentary Counsel has grown from one man and his assistant in 1869 to consist of a staff of 60, including some 50 experienced barristers and solicitors. Led by Elizabeth Gardiner, the team’s job is to assist government departments in preparing Bills.

In a BBC interview Gardiner remarked that, "what they used to say was that every Labour government legislated more than a Tory government but that every government legislated more than the previous one, of that colour.”

The experience of Patrick Macrory, director of Unilever, seems to corroborate that view. He worked as an assistant at the Parliamentary Counsel Office during the late 1940s under Granville Ram (known as the ‘Maestro’) and alongside Harold Kent who later became Treasury Solicitor.

Interview with Patrick Macrory, C408/005, Tape 1, Side 2, 00:23:18 – 00:24:31

In this excerpt from her 1988 interview for NLS Legal Lives, Baroness Hale explains how parliamentary draftsmen contribute to the work of the Law Commission on law reform.

Baroness_Brenda_Hale
University of Salford Press Office [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Interview with Baroness Hale, C736/008, Track 4, 00:17:29 – 00:20:52

Those currently working in the Office of Parliamentary Counsel are facing unprecedented challenges, drafting legislation to accommodate the constitutional novelty that is Brexit.

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. 

07 January 2019

Recording of the week: sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi on post-war Britain

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

Sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) describes how it felt to be an artist in the 1950s. Post-war Britain was changing but there was nonetheless a pervading sense of austerity. Paolozzi says, 'we were all grey'.

This sense of austerity was, for Paolozzi, coupled with a sense of apprehension towards foreign art and foreign food. Picasso was deemed 'interesting but foreign'. Spaghetti was unheard of!

He mentions the Festival of Britain, a national exhibition that took place on London's South Bank in 1951. The Festival attracted millions of visitors and was seen as a turning point in Britain, where minds were opened to new achievements in the arts and new developments in industry.

Eduardo Paolozzi was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 1993-1995. The interviewer was Frank Whitford.

Eduardo Paolozzi on post-war Britain (C466/17)

PaolozziSir Eduardo Paolozzi with his sculpture of Newton at the British Library, photographed by Chris Lee. © British Library. Image not licensed for reuse.

This clip features on the Voices of art website. Voices of art is a new British Library resource that explores the art world from behind the scenes. Extracts from oral history recordings accompany a series of essays by writers who have been immersed in the art world of the 20th and 21st centuries. To hear Paolozzi's clip in context, see Duncan Robinson's article The London art world, 1950-1965.

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

20 December 2018

A spirit of Christmas

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Father Christmas resizedImage Credit: Susie2779 on Foter.com / CC BY-NC

In 1999 a fifteen year old girl was interviewed at her home in Shrewsbury for the enormous BBC/British Library oral history project ‘The Century Speaks’. In a bedroom decorated with X-Files posters – partly reflecting her belief in government conspiracies – she spoke with considerable charm about other beliefs, including the belief in ‘a spirit of Christmas’:

"It's like a Father Christmas thing... something friendly" (C900/15116) 

An infectiously cheerful account of a world view in which forms of belief and doubt, unbelief and hope mingle. Another example, in other words, of what the Understanding Unbelief programme calls ‘hybrid configurations’ of belief and unbelief. For other configurations see a previous post, and another in the LSE’s Religion and Global Society series.

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, The British Library. More information on Millennium Memory Bank can be found in our collection guide to Major national oral history projects and surveys.

06 December 2018

The unseen work of the oral history summariser

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Oral History Curator Mary Stewart reflects on the contributions of volunteers to the oral history collections, particularly remembering the sterling work of Audrie Mundy.

Anyone who has ever made use of the oral history collections will have used the interview content summary – the sometimes rather clunky piece of prose that acts as the main search tool to navigate around the (often lengthy) recordings that we make. Who writes these summaries, you might ask? Nowadays it’s standard practice in the oral history team for the interviewer to write up the summary, to allow them to reflect on the content and questions already covered in the interview, and prepare the topic areas to cover in their next visit to the interviewee. In earlier decades this practice was not so carefully enforced, and there was often a heap of cassettes waiting to be summarised. Helping to whittle down this pile, through careful listening and summarising, were several dedicated volunteers – unseen by the eventual researcher – whose efforts are often unsung. Marking International Volunteering Day, it seems apt to highlight some of the volunteers whose efforts have helped develop the Library’s oral history collections.

In the last 18 months we have seen the deaths of two of these stalwart volunteers for the BL oral history team, following the death of fellow longstanding volunteer Brenda Corti in 2010. We still reap the benefits of Katherine Thompson’s time as a volunteer. In addition to summarising many interviews, Katherine worked as an interviewer on City Lives and The Living Memory of the Jewish Community. The recordings Katherine made with scientists Aaron Klug, Max Perutz and Joseph Rotblat laid the foundations for the project An Oral History of British Science two decades later.

Katherine Thompson 2014-07-06 12.17.50_resized

Katherine Thompson, 2014. Courtesy of Jenny Thompson.

When I joined the British Library in 2006 Katherine and Brenda had stopped volunteering, but I did have the absolute pleasure of working alongside Audrie Mundy, who volunteered until 2011, by which time she was in her early nineties.

Audrie recorded a few interviews, but her main task for over a decade was to summarise interviews from across the collections, particularly relishing working on Artists’ Lives, a project that married well with her own interests.

Audrie Mundy on writing summaries of oral history interviews

Although both Anthony Caro and Elsbeth Juda’s interviews are currently closed to public access, clips from Anthony Caro’s interview are accessible in our new Voices of art web resource. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to the long interviews with Anthony Fry, Frank Bowling, Denis Bowen and Paula Rego – then please say a quiet thank you to Audrie as without her excellent content summaries you would be unable to navigate through the mountains of audio. If you’ve sampled interviews from our Food: From Source to Salespoint collection not only did Audrie summarise several interviews, she also invented the project title.

Audrie was never anything less than kind, direct and hardworking each time she trekked into the NLS office – no mean feat by the time I met her as it was quite a lengthy journey from her home in Kew Bridge to St Pancras. Always immaculately turned out, she would quietly put on her headphones and set to work. Our lunches and coffee breaks were many times the highlight of my day. It mattered not the great age difference. Audrie was inquisitive and interested – and through these times together I was privileged to hear snippets of her extraordinary life – her early adoption of yoga in post-war London, her love of languages as she taught herself French and Portuguese, her pride in her family and thoughts on theatre, books and culture.

Audrie Mundy and her art

Audrie visit 04_resized

Audrie Mundy, 2004. Photograph: Ali Musa.

We missed Audrie greatly in recent years when her mobility meant she could no longer come into the office – though she remained the champion proof-reader of our Annual Review – and we all stayed in touch with her, marvelling at her deft and newly acquired email skills.

Audrie Mundy on the wonders of email

Although she played hard to get, in 2012, to our delight, Audrie agreed to record some of her own life story with Cathy Courtney, and we are especially pleased that this is now available online at https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Oral-historians.

Volunteer effort is still greatly valued by the oral history team and this autumn we have been delighted to welcome the first two curatorial volunteers as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Anna Savory wrote a fascinating blog on Ghosts in the Collections, and Laurie Green-Eames is hard at work, including some sleuthing for one early 1990s collection attempting to match up pseudonyms used in a book with the recordings we have in the archive. Rest assured, however, we won’t be expecting them to volunteer into their nineties!

This blog is by Mary Stewart, Oral History Curator at the British Library.

28 November 2018

Valuing religion without believing

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Although we don’t go regularly to church [...] my wife would still feel, and I think I would still have a hankering feeling, that ceremonies like marriage ought to be blessed with a sacramental service of some sort or other. [409/01]

10997835545_bb47ba3ce1_cdmitryzhkov on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

In a recent collaboration between National Life Stories at the British Library and the Understanding Unbelief programme at the University of Kent, I have been exploring three collections of oral history interviews at the British Library for moments when interviewees talk about not believing in God or gods, lack of interest in and/or engagement with religion, and existential beliefs held in the absence of religious belief: C1364 ‘An Oral History of the Water Industry’, C409 ‘NLSC: City Lives’ and C900 ‘Millennium Memory Bank’.

This may, at first glance, seem a curious, even eccentric endeavour. But unbelief itself is far from eccentric – the majority of people living in the UK say they have ‘no religion’ and all evidence suggests that most of these are also either atheist or agnostic. Furthermore, as the ‘background’ to the Understanding Unbelief programme makes clear, the work is necessary as very little is known about religious unbelief, beyond the well-known public arguments of the New Atheists and other high-profile commentators.

In this blog, which follows my previous blogs ‘English Atheist’ and ‘Religious unbelief in the life of Professor Sir Fred Holliday’, I focus on ways on which interviewees in the collections I have used value religion in spite of their own unbelief.

Being there

Certain interviewees who say that they are themselves not religious and/or do not believe in God or gods nevertheless value the presence – in social and physical space – of religion. This extract articulates this position especially clearly:

"You can see the nice side of the church" C409/134

The reference of this interviewee to ‘wonderful cathedrals’, ‘glorious buildings’ that are ‘so uplifting’ is echoed rather closely by another interviewee:

"There's no pollution in the place as such"  C900/00631

This second speaker was born in Kenya in 1945 into a practising Hindu family, had moved to the UK alone as a teenager, and was – at the time of interview in 1999 – the Chairman of the Bristol Hindu temple. Though he regarded himself as ‘not religious’ and doubtful about the value of rituals performed in the temple, he was nevertheless clear about the value of the existence of the temple and the rituals: ‘I don’t want to knock it down: I don’t say that this is all rubbish because I don’t believe in it, then nobody should do it. [...] Those rituals must take place if that’s what the community want’ [C900/00631]. We tend to forget, perhaps because we are attuned to ‘New Atheism’, that not believing in God (or gods) is not the same thing as opposing religion.

Already implied in the extracts above, the existence of religion, physically and socially, is valued especially at certain times of life, especially at the end of others’ lives. The first speaker referred to the role of the church ‘when people get born and married and die’ and later in his interview, says of funerals: ‘the Church does it better [...] it's much nicer to have a beautiful service with well-known hymns and a lovely anthem, you know [...] it doesn't do the dead person any good, but it helps the survivors to carry on’ [409/134]. Another interviewee, equally clear about his own lack of religious belief, speaks (with evident emotion I think) of missing, and not missing, Christian funeral services. As the clips begins, he is speaking of his father:

"You need that kind of closure" C1364/19

Alternative imageAdvert for the BBC's Millennium Oral History Project 'The Century Speaks'

Passing-on religion

More common than the valuing of the buildings, music or social role of religion, is a feeling that religion contains ‘values’ that are worth passing-on to the next generation. In the case of Christianity, the next two clips paint much of the picture:

"I encouraged the children always to go" C409/10

"To make absolutely sure that they got the exposure to that kind of values" C409/28

There is some evidence, in Millennium Memory Bank interviews with those with non-Christian religious backgrounds, of a somewhat similar wish to pass on religion in spite of personal unbelief. These three clips cover much of the ground. The first two speakers discuss a strong urge to pass-on to their children aspects of Judaism that they themselves have tended to live without. The third refers to the syncretic Sikh-Hindu upbringing of her children in the context of doubts about whether she can be described as ‘religious’:

"So we decided that we would like to celebrate the major festivals" C900/15067

"...and yet I want them to know those things" C900/05598

"I just practice it my own way" C900/09149

What this ‘passing-on’ might look like from the child’s point of view may be suggested – without claiming any perfect match up across very different lives and religions – in certain Millennium Memory Bank interviews with children and very young adults. In the next clip, a seventeen year old born in Bosnia, who had migrated to the UK to escape the Bosnian war, suggests that her mother was keen to pass on a Muslim inheritance or identity, without being ‘religious’ herself:

"My mum always educated me 'this is what you are'" C900/03085

In the final clip, a thirteen year old, born in Cambridge into a family that he regards as ‘normally’ non-religious, suggests that his parents have passed-on a positive regard for Christianity, along with certain ‘values’:

"I've got a rough idea, but I can't really explain it" C900/01066

Conclusion

In 1994 Grace Davie published her book Religion in Britain since 1945. It was very successful, and is especially well known for the argument that religion in Britain at the end of the twentieth century should be understood in terms of ‘believing without belonging’. Indeed, Davie’s position strongly influenced the text for the ‘Beliefs and Fears’ theme in the research guide used by BBC interviewers in the project – ‘The Century Speaks’ – that produced the Millennium Memory Bank collection. What we seem to have in the extracts in the blog are features of the partly reversed, and much less catchy, ‘valuing religion without believing’.

For more on unbelief, visit the website of the Understanding Unbelief project: https://research.kent.ac.uk/understandingunbelief/

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, The British Library. More information on Millennium Memory Bank can be found in our collection guide to Major national oral history projects and surveys.

23 November 2018

'We had to get out': 80 years since the Kindertransport

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Eighty years ago on the 2nd December 1938 nearly 200 German Jewish refugee children arrived at Harwich in Essex; they were the first arrivals of what became known as the Kindertransport (children's transport).

The Kindertransport scheme emerged in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht Pogrom of 9th November 1938 in Germany when it became apparent that Nazi antisemitism was a national and structural phenomenon and that Jewish life in the Third Reich was untenable. Led by The Central British Fund for German Jewry (now World Jewish Relief) the scheme allowed nearly 10,000 Jewish children and children of other Nazi victims into Great Britain and placed them in British foster homes.

Many countries had strict quotas and, although many Jews escaped before the start of the war, some Jews were sent back to Nazi Europe. The Kindertransport provided a means for families to save their loved ones but it involved a terrible choice: whether to send their children abroad to safety or to keep the family together. Most of the 9,354 Kindertransport children never saw their parents again.

Resized for blogA child prepares to leave as part of the Kindertransport. Credit: The Hulton Deutsch Collection

At the British Library we hold multiple Oral histories of Jewish experience and Holocaust testimonies and within this are many testimonies of the Kindertransport. Through these oral histories we can begin to understand the human impact of the scheme and how it was experienced by those children who were saved by it.

In this clip Milena Roth, interviewed for the Living Memory of the Jewish Community project, describes how at the age of seven her mother made the decision to send her on a Kindertransport train but had to keep it a secret from her grandmother:

"I just understood we had to get out" (C410/007)

In the above clip Milena speaks of how she didn’t fully understand why she had to leave, but just knew she did. The magnitude of this comes into play when Milena looks back at a photograph from the Sunday before she left and describes the fate of her family who had to stay:

"I was about to get on a train" (C410/007)

Testimonies of the Kindertransport are not just found in oral history collections that look specifically at Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors. Dame Stephanie Shirley completed a life story interview for An Oral History of British Science about her work in computer science and philanthropy, but also discussed her early life and her escape from Germany. This clip is especially powerful in conveying Stephanie’s immediate experience of the Kindertransport train , as well the impact it had upon her later life:

"Its effects are as important to me today as they were seventy years ago" (C1379/28)

These clips are just a small selection of the oral histories we hold related to the Kindertransport. Of specific note are the Central British Fund Kindertransport Interviews, a project run by World Jewish Relief and recently digitised as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. Extracts from the interview in this collection with Frank Henley will be part of the A Thousand Kisses exhibition at Harwich International Terminal.

Martin Winstone from the Holocaust Educational Trust described the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht as “probably the last landmark anniversary where there are still living witnesses to what happened” and the same might be said of the Kindertransport. Yet when there are no longer any living survivors to the events themselves, we hope that through oral histories their recorded voices with stand as testimony to a moment in history when Britain warmly welcomed child refugees.

Blog by Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archivist. The clips with Milena Roth can be heard on the web resource Voices of the Holocaust, the clip with Stephanie Shirley can be heard on the web resource Voices of Science. For more information consult the collection guide Oral histories of Jewish experience and Holocaust testimonies.