Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

606 posts categorized "Sound and vision"

30 October 2023

Recording of the week: Things that go howl in the night

Illustration of a gray wolf, 1912
public domain


With Halloween creeping up on us, I asked our wildlife curator to share with me her favourite spooky sounds. I’ve heard screeching barn owls. Hissing rattlesnakes. My favourite though: the chorus of howling wolves, recorded in Ontario, Canada in 2000.  

Listen to howls of the Gray Wolf

There’s something both serene and terrifying about the howl of a wolf. The wail floats on the edge of liminality: being both from the human world, yet also otherworldly. The calls mesmerise you – drawing you in, whilst making you want to retreat at the same time. They’re the epitome of the sublime.  

On this recording, I particularly liked how bird song is seamlessly dispersed among the howling at the beginning. You can almost picture dusk falling over the forest with the last birds of the day fleeing, before the creatures of the night ascend their sylvan thrones.  It conjures up that cinematic image of a majestic wolf pack in silhouette against a full moon. Contrary to popular imagination though, our wildlife expert informs me that it’s pure myth that wolves howl at the moon!  

As foreboding as the howls may be to the human ear, for the wolves, they’re a chorus of unity as they call out to their fellow pack-mates to prepare for their nocturnal hunt. Even the pups can be heard with their squeaky howls joining in with their parents.  

You can listen to a longer version of this recording on our sounds website

This week’s recording of the week was chosen by Elliot Sinclair, Web Editor.  

27 October 2023

Listening to Clara Schumann through her pupils: A pianistic orchestration of tones and rhythms

Franz_Hanfstaengl_-_Clara_Schumann_(1857)Photograph of Clara Schumann by Franz Hanfstaengl 1857

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Yanran Li

            I was fortunate to obtain a fellowship at the British Library last fall. As a pianist, given my interest in Robert Schumann, I was delighted to be able to take advantage of the many unusual recordings of Clara Schumann’s students., a number of them becoming famous in their own right. Mr. Jonathan Summers afforded me access to the rich collection of these audio recordings. He also made available contemporary interviews with musicians, as well as the archive of newspaper reviews of both Clara’s and her students’ concerts in the possession of the British Library.

            As one of the most prominent pianists and educators of the 19th century, Clara Schumann (1819-1896) has made immense contributions to the evolution of modern and contemporary piano performance. Her musical sphere is familiar to a broad range of music practitioners and enthusiasts, creating an entire generation of remarkable pianists. By analysing the surviving musical recordings, one can discern the multifaceted interpretations that these pianists have gained from her teachings. This, in turn, broadens our understanding of how Schumann's piano music can be performed.

            Within a single pedagogical framework, students of the revered educator naturally develop unique styles. Examining diverse interpretations by musicians connected to Schumann’s musical world offers a rich tapestry of insights. This analytical approach aids contemporary musicians in understanding Schumann's piano music by identifying commonalities and differences among Clara Schumann's students, providing profound insights into his compositions.

            Before delving into my in-depth study of performances by several of Clara's students, like many pianists, I was already familiar with some of Clara's teaching principles, particularly her emphasis on touch. Indeed, among numerous concert reviews of her solo and chamber performances that I found in the Newspaper Archive, the most prominent praise often centered on the kaleidoscopic tonal qualities she elicited by her touch on the keys. Additionally, in Nancy Reich's renowned biography of Clara, there are multiple references to the influence of her father, Friedrich Wieck, demanding absolute uniformity in touch, cultivating a fine touch. Clara would use this touch to construct incredibly smooth and nuanced musical phrases.

            As Robert Schumann entered the creative realm of the 1830s, deepening his relationship with Clara, he nearly exclusively envisioned and styled his compositions based on Clara's performance manner. One of the most conspicuous resultant stylistic traits was Schumann's pursuit of orchestral expression on the piano, a direct and passionate tribute to Clara's rich tonal palette. It is the intricate inner voice-leading and counterpoints, which are the most distinctive compositional characteristics in Schumann's piano works, that are closely related to Clara's keeping of her fingers close to the keyboard. From a technical standpoint, this was a consistent feature in both Clara's and her father's techniques. Even when playing demanding passages or powerful chords requiring substantial force, they employed the method to produce sound. According to Clara’s pupils, she often explained the method as playing the instrument through "pressure rather than percussion”, which is a rather unusual concept for a modern pianist like myself.  With access to the Library's resources, I have been able to systematically compile Clara's piano-playing principles, refining them through comparisons of Schumann's piano solo recordings by pianists directly connected to her, resulting in the following insights.

            Edith Heymann (1872–1960), an English pianist who visited Clara Schumann's home in Frankfurt in 1894, provided valuable insights into Clara's approach to piano touch. According to Heymann, Clara was known for her soft, warm touch, particularly in her mastery of intertwining melodies, exhibiting a super legato touch without exaggerating tone or tempo, and she rarely used the pedals except for chords. Clara's technique emphasized sensitive fingers, resulting in a fine tone, and phrasing through subtle tone gradations. Many biographies of Clara highlight her dedication to achieving an even touch and cultivating a refined sense of the use of soft pedal and tone quality in her teaching.

            However, as I explored reminiscences of Clara by pianists like Fanny Davies, Adelina de Lara, and Carl Friedberg, it became evident that Clara Schumann's emphasis on touch had a deeper purpose – transforming the piano into a fully symphonic instrument. Adelina de Lara (1872-1961), in her Farewell Lecture and concert at Wigmore Hall in 1956, recalled Clara Schumann's insistence on treating piano solo works as if they were orchestral compositions. Clara believed that, just like in an orchestra, every minute phrase in piano music could be seen as a separate instrument. Clara encouraged her students to develop "visions" of the music, granting individual life to each musical element within a piece and imagining orchestral effects to enhance the piano's timbre.

            In this context, Clara's requirements for pressing the keys (rather than striking them), which resulted in consistent touch and flawless legato, align with the requirements for flexible and relaxed arm and wrist movements. This approach facilitated seamless coordination between the pianist's key touch and their sensitivity to sound nuances. Such training undoubtedly laid the foundation for executing and distinguishing more intricate and nuanced tonal qualities with pianists’ fingers.

            Not only a solid foundation for the execution of a diverse tone quality is essential, but the idea of timing in piano playing is also crucial to ensure the accomplishment of an orchestral-sounding piano which was mutually desired and pursued by Clara and Robert Schumann. Clara, as documented in the Pearl Collection of her pupils and in Adelina's interviews, emphasized the rejection of mechanical or rushed playing.  Whenever the student was rushing through transitional segments, Madame Schumann would point out agitatedly, ‘No Passages!’, from the other side of the room. Viewing musical elements as individual instruments, each with an irreplaceable role, Clara expected her students to master timing – both the overall tempo selection and the precise timing of each musical element's entrance. Upon examining recordings by Clara Schumann's students, I observed distinct timing styles that breathe vitality and a full orchestral dynamic quality into the piano. Subsequent passages will elaborate on these observations.

            One of the most influential pupils of Clara Schumann, Fanny Davies (1861-1934), has demonstrated a most notable rhythmic interpretation through the way she handled the pronounced independence of the middle voices and her creative phrasings. An exemplary instance can be found in her 1930 recording of Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze. Davies's interpretation resonates with the distinctive style of Robert Schumann and aligns with the principles emphasized in Clara Schumann's teaching. In this recording, during the first ritardando, where the melodic line leans on an E flat major chord borrowed from the parallel minor key, G minor, Davies pays special attention to the concluding note, F sharp. She sustains it with a string-instrument-like quality while complementing the fermata effect with a series of arpeggio chords in the left hand. Subsequently, she continues the sustained left-hand note, F natural, from the preceding F sharp, thus weaving a melodic line that traversed F sharp – F natural – E – D – C – E – D – B. This intricate approach intertwined the upper-voice melodic line with the middle voice, infusing it with vibrant tonal colours, especially as it progressed into the "Im Tempo" section.

Fig.1_Davies no.1

Fig.1 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 01 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace), G major, Florestan and Eusebius, mm. 16-21

Davidsbundlertanze 01 Lebhaft

            Another instance can be found in the second piece, “Innig”, from the same work. Schumann's notation suggests a rhythmic pattern ambiguously involving a parallel existence of three and two groupings per measure. Davies enhances the audibility of the middle voice, G, by slurring the second and third eighth notes, E - G, in each measure. Consequently, not only does the small slur of E - G become an independent musical unit, adding another viola-like tonal layer to the sonority, but it also serves as a complement to the high-register melodic line, C sharp - G.

Fig.2_Davies no.2

Fig.2 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 02 Innig: Intimately (Con intimo sentimento), B minor, Eusebius, mm.1-6

Davidsbundlertanze 02 Innig

            In the final movement of the first section of Davidsbündlertänze, No. 9, “Lebhaft," Davies demonstrates another unexpected phrasing technique. This section comprises two groups of four measures forming an eight-measure long phrase. When the low bass melody, outlined by octave intervals in the left hand, first appears in measures five to eight, Davies not only allows the low B flat to slightly precede the right-hand melody, disrupting the straightforward 3/4 rhythm established in the first four measures but also elongates the rhythmic gap between G – D – B in measure six. This guides the listener's ear to the left-hand melody and makes them momentarily forget that it's a repetition. As the music enters a new phrase, she similarly hastens the left-hand F sharp in measure twelve, ensuring a seamless transition of the melodic line to the left hand. The combined effect of tonal variation and the timing of different layers' appearances illustrates one of the key technical approaches in revealing the tonal structural complexity in Schumann's piano compositions.

Fig.3_Davies no.9-1

Fig.3 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 09 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace) (2nd edition), C major, Florestan, mm.1-8

Fig.4_Davies no.9-2

Fig.4 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 09 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace) (2nd edition), C major, Florestan, mm.12-14

Download Davidsbundlertanze 09 Lebhaft

            Fanny Davies' unexpected phrasing in her performances often integrates precise timing of the lower bass notes, creating an independent yet cohesive effect in the low registers, which Clara Schumann highly valued. What is notable in her performance is her interpretation of Schumann’s rhythmic notation, which incorporates characteristic variations within an unchanging rhythmic pattern.

            The nuances of voice layering and timing intricacies shine through in Adelina de Lara's performances, particularly in her rendition of Schumann's polyrhythm. These instances are abundant in her playing, with the most representative example being her 1951 recording of the second movement, "Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch," from Kreisleriana. In this passage, measures cease to adhere to a rhythmically uniform structure; instead, they suggest opportunities for breath and expression. De Lara's interpretation allows for a freer, more flowing sense of rhythm. Both the left and right-hand melodies maintain relatively independent rhythms, and the appearance of triplets and sixteenth notes in the bass melody after the double bar carries an improvisational quality, unburdened by rigid rhythmic divisions. De Lara's approach to ornaments is equally intriguing. These inherently rhythmically complex elements offer a broader canvas for Schumann's polyrhythm. De Lara's fingertips evoke a sensation akin to playing the cello, with the resonance produced by the bow's friction on the strings and subtle rhythmic delays contributing to the overall experience.

Jacob_Hilsdorf_-_Carl_FriedbergCarl Friedburg

            The flexibility of tempo serves as a potent expressive tool in Carl Friedberg's musical interpretations. Friedberg (1872–1955), who met Clara Schumann and maintained a close connection with Brahms, has left a limited body of recorded material. However, Mr. Allan Evans compiled and published a set of two CDs about Brahms in 2015, which includes precious recordings of Friedberg's performances. This album even features a remarkable performance segment of Brahms' Piano Trio in C minor by the Trio of New York in 1939. Among others, one of the most impressive recordings is a brief excerpt on Disc 2, less than two minutes long, featuring Friedberg's rendition of Schumann's Arabeske.

            In Minore 1, in e minor, of Arabeske, Friedberg demonstrates a flexible sense of rhythm. This enables him to delineate layers within what initially appears to be a straightforward eighth-note melody. First, there's the slightly impulsive melodic line of B – C – B – F sharp – G. Then, he lingers briefly on the highest note of the melody, transforming the descending scale in the second measure of every two measures into an inner voice that enriches the upper-register melody’s colour. His musical consideration also makes the arrangement of every three harmonies in a small phrase more musically sensible and natural to the listener's ear.

Fig.5_ArabeskeFig.5 Arabeske op.18, mm.40-48

Arabeske Friedberg

            Having written above, a significant moment during the entire fellowship experience was the discovery of recordings by Australian pianist Elsie Hall (1877-1976). Her farewell concert at the age of 90 not only showcased the highly infectious musical expression and extraordinary technical prowess of a mature and eminent pianist but also embodied the soul of the Schumann era and a unique personal touch. Originally from Australia, Elsie Hall relocated to Germany at the age of 11 to pursue her piano studies. Following a performance by the young Elsie in England, Fanny Davies encouraged her to play for Clara Schumann. In 1896, Elsie had the opportunity to perform for Clara Schumann. This encounter did not directly propel Elsie's performing career, and they did not show much mutual interest - Clara's remark, as later recalled by Hall in interviews, was that she “…is much too delicate ever to be a concert player…hasn’t got the particular stamina for it.” Though the meeting with Madame Schumann was not entirely harmonious, the Classical musical world of the late 19th century definitely left an indelible mark on Elsie Hall's musical journey. Not only did she receive patronage from Marie Benecke, Felix Mendelssohn's eldest daughter, Elsie Hall also once mentioned that she gained the most musical inspiration and advice from Joseph Joachim, the Hungarian violinist, an intimate friend, and collaborator of Clara and Brahms. Hall's ability to seamlessly combine the nuances of phrasing, timing, and an extensive palette of tonal colours resulted in a continuous and captivating musical narrative. Her musical style perfectly aligned with Clara Schumann's emphasis on orchestral quality and her insistence on “no passages.”

            Even though Elsie publicly stated (multiple times on various occasions) that she “did not like the Schumann coterie at all”, during her farewell concert, she gave Schumann's Fantasie, op. 17 a prominent place. She performed the first and third movements of the piece. The performance was grand and impactful, exuding orchestral tonal qualities and volume. The separate treatment of the left-hand bass and right-hand melody, both in terms of tone and rhythm, maintains their independence while interweaving with each other, a characteristic performance style emblematic of the 19th-century era. Furthermore, Elsie Hall's meticulous handling of internal layers ensures that not a single note goes unnoticed. For instance, in the first movement, when “Adagio” transitions back to “Im Tempo”, falling into a C major chord, she carefully leads dynamics from piano to fortissimo over six measures, assigning each note of every chord a distinct position. Her attention to detail is equally evident in the opening passage of the third movement with chromatic signs. Hall’s interpretation does not overly indulge in any of the chromatic signs, neither rhythmically nor sonorously, yet she thoughtfully incorporates every harmonic colour outside of C major, capturing the audience's attention. The most sublime musical treatment is in the ritardando of the third movement. Her ritardando is executed with an absolute legato while preserving the individuality of inner and outer voices. The rhythmic complexities, such as two against three, presented her with an excellent opportunity to demonstrate her mastery of polyrhythm.

Fig.6_Fantasie

Fig.6 Fantasie op.17, mm. 272-278

Elsie Hall Schumann Fantasie extract

            Concluding this discussion with admiration for Elsie Hall is a deliberate decision. My immense gratitude to Mr. Summers and the British Library for providing this enlightening and educational opportunity. This research journey, initiated with profound respect and curiosity for Clara Schumann, has illuminated diverse facets of the 19th-century classical music universe. The Geist, or spirit, embedded in this music continues to inspire generations, a testament to Clara Schumann's steadfast training methods, the harmonious collaboration of musicians from varied backgrounds, and the relentless pursuit of artistic excellence worldwide. And all these precious spiritual experiences and artistic insights are transmitted vividly and directly to our ears through precious historical recordings, through the medium of sound, almost two hundred years later, continuing to fascinate musicians, inspiring us to explore tradition and the progressive evolution of musical expression.

25 October 2023

On Pioneering Social Research

Blog written by Neli Demireva and Paul Thompson.

The Pioneering Social Research project and the 2022 book Pioneering Social Research: Life stories of a Generation (Policy press), highlight the experiences and practices of a generation of academics active from the 1950s to the 1980s in British academia and wider research scene. Based on 58 life story interviews, available through the UK Data Service and archived as the oral history collection C1416 ‘Pioneers of Social Research’ at the British Library, the book captures some of the most magical moments of research realization. Those moments may be career defining but we also do not shy away from discussions of strife, of conflict, of struggle and acceptance. There is no satisfactory way in which a conventional sample of ‘pioneer’ social researchers could be created. To be recorded among our pioneers implies in itself some kind of success story in research: first and foremost in terms of intellectual discovery and influence, however also linked to taking a key position in the academic world and achieving, in Colin Bell’s (C1416/34) words, ‘a degree of celebrity’. The oldest interviewee, Raymond Firth (C1416/25), was born in 1901 and is exceptional in already being an active researcher in the interwar years. The youngest interviewee was born in 1949, Sara Arber (C1416/58), and all had begun their research careers by the 1970s. They had mainly made their key contributions by the 1980s, but several continued publishing into the 2000s. Altogether, 33 are with sociologists –most of whom first trained in other disciplines, especially anthropology –and 14 with lifelong anthropologists. There are also three interviewees from politics, two each from geography and economics, another two from statistics, and one from cultural studies. These are essentially British pioneers, although they worked worldwide.

The book cover for the book WebPioneering Social Research - Life Stories of a Generation

On the practical side, the book and the oral history interviews can be seen as an example of ‘owning up’ – a set of illustrious researchers and academics take the reader or listener through their experiences of the research process. The book illustrates how empirical social research was conducted and given shape in mid-twentieth century Britain. Our Pioneers carried out much major work in terms of class, gender and ethnicity and the book captures something of the social and cultural contexts in which they worked and the dilemmas they faced. Thus, one should be able to open the book and read both about how David Butler (C1416/44) ‘finds his voice’ on TV, of the time Peter Townsend (C1416/23) spends working in a retirement institution while at the same time to get a feel, of the difficult time Ann Oakley (C1416/01) has in embarking on her PhD studies. 

Peter Townsend on Bath Attendant (C1416-23)

Download Peter Townsend on Bath Attendant (C1416-23) Transcript

Ann Oakley on The Parental Ethos (C1416-01)

Download Ann Oakley on The Parental Ethos (C1416-01) Transcript

The book and the oral history collection do have weaknesses with which we have explicitly engaged. Our 58 interviewees cannot be taken as ‘representative’ of a wider scholarly pool. They are unique cases, and there are many other researchers who if alive and willing could easily have been included, and some who may have made even greater contributions and told very different stories. Inevitably, some key researchers had already died before we could record them. We miss especially the stories which we might have had from Richard Titmuss (d. 1973), Max Gluckman (d. 1975), John Rex (d. 2011), Edward Shils (d. 1995) and Cathie Marsh (d. 1993). We cannot be sure of the memories of our tellers; like almost all historical sources, whether created in the past or subsequently, what they say sometimes may be factually incorrect. Regardless, they represent important historical sources of how the interviewees remember and retell their life stories. The Pioneers of Social Research collection is very much a living thing, and we are indeed adding to the pool of interviewees this year.

Crucially, however, the book and collection demonstrate how the Pioneers responded to challenges – personal and academic. These are very intimate stories, one that we hope the reader or listener will not rush through but will cherish and savour. The Pioneers were resilient, but above all, they proved to have the creative ability to turn the problems upside down and use them to develop their own thinking. In this, future generations can really find a rich source of inspiration – one that will continue to inform beyond the lifetime of the interviewees in this project. Our dear friend and co-author Ken Plummer (C1416/48) passed away last year and we cherish the ability to hear his warm and lively voice speaking his own life story of discovering his own sexuality, and developing a new field and establishing the journal Sexualities as well as struggling to cope with the pain of HIV research. All these recordings are available at the British library reading rooms in London and Boston Spa, as well as at the UK Data Service in Essex. We hope that many readers of ‘this lovely book’, as Mike Savage calls it, will similarly enjoy learning more about the Pioneers and will engage with their work, both the written publication and the full life story interviews.

Pioneers of Social Research can be found by searching C1416 at http://sami.bl.uk and can be listened to at the British Library reading rooms in St Pancras, London and Boston Spa, Yorkshire. For more information on similar collections please consult the collection guide 'Oral histories of social policy'.

Neli Demireva is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Essex. Her research interests include migration, inter-ethnic ties, social cohesion, ethnic penalties and multiculturalism. She uses a variety of methods in her research, both quantitative and qualitative, and believes strongly in mixing methods to uncover the ‘deep stories’ of sociology.

Paul Thompson is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He is Founder-Editor of Oral History and Founder of National Life Stories at the British Library. He is a pioneer of oral history in Europe and author of the international classic The Voice of the Past (4th edition 2017). His other books include The Edwardians and Living the Fishing. He is co-author of Growing Up in Stepfamilies, of The Myths We Live By (with Raphael Samuel), and (with Daniel Bertaux) Pathways to Social Class.

Ken Plummer (1946-2022) was Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He researched and wrote widely on sexuality, especially lesbian, gay and queer studies. His methodological concerns were with the development of narrative, life story, symbolic interactionism and the post-modern turn.

23 October 2023

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo on founding UK Black History Month

Guest blog by Rosa Kurowska Kyffin, interviewer for National Life Stories.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo standing in front of the doors to the King's Library with the books in view behind him. Akyaaba Addai-Sebo standing in front of the King's Library at the British Library, St Pancras.

Earlier this summer the British Library recorded a life story interview with Akyaaba Addai-Sebo for the National Life Stories oral history collection Leaders of National Life. This in-depth interview covers his influential work as a campaigner and activist across three continents. From trade union organising in newly independent Ghana to his years in the US in the 1970s, where he studied peace-building in Washington and became close with many civil rights activists of the time, including Kwame Ture, Jewell Mazique and CLR James, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. The interview also covers his later peace-building work in Liberia and Sierra-Leone and environmental campaigning. In the UK Akyaaba has had a fundamental impact on politics and culture as one of the founders of the UK’s Black History Month. These clips explore the origins of this month, which today is as vital a part of autumn as the cooler days and bright colours of the turning leaves.

As a young child Akyaaba quickly developed a deep understanding of the impact of politics. In 1957 when Akyaaba was just seven years old, Kwame Nkrumah led Ghana to independence from British colonial rule and established one of the first post-colonial governments in Africa. Caught up in the ‘dynamism of the times’, Akyaaba spent his childhood observing the rallies and activism of his community: a close-knit, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic compound in Asawase, one of many new projects built by the socialist Nkrumah government. His early political memories are of excitement and promise, but these hopes were soon dashed as the backlash of the European powers began. One of Akyaaba’s early memories was the assassination of Patrice Lumumba which he describes here.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo recalls his earliest memory of political consciousness [BL REF C408/37]

Download Transcript – Akyaaba Addai-Sebo recalls an early memory of political consciousness

This incident and the betrayals that followed as later coups in Ghana took Nkrumah from power forged a powerful activist in Akyaaba, who has led a life dedicated to confronting injustice. As a child he was also frustrated by his experiences of education in the British colonial system, where he studied European classics, religion, geography and literature rather than his own region’s culture and history. He recognised the importance of the few teachers who went against this system. Later as a teenager he saw the importance of finding ‘cultural synergy’ though learning about Ghanaian and African culture and history in Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers and the Pan-African Youth Movement. In the US he also saw the impact of what was then called Negro History Week for African Americans, and the beginnings of the campaign to rename the period as Black History Month which is still celebrated there in February. In the US he became involved in delivering workshops in Washington libraries and museums and spoke at celebrations of African Liberation Day in Malcolm X Park.

His activism eventually took him back to Ghana and later to London, where he found safety having narrowly escaped persecution under the Jerry Rawlings regime in 1984. Through CLR James he became involved with a powerful group of activists based in Railton Road, Brixton, including Leila Hassan Howe, Darcus Howe and the Race Today collective. At the same time Akyaaba had started working at the Greater London Council (GLC). At the time the GLC was a place of pioneering social policy under the leadership of Ken Livingstone, as was the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), whose deputy leader Bernard Wiltshire Akyaaba worked closely with. The stewardship of Linda Bellos, Chair of the London Strategic Policy Committee (LSPC) and leader of Lambeth Council, and John McDonnell, Chief Executive of the Association of London Authorities (ALA), became crucial after the abolition of the GLC by the Margaret Thatcher government on 1 April 1986. It was an exciting time to be working in local government. With his boss and friend Ansel Wong, Akyaaba worked in the Ethnic Minorities Unit and it was there in the office that a chance encounter with a colleague set in motion the inspiration for Black History Month in the UK.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo on the inspiration for UK Black History Month [BL REF C408/37]

Download Transcript – Akyaaba Addai-Sebo on the inspiration for UK Black History Month

In both the US and the UK Akyaaba had seen the impact that this lack of ‘cultural synergy’ was having on Black children and their families. He was shocked that here in the UK – the ‘mother of imperialism’ – that there was so little understanding of African history and civilisation. To rectify the damage done to children like Marcus and to eliminate the odious racism that plagued the UK Akyaaba worked hard to establish Black History Month. Here he recalls some of the conversations that fed into the founding of Black History Month, and why the choice of October is so significant.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo explains why October was chosen as Black History Month [BL REF C408/37]

Download Transcript – Akyaaba Addai-Sebo explains why October was chosen as Black History Month

Akyaaba built support from all political parties, a process which his time in the US civil rights movement had prepared him well for. The UK’s first Black History Month events began with a series of historical talks and events in London in 1986 to which people ‘came in droves.’ Those events have now grown to become an integral part of the year with countless events happening across October and beyond across the whole country.

Rosa and Akyaaba standing on the terrace at the British Library, St Pancras

Rosa Kurowska Kyffin with Akyaaba Addai-Sebo at the British Library, St Pancras.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo was interviewed by Rosa Kurowska Kyffin in 2023 for Leaders of National Life. The interview will be available to listen to at the British Library in early 2024, collection reference number C408/37.

Recording of the week: A conversation right up our alley

In the Spoken English department we love dialects in all their varieties. Dialects are made up of accent, grammatical forms and vocabulary, and are often specific to or associated with a particular geographical location. As populations change, so do dialects, and therefore many people might think of these as a relic from the past, and even mourn their disappearance. But change is not loss, and so we’re always happy to find and share examples of dialect words in the wild – alive and well!

Photo of a alley in Derbyshire

This conversation from The Listening Project was recorded in 2021, between two strangers in different parts of England. They were brought together to discuss their shared interest in a topic they both have different names for: gennels and alleys.

Katie, a mature student in Sheffield, spent her daily exercise time during the Covid-19 lockdowns exploring new areas in her local community. This sparked an interest in the gennels that she and her family discovered. After setting up social media accounts to document their expeditions, she received lots of positive feedback. Katie’s photos were so popular, that she has since produced a charity calendar to showcase some of her favourite gennels around Sheffield.

Over in Tewkesbury, Bill set up a similar activity - Project Alleycat - five years ago, aiming to instil local pride and promote the preservation of the alleys near to him. This has involved working with local artists and creatives, and the project has so far produced calendars, tea towels, maps and a phone app. In this first clip he explains how it all started, from concerns about big developments, to pro-active plans to help improve the environment.

Listen to Conversation between strangers (C1500/2202) clip 1

Download transcript Conversation between strangers clip 1

Traditionally, people where I live call these passageways “twittens”, but there are a range of names for these in different dialects – snicket, jitty, cut-through, vennel, jigger, tenfoot, ope... Katie’s favoured term “gennel” also has spelling and pronunciation variants - is it ginnel or gennel? A hard or a soft G sound? There’s also some debate about the subtle differences between these words – do they run between or behind houses? Do they always connect roads, or can they have a dead-end? In this clip, Katie and Bill compare some of the definitions and pronunciations that they have heard, and the long conversations that these can inspire.

Listen to Conversation between strangers (C1500/2202) clip 2

Download transcript Conversation between strangers clip 2

Despite these differences, one of the things that both speakers agree on is how these gennels and alleyways bring local people together - beyond just connecting neighbours geographically. They have seen a number of community-wide benefits growing out of their hobby, from public artworks to charity fundraising and a strong sense of ownership for people’s favourite locations. In this final clip they discuss what the very local focus of their projects means to them, and some of the positive outcomes.

Listen to Conversation between strangers (C1500/2202) clip 3

Download transcript Conversation between strangers clip 3

You can explore more about the differences between dialects on the Sounds website. A good place to start is the BBC Voices project (2004-2005), where groups of people across the UK spoke about their local language, based on given prompts. These conversations were then analysed to create an inventory of linguistic features for different dialects, and you will find a wide range of variants for “passageways” included. It’s also possible to explore back further, with large linguistic survey collections from the 1950s, plus recordings from the early twentieth century. Today, from The Listening Project, I was pleased to hear that the use (and popularity of use) of “gennels” has not diminished over time.

The Listening Project is an audio archive of personal conversations, collected by local and national BBC radio stations. From 2012 to 2022, people were invited to have a conversation recorded and broadcast (in edited form) by the BBC, and archived by the British Library. The full collection includes over two thousand recordings, preserved in full. You can listen to these through the Sounds website, and learn more about the project at the BBC.

All three audio clips are excerpts of 'Conversation between strangers Katie and Bill about passageways' (C1500/2202). You can listen to the full recording on our Sounds website.

Today's post was written by Sarah Kirk-Browne, Digital Multimedia Collections Cataloguer.

Image credits: Jonnie Robinson, Curator of Spoken English.

16 October 2023

Recording of the week: South Asian history and medical practices in Britain

Black and white illustration of Mahomed's Baths from 1826. The building is on the waterfront, with writing on the side advertising 'Original medicated shampooing' and 'hot cold douch & shower'. There are people and carriages in the street, and ships on the water in the distance.
Mahomed's Baths from 1826. Alamy.


The NHS as we know it today has been built – and continues to be sustained – by migrant contributions. South Asians have played a major role in this. But did you know that we can place South Asians in the medical profession in Britain long before the NHS was formed? In fact, in this oral history clip from the Millennium Memory Bank (BBC) you can hear Bari Chohan describe how his family arrived in England in the 1870s, having practiced homeopathy and ophthalmology on the subcontinent. They then opened a series of medical clinics in various cities throughout the UK, including in Brighton, Harrogate, Sheffield, Bradford and Manchester. It was Bari’s great uncle Dr Chirag Din who practiced in Harrogate in the early 1920s. He later married his colleague and practice nurse, Florence, moving to her hometown of Middlesbrough, where he settled.

Listen to Bari Chohan interviewed by Neil Gander © BBC

Download Bari Chohan extract transcript

South Asians have not only been in Britain for a long period of time – longer than common perception – but they have been circulating within professional and community networks, actively shaping the island nation we know today. Remaking Britain: South Asian Connections and Networks, 1830s to the present is a new research project that sheds light on this British history.

The project will reveal stories like Bari’s in a new digital resource, exploring the significance of South Asian people and communities as agents of change to Britain's cultural, economic, political and social life from the period of empire in the 1830s to the present. The project team will conduct their own oral history interviews, in collaboration with The British Library, as well as showcase testimonies collected during other projects. This will be in conjunction with archival research. Remaking Britain is an AHRC-funded research project led by the University of Bristol and Queen Mary University of London in partnership with the British Library.

We’d love to hear from anyone who has oral history collections on South Asians in Britain, expressions of interest in oral history participation, or any information relating to the rich history of South Asians in Britain from the 1830s to the present. You can find more information on our website or contact us on email: [email protected] 

Bari's interview (reference C900/01572) was recorded in 1999 by Neil Gander for BBC Radio as part of the ground-breaking BBC and British Library Millennium Memory Bank project which explored British life at the end of the 20th century. The Millennium Memory Bank holds over 5,000 oral histories recorded by local and national BBC radio stations, from which each participating station broadcast a series of programmes on 16 common themes. All of the full unedited recordings and the subsequent programmes are archived and made available at the British Library. The collection is copyright of the BBC.

This week's recording of the week was written by Dr. Maya Parmar, Research Fellow for Remaking Britain, Queen Mary University of London. 

09 October 2023

Recording of the week: Vintage voice notes from a remote island

Vintage postcard showing a wood siding building with two steps and one window. Sign above steps and walkway reads: Pitcairn Island General Post Office. Sign at top of building near roof reads: British halmark (C, R). People sitting on steps and leaning against outer wall. Pole leaning on wall in front of window. Second building next to post office with three pillars and porch, two doorways, people sitting on porch, dog on ground, trees in background.
Postcard of Pitcairn Island post office, dating to the 1940s. Public domain.

I’ve chosen this recording of the week to celebrate World Post day, which marks the anniversary of the creation of the Universal Postal Union. The Union was established to create and maintain a postal system for the free flow of mail around the world, enabling global communication by connecting faraway places.

There’s no better collection to illustrate that than the John Kenrick Ellis Collection. This consists of 11 open-reel message tapes sent from Pitcairn Island – a rugged and isolated volcanic outcrop in the southern Pacific Ocean, and one of the most remote civilian communities on the planet. The messages were recorded in the late 1950s by Roy Palmer Clark, the post-master of the island. His friend John Kenrick Ellis, residing in California, had sent him an open reel tape recorder so that they may record and post messages, and hear each other’s voices over the vast distance.

Roy Palmer Clark grew up in San Francisco, and travelled to Pitcairn Island in 1909 with his father. At the time of these recordings, the island had 142 inhabitants. The majority of this small community directly descends from a group of 18th-century settlers: nine British mutineers from the HMS Bounty and 17 Tahitian women and men (plus a baby girl) who in 1790 sought refuge in this isolated location.

Whilst his father later returned to America, Roy stayed to raise a family on the island. He served for a time as a teacher at the school, and a head elder in the church, eventually becoming the very first post-master in 1940. In October 1940 the very first Pitcairn Island stamps were issued, and in 1941 a small post office was established in main square of the island, Adamstown. In 1957 the post-master deemed it necessary to expand, and a new post office, which is still used today, was built in the early 1960s.

Many of the recordings in this collection describe living conditions on the island, and notable events - such as someone being injured by a falling mango, or a supposedly-shipwrecked man on a nearby uninhabited island. In amongst these news updates there are descriptions of what it’s like to run the postal service in such a remote and isolated location.

The only way mail to the island can be delivered and collected is via passing ships – to this day the island has no landing strip. In the 1950s, this was by passenger and cargo ships travelling from New Zealand to England, run by the New Zealand Shipping Company. The RMS Rangitiki, as mentioned in these reels, stopped off at Pitcairn Island for a 2 hour pit stop to break the monotony of the long crossing, also allowing islanders to trade goods and souvenirs with passengers.  In this clip Roy Palmer Clark recounts how poor weather affected the landing of the Rangitiki – you really get a sense of how important this event was to the isolated community.

Listen to Roy Palmer Clark describe the visit from RMS Rangitiki

Download Transcript of Roy Palmer Clark describing the visit from the RMS Rangitiki

Black and white photograph of a large cargo ship, the RMS Rangitiki
RMS Rangitiki post-1957 refit. Public domain. 


The establishment of the postal service not only brought about a consistent route for post, but it also created an important revenue stream through the sale of stamps. This was the main impetus of the British government, who at that time wanted colonies to be self-sufficient. The organisation overseeing the manufacture and distribution of postage stamps to Pitcairn was known as the Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations. The British Library hold important proofs and artwork from this organisation in the Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archives.

This clip includes a description of a mistake in a stamp, which Roy presumed would be withdrawn and therefore more valuable!

Listen to Roy Palmer Clark talk about the error in the 4d stamp

Download Transcript of Roy Palmer Clark talking about the error in the 4d stamp

Blue and red stamp with HRH Queen Elizabeth II's profile and a vignette of a wooden building and vegetation. Caption says 'Pitcairn School'.
Proof of the Pitcairn Islands 1957-1963 Definitive Issue 4d stamp titled ‘Pitcairn School’, approved 28 September 1956.

 

Blue and red stamp with HRH Queen Elizabeth II's profile and a vignette of a wooden building and vegetation. Caption says 'Schoolteacher's House''.
Proof of the Pitcairn Islands 1957-1963 Definitive Issue 4d stamp titled ‘Pitcairn School House, ’approved 6 December 1957.

 

Blue and red stamp with HRH Queen Elizabeth II's profile and a vignette of a wooden building and vegetation. Caption says 'Schoolteacher's House''.
Proof of the Pitcairn Islands 1957-1963 Definitive Issue 4d stamp titled ‘Schoolteacher’s House,’ approved 28 January 1958.


The particular stamps he refers to in the recording are the type one and two 4d stamps of the Pitcairn Islands, 2 July 1957-1963 Definitive Issue. Designed and manufactured by Thomas De La Rue and Company using a recess printing process, these images from the Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archive Proof Boxes within the British Library’s Philatelic Collections reveal the confusion surrounding an accurate title for the stamp vignette.

The recording of Roy Palmer Clark is from August 1957 – it would take another few months before the proof was updated and then a few more until it was finally correct on the third attempt. What might seem like small editorial infelicities to some were very noteworthy events for the post-master. Stamps issued by Pitcairn Island were very popular for collectors, and profits from their sale supported the island’s regular costs – among them constructing a school and hiring a professional teacher from New Zealand. At one point sales of stamps accounted for a massive two thirds of the island’s entire revenue.

If you’d like to listen to more details of events on Pitcairn Island the full recording of the audio message, and the full collection are both available online.

More details about the Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archives can be sought from the Philatelic collection.

Today’s selection comes from Fiona Stubbings, Web Sounds Producer.

02 October 2023

Recording of the week: Harold Wilson’s 1963 pledge to harness the white heat of a scientific revolution

Today's selection comes from Emmeline Ledgerwood, Discovering Science website co-ordinator.

Sixty years ago, on 1 Oct 1963, the then Labour party leader, Harold Wilson, delivered his famous ‘white heat’ speech at the Labour party conference in Scarborough. In this speech he outlined the party’s plans to harness a ‘scientific revolution’ to modernise British industry and drive economic progress: “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.”

Header of published version of Harold Wilson’s 1963 speech ‘Labour’s Plans for Science’

The speech’s rhetoric – linking planning, socialism and science – has been described as one that ‘caught the mood of the moment’ after 12 years of Conservative government. Many of the ideas that influenced the proposals put forward in this speech had been developed by left-wing scientists after the Second World War. The Labour party went on to win the next general election a year later in October 1964.

In this extract from the speech, Wilson articulates the country’s need for scientists and what was to be expected from them.

Listen to an extract from Harold Wilson’s speech at the 1963 Scarborough conference

Download transcript of an extract from Harold Wilson’s speech at the 1963 Scarborough conference

Wilson declared that “to train the scientists we are going to need will mean revolution in our attitude to education.” He emphasised the party’s commitment to comprehensive education and expanding access to higher education including the establishment of a ‘university of the air’ – the Open University came into being in 1969.

We are in familiar territory with Wilson’s presentation of science and scientists as being fundamental to improving the nation’s economic performance. Earlier this year the UK Government announced its own plans to channel scientific and technological expertise to grow the UK economy. Wilson also voiced concerns that resonate with current debates about the role of AI in society today: “If man is not going to assert his control over machines, the machines are going to assert their control over man.” Whether the year is 1963 or 2023, listening back this speech reminds us that society and politicians are continually balancing the promises and challenges of scientific advancement.

The full speech is available to listen to in the British Library Reading Rooms.

Further reading

David Horner, ‘The Road to Scarborough: Wilson, Labour and the Scientific Revolution’ in R. Coopey et al. (eds), The Wilson Governments 1964-1970 (Pinter Publishers, 1993), pp. 48–71.

David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History (Allen Lane, 2018).

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