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

15 December 2017

Get Ready for Quiz Night! A QI Elf's Recommended Reads

This is a guest blog from QI elf Anne Miller. Join Anne, fellow elf James Harkin and QI founder John Lloyd for a  QI Christmas Quiz on 18 December at the British Library. This event will celebrate the publication of 1,423 Facts To Bowl You Over, the latest eye-popping, gobsmacking, over-bowling book from the top QI team. 

Get your best team together and be in with a chance of winning a Quite Interesting prize!

Facts to bowl you over jacket

QI Towers is an office of bookworms. We love all facts but have a soft spot for bookish ones such as there being a German airline which allows an extra kilo of hand luggage so long as it’s books, that there’s a bookshop in Shanghai which sells books by the kilo and that the British Library keeps its collection of over 60 million newspapers in an airtight building with low oxygen so they can’t catch fire.

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The QI office is covered with towering stacks of intriguing books such as William Donaldson’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through The Ages, Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy’s The Geometry of Pasta and Fran Beauman’s The Pineapple which just make you want to stop everything until you’ve read them from cover to cover.

Some of our favourite titles include:

Tolstoy’s Bicycle

Jeremy Baker

This book takes its name from the fact that Tolstoy decided to learn to ride a bicycle (then a modern contraption) when he was 67-years-old. The book is full of facts about the great and the good (and the not so good) but with the facts divided up by the age people were when they happened. For example at two-years-old Hercules strangled two snakes in his crib, Judy Garland sang Jingle Bells on stage and that’s also generally the age when you become too old to travel for free on aeroplanes.

 

Consider The Fork: A History of Invention in the Kitchen

Bee Wilson

Interesting nuggets in Bee Wilson’s history of kitchens include that swingers, pinchers, tippers, perchers and floppers are all types of toaster. We were also fascinated to discover that there are actually precise measurements for quantities such as a 'dash' (1/8 of a teaspoon), a 'pinch' (1/16 of a teaspoon) and a ‘drop’ (1/72 of a teaspoon or 0.069ml). 

 

Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals

Steve Young and Sport Murphy

1950-80 was the golden age of ‘industrial musicals’ - bespoke Broadway-style shows performed by companies to promote their products and to motivate employees. This book gathers the best together including such gems as 1969’s The Bathrooms Are Coming which was only ever seen by people in the bathroom trade.  

One of the songs on the soundtrack was Look At This Tub! which included the lyrics ‘Look at this tub! It’s dangerous and certainly a hazard! It’s positively lower than substandard! Everything here is lower class, Why, I could slip, I could fall right on my... nose.’

 

The Oxford English Dictionary(OED)

The OED is one of our favourite reference books and where we found out that the word ‘omnilegent’ means being addicted to reading, ‘obdormition’ is when your arm falls asleep after you lean on it and ‘onomatomania’ is frustration at being unable to think of the appropriate word.

There are also some great facts about the OED itself. It was originally offered to Cambridge not Oxford and their first editorial assistant was sacked for industrial espionage.

With so many incredible books to get through we’re hopeful of avoiding alogotransiphobia which is the fear of being caught on public transport without a book to read.

Anne Miller photoAnne Miller, QI Elf

11 December 2017

Holy Days and Holidays: Angela Carter’s Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story

by Callum McKean, Curator, Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. The British Library holds the Angela Carter Archive and you can explore some digitised manuscripts on our Discovering Literature website.

For Angela Carter, many of our apparently banal daily practices orbit around ancient and largely invisible centres of gravity; they are the result of rituals repeated and folk narratives re-told across generations, often unconsciously. Her work looks askance at these invisible – or naturalised – narrative and behavioural forces, and then proceeds to take them apart to see how they work. In her hands, myths and fairy-tales are re-told in such a way as to drag them from the dark, invisible world of the habitual into the lighter realm of the thinkable.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Carter is interested in the idea of the Festival as a rupture in the procession of the Everyday; a moment when social norms are stretched and even overturned, at least temporarily. In her posthumously published ‘Ghost Ships: a Christmas Story’, this conflict takes place in a burgeoning 17th century New England colony which finds itself under silent attack from a larger-than-life pagan armada, where the titular ships re-call a contemporaneous Christmas carol of unknown origin. 

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This reproduction of a 19th Century wood-engraving illustrating the famous Christmas carol, ‘I Saw Three Ships’, shows three intensely colourful and oversized figures aboard ships, bringing music and festivity to the shore in a way comparable to the oversized figures aboard the ships in Carter’s story. (Walter Crane’s Painting Book [1889] YK.2000.b.3201)

 This re-imagination of the folk-song as an attack on puritan sensibilities, where the anticipatory joy of the original song becomes a kind of subliminal violence, is symptomatic of what Carter sees as the paranoid world-view of the New England settlers. The function of music in puritan societies was to help the congregation attain a higher religious ideal. Purely sensual enjoyment was discouraged and severely punished. Songs without basis in scripture, such as carols, came under immediate suspicion; the settlers preferred instead to chant psalms in unison, without instrumentation. ‘The greatest genius of the puritans lay in their ability to sniff out a pagan survival’, Carter writes, ‘they were the stuff of which social anthropologists would be made’.

The irony here, of course, is that peculiarly sensitive noses are at increased risk of ‘sniffing out’ more alluring scents too. Protection from the dangers of the purely sensual came, more often than not in the early colonies, through top-down legislation. ‘Ghost Ships’ begins with such a piece of legislation, an excerpt from a Statute Enacted by the General Court of Massachusetts in May 1659. The Statute itself is real, and still viewable in the Massachussets State Archives. 

Such top-down attempts to purge the so-called New World of its Old World traditions are particularly feeble for Carter. No penalty, however large or strictly enforced, can pry a culture from its origins. The Boston Bay which her pilgrims inhabit – described as being ‘as calm as milk, as black as ink, smooth as silk’ – is a paradoxically fantastical space; an imaginary clean slate constructed as a bulwark against the infinite reproducibility of a folk-culture which some of the more elite or pious settlers had hoped to leave behind, but which could not be forgotten by force. When reading Carter’s annotated typescripts for ‘Ghost Ships’, one is struck by how forcefully this conflict is encoded into the physicality of the text. Her typescript is draped in richly descriptive pen annotations which indulge sensual, onomatopoetic ruminations and asides – one reads simply, ‘slurp, slurp, slurp’:

  GhostShipsMs

 This typescript page from a draft of ‘Ghost Ships’ shows heavy annotations which never made it into the published version of the story, but which throw light on Carter’s sense of the titular ships as overflowing with rich and sensuous imagery. (Add MS 88899/1/39).

However, to focus too strongly on the emancipatory potential of Festival in this story is to forget its ending, where the Lord of Misrule (a precursor to modern Father Christmas whose body is a catalogue of obscene comedy) is thrown back into the sea in defeat. Carter read the work of Mikhail Bakhtin -- a Russian cultural theorist and literary critic whose sense of the Carnivalesque as possessing the potential to liberate us from oppressive structures -- with more than a pinch of salt. In ‘Pantoland’, another story from the same collection, she writes that, ‘the essence of the carnival, the festival, the Feast of Fools, is transience. It is here today and gone tomorrow, a release of tension not a reconstitution of order, refreshment… after which everything can go on again exactly as if nothing had happened’. Rather than overthrowing the puritans of Boston Bay, Carter’s Lord of Misrule leaves only a parting gift, a ‘juicy resistance’ which turns out to be, ‘to their amazed and secret glee, […] a raisin the size of your thumb, wrinkled with its own sweetness, plump as if it had been soaked in brandy, that came from who knows where but might have easily dropped out of the sky during the flight overhead of a disintegrating Christmas pudding’. Rather than a full-scale overthrow of the status-quo, then, Carter leaves us with only an exceedingly ripe kernel, a single transitional object which can move, inexplicably, from the world of magic to the world of the everyday. This saturated raisin, soaked in brandy, is all that remains of the night’s assault, but it is all that is needed to permit the imagination– in the smallest way – to re-think the world.

23 November 2017

Artist and Poet collaboration: Carolyn Trant and James Simpson

A guest post by Carolyn Trant.

James and I met at Schumacher College, at a week-long event combining poetry and bookbinding workshops, and soon realised our creative inspiration came from similar sources. We enjoyed discussing our ideas from a position of intuitive understanding. This was quite special, enabling us to get down to the nitty-gritty and fine-tune our arguments without time-consuming explanations, to push ideas forward without tedious back-stories.

Since I was a small child I had always loved poetry but was forced to choose between writing and painting by the tenor of the times (art school in late 60’s/early 70’s); James also makes wood engravings and pots. We respect each other’s judgments and feel free to criticise constructively. Our discussions inspire us each in our own medium, passing images and words between us.

We see the books as parallel texts, word and image, which we develop in tandem; neither ‘illustrates’ the other and a book is gradually extruded, together with the physical processes of its’ making, like red white and blue striped toothpaste from a tube. For me the physicality of the finished book is a major consideration from the start.

As an artist I have always been inspired by words, music, storytelling and the natural world; gradually the Artists Book seemed the natural gesamtkunstwerk I had dreamed of as a child. Although single-minded in pursuing the vision of my books, collaboration urges one to push oneself even further, with the benefits, if one finds the right person, of moral support – creativity can also be a tough and lonely business. I do also continue to make my own personal books, sometimes using texts of my own.

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My first book Gawain was inspired by Harrison Birtwistle’s music, the operatic production premiered at Covent Garden and the libretto by poet David Harsent – a fait accompli but very much chiming in with my own preoccupations of links between medieval and contemporary concerns. Similarly my book Winterreise used Schubert’s music and Wilhem Mueller’s words, in both English and German, plus my own text, all layered on top of each other with images underneath. I’ve also made a dual language edition of Llorca’s Sonnets of Dark Love with both texts and images cut in wood. Cutting texts by hand gives them a new dimension.

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Working closely with a contemporary poet was an exciting step forward. To date James and I have made Hunting the Wren and Love Poems and Curses; The Untenanted Room – published by Agenda Editions and soon to be re-thought and hand-made as The Ruin; The Rhyme of the Reddleman’s Daughter (2015) and Some Light Remains (2017). Some of these books have also later been developed into more three dimensional forms, cut-out leporellos, peepshows etc.

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For a poet, editions are regrettably small as they are very ‘hand-made’ but they find their way to important public collections here and abroad, where there is the potential to be looked read by a large number of people. We also show them at book fairs where many people come by to look, handle and often stand to read them. James also has the poems published in magazines such as the London Magazine, and Agenda, often with an image included. It all feels a worthwhile enough way to get them out into the world.

In terms of art practice, an Artists Book is for me like a little time capsule when deposited in a collection like the British Library. At the same time, when displayed, however briefly, or seen by a ‘reader’, it contrastingly becomes a transitory event – fugitive and volatile - and like a piece of land-art or a theatrical experience it can live on in the mind afterwards, with a variety of meanings for the possibly wider and more varied audience than the regular gallery-goer; a poetic event in itself which the text concentrates and refines even further.

I prefer this idea to the fixed image on a gallery wall. Book Fairs, with a democratic marketplace of tables and stands (and hopefully without curated interventions) leave room for varying kinds of interactions with the ‘the public’ by both poet and image maker, including informal conversations, talks and readings.

Innovation exists in the ways the art takes place whilst embracing longstanding methods of human communication - narrative and storytelling, aesthetic appreciation and emotional response; emotion being not merely a wash of sentiment but something that takes one from one place to another, whether comfortable or not, in a situation where the audience can talk back, critique, discuss. Working with another artist/poet places feedback at the centre of the creative process from the start, keeps one grounded and provides a sounding board at every stage.

 Any halfway attempt to reproduce our work digitally always leaves us dissatisfied. For Hunting the Wren we used silk-screened text printed by a local expert; many people thought it looked it like letterpress, which is hugely costly and time-consuming and although lovely, irrevocably linked to a historic aesthetic. Although meticulous within our parameters, we prefer to try to work fast, so that new ideas don’t go ‘off the boil’, and we can move on. I made a point of being trained by a wonderful ‘trade’ bookbinder when the need arose. Sometimes pragmatism is a virtue.

 Print runs, like the measure of the ‘acre’, are contingent on how many images for each page can be printed in a day. For Gawain I actually set myself the same task as in the story of the Green Knight, of finishing the whole project within a year and a day. The next impending important book fair often has some bearing on the case, or at least on how many hours sleep I allow myself.

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Latterly, the use of magnesium line-blocks, made by a helpful company called Metallic Elephant, has opened up new possibilities for texts; they are tricky to handle on my etching press, which is what I use for the woodcuts, but any imperfections are part of the process – something I always love about medieval technologies which are often working right up to the edge of possibilities.

In other words materiality, ‘words made flesh’ as it were, seems exciting and important alongside the digital world, a sort of ‘slow bookmaking’ for a fast age, within which James and I can keep up the pace of excitement about further collaborations, and battle to get things done with heads full of ideas stretching into the future. The Ruin, with hand-cut texts, is to be finished for the Oxford Fine Press Book Fair in spring 2018.

 

Further information:

http://carolyntrant.co.uk/  

http://carolyntrantparvenu.blogspot.com

 

James Simpson

https://jamessimpsonactaeon.wordpress.com