THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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4 posts categorized "Women's histories"

13 July 2020

Recording of the week: Women’s workwear in the 1960s

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

Cover of 'Speeding The Mail: An Oral History of the Post Office', CD published by the British Library and the British Postal Museum and Archive, 2005.
Speeding The Mail: An Oral History of the Post Office, CD published by the British Library and the British Postal Museum and Archive, 2005.

In 1969 Morag Simpson MacDonald responded to an advert in the Sunday Times for a graduate trainee programme with the Post Office. The advert was for ‘telecoms management entrants’ and there were twelve successful applicants, including five women. Despite being managed through a modern recruitment process the trainee programme was controversial – unions hadn’t been informed that the Post Office were recruiting non-engineering graduates. Morag Simpson MacDonald was a law graduate, and she began her traineeship in the telecoms personnel department.

In her life story recording Morag describes her experiences of working for the Post Office, including reflections on encountering chauvinism from male colleagues in the 1970s. She begins with a brief but revealing description of the women’s dress code when she first joined the programme, and her reaction to it:

Morag Simpson Macdonald on the 1960s Post Office dress code (C1107/83 Part 4)

When I arrived I suppose it was late sixties. Many of the women, there were many women working in the Post Office, they were almost entirely single and they were mostly in their fifties. There was a very, there was certainly a male atmosphere in that the directors, all the senior staff that I knew when I started were all male. And women were allowed to wear trousers to work providing they asked everybody else who worked in their office if they minded or not. [laughs] And it seems quite extraordinary. Although when I complained about this to another woman, unmarried woman, she said, well you have to remember, it’s not very long since women had to leave work when they got married. So she didn’t find it extraordinary at all that I had to ask permission if I wanted to wear trousers, but that was how it was and if somebody said no, they objected, then that was it.

Morag Simpson MacDonald was interviewed by Rorie Fulton for An Oral History of the Post Office in 2002. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

This collection comprises 116 life story interviews with a sample of the Post Office's 200,000 staff in the UK, recorded between 2001 and 2005. The recordings cover postal sorting, transportation and deliveries; stamp design, printing and marketing; legal, purchasing and property departments; plus lesser-known aspects such as the Post Office Rifles, the Post Office Film Unit and the Lost Letter Centre. There is an emphasis on change within living memory: the separation of post from telecommunications, computerisation and automation, new management practices and the diversification of new services offered by Post Office. You can hear more extracts from An Oral History of the Post Office on the British Library Sounds website, under the heading ‘Speeding the Mail’.

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06 July 2020

Recording of the week: Barbara Kruger in conversation

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

Barbara Kruger, ‘You Are Not Yourself’, 1981
Barbara Kruger, ‘You Are Not Yourself’, 1981 © Image: callejero / VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Listen to a recording of visual artist Barbara Kruger in conversation with the art historian Griselda Pollock at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London,1991.

Barbara Kruger ICA London 1991

Barbara Kruger is best known for her found photographs in black-and-white, overlaid with eye-catching text, displayed on billboards, banners, bumper stickers, postcards and the likes. Her work addresses social issues, gender representation, violence against women, misogyny, power politics and the pitfalls of capitalism and consumerism. She deconstructs commonly held assumptions with forthright eloquence, bold humour and open-ended meaning:

‘I shop therefore I am’.

‘Your body is a battleground’

‘It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it’

In addition to her photographic and collage work she makes large-scale immersive installations covering all areas of the exhibition space. She also creates works on film and video.

Kruger has exhibited both outdoors in public spaces and indoors in galleries and museums. Some of her more recent creations include the design of the cover of the New York Magazine pre-election issue (2016 USA elections), published on the 31st October, showing a closely cropped image of Donald Trump’s face overlaid with the word 'LOSER'; an installation entitled Untitled (Skate) at the Coleman Skate Park in New York in 2017; and in 2018, a large-scale mural painted in the colours of the Argentinian flag covering an abandoned grain silo in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, Untitled (No Puedes Vivir Sin Nosotras / You Can’t Live Without Us).

Barbara Kruger started making art in the 1970s leaving behind a successful career as a graphic designer for magazines such as Mademoiselle. She first exhibited in London at the ICA in 1983. Later in 2014, she had a large solo exhibition Untitled (Titled) at the Modern Art Oxford Gallery, and her next show, set to open at the Art Institute of Chicago this November 2020, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You, is expected at the Hayward Gallery in London, in 2021. This will be her biggest exhibition in 20 years, featuring four decades of her work.

In this 1991 recording at the ICA she talks about the importance of making art that is accessible to everyone and why she challenges being called a feminist conceptual artist:

‘I’ve never felt myself defined or defined myself as a maverick girl, feminist artist, and nobody was searching for women artists to take up, you know. Perhaps they are beginning to do it now in NY, but we made our presence known and forced the issue. No one was looking for us, in fact they were looking the other way’ (20:59).

This recording is part of the ICA collection C95, available online on British Library Sounds. It is made up of 889 sound recordings of talks and discussions with prominent writers, artists and filmmakers, which took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, between 1982 and 1993.

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08 June 2020

Recording of the week: Michiko Hirayama singing Scelsi

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This week's selection comes from Lucia Cavorsi, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Between 1978 and 1994 the Institute of Contemporary Arts ran an annual series of contemporary music concerts called MusICA. Among the works programmed were those by Italian-born composer Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988). Little known and ostracised by music academic entourages of the time throughout his life - French composer Pierre Boulez branded him as an amateur - he became well known around the 1980s and is today considered one of the pioneering figures of minimalist and microtonal music.

Fascinated in the 1940s with the teaching of the Second Viennese school and its characteristic twelve-tone music, he shifted in the 1950s towards more radical and experimental avenues. His interest in mysticism and esoterism largely influenced him. Testament to this is a Zen symbol added to his signature on all of his scores. Oriental philosophies didn’t much influence his compositional methods, but rather provided concepts through which to compose music.

His main musical teaching was that the whole world depends on sound. The repetition of a single sound, in particular, is central to his ideas. He writes: ‘my music is not this, nor that, it’s not dodecaphony nor pointillism, it’s not minimalist either [...]. Notes are just wrappers […]. Sound is spherical, but we always tend to see it in terms of duration and frequency. That is not right. Every spherical element has a centre […]. We need to get to it. By hitting for a long time the same note, the note itself becomes bigger, it grows so much that its own harmony surfaces and enlarges within it’. A single sound loses then its status of one among equals with other notes in a piece, and becomes the essence of it, through the continuous elaboration of its frequency.

Scelsi's research determined, between 1952 and 1978, avant-garde compositional techniques which mainly involved improvisations both with piano and instruments producing quarters and octaves of tones, like the ondioline. His musical journeys were not only free of any constrictions, but also free from transcriptions (which he left to his collaborators, after recording his works on tape). The appreciation of the verticality of a sound, led him to further investigate musical timbre, and to appreciate the human voice as one of the most powerful instruments capable of breaking sonic structure.

Michiko Hirayama
Courtesy of Fondazione Isabella Scelsi

Among his closest collaborators was Michiko Hirayama (1923-2018), the Japanese singer historically associated with the performance of ‘Canti del Capricorno’, the 20-song cycle that Scelsi wrote specifically for her voice. The microtonal inflections in her technique while interpreting classical Japanese pieces had in fact soon captured him.

Scelsi officially wrote the cycle between 1962 and 1972. During an interview with musical artist Arturo Tallini though, Hirayama explains how it actually took her four decades to reach interpretative perfection of the cycle’s vocal part. Firstly, the manuscripts contained notes with just phonemes pencilled down to which she had to add her own improvisation and vocal experiments so as to become the instrument of the song itself rather than its interpreter, quite an open-ended task; secondly, she felt the intensity of both emotional and mental state required to make Scelsi’s work come to life was only achieved when she was 82. In 2005, towards the end of a performance of the entire cycle held in Berlin, she indeed found herself in a state of unconsciousness. Only then she considered ‘Canti del Capricorno’ finally completed.

C611/49 Scelsi No. 2

This is an extract from Michiko Hirayama’s performance of ‘Canti del Capricorno’, No. 2 performed at the ICA on 8 February 1981.

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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.

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