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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

24 March 2017

‘Post-it’ notes in the Will Self archive

Chris Beckett writes:

‘My books begin life in notebooks, then they move on to Post-it notes, the Post-its go up on the walls of the room […] short story ideas, tropes, metaphors, gags, characters, etc. When I'm working on a book, the Post-its come down off the wall and go into scrapbooks.’ (‘Writers' Rooms: Will Self’, The Guardian, 6 April 2007.)

Here’s Self’s writing room in 71 photographs: http://www.will-self.com/writing-room/index.php

The photographs capture the scale of the author’s devotion to the little yellow pad. The scrapbooks into which Self has gathered the ‘post-it’ notes now form part of his archive at the British Library. Grid-like on the wall, and grid-like in the scrapbooks, the notes intrigue and fascinate. They are little doorways into the text, little honeycomb cells of access.

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Having recently read How the Dead Live (2000), a group of ‘post-it’ notes in the novel’s scrapbook caught my eye. 

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I smiled at the note about the minicab driver who crosses London by an internal map of Lagos (second row, third from left – see p. 310 of the novel). I remembered Lily Bloom’s heavy-smoking fantasy of an elaborate contraption to feed her a continuous supply of ready-lit cigarettes – think cogs, wheels and pulleys, think Heath Robinson – drawn by the American cartoonist Rube Goldberg (first row, novel p. 300). I noted Lily’s anxious ‘dieting lists’, and I caught her familiar combative tone in ‘very few people are fond of me’ (second row) although I can’t find the words in the book. I then wondered about the striking phrase ‘ginny mist’ (second row, second from the left). When I found ‘ginny mist’ in the published text (p. 101), I saw that the image had been deftly extended and deepened: ‘I remember this lack of sensation; it’s happened enough times to me in this bedroom, usually in a ginny mist, a forest of juniper’.  

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Looking through the scrapbook for Walking to Hollywood (my current reading), I discovered a group of ‘post-it’ notes on Scientology. The unreliable narrator of the novel, a writer called Will Self who has lost his capacity to suspend disbelief, goes on a walking odyssey to Hollywood to discover who killed the movies, and has CGI firmly in his sights. In this novel of seems and simulacra, everyone looks like a familiar actor, even Self, who is ‘played’ by Pete Postlethwaite and/or David Thewlis. ‘Actors feel like Thetans’ says one post-it note (see below, second row, second note from the left). L. Ron Hubbard’s cult is described in the novel as a mash-up of ‘Astounding Stories, the Bhagavad Gita and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’ (p. 141).

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In the late 1980s, the narrator once ‘inveigled’ himself on to an introductory Scientology weekend course at the Saint Hill Manor headquarters, near East Grinstead, but was firmly rejected when they discovered his ‘homosexual inclinations’. Thereafter, he was repeatedly rebuffed: ‘over the coming years I went on pitching up at Tottenham Court Road, in disguises and under assumed names, armed with strategies for “fooling” the Capacity Analysis. It was all to no avail: the smiling Scientologists would let me take the test again, then send me on my way, with the advice that I see a doctor, a therapist, a priest – do anything, in short, but submit myself to their own mind control’ (p. 141). Among the background notes for Walking to Hollywood are the results of a Scientology personality test displayed as a graph (Hubbard’s OCA, the so-called ‘Oxford Capacity Analysis’). The test was undertaken by one (thinly disguised) Wihh [sic] Orr at the Scientology Life Improvement Center, Sunset Boulevard, 14 June 2008.

Returning home from Los Angeles, Self finds that the (cartoon) ‘superpowers’ he possessed in LA have vanished, only to be replaced by a growing sense that his ‘mental faculties’ are deteriorating. He walks the crumbling coastline of East Yorkshire and meditates morbidly on ‘the fuzziness and forgetfulness’ (p. 329) that has descended on him. Like the cliffs he walks along, his foot-weary narrative is eroded and ‘breaks off’, along with a sense of purpose and identity: ‘This would be a unique walk of erasure – a forty-mile extended metaphor for my own embattled persona, as its foundations were washed away’ (p. 345). 

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‘The fictional account breaks off short: it is eroded’.

Before starting out on his littoral tramp of East Yorkshire – an ambulatory coda to the morphing masks of LA – Self muses: ‘It was true that in the decade since I had stopped drinking and taking drugs my short-term memory seemed to have improved; at any rate, I no longer needed the elaborate system of Post-it notes stuck to the walls of my writing room that had for years served me as a kind of random access. If I maintained this, it was more as an art installation, or magic ritual […] (p. 330).

And so perhaps we have then, in a sense, in the Walking to Hollywood scrapbook, Self’s final scrapbook post-it note: not the very last physically – the pages of notes continue beyond it – but the note that points, with the satisfying force of circularity, not only to ‘post-it’ notes as a subject within the text but also to the end of the writer’s practical need for them. The art installation has had its final show. RAM is no longer required on the walls.

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‘Amnesia / Post-its’ (third row, first left). And: ‘My family. Who are they? Why haven’t they forgotten me?' (far right).

However, Self quickly decides that his reasoning for the end of the writing room installation is delusional. It is not that his short-term memory has greatly improved, it is just that he now works differently, is better at his trade: ‘I now wrote books with the workmanlike despatch of a carpenter turning out tables, this busy practice obscuring the loss of much I had once known’ (p. 331). 

Next week, I start to catalogue the two novels that followed the ‘wayward and melancholic’ (Self’s description) Walking to Hollywood: they are Umbrella (2012) and Shark (2014). A cursory glance at what the boxes contain suggests that the narrator is indeed an unreliable fellow. Not only are there yellow notes hiding in the drafts of Umbrella, but there is also a scrapbook for Shark. Perhaps we really shouldn’t believe a word he says.

 

Chris Beckett’s blog on the family papers in the Self archive is here:  http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2017/02/first-report-from-the-will-self-archive-family-matters.html

Images of material from the Will Self archive are used with kind permission of the author.

03 March 2017

Visual Verses: John Vicars’s God in the Mount, or Jehova-jireh, 1641.

by Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

George Herbert’s Easter Wings (1633) is the most renowned example of an early modern English pattern poem; it appears in all the anthologies and has been widely discussed and analysed. So, it is a real treat to find an example of an early printed pattern poem that is seemingly little-known, especially when it comes from a surprisingly incongruous source having been composed by a militant Presbyterian iconoclast.

John Vicars (1580-1652) schoolmaster and poet, is remembered most for his Parliamentary chronicles printed during the 1640s, a series of newsbook-style pamphlets written in the sermon rhetoric of popular puritanism. In his sixties by the time of the Great Rebellion he wrote in favour of iconoclastic reform and in praise of Parliament’s efforts to bring it about. He specifically contributed to the literature of iconoclasm with The sinfulness and unlawfulness of making or having the picture of Christ’s humanity (1641) in which the poet William Prynne also contributed a verse against images. Vicars gleefully chronicled incidents of the removal of images, crucifixes, popish books and ‘Babylonish trinkets’, his reports manifest an un-hinged enthusiasm. Fiercely anti-Rome, he staged a dramatic scene to personally pull down a crucifix discretely located in Christ’s Hospital.

Following his sycophantic poem England’s Remembrancer, or, a thankfull acknowledgement of Parliamentary mercies to our English-nation (1641), the first of his Parliamentary chronicles proper, God in the Mount, (also known as Jehova-jireh) (1642), presents the reader with a prominent visualisation of his glorifications. The book’s first three preliminary pages hammer home its purpose as panegyric: the title page is printed in the form of a pyramid, a mount; then there is the virtual monument to the Trinity; but more playfully we see on the next page a dedicatory verse in patterned form, to the Houses of Parliament.

 

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John Vicars’s dedicatory shaped poem to the Houses of Parliament (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

To The Right Honourable, thrice Noble and illustrious Senatours of the House of Peers in Parliament.

To Our Trulie Honourable and most renowned Patriots; the House of Commons, in Parliament.

Right Noble Lords and England’s Commons rare,

(For whom the Lord hath joyn’d, disjoin who dare?)

The poem exalts the men of Parliament, offering prayer that their power is protected from “stormes and mischief” and wishes them courage, “to work a pure, A perfect Reformation”, to:

Go on though you great obstacles endure;

Sol shines most clear, though clouds It (oft) obscure;

Heav’n crown your Counsels (still) with good successe,

And you and yours for all your labours blesse,

How can the poem be evaluated? There are some rhymes constructed in there - at the line breaks (rare and dare; blast and cast; tears and re-chears, endure and obscure etc) and arranged inside the two columns (votarie and memorie; erected and protected; valiantly and malignity; Reformation and generation etc), but its literary worth as poetry is usually best declared upon by expert critics (it’s unlikely to score well!). Another way of measuring its impact though is from some estimation about whether the visual effect ‘works’? It is quite imposing and unambiguous, but also a little crude and unsophisticated. It is always worth considering these efforts as a feat of printing and typography. In fairness, this technopaegnion (the more precise term for this type of shaped poem) does look a little sloppy: we can picture the compositor sat frowning at how to set the type with the author peering over his shoulder. The compositor has had to incorporate different sized type and make much use of em-dashes and fleurs-de-lis to fill spaces to create the pattern.

Texts presented in patterns do not just frustrate the compositor; what happens in the reader’s head when attempting to read the poem? Our minds are accustomed to conventions in the structure of letters and words when reading a text. Shaped text is spatial rather than linear, so normal reading is altered and challenged. The line-by-line arrangement is subverted and the visual impact takes primacy and dominates. Whilst our brains look for conventional patterns they are also powerful problem solvers, so these patterns make us try different ways of reading: is there one way to read it, or several different possibilities? Does the subversion and domination of the pattern detract from textual and other values of poetry? Is it pleasing to look at, or just, well, a bit annoying? It can take some time and effort to read and transcribe.

Is this innovation just a bit eccentric? Here lies its curiosity – this English shaped poem is unusual and uncommon. A previous blog-post on ‘visual verses’ mentions that continental enthusiasm for shape poems in the early modern period was not matched in British Literature. Why is this? This poem by John Vicars, the iconoclast, may help explain. Fear and hatred of idolatry lay at the root of Puritan iconoclasm. Hostility towards false, idolatrous art risked deepening into an iconophobic hatred of all art-forms which appealed to the senses. A widespread antipathy towards visual art was a part of the cultural impact of the English revolution. Religious reformers withdrew from printed ballads, stage plays and pictorial art. So, it seems incongruous that Vicars, the iconoclast, here makes use of innovation and visual images to worship and proselytise the cause of Parliament, God, the Trinity and religious Reformation. Maybe, there is intentional irony and these pyramides and monuments are being offered as an alternative to the usual Popish icons. All the same, this work of Vicars does seem to sit somewhat outside the conventions of his very own prescribed culture.

 

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Title page of John Vicars’s God in the Mount, or Jehova-jireh (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

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The iconoclast’s monumental tribute to The Trinitie (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

Some further reading :

God in the mount. Or, Englands remembrancer. Being a panegyrick piramides, erected to the everlasting high honour of Englands God, in the most gratefull commemoration of al [sic] the miraculous Parliamentarie. .. by John Vicars  (British Library shelfmark 4103.d.34)

Visual Verses: Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia, or Passionate Century of Love, 1582.

Puritan iconoclasm in the English civil war, Julie Spraggon (YC2003a22358)

The Princerton encycolpedia of poetry and poetics, edited by Roland Greene (Open Access  Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 808.103; General Reference Collection YC.2012.b.2422)

The Word Turned Image: Reading Pattern Poems, by Sabine Gross in Poetics Today Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring, 1997) (P.901/1862)

 

 

27 February 2017

First report from the Will Self archive: family matters

Chris Beckett writes:

Will Self’s review (for the New Statesman) of Peter Ackroyd’s Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002) begins with the suggestion that his grandfather would have enjoyed the book. Before telling us why (Cockney visionaries both, with a tendency to compendiousness), we are treated to a pen-portrait of grandfather Sir Henry:

‘Albert Henry Self was the son of the conductor on the Number 11 tram. A Fulham boy, he was waiting table in a cafe when a patron spotted his ability to add the bill up with a single saccade of his bulbous blue eyes. The cafe's patron became my grandfather's, putting him through school and sponsoring him while he took the civil service examinations. Henry Self ended up as a heavyweight mandarin, Beaverbrook's permanent undersecretary during the war and, latterly, chairman of the Electricity Board. A Knight of the Garter, and one time President of the Laity of the Church of England, in his old age, my grandfather's cockney origins only emerged when he'd had an extra Guinness or three over lunch. On these occasions, he'd beat time with his knife on the table and give us a rousing chorus of "Don't Have Any More, Mrs Moore", much to the consternation of my authentically genteel grandmother, who'd bleat: "Really Henry!"’

As an unexpected bonus, the archive of Will Self at the British Library includes a fascinating documentary foreground: an assortment of family papers – photographs, letters, diaries – that have passed into the author’s possession. Cataloguing of the substantial archive is currently well-advanced: the family papers have been addressed, and work has now commenced on the core of the collection, the multiple drafts of Self’s fiction. Among the family papers is Sir Henry’s compendious ‘The Divine Indwelling’, a grand philosophical summa in five volumes that attempts a ‘reconciliation of science, religion and philosophy’.

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Sir Henry Self, ‘The Divine Indwelling’. Annotations in blue ink are in the hand of his son, Peter Self.

It was this unpublished work (not unpublished for want of trying, however, as Sir Henry’s correspondence in the archive records) that prompted Self to compare his grandfather’s synthesising habit of thought to that of Peter Ackroyd. But Self quickly makes brutally plain the all-important difference between them – the pre-loaded punchline of his comparison – that ‘Ackroyd can write’.

‘Before he too expired from a surfeit of prolixity,’ Self’s review continues, ‘my father repeatedly enjoined me to "do something" about The Divine Indwelling’. In Walking to Hollywood (2010, p. 253), we glimpse ‘the yellowing typescript’ resting – waiting wordily for attention – on the top shelf in Self’s study. Perhaps the patrilineal burden of what to do about Sir Henry’s magnum opus – his laboursome philosophical folly – has now been resolved, custody secured, by its incorporation in the archive of his grandson.

The earliest item in the archive is a Victorian family photograph album, from Lady Rosalind Self, Will Self’s grandmother. The gallery of stiff portraits that fill most of the album give way in the later pages to less formal ‘snaps’ of her two sons, Peter and Hugh Michael. Rosalind Self was the daughter of Sir John Otter. As Mayor of Brighton (1913-15), Sir John initiated the building of The Chattri war memorial, a monument to the Sikh and Hindu soldiers who died in the military hospitals of Brighton. Sir John had served in the Indian Medical Service. The Chattri, a Grade-II listed structure, sits on the South Downs in a remote spot above Patcham, overlooking Brighton. It was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1921, as photographs in the album record. The archive includes photographs of some of the original architectural designs (which show that initially a somewhat larger monument had been envisaged).

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Lady Self was the granddaughter of the Anglican educationalist the Rev. Nathaniel Woodard, who founded eleven schools for the rising and increasingly affluent Victorian middle class. The first school was Lancing College, near Lewes, founded in 1848. In 1843, Woodard had published A Plea for the Middle Classes. He summarised his purpose as the provision of ‘a good and complete education for the middle classes, at such a charge as will make it available to most of them’. In 1925, Sir John Otter published a memoir of Woodard.

Henry and Rosalind Self lived in Brighton, not far from Lancing, in a house in Vernon Terrace that Rosalind had inherited. Peter, Will Self’s father (who held chairs in Public Administration at the London School of Economics, and subsequently at The Australian National University at Canberra) and his brother Hugh Michael (Queen’s Counsel) were both boarders at Lancing College. It had been their mother’s wish that her sons should board there (Henry had been in favour of Brighton Grammar School). From time to time, the brothers must have passed the impressive tomb of their great-grandfather, Nathaniel Woodard, in the grand Gothic setting of Lancing College Chapel, a stolid reminder of the weight of ancestry, and of scholarly expectation.

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The archive includes Peter Self’s unfinished draft memoir ‘Through a Glass Brightly’ in which he recounts his childhood and his memories of Lancing: ‘my life at Lancing, which seemed at the time interminable, sucked me into a complete, insulated world of intense experience, which made the “real” world outside, for which we were supposedly being prepared, seem remote and unreal’ (f. 45).

Will Self’s American Jewish mother, Elaine (née Rosenbloom) first enters Self’s fictional world in the early story ‘The North London Book of the Dead’, written following her death in 1988. Elaine later takes centre-stage as the (Joycean) Lily Bloom, the sharp voice and the lively dead consciousness of How the Dead Live (2000). The archive includes her diaries and journals (most as copies), which register something of her misanthropic tone and take on life, echoed in the acerbic voicing of How the Dead Live: ‘So many people left to disparage – so little time’ (p. 55). The archive includes the letters she received throughout her life from American and English family and friends, and from her husband Peter.

The Self family letters in the archive span three generations and the three continents of Europe, America, and Australia. After Peter Self emigrated to Australia in 1980, to teach at Canberra, he usually wrote an airletter to his mother on a Monday; they form the sort of tidy pile an archivist loves to find. Will Self’s letters to his father are of particular interest: they make frequent and illuminating reference to his writing. Some were sent from the remote island of Rousay in the Orkneys, a quiet location where many of Self’s novels from the 1990s received their final drafts.

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In a recent interview published in the Paris Review (2012), Self described his first book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991) – a collection of short stories, most of which satirise the world of academic research in the social and psychiatric medical sciences – as an act of parricide: ‘It takes the piss out of my father and his friends and their irrelevance as I saw it and the perniciousness of their discourse and the way in which people believed it.’ The symbolic murder of the father, as Self recalls, was not an entirely conscious action but was ‘done with a sleight of mind’. In ‘My Old Man’ (The Guardian, 15 June 2008), he acknowledges a shift in his appreciation of his father: ‘Ours was an ambulatory, ludic and pedagogic relationship [….] As we come to resemble our fathers, so we re-encounter the individual who reared us’. Certainly, the physical resemblance of Henry, Peter, and Will, all standing at some six and a half feet tall, is striking. Temperamentally, they all enjoyed and enjoy, in Self’s felicitous phrase, the pleasures of ‘happy disputation’. In the light of family history, it is perhaps not surprising that Will Woodard Self has recently turned to teaching. In March 2012, Self was appointed Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University.

Sir Henry Self, a working-class son, was, by all accounts, a man of extraordinary talents, not least in respect of his exceptional capacity for memory. He used his time commuting from Brighton to London to gain eleven degrees. Sir Henry’s prodigious memory is alluded to in My Idea of Fun (1993), in the eidetic – or photographic – memory of young Ian Wharton; his ‘eidetiking’ facilitates the ominous entry of The Fat Controller into his life. In the same novel (partly set on the Brighton coast familiar from Self’s childhood), the shadowy absence of Ian’s father – ‘little more than a ghost in the domestic machine’ – seems to reflect the absence of Peter Self from the family home (from the age of nine). Lily Bloom reflects that she married into a family of ‘true shabby gentility’, a family of ‘nursery names’. In the letters in the archive, we discover that Lady Self is always addressed as ‘Mumbles’ and always signs her letters by the same name, to everyone in the family. Sir Henry’s ‘nursery name’ was ‘Dids’.

Much of Self’s fiction is framed by an exploration of masculine identity, from Cock and Bull (1992) to Dorian (2002), and The Book of Dave (2006). Self’s memoir of his father in the introduction to Perfidious Man (2000), at once a warmly humorous and distancing account, is also enlightening on the subject. Drafts of the novel Umbrella (2012) have been filed by the author along with Sir Henry’s passport and several genealogical research papers. As the author commented when Umbrella was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize: ‘Having reached my 40s, like many another slightly nerdy man (and I think it is a mostly male preoccupation), I started looking into my immediate ancestry.’ The family papers included in Will Self’s archive at the British Library suggest that however extreme the alternative reality his fiction portrays, however skewed and re-scaled the world it depicts, its well-spring is quite likely to be, bubbling beneath, a family matter.