THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

22 June 2018

Introducing the Women of Windrush

Beryl Gilroy - Crop
Guyana-born writer and teacher Beryl Gilroy with her pupils, image courtesy of the Estate of Beryl Gilroy.

On Monday 25 June the British Library in association with Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary writing, will be hosting Windrush Women: Past and Present. When the Empire Windrush sailed from the Caribbean 70 years ago, there were 257 female passengers on board, 188 of whom were travelling alone. There are many stories missing from the Windrush narrative, not least those of bold and pioneering women, leaving everything behind, to better their own and their family’s lives. This evening of poetry and readings will launch the latest issue of Wasafiri, which features a special section on Windrush women from across the generations.

Wasafiri's Editor-in-Chief, Susheila Nasta, says: ‘For better or worse, the stories of the post-war Windrush generation have become more than evident in recent months. Though little known, there were women on board the SS Windrush as well as the other boats that sailed after the second world war. The experiences of the women were as varied as their ages and backgrounds. Join Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary writing, to hear the voices of Windrush women across the generations and find out more about their lives as well as the complex challenges they continue to face’.

Appearing with Susheila on Monday will be Valerie Bloom, Jay Bernard, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Alison Donnell, Hannah Lowe, Catherine Ross and Susheila Nasta. Tickets are still available from the British Library Box Office. As an introduction to Monday’s event, we are publishing here an excerpt from Susheila Nasta’s editorial from Wasafiri No 94.

If this whets your appetite for Caribbean women’s writing, there is more to see (and hear) in the Library’s free exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Stange Land which continues in the Entrance Hall Gallery until 21 October. On display are Beryl Gilroy’s long-lost manuscript for her novel In Praise of Love and Children (1996), Andrea Levy’s working drafts of Small Island (2004) and Jean Rhys’ revisions to Wide Sargasso Sea (1966); plus migration memoirs from Floella Benjamin and Verona Pettigrew and performances by poets Louise Bennett (reading her brilliant patois poem ‘Dry Foot Bwoy’ about a haughty Caribbean man putting on an upper class English accent), Grace Nichols, Hannah Lowe, Maggie Harris, Kim O’Loughlin, Marsha Prescod and Merle Collins. These literary legacies of Windrush are interspersed with recordings of Caribbean women speaking about all aspects of their lives, from working in the NHS to the difficulties of courting in England compared with back home, and music too – there is much in the exhibition to investigate, explore and be inspired by.

 

Excerpt from Wasafiri No 94 (2018):


‘History, as James Baldwin once famously observed is not the story of the past but the present. Coinciding with the seventieth anniversary of the docking of SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948, this issue shows us how the many global intersections of Britain’s mixed cultural past continue to reverberate in today’s migrant present. When Andrea Levy’s award-winning historical novel, Small Island, first appeared in 2004, it was applauded for its fictional portraits of the forgotten voices of ‘Windrush’, for bringing the nation’s post-war migrant history centre stage and its timely intervention into what had largely been a male founding narrative of arrival and settlement. Reviewers were often unaware of earlier Caribbean and black British fictions of this era; whether classics, such as The Lonely Londoners (Sam Selvon, 1956), The Emigrants (George Lamming, 1954) or, more significantly here, given the objective of our special section focussing on ‘Windrush women’, Beryl Gilroy’s belatedly published 1950s novel, In Praise of Love and Children (1994). Despite such gaps, the appearance of Small Island was significant; not only was Levy, herself a daughter of Windrush, presenting her story through a range of narratives – male and female, Caribbean, Irish – but its engaging depiction of Britain’s diverse migrant histories began to touch a wide public readership — I once saw over five people reading the paperback version in one carriage on the London Underground just after the novel’s winning of the Orange Prize was announced. Interestingly Levy’s title, which playfully signalled Britain’s shrinking post-war global status – once ‘great’ empire, now ‘small island’ – was not only powerfully ironic but remains prescient, especially given ongoing Brexit debates over a decade later around ‘Englishness’, national identity, the rights of belonging or leave to stay. There is no doubt, as Grace Aneiza Ali and many of the other contributors to this issue differently observe, that migration continues to be the ‘defining moment of the modern era’ and ‘few’ can be ‘untouched’ by its ‘sweeping narrative’.

‘Highlighting the diversity of the period of migration following ‘Windrush’ and looking within and outside the parameters of what still figures as a powerfully constructed icon, this issue brings together Caribbean and black British voices from across the generations. Loosely defined here as the ‘Women of Windrush’, our special section comprises a range of genres and a mix representing the contemporary writing and works from past generations. It is a small sample which is by no means representative or comprehensive. Hannah Lowe’s feature-interview with three contemporary poets (Grace Nichols, Karen McCarthy-Woolf and Jay Bernard) points to the icon of ‘Windrush’ as ‘that huge fiction of a ship’ (Jackie Kay), a fiction which continues regardless to impact on many imaginations. In interrogating the enduring legacy of this myth, we feature an extract from Beryl Gilroy’s pioneering novel, In Praise of Love and Children, as well as providing the transcription of two interviews, originally conducted at the ICA in 1986, to celebrate the publication of Gilroy’s Frangipani House and a first novel, Timepiece by Janice Shinebourne. Like the 2004 moment when Levy’s Small Island was first published, the mid-1980s was a critical period for the publication of black and Asian women’s writing in Britain. Publishers influenced by the success of African-American writing in the US began to see the migrant black experience in Britain as a potentially profitable market. And it was at this moment that adventurous publishers such as Virago and the Women’s Press began to commission anthologies such as the groundbreaking Watchers and Seekers (edited by Rhonda Cobham and Merle Collins, Women’s Press, 1987).This volume of stories, essays and poems, featuring only the work of women, included, amongst many others, now well-known writers such as Collins herself, Amryl Johnson (who sadly died in Britain in 2001), Meiling Jin and Valerie Bloom. Above all, it was a moment when black women writing in Britain began to get the long-awaited recognition they deserved. Too often anthologised or out of print, the many women who contributed to such vital anthologies are not always remembered. Moreover, as Maria del Pilar Kaladeen’s memoir ‘Windrushed’ painfully evokes, amnesia was generated not only from without, but from within, as some of the older generation chose to sidestep their own histories, shrouding their own pasts from their black British offspring.’

 

 

20 June 2018

Virginia Woolf's Haunted Walk

A guest post by artist Liz Mathews describing the inspiration and process behind her recently acquired book, The Strand of the Thames, as part of World Refugee Day.  For more information about Liz Mathews' work, including Paper Wings -- a collaboration with Maureen Duffy -- see her gallery blog, Daughters of Earth.

 

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Wednesday 23 June 1937
I went shopping, whitebait hunting to Selfridges yesterday, & it grew roasting hot, & I was in black ... As I reached 52 [Tavistock Square], a long trail of fugitives—like a caravan in a desert—came through the square: Spaniards flying from Bilbao, which has fallen, I suppose. Somehow brought tears to my eyes, tho' no one seemed surprised. Children trudging along; women in London cheap jackets with gay handkerchiefs on their heads, young men, & all carrying either cheap cases, & bright blue enamel kettles, very large, & saucepans, filled I suppose with gifts from some Charity—a shuffling, trudging procession, flying—impelled by machine guns in Spanish fields to trudge through Tavistock Square, along Gordon Square, then where? —clasping their enamel kettles.  -- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5 1936 - 1941

Virginia Woolf's chance sighting of refugees from the Spanish Civil War in London at midsummer 1937 brought tears to her eyes - 'tho' no one seemed surprised' - and burnt on to her mind's eye an unforgettable image: children, women and young men driven from their country by war, trailing homeless, displaced, dispossessed through the Bloomsbury Square that was her home. This sight, with its implications and consequences, was to return to her vividly on another solitary walk many months later in the winter of 1939:

Tuesday 31 January 1939
Took the bus to Southwark Bridge. Walked along Thames Street; saw a flight of steps down to the river.  I climbed down—a rope at the bottom. Found the strand of the Thames, under the warehouses—strewn with stones, bits of wire, slippery; ships lying off the Bridge (Southwark? —no, the next to Tower Bridge [London Bridge]). Very slippery; warehouse walls crusted, weedy, worn. The river must cover them at high tide. It was now low. People on the bridge stared. Difficult walking. A rat haunted, riverine place, great chains, wooden pillars, green slime, bricks corroded, a button hook thrown up by the tide. A bitter cold wind. Thought of the refugees from Barcelona walking 40 miles, one with a baby in a parcel.

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These two entries from her extraordinary diary - both so observant of detail, so evocative of the physical setting and of her state of mind - stayed with me, and I was reminded of them in Gordon Square one afternoon some 70 years later, like Woolf combining shopping - but not for whitebait - with a walk through Bloomsbury observing the London summer.  We, too, met small groups of refugees, some aimless, some more purposeful: one grizzled man sitting on a box playing a melancholy Balkan air on a battered accordion, one old woman in black sitting on the pavement outside the Co-op, her hands joined in the international gesture of supplication, one young man on a bench in Gordon Square who, when we'd given him some change, asked hopefully if we would buy him a mobile phone, another older man - speechless, wordless, with hunger and despair in his eyes.

Virginia Woolf's discovery under the warehouses was the inspiration for my artist's book, Strand of the Thames, which has recently been acquired by the British Library. In setting this text, the sense of history repeating itself was very strong for me. My partner Frances and I are inveterate mudlarkers, and the Thames low-tide beaches between Waterloo and Southwark Bridges have long been a favourite haunt, yielding a rich and often rather pungent harvest of driftwood, eternal claypipes, button hooks, and yes, the green slime that Woolf observes, along with the occasional shard of ancient terracotta or exquisite porcelain.

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One sunny winter's day in 2009, we followed Virginia Woolf on that sacred bus-route and then in her footsteps, choosing our time so that the river would be at low-tide, seeing the sights that she saw - still all there - and reminded inevitably of the other sight she had recalled in that place - perhaps by the river itself, running through time and linking all our days. I photographed each stage of her journey, trying to catch something of the transient light on the water, the darkness of the slippery flight of steps, the ships lying off the bridge, the solid ironwork of the bridge itself, the crusted warehouse walls, just as weedy and worn, the great chains, the immensity of the wooden pillars and the curious sense of separation from the bustling world of the city. We looked for and found the bits of wire, broken glass, stones and chains. We slipped on the ancient wharf stones, smelt the green slime, flinched at the bitter cold wind, and felt ourselves at some unimaginable distance from the clear-lit city we could see through the wooden pillars. 

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And at the end of our walk together, with the winter sun low on the water silhouetting a couple deep in talk with their patient dogs waiting beside them, we too thought of the refugees, Virginia Woolf's fugitives, homeless exiles with their precious burdens and their useless well-intentioned charity kettles fleeing from machine guns to our home city, and as she says - then where?

Back home in my studio, I translated the photos into 15 grisaille watercolours on sheets of rough handmade paper approximately 21 x 30cm. To draw the material presence of the river itself into the views, I mixed the watercolour paint with Thames water, drawn in a jam-jar from the river as Turner did, and I used a small driftwood stick - picked up on the strand, carved by the tides into a rudimentary nib - as my pen, dipped in ink made from the same paint and Thames water. I looked for individual textures, flaws and quirks of the handmade paper pages that I could use to reflect aspects of the text - for example, the page with the strewn-about stones and bits of wire has a gnarled knotted fibre within the fabric of the paper that I just highlit with paint to embody a bit of wire, so that you can feel it with your fingertip; similarly the textured paper surface produces either a flickering effect of light on water when painted with a fairly dry brush, or the chiaroscuro of stones and rubble when painted with a wet one, as the liquid paint puddles darkly into the shadowy hollows between small raised clumps of paper-pulp. (This kind of paradoxical effect that materials can produce unexpectedly is the sort of thing that fascinates me - I enjoy collaborating with materials in making a physical embodiment of the words, allowing the materials and the words to do their own thing.)

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After I'd made the paintings and lettered them, I constructed the lettered images into a battered book made from black handmade paper like our grandparents' photograph albums with their precious wartime portraits and sepia views. And then I made a quarter-size (10 x 15cm) facsimile edition (limited to 20 signed and numbered copies), identically constructed, with the grisaille images re-translated back into black and white photographs, fixed to the album with acid-free photo-corners. The original and one of the edition copies is now in the British Library's permanent collection. Most of my work is one-off, but a few of my artist's books lend themselves well to editions; and this is one of them, where the photo-album concept gives a reference point for both the original and the edition, and a uniting rationale. As an artist, my concern is to make work where form and concept are fully integrated, where words and images are as one, inseparable, rather than co-existing as text and illustrations. Typically, this results in books and artworks whose individual material form is of its nature an expression of the text and therefore difficult or impossible to reproduce; but I do like to enlarge the scope of my books in terms of audience and affordability where it's possible to do so without compromising their integrity, particularly where, as here, the edition adds another aspect to the original, and enhances the meaning of the work.

I have shown Strand of the Thames at many of the artists' book fairs I've been to in the last 10 years, each time hoping that it won't still seem as though nothing changes - that we will have found an answer better than the metaphorical enamel kettles. And every time, with each audience, this book really strikes a chord with people, and together we say again 'Nothing changes', and we honour Virginia Woolf for her engagement with her world, her refusal to ignore the plight of her fellow humans, her recognition of their humanity and her un-fatigued compassion in weeping for dispossessed exiles seeking refuge in Tavistock Square.

 

 

31 May 2018

Past Visions of the Near Future: The Afterlife of J.G Ballard’s High-Rise on London History Day

By Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts. More information about London History Day can be found here.  Material from the J.G. Ballard Archive has been digitised and discussed here and is available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room at shelfmark Add MS 88938. Laura Oldfield Ford's Savage Messiah is available to consult in our Reading Rooms at YD.2014.a.735, and further material is available here.

Historic England’s ‘London History Day’ implores us to “reflect on and celebrate the pioneering spirit, heroism, initiative and kindness layered in the city’s history”. A dedicated app developed for the day even allows its users, on walks through the capital, to experience its deep architectural and social histories in the form of archival materials – photographs, text, videos – which reach out from the slick, glassy world of their smart-phones and onto the streets. This activity, despite its peculiar newness, echoes the activities of Guy De Bord and the Situationists International in the middle of the twentieth century, who famously drifted through, re-purposed and re-interpreted their own over-determined and over-regulated urban environments. London History Day aims to open up the city to play and new interpretations, allowing people to imagine the areas where they live and work in new ways.

J.G Ballard, whose extensive papers are held at the British Library, was interested throughout his career in this interplay of urban and architectural spaces and individual and social behaviour; in the mutually constitutive relation between space and psychology often called Psycho-geography. London was particularly interesting to Ballard because of the tendency for its limitless appetite for space and convenience to sprawl and carve out liminal spaces at its edges. Airports, motorways and shopping centres were to Ballard what mountains, lakes and streams were to Wordsworth, both infinitely fascinating and utterly terrifying. These non-places represented an attempt to imagine a new form of pragmatic and manageable urban space which could be cleansed of its messy social, cultural and material relations. (Precisely the things which London History Day wants to bring to the fore). By bringing these so-called non-places into the realm of imaginative literature, Ballard was able shed light on what was already literally and figuratively over-lit; to finally see this world of bland uniformity which had tried to position itself as a vanishing point of the spatial, the ideological and the social.

In High-Rise (1975), Ballard’s narrator Laing seeks precisely this retreat from the messiness of urban life. His ‘over-priced cell, slotted almost at random into the cliff face of the apartment building’ situated presciently in London’s now-redeveloped Docklands, promises ‘peace, quiet and anonymity’ but delivers nothing but a ‘regime of trivial disputes and irritations’ which eventually leads to terrible violence, seeing him nonchalantly barbequing a neighbour’s Alsatian on his balcony before the first page is turned. What appears at first to be an escape, whether from the ‘rundown areas around [the building], decaying nineteenth-century terraced houses and empty factories already zoned for reclamation’ or from ‘crowded streets, traffic hold-ups, rush-hour journeys on the Underground’, becomes instead an amplification of these same petty frustrations borne of (perceived) inequality and merely living together.

Ballard High-Rise MSThe first page of High-Rise in  typescript, heavily annotated by Ballard in 1974, with the famous first sentence already in place.

 

The ‘ragged skyline’ of the old city is visible from Laing’s 25th floor balcony, but it appears to him as an ungraspable spectre, an abstraction which ‘by contrast with the calm and unencumbered geometry of the concert-hall and television studios below him resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis’. That this crisis remains unresolved is, we know, an understatement.

More recent Psycho-geographers have been criticised for typifying a barely concealed Romantic-colonial logic, of imposing themselves on an outer-world to which they claim to be preternaturally sensitive. Laura Oldfield Ford is a contemporary Psycho-geographer working against this, in a mode which is highly critical of the so-called ‘yuppie-dromes’ which Ballard imagined in High-Rise and which now dominate the former wastelands of London’s in-between districts. Her zine collection Savage Messiah (Verso, 2011) takes the form a kind of textual augmented reality walk. Oldfield Ford’s fragmented narrator appears as a simultaneously direct and distant, personal and impersonal guide through London’s rapidly gentrifying liminal outskirts. These spaces are haunted by the spectres of past communities, enclaves, subcultures and alternative ways of living which have been swallowed, or are being swallowed up, by the Ballardian logic of the high-rise. Even the form itself, a kind of kitsch but sincere punkish collage, seems to be possessed by the voices of (im)possible futures, utopian social movements subsumed under the utopian dream of the post-social.

It’s this ghostly quality which so often surfaces when the deep social history of urban space, so often obscured by the new, is brought to the fore. A walk through Soho on London History Day, smart-phone in hand, will transport the drifter to a haunted neighbourhood of queer resistance and play. Some will turn off their phones and look carefully around them, at the almost total commodification and unviability of present reality in one of London’s most expensive districts; they will see chain stores, luxury apartments and calculated, cynical seediness everywhere. For some it will even give way to a sense of mourning, perhaps even a desire to live in that world – the world of ghosts, of an imagined past. But for others, hopefully, it will inspire a sense of possibility and a way to creatively re-think what living in cities – that is, living together -- might mean in the future, even as the ragged skyline of the past recedes from view.