THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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226 posts categorized "Oral history"

07 July 2020

Linton Kwesi Johnson awarded PEN Pinter Prize 2020

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Linton Kwesi Johnson has been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2020. He will receive the award in a digital ceremony co-hosted by the British Library on 12 October, where he will deliver an address. To coincide with the award Sarah O’Reilly looks back at Johnson’s career through his life story interview for the National Life Stories oral history project ‘Authors’ Lives’.

Headshot photograph of Linton Kwesi Johnson

Image credit: Maria Nunes Photography

For Linton Kwesi Johnson, the recipient of the 2020 PEN Pinter Prize, writing has always gone hand in hand with political activism. Widely regarded as the first artist to give a voice to second generation black Britons – the children of the West Indian migrants who travelled to England in the postwar period – his poetry articulates the struggle against racial and social injustice that has energised him for fifty years:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on poetry as the cultural side of politics (C1276/60)

Poetry has always been a way of articulating anger, and ideas about injustice and the struggle against it. It was always the cultural dimension of what I was doing on the streets, the demonstration, the picket line. It was always the cultural side of politics.

Whether protesting police brutality in poems such as ‘Sonny’s Lettah’, reacting to the National Front in ‘Fite Dem Back’ or celebrating the 1981 uprisings in Brixton, Liverpool and Bristol in ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’, Johnson’s work stands as an evolving account of race relations in the UK over the past half century. His subjects have included Blair Peach (a teacher killed by police at an anti-racism rally in 1979), George Lindo (framed for robbery in Bradford), and the New Cross Fire of 1981 in which 13 young party-goers lost their lives. For many, Johnson has been an alternative poet laureate, using his experiences to give voice to the pressures and alienation felt by a generation of young black Britons, expressed in a new form, ‘reggae poetry’.

Johnson was born in Chapeltown, Jamaica, in 1952 to Sylvena, a domestic worker, and Eric, a baker and sometime sugar estate worker. At the age of seven, after his parents’ separation, he moved to live with his grandmother, a subsistence farmer in Sandy River. He described the years spent with her as ‘the happiest time of my life’, recalling days spent tending his grandmother’s crops and nights outside in the yard under a full moon listening to her stories and folktales.

In 1961 Sylvena moved to England and two years later Johnson followed in her footsteps. Arriving in the country on a grey November day in 1963, the ugliness of the buildings and the cold were a shock:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on arriving in England (C1276/60)

From the books that you saw at school, you really didn’t know what England was like, but I’d have read the story of Dick Whittington, and you’d see pictures of horse drawn carriages and all that, and you’d imagine that England was something like that. Great big mansions and literally the streets of London paved with gold. It was a bit of a rude awakening when I arrived and saw these grey ugly looking buildings on the drive from the airport to Victoria station where my mother met me. And it was a grey November day. I came here the 8th November 1963 and it was one of those overcast, cold days. I thought to myself my God, is this England? My mother was there to meet me and when I saw her at first I didn’t recognise her. How long had it been since you’d last seen her? It seemed like a long time, but I don’t think it was more than two years. But it seemed like a very long time. And she looked as if she’d changed a lot over that time. But it was my mother. First thing she did was take me to Littlewoods and bought me a duffle coat. Because of the cold? Yeah.

In England, Johnson attended Tulse Hill Comprehensive where he was relegated to the bottom stream in spite of his academic achievements in Jamaica. He had ambitions to become an accountant, though in a sign of the school’s low aspirations for boys from the Caribbean, the idea was greeted with incredulity by his careers adviser. Johnson would later compare the elation of finishing a poem with the pleasure of balancing the books:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on "aspirations above my station" (C1276/60)

We all wanted to make something of our lives, cos we didn’t come to this country to... in Jamaica we say Me no come here for cow, me for come here to drink milk. So we didn’t come here to loaf, we all wanted to make something of our lives and try and get a good education, and me, well I always loved learning, you know, I had a very inquisitive mind, I wanted to know, I had this thirst for knowledge. So I can’t speak for anybody else, but for myself I wanted to become an accountant because I loved the figures. I was good at it, at school, and I was good at economics and commerce. I liked the feeling that you got when your books balanced. And later on, when I started to write verse, I realised that once you struggle with a poem and then the poem is finished it’s the same kind of feeling of elation, the same feeling that you get when you’re doing your accounts and your books balance [laughs]. Strange comparison but there you go. Anyway, within the schooling system, with maybe one or two exceptions, it was understood, it was the general understanding, I think, that boys from the Caribbean, from working class backgrounds, would do a similar job to their parents. Work in the factories, on the buses, in the hospitals and so on. So me wanting to become an accountant, I was having aspirations above my station, or at least that’s the impression I got from the careers teacher. I guess I am a second generation immigrant child, what am I talking about, accountant? The idea must have sounded absurd to him.

It was whilst he was a pupil at Tulse Hill that Johnson first encountered Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the Trinidadian research scientist who played a leading role in the British Black Panther Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Panthers championed racial equality in housing, the justice system, immigrant rights and employment practices, and focused on educating their members in Saturday schools. It was here, in the movement’s Youth League, that Johnson discovered the work of Eric Williams, CLR James and Franz Fanon - ‘an astonishing discovery for me because I didn’t realise that black people even wrote books’. It was in the Panthers’ library that he found ‘the beautiful poetic prose’ of WEB du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. It ‘stirred something within me, and made me want to use language myself’.

If Black Panthers gifted Johnson an intellectual and political education, it was his experiences on the streets of Brixton that gave him something to write about. He recalled a ‘war against the Black youth’ up in the 60s and 70s, facilitated by legislation such as the ‘sus’ laws, which allowed for the arrest and punishment of anyone on the streets suspected of criminal intent. In 1972, he was wrongfully arrested himself, ‘thrown in the Black Maria, kicked all over’ by three police officers and taken to Brixton police station where he was charged with assaulting a police officer and Actual Bodily Harm. His crime had been to note down the details of two officers who were harassing acquaintances from his local club in Brixton Market. The experience ‘certainly didn’t endear the police to me.’ Though the charges against him were later dropped, the experience has a long-lasting impact: ‘Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent a substantial part of my life campaigning against injustice.’ He would later become involved in organising watershed events such as The Black People’s Day of Action in 1981, and working as a campaigning journalist with The Race Today Collective and Channel 4’s Bandung File. Alongside this activism, poetry became his ‘cultural weapon’.

Inspired by the Caribbean poets he discovered in the magazine Savacou 3/4, whose writing was powered by the use of non-standardised English, as well as the music of The Last Poets, Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari and the reggae DJs in Jamaica who declaimed their spontaneously improvised lyrics over dub music mixed down with sound effects, Johnson began writing ‘Jamaican English’ verse. Replacing iambic pentameter with the beat and bassline of reggae music, he created a new poetic form in which to describe the Black experience as he perceived it: ‘I’m writing about the Caribbean experience in Britain, black people’s experience in Britain. Why should I try and do so in the rarified language of English poetry?’:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on finding a language for poetry (C1276/60)

What I took from music was beat and rhythm, I guess the closest thing one gets to beat and metre. And by the time I began to write Jamaican verse, it was the bassline in the reggae that did it for me. I tried to write words that worked against the bassline or words that sounded like a bassline in reggae music, you know? I mean there was this whole idea of ‘blues poetry’ and ‘jazz poetry’, I wanted to write ‘reggae poetry’, so the one drop beat of reggae came into my verse and the bassline, how the bass sounded. And I guess those things, those two things, beat, bassline, determined the structure of the verse I wrote, and that came out of the language itself. I guess what I was trying to do is find the reggae in the Jamaican speech when I was writing the verse.

To critics who accused him of inciting violence in the streets, Johnson’s response was that he was ‘describing reality as I see it’: ‘I was an activist, I saw myself as being part of a radical and revolutionary struggle of resistance. It was part and parcel of that.’ In the words of Fred D’Aguiar, his poems were ‘a call for fair play on the political level with an accurate rendition of the mood among young people on the psychological level’.

The front cover of the book Dread Beat and Blood

Dread, Beat and Blood, published by Bogle L’Ouverture

Johnson’s first collection of poems, Voices of the Living and the Dead, came out in 1974 and was followed a year later by Dread, Beat and Blood. The latter became a bestseller for its publishers, the radical publishing house Bogle L’Ouverture, and was assisted by Johnson’s growing fame as a recording artist and performer. In 1977 he released The Poet and the Roots through Virgin Records, followed by Dread, Beat an’ Blood, Forces of Victory, Bass Culture, LKJ in Dub and Mekkin Histri with Island Records, before establishing his own record label in 1981. The performance of the work in front of an audience – delivered in a gravelly voice, almost monotone – became an important part of the creative act:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on the importance of reciting poems aloud (C1276/60)

When you write a new poem, you know, it’s the saying of it. Although it’s a finished poem it’s not really finished until you hear it properly. When you can hear it properly, all the nuances of inflection, of breathing, of pauses - cos that’s all a part of it you know, it’s not just simple words strung together - it’s the saying of the poem. And for me, poetry doesn’t come alive anyway unless it’s read aloud. It’s just dead words on the page... the hearing of the poem is important.

In subsequent years, Johnson would address increasingly personal subjects in his poetry, from the end of a relationship in ‘Hurricane Blues’ to elegies for his nephew and father, and friends May Ayim and Bernie Grant, a change in direction that reflected both an evolution in race relations in the UK, and his own shifting relationship with his writing:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on moving to the centre ground of poetry (C1276/60)

It’s just what comes along with getting old, it’s the age thing.... I mean in the political poems you want to convey anger, you want to capture the vibes, the mood, the sense of the period and the rage people feel. With the later poems now it’s about remembering, it’s about reverence, it’s about love. Perhaps it’s a way of dealing with your own sadness, a way of coping with one’s own sense of loss and feelings of sadness, or even guilt. It’s a long time now since I’ve understood that that’s the centre ground of poetry, really – it’s the personal.

In 2002 Johnson became only the second living poet to have work published in the Penguin Modern Classics series. With his unique form of language and body of work he has provided a commentary covering over three decades of contemporary history, and used, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech, his ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world to ‘define the real truth of our lives and our societies’ - a force to be reckoned with.

Sarah O’Reilly interviewed Linton Kwesi Johnson in 2014-15 for National Life Stories’ ‘Authors’ Lives’ oral history project at the British Library. The interview can be found by searching the catalogue reference number C1276/60 at sami.bl.uk 

24 June 2020

Working from home

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For those of us who usually travel to work every day, working from home takes some getting used to. Fortunately we’ve been able to consult our collections for some advice. The British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue lists 56 oral history recordings, across 19 different collections, that mention ‘working from home’. In interviews recorded for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science, three interviewees describe their approach to being productive, creative, and professional in a domestic environment.

Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley

Portrait of Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley
Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley as the first ever national Ambassador for Philanthropy, 2009. Photo credit: Unlimited Photography

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley set up a tech company in the 1960s to enable women with children to work as programmers from home. She had a novel approach to creating a professional atmosphere, which included playing pre-recorded office sounds while making phone calls. In her recording she describes how she got her business off the ground at a time when women with families were expected to forego their careers.

'…I recorded sort of, office type noises… so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going…' (C1379/28)

Audio clip: Stephanie Shirley on programming from home (C1379/28)

At the end of January in ’64, or something like that, we had a tiny mention in the Guardian newspaper, Manchester Guardian it probably still was then, that mentioned this extraordinary woman, Steve Shirley, writing computer programs in Chesham in between feeding her baby and washing the nappies. And that was really the sort of phraseology that was used. And that brought in a flood of women who liked the idea of working from home, and had computer skills, and had, as I always projected I suppose, the need or the – or might be financial need of course, to go on working without being a conventional employee. I had a secretary who came in one afternoon a week and, erm, engaged her through an agency that specialised in part-time work which largely meant women. And, so I got hold of this secretary, who’s still a friend today, called Barbara Edwards, and she arrived, was at home, in my home. She brought her own little portable typewriter. Later on she brought her own baby in a carrycot. And she was instructed really to make sure that I looked – that the correspondence and stuff went out looking as if it came out of a chairman’s office. And I know if I had difficult phone calls to make, or senior phone calls to make, I would wait until Barbara was in, so that she could connect me and give the impression of some sort of infrastructure behind me. The phone was pretty well how business was done, and sometimes of course there would be very domestic noises going on in the background. And so I took a tape recording, which we had a large tape recording then, tape recorder then, which I was using for dictation and other things like that. But I recorded sort of, office type noises, I recorded Barbara at her typewriter, so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going, because although there was a market there, although I did have skills, it wasn’t developed, and I did not have the commercial skills, but I sort of had some marketing skills. I changed my name from Stephanie to Steve, because I felt that I wasn’t really getting any responses from the letters that I was sending out to people offering services. My husband actually suggested that perhaps it was the good old-fashioned sexism, they saw a letter from Stephanie Shirley and it just went in the bin. So I started writing as Steve Shirley. And it seemed to me that I was getting some better response, well I was getting some responses and the work did start slowly to flow in as distinct from just all those private introductions.

Stephanie Shirley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Richard West

Richard West, Quaternary botanist and geologist, continued his research into environmental change after his retirement by working from home. No longer able to access university equipment, and steering clear of distractions on the internet ('I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought'), he continued his work using ‘kitchen science’:

'…if you’re in post you’re – so much of your university time is taken up with committee work, going to meetings, teaching, trying to get money for research, but I can do all the things I need to do with the aid of a low power microscope and these measuring cylinders, sorting out sediment.' (C1379/34)

We moved into this house in 1958. And this part of the building was derelict. Erm, where I am sitting now were two loose boxes, and where you are now is the tack room and it was full of horse medicines and all that sort of thing. And a next door neighbour used to keep a pony in one of the loose boxes at that time. And – but in 1965 we decided to make it into living space. So this room came into operation in about 1967 I think and I used it for my writing and reprint collection and so on and books. There’s not much apparatus here. This microscope is the kind of cheapest version of a low power microscope you can get and I’ve only had it since I started working in Beachamwell. I’ve got several old microscopes going back to the 1930s which used to be used, but they’re all packed away. Those are in boxes in the room somewhere. This is the only one I use. I used to spend a lot of time looking at pollen grains underneath a high power binocular microscope but I haven’t done that for twenty years or so. The drawing board I got very early on in the early 1960s, ‘cause I was engaged in drawing a lot of drawing of sections at that time, and so that’s lasted me very well. I don’t think there’s anything else here, except this computer and so on on. I used to be on the internet and on email but I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought, so I’m not on the internet now, which annoys everybody ‘cause they have to write to me or ring me up. But at least I’m not constantly being bothered by things. I can also go across the road to the public library where I can use a computer and Google and so on as much as I want to. Apart from that, I don’t think [laughs] I don’t think there’s any apparatus here at all. It’s all books and reprints.

Richard West was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Paul Merchant. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Sir John Charnley

Photograph of John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel
John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel, 2012. Photo credit: Matt Casswell, British Library

Sir John Charnley, aeronautical engineer, would continue working at home in the evening, after dinner, and after a full day in the office. 'If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it.' In the clip below Charnley describes waiting until he was at home, late at night, to do his most creative thinking as a senior scientific civil servant:

John Charnley on problem solving at home (C1379/30)

I wasn’t of the mind that said that you didn’t take your work home with you, that you left it all behind in the office. If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it. When I was in London, I’d catch a train home about half past six, I’d be home half past seven till eight, we’d have supper, which would've been beautiful, prepared, beautiful, drink. And if there was a problem going, there was something on my mind, Mary would go to bed and she’d leave me with a cup of coffee and I would work on. I can easily, and it isn’t a problem, to work in the night. I don’t like working first thing in the morning. There are those people who are that way inclined, but I’m a late night person - in my youth, I don’t know if I can do it now. But then I’d certainly work until one, two – and the fact that I’d been at meetings with, and particularly when I was in London, and meetings of all sorts, technical, financial, with the Treasury, you name it, lots – with the Services, I had the feeling I didn’t have time to think of where I was going, and I would do that at home. So as far as I was concerned, when I was in the office I was at the beck and call of other people, but when I wanted to be creative myself, in satisfying myself I was on the right path and I was going in the right direction, in whatever element of my job, that sort of thinking I did at home, late at night or early morning if you wish. So a) my job came home with me, I could stay late in the office if that made sense, but I’d certainly bring it home with me and work on it at home. And I had a very long suffering and forbearing wife. Bless her. Yep, oh yeah, sure, sure, sure, did a lot at home.

John Charnley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley, Richard West, and Sir John Charnley all feature on the British Library website Voices of Science.

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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27 April 2020

Recording of the week: Women in the wine trade

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

At the start of her career Helen Thomson (b. 1933) received some sound advice from a fellow ‘woman in the wine trade’. The wine world was dominated by men, and Thomson could name only two women among her peers: Pat Green, Director and co-founder of French Wine Farmers, and Mrs Roberts, widow of a Director of Williams, Standring.

In this clip Thomson describes her lasting impression of Mrs Roberts ‘…my impression, she was nearly six feet tall, but perhaps I exaggerate…’ and the guidance she passed on. Mrs Roberts plainly instructed Thomson on the hypocrisy of men in wine. How they would come to the tasting room in suits smelling like cigarettes and dry-cleaning fluid, and then complain that a woman’s face powder and perfume were interfering with the tasting. Mrs Roberts’s solution was a compromise of sorts. She would order custom-made, fragrance free powder at Selfridges – with green undertones to counteract flushed cheeks – to wear in the tasting room. This would stop the men from complaining. She wouldn’t, however, give up her Chanel No. 5.

Wine corks
Wine corks, clubvino / CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Advice for women entering the wine trade C1088/25

When I started I think there were really two other women who were around in the wine trade. Now I wouldn’t really quite have counted myself in their league, because I was the shorthand typist/secretary, but there was a woman called Pat Green who worked for a firm called French Wine Farmers. She’d been a British- a BEA air hostess and used to sometimes fly to Bordeaux and got to know people there and then helped set up French Wine Farmers in London. And there was a woman called Mrs Roberts who was the widow of a director of a distinguished old firm – old and old-fashioned – wine firm called Williams, Standring, who were in Duke Street, Grosvenor Square. She was a great example, I met her through Tommy Layton at tastings that we had at Williams, Standring. And the second or third time I met her she was, my impression, she was nearly six feet tall, but perhaps I exaggerate. She always dressed in red, she had wonderful white hair and always wore bright red lipstick, and she was quite roundish in shape. She did in fact look like a pillar box. And she took me on one side after we’d met two or three times and she said, ‘My dear, I hear that you have serious intentions of going into, of actually remaining in the wine trade’. And I said, ‘Yes, Mrs Roberts, I do hope to’. And she said, ‘Well, let me give you a few pieces of advice. Now, you know how awful the men are, they’re always complaining that when we come into a tasting room we bring in perfume and scent and face powder and that sort of thing. Completely ignoring the fact that of course they have only just stubbed out their cigarettes or knocked out their pipes only a moment earlier and indeed they’ve probably shoved their pipes into the pockets of their jackets, jackets of suits which have been ill-cleaned by the dry-cleaners, smell of dry-cleaning fluid. You can smell their boot polish, you can smell their brilliantine. And they complain about us. Still, we have to play along with it, so you’d better get perfume-free face powder. So go to Selfridges, to the Charles of the Ritz counter and ask them to make up some face powder for you, put a lot of green in it so that you don’t, when you’ve been drinking you don’t flush rather pink. If you have green in your face powder it calms it down and people don’t notice it. And make sure that they make it perfume-free, say that Mrs Roberts sent you. And then the men won’t be able to complain about you at all. Of course, I always wear Chanel No. 5, but the men know this and they aim orf.’

Helen Thomson was recorded by National Life Stories for An Oral History of the Wine Society in 2004. The interviewer was Mark Bilbe. For more information about this recording search the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue for the collection reference: C1088/25.

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

 

13 April 2020

Recording of the week: Frank Bowling on learning to draw

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

Darwin_Building-Royal_College_of_Art-2013
Darwin Building, Royal College of Art in the City of Westminster, London, U.K. Chmee2 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Frank Bowling won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where he enrolled to study painting in 1959. In this extract from his oral history recording for Artists’ Lives, Bowling vividly recalls learning to draw in the crowded life room among his peers David Hockney, Allen Jones and R. B. Kitaj. He describes his intense focus and control, and how it felt to make progress.

Frank Bowling: On learning to draw (C466/127)

To learn more about Frank Bowling’s career see Elena Crippa’s article on Voices of art, published to coincide with Bowling’s retrospective at Tate Britain in 2019.

Frank Bowling was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2001-2016. The interviewers were Mel Gooding and Cathy Courtney. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Listen to the full interview on BL Sounds.

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

30 March 2020

Recording of the week: Dusting books

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

Three men dusting books
Three men dusting books, one bent over © New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library

John Milne, born in 1929 in Aberdeen, worked for Bisset’s Bookshop in the 1950s. In his life story recording he reflected on changing approaches to bookselling and book handling. He talks about the importance of looking inside the books on the shelves, and argues that bookselling has now become about retail rather than about expertise. ‘Books are now sold like bars of soap, and that’s not my phrase, it came out years and years ago in one of the marketing ploys.’ In the following audio extract he takes us through his method of dusting the books in order to get to know the stock.

John Milne recalls the value of dusting books

People don’t handle books in the same way they used to. In the old days you would dust the books, and that’s the best way to get to know your stock. The discipline of dusting, every morning you would start on the shelf where you had stopped the day before, and you would pick up a book and you would have your duster or your brush, and you look at the title of the book and you look at the author and you look the publisher, and if you are standing still you would open it and read, a couple of pages, and to try to get some hold of the book and say, right, that’s it, back on the shelf. And work your way along the shelf, and you would maybe do two sections that morning. And after a week somebody comes in and says, a book, you say, ‘Oh I saw that yesterday,’ and you can stretch out your hand and have that book. It’s not done nowadays. There isn’t the discipline of learning about the inside of books. Maybe I’m denigrating present book staff but I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s the depth of knowledge that was there in the great old bookshops like Thin’s, Wallace, and still is, I don’t want to denigrate anybody, but Thin’s is a great bookshop, full of people who were wrapped up in books and did nothing else but books. Blackwell’s was the same, Heffers was the same, any of the big important shops of the Thirties are more or less still there.

John Milne was recorded by National Life Stories for Book Trade Lives in 1999. The interviewer was Sue Bradley. For more information about this recording see the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

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

18 February 2020

National Life Stories Goodison Fellowship 2020-2021: Suzanne Joinson

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"Cycling every day, about three and a half miles along the front to Grand Parade where the art school was, and I used to, if I was late, I used to hitch on to the back of a lorry, sounds terribly dangerous … I used to somehow hang on to the back and get right along the front in about five minutes."

-- Juliet Pannett on attending art school in Brighton in 1928

It is possible to tell so much from a voice: the tone, accent and emphasis. The artist Juliet Pannett’s recording from 1991 is both nostalgic and immediate. The tonal quality of her speech evokes another era, and her laughter is full of life. As we listen to her recalling details – like hitching on lorries along Brighton seafront – we connect to her memory and see her classroom or art studio vividly in our mind for an instant. Listening in is a privilege; it’s like being trusted with a secret or engaging in a magical form of time-travel.

Juliet Pannett on attending art school in Brighton in 1928 (C466/09)

As the National Life Stories Goodison Fellow 2020-21, I will explore the audio archives of three creative women connected to Sussex: Juliet Pannett, archived under Artists’ Lives and Ann Sutton and Barbara Mullins from Crafts Lives. Not household names by any means, but they all achieved significant professional success and I believe that in quiet, unsung ways, they have each left an impressive, potentially subversive artistic legacy that resonates today.

Photograph of Graffham, West SussexGraffham, West Sussex. Copyright David Spicer, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

On the surface, weaver Barbara Mullins lived a quiet life in the village of Graffham, West Sussex. With Gwen Mullins, her mother, she offered spinning, weaving, pottery and classes in dyeing using Sussex plants. In her interview she discusses their trip to Santa Fe, running out of money, and returning home to deliver workshops. Their cottage industry developed into the Gwen Mullins Trust, offering an apprentice scheme and financial support for craft makers. This paved the way for a government-funded body, the Crafts Council, which eventually replaced the Trust.

Listening, a number of strands become clear: the importance of international travel to Barbara and Gwen to these women who lived a seemingly very ‘English’ and provincial life; the collaborative, creative and possibly co-dependent relationship between mother and daughter; the endless navigation between creativity and money that necessarily exists in an artist’s life; and the importance of legacy.

Because the National Life Stories oral history methodology covers a life-span where possible, the interviews provide a birds’ eye view of how the local and domestic situation of a subject’s existence is intrinsically connected with the professional ‘output’ of their life. This, I believe, is pertinent to appreciating female artists, especially those living and working outside of metropolitan areas.

I will explore the archives to look at big questions: How does their work relate to geographical locations? What is the overlap between place, art, money, family, reputation and legacy? How did domestic and family situations contribute to their professional work? How does their self-narrative reflect their position within a cultural map of the south of England? And beyond, how are they now situated within national and global contexts?

Internationally acclaimed artist Ann Sutton talks with wry matter-of-factness about the reality of forging a career in the sixties. We follow her training, teaching jobs and commissions. It is moving to listen to her talk about the choices she made around birth control, opting not to have children and how her marriage intersected with her vocation. In this clip she talks about the potter Bernard Leach and her desire to challenge the status quo he represented:

Ann Sutton on Bernard Leach and breaking with tradition (C960/22)

From her studio in Arundel she conducted an impressive career and ran the Ann Sutton Foundation. Through this she supported talented graduates and pioneered a way of helping young artists transition to the commercial world. This approach that would later be taken up by art colleges directly.

My aim with this Fellowship is to delve deep into the National Life Stories archive to celebrate the unique contributions of these impressive artists. I want to map how their individual stories and works link to a bigger cultural picture and I hope to showcase how the National Life Stories project is a tremendously impressive, unique resource.

At some point in their oral history interviews all three women say ‘It’s been a good life’ or ‘It was a marvellous life’. I want to honour those marvellous lives, their work ethic and professionalism, and use my time as a Fellow to share with a wider audience the continuing creative and artistic legacies of Juliet Pannett, Barbara Mullins and Ann Sutton.

Suzanne Joinson is an award-winning writer and academic. Her novels A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar and The Photographer's Wife are published internationally by Bloomsbury. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Chichester and writes regularly for a range of publications including the New York Times, Guardian and others. She has a strong interest in oral history and the stories found in landscapes and places.

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.