THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

03 December 2018

Recording of the week: Island Grief after Hurricane Ivan

This week's selection comes from Dr Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings and Digital Performance.

British-Caribbean poet, artist and theatre maker Malika Booker reads ‘Island Grief after Hurricane Ivan’ from her 2013 collection Pepper Seed.

Recorded at the British Library in May 2013 for the Between Two Worlds: Poetry and Translation project funded by the Arts Council.

Ivan_576 pixelsPhoto credit: SanFranAnnie on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Malika Booker reads 'Island Grief after Hurricane Ivan' (C1340/92)

On 31 August 2004, a large tropical wave crossed the west coast of Africa. By 5 September - about 1150 miles east of the southern Windward Islands - it had turned into a hurricane with winds of 160 mph, reaching category 5 strength up to three times, the strongest category of the Saffir-Simpson Scale.

Hurricane Ivan mercilessly wrecked parts of Grenada, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba and Mexico, before reaching the Gulf Shores of Alabama and from there continuing its uncontrollable path through multiple locations in the USA.

It took an estimated total of 123 lives between 2 and 24 September 2004.

Atlantic Ocean storms and hurricanes name lists were first created in 1953 by the US National Hurricane Center, with only female names used until 1979. Prior to 1953 hurricanes in the USA were identified by their latitude-longitude, and in the Caribbean Islands after the saint of the day in which the hurricane occurred (according to the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar).

The use of names was favoured for communication purposes. There are currently six lists of 21 names each in use. An international committee of the World Meteorological Organization is in charge of updating, maintaining, rotating and recycling the lists every six years. Any name listed can be retired, to never be used again upon request, out of respect for the people who have suffered fatalities and losses. This is what happened with Ivan after 2004, Katrina and Rita in 2005 and several other names since.

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

28 November 2018

Valuing religion without believing

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.

26 November 2018

Recording of the week: Dungeons and Dragons' curious renaissance

This week's selection comes from Jowan Collier, Preservation Assistant.

I have a confession. Every week or so, a few friends and I gather in a small living room to play Dungeons and Dragons. Or as the Dungeon Master’s mother puts it, “to roll dice and pretend”. My character’s name is Gurth Mandrake. He is an elf. Which makes Dungeons and Dragons seem like the kind of pastime practiced only by the dorkiest of dorks, alongside trainspotting or Mathletics. Except, after years in the excruciatingly uncool doldrums, D&D seems to be making a comeback.

Dungeon pic

More and more young (and youngish) people are similarly bandying together across the country, inventing characters and being led on giant quests by a storyteller, or Dungeon Master. Programmes like Stranger Things and Harmonquest have only inspired more and more groups to spring up. You may know someone who, despite their perfectly normal outward appearance, moonlights as a roguish orc every once in a while.

Sure, it’s still fairly nerdy. There are dice with more than six sides and character sheets so initially bewildering, some players tap out within the first few sessions. But for those who stick with it, rolling dice and pretending may just be the finest storytelling vehicle there is.

The following is our theme tune, a track that starts every one our D&D sessions composed by Tom Bennett. More can be found at Dungeons and Drag Queens part 1 (DD00014165).

Harmony Theme (Revised)


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

23 November 2018

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

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.

21 November 2018

Choosing to stand: what makes women run for Parliament?

On 21 November 1918, women gained the right to stand as parliamentary candidates with the passage of the one-page Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, 1918.

Blog image 1Credit: Parliamentary Archives

In the hundred years since the Act was passed, 491 women have been elected as MPs; that figure is only just higher than the 441 male MPs in the current Parliament alone. Understanding those numbers is not just about analysing how the electorate behaves at the ballot box or studying the preferences of party selection committees. It involves an appreciation of what comes before all that, an individual’s decision to step forward as a candidate.

A recent survey in the UK [‘An Analysis of Political Ambition in Britain’, Allen and Cutts 2018] showed that only 10% of the population have ever considered running for political office or think they would run for office in the future. Within that 10%, there is a clear gender gap in political ambition, with British men more than twice as likely as British women to consider putting themselves forward as a candidate.

Women who were MPs during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and interviewed for the History of Parliament Oral History Project (C1503), speak about the thought processes and critical influences that drove or inhibited their political aspirations. Their stories demonstrate that the concept of ‘political ambition’ usually develops out of factors such as family upbringing, level of education, occupational background, age, minority status and recruitment by their peers.

Growing up in a politically active family is a consistent predictor of political ambition, and many of these interviewees had relatives in the House of Commons, but this sometimes added to the challenge of entering national politics.

Hilary Armstrong 1Hilary Armstrong, credit: The British Library

Hilary Armstrong (North West Durham, 1987-2010) felt her biggest hurdle to becoming an MP was demonstrating she had independent views to her father, Ernest Armstrong, who she succeeded in the seat, while Emma Nicholson (Torridge and West Devon, 1987-97) decided to bide her time until her father Sir Godfrey Nicholson retired from political life.

Hilary Armstrong 1Emma Nicholson, credit: The British Library

“Well my father was still in Parliament and there was nothing I could do … because the whole task was to support my father’s work first and foremost. I waited until my father left completely before thinking well, maybe I can now have a go.”
[Interview with Emma Nicholson, C1503/62 Track 1, 0:51:50 - 0:52:24]

As a child Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme, 1986-2001) was teased because her father, Ness Edwards, was the local MP, making her very wary of becoming one herself.

Interview with Llinn Golding, C1503/60 Track 1, 0:17:00 - 0:17:32

Only a few of those interviewed for the collection spoke about wanting to become an MP from an early age. Marion Roe (Broxbourne, 1983-2005) started thinking about it when her family commitments began to ease off.

Interview with Marion Roe, C1503/71 Track 1, 0:04:36 – 0:05:45

For the majority of these women however, the idea of running for Parliament was planted by someone else, and the current campaign for a 50:50 Parliament recognises the impact that being asked can have on a woman’s political aspirations, as illustrated by Alice Mahon.

“I got persuaded really by trade unions, I was on the trades council and … I went to the regional Labour party in 1980 and I just got bombarded with people saying you’ve got to stand. Tony Benn was there … he said the same. Barbara Castle came up to Halifax …. she came straight out with it, she said ‘Well they’re talking about somebody for the seat, I hope you’re going to put in for it?’”
[Interview with Alice Mahon, (Halifax, 1987-2005). C1503/30 Track 1, 0:17:18 - 0:18:15]

Ann TaylorAnn Taylor, credit: The British Library

Other women such as Ann Taylor (Bolton West 1974-1983, Dewsbury 1987-2005) and Helen Jackson (Sheffield Hillsborough, 1992-2005) realised they could do as good a job as any other candidate, becoming more confident in their own capabilities.

Interview with Ann Taylor, C1503/81 Track 1, 0:46:11 – 0:46:53

Interview with Helen Jackson, C1503/124 Track 1, 1:15:46 -1:16:33

Rosie BarnesRosie Barnes, credit: The British Library

Then there is the chance opportunity when a by-election comes along, from Nancy Astor winning the Plymouth Sutton by-election in 1919 to Rosie Barnes’ success in Greenwich in 1987 (Greenwich, 1987-92).

“And then of course events being as they are, they don’t always follow the pre-conceived plan so there was the by-election and I won and Jo wasn’t even two. It was a bit of a shock to the system actually ...because I had never thought of being an MP, I’d never been a councillor, I hadn’t had any ambitions to be an MP, I was just supporting the Social Democratic Party by standing. But of course when the election came I thought to myself I’ve got to behave like a winner because unless you behave like a winner you couldn’t possibly win.”
[Interview with Rosie Barnes, C1503/132 Track 1, 0:47:14 - 0:47:54]

As Barnes’s story confirms, what we call political ambition is often the product of chance, and for many of these interviewees, their journeys to Westminster started with a simple question: ‘Have you thought about standing?’

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. All the interviews featured are from The History of Parliament Oral History Project and can be listened to online at Bl Sounds.

20 November 2018

In the depths of a wasp nest

Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds writes:

The Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) gets a pretty bad rap. We’re all in love with bees but, when it comes to wasps, we’re not so enamoured. To be fair, they don’t help themselves. They fall into your pint, pester you at picnics and seem to sting you just for the hell of it. Despite these little niggles, wasps do play an essential role in the smooth running of our ecosystems.

As predators they help control pests which would otherwise wreak havoc in our crop fields and gardens. Their quest for nectar makes them valuable pollinators too; as they move from flower to flower, they transfer life-giving grains of pollen that become stuck to their hairy bodies.

Martin Cooper_1200px-Common_Wasp_(Vespula_(Paravespula)_vulgaris)_(8655493612)

Their social lives are just as interesting. Every spring the queen emerges from hibernation and goes in search of a suitable site for the colony’s new nest. Once selected, she begins to lay the foundations of the nest, using chewed wood fibres to create a core into which she will eventually lay her eggs. Upon hatching, the newly-developed adults take over the building of the nest, leaving the queen to oversee the colony and produce more eggs.

The following recording takes you into the very heart of a working wasp nest. The constant buzz and crackle of activity is accompanied by a repetitive fluttering of wings as workers busy themselves with fanning the nest's precious eggs. This fanning action helps circulate the air inside the nest, providing a fresh and cool environment for the colony to thrive in.

Wasp nest activity recorded in Dorset, England on 1 Aug 2000 by Kyle Turner

Though it seems unlikely that wasps will ever hold the same place in our hearts as bees do, there can be no doubt that these little insects are a fascinating and essential part of the natural world. So the next time a wasp takes a keen interest in your beer or slice of sponge, try not to judge it too harshly.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news. This recording is being preserved as part of the Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

UOSH_Footer with HLF logo

19 November 2018

Recording of the week: Sheila Girling describes fellow painter, Helen Frankenthaler

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

To celebrate the launch of Voices of art we're listening to artist Sheila Girling's (1924-2015) description of fellow painter, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). 

Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract expressionist artist. Girling gives a detailed illustration of Frankenthaler's gestural and 'spontaneous' painting style. She mentions that Frankenthaler was one of 'Clem's' protegées. This was Clement Greenberg, the influential and at times contentious American art critic.

Sheila Girling was a painter and collagist known for her large abstract paintings and her sensitive use of colour. Born in Birmingham, she lived in Vermont for a short time with her family while her husband, the sculptor Anthony Caro, taught at Bennington College. The couple returned there many times. At Bennington, Girling and Caro were part of a close circle of artists who were experimenting with new artistic techniques. These included Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski.

Sheila Girling on Helen Frankenthaler (C466/296)

539_sheila_with_scrfSheila Girling. Courtesy Barford Sculptures Limited

This clip features on the Voices of art website. Voices of art is a new British Library resource that explores the art world behind the scenes through life story recordings with artists, curators and writers. 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 more from Sheila Girling, see Hester Westley's article Coaching from the side lines: Sheila Girling and Anthony Caro.

Voices of art is supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

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

13 November 2018

Sound Seating: Colin St John Wilson’s Library Furniture

In 1995, the British Library began documenting oral histories of British architects through the National Life Stories series Architects’ Lives. The following year the project looked close to home and published an interview with the architect of the library’s St. Pancras location. In twenty-seven parts available on the BL’s Sounds website, the librarian and curator Jill Lever (1935-2017) speaks with Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson (1922-2007), covering a wide range of subjects including his career, past projects and approach to creating public spaces.

Initially this series had been recommended to me by Oral History curator Mary Stewart after I asked colleagues if anyone knew anything about some wooden benches I had seen at the library. Simple and sturdy, reminiscent of mid-century modern Scandinavian design, initially I had just wanted to know who made them – was there a small British furniture company still making them? Had a well-known designer made a little-known range of furniture for the library? While still largely a mystery despite the enthusiasm of colleagues, I found something more interesting through this research. The original furniture to the building, much of it still here twenty years after its official opening, was a crucial part of fulfilling Wilson’s overall vision for the building and his idea of how a library should work and make its readers feel.

Bench1

Largely designed by Wilson himself, the original furnishings, built-in nooks, and other seating were important parts of his approach to scale. In one section of the interview, he describes the point of preserving a balance between a grand, large, space coming in at two hundred thousand square metres and one scaled for individuals:

“Eventually you have to accept that a lot of other Readers and the architecture makes the sort of spaces in which you can read, you can spend the whole day, you don’t feel claustrophobic, you have the chance of looking up from the close range of a book to the long distance of a big space.”

Readingroom

Wilson designed tactile, personal elements throughout the building in order to balance the large scale demanded of a building with innumerable collection items, which now greet over 1.5 million people annually through the compact front entrance into the spacious multi-storey lobby. Portholes throughout the building provide small windows onto the grand area of the main lobby on its main and upper ground floors.

One of the ways Wilson attempted to create this balance, and thus serve what he saw as the larger purpose of a public building, was through his use of tactile, natural materials. Inspired by architects of the English Free School, among them Sir George Gilbert Scott who designed St Pancras Chambers next door, William Morris, and John Ruskin, he chose wood panelling, leather-covered wooden benches and booths on nearly every floor of public space outside the reading rooms, and leather-wrapped brass railings a la Aalto, and carved person-sized seating into marble wall detailing on multiple floors.1

Other designers were commissioned to help create this balance. The reading room chairs still in use today are original to the library, designed by Ronald Carter. This was one of his largest commissions, although he also designed furniture for other cultural institutions in London like the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Shelflife st p_003 Oct 1996 cropped

Wilson thought that if this balance was struck correctly, he could create the kind of public building in which an initial feeling of getting lost would soon be replaced with an ability to “help yourself and get on with it,” much as many do every day at the library, arriving at the front door with their clear plastic reading room bags, ready to use for second, third, and forth times in the workspaces readers often come to think of as their own.

1The British Library by Colin St John Wilson, YK.2009.a.21930

Mary Caple is a postgraduate student in History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford, formerly Digitisation Workflow Administrator for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. Special thanks to Dave Stevens for scanning the copies of Shelf Life, the British Library staff newsletter, from which images of St Pancras came from.