English and Drama blog

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


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 May 2018

Artists’ Books Now: Here and Now

By Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. Artists’ Books Now is curated by Egidija Čiricaitė, Sophie Loss, Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. The next Artists’ Books Now evening will be held on 5th November at the British Library, with tickets available in the Autumn.

April saw the launch of Artists’ Books Now, a series of events to explore the artists’ book and its place in contemporary culture. The British Library has a significant collection of artists’ books and, in the nature of a national library, has not only many examples of its ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ forms – children’s books, poetry pamphlets, zines – it has centuries of examples of its ancestors (bestiaries, herbals, illuminated books, and so on).



From the outset the term ‘artists’ book’ seems to stimulate a range of questions and contradictions. Is it art or is it a book?  When is a book art, when a literary object, or a work of new information?  Can it be handled, thumbed through or should it be admired (even revered) from behind glass? 

In the first evening, entitled “Here and Now”, the aim was to bring the artists’ book and the audience closer to each other, leaving the glass case behind. Indeed a central goal was to introduce the artists and their books directly to the public, bringing the artists’ own works to a live audience. It seemed to the curators of the event that this was one of the best ways to demystify the artists’ book.

Beyond the theatre-style ‘proscenium’ presentation of traditional events, the first Artists’ Books Now placed the books and artists at the centre of the audience, seated on three sides around two central book tables. This inevitably lead to some Brechtian craning of necks and audience members balancing in on window sills in order to view the proceedings, but the atmosphere was quite unlike conventional events, and we think all the better for it. 

Following a welcome from the Head of Contemporary British Collections, Richard Price, who emphasised the continuities between artists’ books and other book forms held within the Library, the series host for the evening, producer of books and builder of publishing spaces Eleanor Vonne Brown, began introductions.

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Visual artist and graphic designer Danny Aldred speaks on contemporary practice in Artist’ Books.

First to be welcomed was the visual artist and graphic designer Danny Aldred whose talk offered a whistle-stop tour of creative practice in artists’ books, noting, for example, the rise of the distinctive productions of the risoprinter in the contemporary practice of making artists’ books. 

Eleanor then moved on to the first of the artists’ books tables, inviting us to share the work of maker of zines Holly Casio. Holly exhibited and discussed her passion for Bruce Springsteen with her series of zines, Me and Bruce Springsteen.

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 Eleanor Vonne Brown and Holly Casio

Under the surface of artists’ books there is a radical tornado of creativity, practice, vision, and rebellion, all of which feeds in to creating published works which many, including their makers, would not identify as artists’ books. The idea of Artists’ Books Now is not to worry too much about classification where there is clearly enough in common to share ideas and enthusiasm. Zines fully fit that bill: this was a presentation which reflected on class, sexuality, daughters and fathers, and of course, the Boss – all through the prism of the zine, with its own graphic traditions.

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Holly Casio’s zines Me and Bruce Springsteen &  Me and Bruce (and my Dad).]

Visual artist and performer Lydia Julien talked us through her largely autobiographical works including Super Hero Washing Line in her artists’ book table. In her conversation with Eleanor, Lydia explained her use of sequences to grow a narrative based on lived experience. Following Lydia and Holly the evening adjourned to allow the audience the opportunity to more closely examine their work and talk to the artists themselves, again a break from conventional events and deliberately designed to get people closer to books.

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Lydia Julien explaining her work  during her section

Following the interlude Eleanor was in discussion with Gustavo Grandal Montero, from the library of the Chelsea College of Art, as well as an authority on artists’ books and concrete poetry. The ranging discussion came back to focus on the work An Anecdoted Topography of Chance which Grandal Montero  highlighted, for him, as a central work in speaking about artists’ books.   

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Eleanor Vonne Brown in discussion with Gustavo Grandal Montero


First in the final set of artists’ tables which Vonne Brown introduced were the works of Amanda Crouch. Amanda’s works cut across media in her journey to research and reimagine the digestive systems. This is far more spectacular than such a description might indicate: as Amanda talked through her extraordinary works, she also held them up, with the scale of the unfurling of one particular concertina’d work surely astonishing the audience, watching frankly in awe and wonder.  

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Amanda Crouch unfurls her work to Eleanor Vonne Brown and the audience

The final artists’ books table was that of artist and researcher John McDowall. John talked about making his work Atramentum (2012), a work which pools the inky contents (theoretically) of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Perhaps the result is a kind of dark almost overwhelming teardrop. For our event it was a fitting full stop, bringing the sessions neatly to an end.

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John McDowall displays an opening from Atramentum during his segment

Not a complete end, however, just a pause: the next Artists’ Books Now evening will be on the 5th November at the British Library.

Images are reproduced with the kind permission of Lydia Julien and Sophie Loss

28 April 2018

Harold Pinter and ‘The Birthday Party’: Don’t let them tell you what to do…

by Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning. The Harold Pinter Archive is held at Add MS 8880 and free to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room. For more information about the Lord Chamberlain's Plays, also available in the Reading Room, please see our collection guide. To learn more about the Birthday Party, click here.

Harold Pinter’s so-called ‘political phase’ is often seen to have developed in his writing during the 1980s. It’s certainly true that during this period ‘closed rooms open[ed] to an international community’, as the Chairman of the Nobel Committee put it during the award ceremony speech. But, surely, it is also the case that Pinter’s work has always been political: a challenging, provocative scrutiny of power relations and justice. In one of Pinter’s earliest full-length plays, The Birthday Party recently revived in a starry revival at the Pinter Theatre in London’s West End and celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of its first ever performance this weekend – he writes what he will later describe as ‘one of the most important lines I’ve ever written’. In a strained plea to resist hierarchies and establishments of all kinds, a powerless Petey urges ‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!’ as McCann tries to lead him out of the door of the coastal boarding house and into his car. Forceful from the start, the line continues to draw attention from critics and audiences, featuring prominently in many reviews of the recent production.

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LCP 1958 No. 20 The Birthday Party as submitted to, and censored by, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office in 1958

Yet when The Birthday Party was first performed, all new plays had to be submitted to the office of the Lord Chamberlain for so-called ‘licensing’- essentially pre-censorship. This set-up, of course, was exactly the kind of establishment hierarchy that Pinter battled throughout his career. After theatre censorship was finally abolished in 1968, the thousands of play-texts that had been submitted by writers over the years came to rest in the British Library. Looking at the draft of ‘The Birthday Party’ that was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain in April 1958 reveals a surprising difference with what we think we know of the play. The vital line—‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!’ —, one of the most important lines Pinter had ever written is nowhere to be seen in the text. Instead, the play ends with a somewhat grotesque recourse to violence, when Stanley is struck on the side of the neck by McCann and knocked out (echoing the violent climax of ‘The Room’, his earlier short play).

In law, only the text as approved by the Lord Chamberlain could be performed, and it is not known when the famous line was added, although it does appear in the play-text first published by Encore in 1959, a year after its premiere. In theory, as no subsequent correspondence with the Censors is recorded, any addition of the line to the play would have been illegal…a rather delicious irony that I feel Harold would have appreciated.

Talking to The New York Times in 1988 about the importance of the legendary line, Pinter added: ‘I've lived that line all my damn life. Never more than now.’ Quite when, and how, the line came into being is uncertain. But from whatever moment it appeared, Pinter did adopt it as a design for writing…and living. He stood true to it ‘all [his] damn life’...and today, almost ten years after his death, and with ‘The Birthday Party’ still provoking and entertaining London audiences, the charge of its direct appeal (to Stanley…and to us) still resonates.

26 April 2018

T S Eliot in Margate: Writing ‘The Waste Land’

In 1921, T S Eliot and his wife Vivienne came to Margate whilst convalescing from illness. Both were suffering from nervous disorders and it was a period of great strain on their marriage. During this period of both mental and physical fragility, Eliot worked on ‘The Waste Land’ while sitting in the Nayland Rock shelter on Margate Sands.

The Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate is currently running an exhibition, titled ‘Journeys with The Waste Land, in which they explore the significance of this work through visual arts, and tell the story of Eliot in Margate as he worked on the poem. Included in the exhibition are about 100 objects from over 60 artists, as well as a letter by T S Eliot on loan from the British Library (Add MS 52918).




Add MS 52918, f 31r - Letter from Thomas Stearns Eliot to Sydney Schiff, 4th November 1921. Reproduced with the kind permission © Estate of T. S. Eliot. 

In this letter to his friend and fellow author Sydney Schiff (also known by his pen name Stephen Hudson), Eliot writes ‘I have done a rough draft of part of part III, but do not know whether it will do’, and how he has ‘done this while sitting in a shelter on the front’.



Add MS 52918, f 31v. Reproduced with the kind permission © Estate of T. S. Eliot. 

Whilst in Margate, Eliot ‘read nothing , literally – I sketch the people, after a fashion, and practise scales on the mandoline.’ He also writes of his feelings of nervousness about returning to town, as ‘one becomes dependent, too, on sea or mountains, which give some sense of security in which one relaxes’.



Add MS 52918, f 32r. Reproduced with the kind permission © Estate of T. S. Eliot. 

The exhibition has been developed by local residents, coming together as The Waste Land Research Group, who have chosen the exhibits, designed the layout of the show, and written the exhibition texts. Since opening in February the exhibition has been incredibly successful.



‘T.S. Eliot’ by Henry Ware Eliot: vintage gelatin silver print, 1926: NPG Ax142531: © National Portrait Gallery, London

The exhibition at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate runs until 7 May 2018.

by Stephen Noble,  Modern Archives and Manuscripts

20 March 2018

[sic] Thus it was Written: Rachel Hand’s Ash

By Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Published Collections and Emerging Media.

Rachael Hand’s latest work Ash (2017) comprises of an edition of 15. Ash is constructed from digital print, laser cut card and an etched engraved cover assembled around a hand painted and bound core to create an artists’ book that plays with a form now almost ubiquitous to reading in the 21st century: the e-book reader.  The word Ash is a play on the word ‘Kindle’.

When Ash is handled it takes on another dimension. The raw materials are the same component parts that are used in the construction of a printed book, and now so finely and precisely assembled Ash actually fools the viewer.  When it is first taken in their hands its tactility tricks the handler by offering the sensation of holding buckram, a sensation commonly associated with holding a book.  On opening the cover, one is presented with, to all intents and purposes, an e-book reader. Ash is in fact a facsimile of an e-book reader. Though fingers are dragged across the “screen” and prod at the “button” in an effort to elicit some life from the card and cloth, the reader of the ‘reader’ will be disappointed.


Hand's work is a reminder that, on the one hand, reading books on a “reader” can be a truly liberating experience. A weighty tome translates to a very portable light-weight object. Tight packed text and long paragraphs can be enlarged with a zoom tool and consumed a ‘mouthful’ at a time. Reference works can be stored weightlessly alongside the novel or poetry collection of the day. The typography of Amazon’s Kindle is mimicked in the spelling out of “Ash” and there is a surprisingly nostalgic aura to it, as if the future has already gone by. Yet, Ash also draws attention to the comfort of the printed page – the comfort of that tactility – and the beneficial slowness, sometimes, of the kind of reading necessary for traditionally produced books. It is a minimalist work, but also a rich ambiguous one.



Ash was created as part of the AMBruno coalition of artists who all have been brought together by their common interest in the medium of the book. It is one of  fifteen new books made by sixteen artists in response to the subject brief [sic] (sic erat scriptum - thus was it written) to make a book in some way that is at odds with assumptions of what a book should be or do. The supporting literature describes the work by using a definition of ash which reads as follows:

“Ash n. powdery residue left after the combustion of any substance; remains of human body after cremation. A meditation on our relationship with objects in our current era, and the question of what we will leave behind.”



AMBruno is a coalition of artists, established in 2008 with MA Fine Art graduates from Central Saint Martins (part of University of the Arts, London), which has since widened to include artists based throughout the UK and internationally. Their project, [sic], is comprised of fifteen books, all diverse responses to various forms of reading and writing, now catalogued and available to Readers in the Library's Reading Rooms. Rachael Hand is a member of AMBruno and an artist with an interest in the embodied nature of human knowledge. Her media include artist’s books, video installation, and various forms of chemical photography.

The first in the Artists’ Books Now series is to be hosted  by  the British Library on Monday 23rd April, celebrating Artists’ Books by thinking aloud with the books, their makers and their readers.





15 March 2018

The “rich pageant” of historical playbills

By Christian Algar, Curator Printed Heritage Collections

If you will see a pageant truly play’d … like that of Shakespeare’s shepherds in the Forest of Arden, his setting for As You Like It, you can now also see a literal procession of hundreds of thousands of performances advertised on printed historic playbills held at the British Library. Nearly 100,000 intriguing and eye-catching bills have been digitised and are freely available to view online via Explore the British Library

Besides recording a great variety of entertainments (ventriloquism, acrobatics, conjuring and all kinds of performing animals)playbills provide as near an entire historical survey of the performance of British and Irish drama in the 18th and 19th centuries we could hope for. As can be expected, there are a great many examples of Shakespeare’s plays advertised on these playbills. Browsing through a period from the 1780s to the 1860s, we get an impression of the most frequently performed and popular Shakespeare plays such as Macbeth; Hamlet; and Romeo and Juliet. It’s fun to see these famous titles appear in a range of type and font sizes that are characteristic of historical playbills.

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 A collage of 19th century playbills for Shakespeare’s big plays

But to find any level of detail, you have to get your noses in and browse through the playbills because there’s never been the resource to catalogue them; that’s why the British Library has a crowdsourcing project called In the Spotlight to capture core details – like performance titles, genres and dates. This provides opportunity to uncover all kinds of interesting events and details associated with past performances.

Appearing in this procession of playbills is a performance of King Henry IV with a bonus celebration: a pageant to conclude a drama called, Shakespeare’s Jubilee: or, Stratford upon Avon.

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Playbill for ‘Shakesperare’s Jubilee’ performed 20 February 1834. British Library Playbills 263

This pageant at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth was, “nearly a fac-simile of the Procession” at a festival held in Stratford in 1830. This festival, helpfully described in the exposition on the playbill, was founded on the three-day “Jubilee” of September 1769 in Stratford which was organised by the great actor David Garrick Despite being well attended by dignitaries from across the country, Garrick’s ‘Folly’ as it became known, was actually a bit of a farce. After opening to the salute of cannon and ending with fireworks, heavy rain and flooding postponed the planned grand procession. The idea was to stage a fully-costumed procession of the principal characters from Shakespeare’s plays carrying banners with dramatic quotes, and with recitals of famous lines for those looking on.

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How it might have been: impression of the procession from 1769. British Library C.61.e.2

Garrick made up for the damp-squib in Stratford by staging further face-saving shows in London, but it was not the best start for the history of Shakespeare parades. The next big Stratford celebration in 1827 was met with apathy and after a further Pageant in 1830, the planned ‘triennial’ celebration did not take place again until 1847. But browse through these digitised playbills and you will find evidence that there were other Pageants for Shakespeare being held in regional theatres. Details on the verso of a Bristol playbill from 1821, list the plays and characters in an, “Order of the Pageant”.

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Order of the Bristol Shakespeare pageant. British Library Playbills 204

The local press seemed not to have made much of the show, Shakespeare quotes being predictably used to dub the pageant as “insubstantial” and “faded” (with no apologies to The Tempest).

The Bristol Pageant was held on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd. But, the motive for the Plymouth show, held at the end of February, seems less apparent. Details from the playbill can help explain

A common feature on playbills tells us that the evening’s entertainment was, “For the Benefit of Mr. Henry, Artist, & Mrs. Henry”. Mr Henry’s, “annual appeal to the supporters of the Drama” at the top of the bill is aimed at selling tickets for the performance, the proceeds of which will go to Mr and Mrs Henry. This is a key feature of the economics of theatre history – an annual share of the night’s takings was a major contribution to those labouring to produce theatre.

Checking the local press helps try and trace how performances fared and further details fall into place. There are conflicting reviews of Mr Henry’s first ever performance as Falstaff, “he supported the Great Knight very cleverly and elicited much applause” says the Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Herald, but other local press reports tell us, “it was a bold attempt – a fearful one – his success was certainly not proportionate to the boldness of the venture.” It seems that though Mr Henry was “fat enough” to pull off Falstaff, he did not know at moments what to say and that his part would have benefited from a more attentive reading, “without which Mr Henry can never expect to completely succeed”!

It would seem the reporter in The Devonport Telegraph is suggesting Mr Henry should not give up the day job and it is in yet another newspaper where we find a detail that explains the true meaning of Mr Henry the ‘Artist’ making reference to his capability for – DRAWING! So it would seem that Mr Henry likely worked on producing illustrated sets to decorate the stage. This is a good illustration in itself of how general theatre workers – not just actors – were given the opportunity to act in plays or performances they concocted for their own Benefit Night performance. Mr Henry, hoped to, “escape the charge of egotism” but clearly wished to associate himself with the works of the supreme English dramatist.

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Review in the ‘Plymouth & Devon Weekly Journal’, Feb 20, 1834 revealing the type of ‘artist’ Mr. Henry is. British Library NEWS6323

Playbills very often provide us with great descriptions and information. Close examination of the order or programme of the procession stimulates thought about the choice of plays, characters, quotations used in the procession. Is there significance in the order?

Playbills provide us with details of the musical elements of entertainment. The playbill tells us that The Mulberry Tree (written for the 1769 Jubilee by Charles Dibdin) was performed after Mr Henry’s pageant.

These advertisements provide a great source for studying dramatic literature and its interpretation on different stages – we are often treated to plot synopses, guides to the ‘action’, and signposts for moral lessons to be drawn by the audience. These can be used to estimate contemporary understandings of historical drama across the regions (all the playbills on In the Spotlight are currently from regional theatres.)

Shakespeare pageants are of historical importance – they are an expression of the Romantic conception of Shakespeare as supreme creator of character. The pairing and prominence of St George also links the identities of Shakespeare’s drama with an English national expression.

Playbills, like historical newspapers are full of potential rabbit holes. Looking for performances of the Tempest? Do try not to get distracted by this Bristol playbill from 1820 announcing that “a celebrated pedestrian’ will arrive on stage after walking 92 miles in 24 hours” - between pubs in Cheltenham and Bristol. All for a considerable sum, it seems.

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From British Library Playbills 204

All these performances recorded on playbills really do form what we all know as, “Life’s rich pageant” (which, disappointingly for armchair Shakespeare aficionados, is not a quote from the great poet, but simply an old English idiom.)

You can get your nose into more historical playbills and play a part in capturing the details by checking out

  Playbills 7

Further reading:  

12 March 2018

The Lives of Typewriters and Large Data-sets: The Will Self Archive

by Chris Beckett, Manuscripts Cataloguer at the British Library currently working on the Will Self archive. The archive, which was acquired by the Library in 2016, consists of 24 large boxes of papers along with artwork, audio-visual material and the author’s computer hard drive. The first tranche is now discoverable through our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89203

On 24 June 2007, Will Self typed a letter to J G Ballard. It included, in passing, remarks on a German film he had just seen, set in East Berlin in 1984, some five years before the Fall of the Wall: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006). ‘The film would be worth seeing for the furniture alone,’ Self suggested, ‘but best of all is that the entire plot hinges on a typewriter, specifically a Groma Kolibri. A portable of beautiful compact sleekness, which our hero is able to hide from the Stasi.’

The ‘hero’ in question is a writer under state suspicion. He keeps his sleek portable hidden under the floorboards. Powerful tools of communication, all typewriters in East Germany were registered and numbered. The writer is unaware that his apartment is bugged. As the Stasi agent listens, and begins to log what he hears, he learns more about the writer’s life in the round. Invisible and increasingly engaged with the life of another, agent HGW XX/7 – for he too has a number – begins a dangerous moral journey from surveillance to active protection.

Blog image 1 Blog image 2The Lives of Others (2006)

I first came upon Self’s letter in the course of cataloguing Ballard’s papers some eight years ago (Add MS 88938). It particularly caught my attention because by coincidence I had only just seen the film myself. Of course, the film is about rather more than East German interiors and a manual typewriter, but Self had reason for his emphasis. Towards the end of 2002, he abandoned using word-processing software for the early stages of writing fiction, turning instead to the typewriter. His papers at the British Library supply the date (September 2002), the location (Liverpool), the occasion (a resident community arts project called ‘Further Up in the Air’), and the typescript that was produced (the story ‘161’), subsequently included in Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe (2004).

‘For some time an urge had been growing in me to write on a manual typewriter,’ Self has recalled more recently (LRB, 5 Mar 2015). ‘I didn’t know why exactly but it felt a strangely inappropriate lust, possibly a form of gerontophilia. I disinterred my mother’s old Olivetti, dusted it off, and resolved to type my daily word count, Blu-Tack the sheets to the scarified wallpaper of my Liverpool gaff, and invite the other residents up to view them.’ Leaving to one side the teasing Freudian slide across lust, mother and disinterment, it can be reported that bits of that ‘scarified wallpaper’, and flakes of the plaster beneath it, still cling to the pages of the draft in Self’s archive at the British Library. Unfortunately, instead of the more-forgiving Blu-Tack that Self mis-remembers, he used double-sided adhesive pads (‘holds securely and permanently,’ runs the strapline). They now form an obdurate bonded pile that hides all its words. The stuck pages are a material reminder that a paper archive is fundamentally a set of physical records: conservation expertise will be required to un-do part of that physical record – the fused pages with tiny bits of Liverpool embedded – to reveal another and more important part, the text itself (a text that is also physically rendered, by the hammered registration of the typewriter).

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First draft of the story ‘161’, pages stuck firmly together (Add MS 89203/2/4/95).

I didn’t appreciate the full context of Self’s letter to Ballard until more recently when – this time, in cataloguing Self’s papers – my frame of reference switched. There, the letter appears again as a carbon copy, together with 41 postcards from Ballard. Among the postcards is one that is undated but is clearly contemporaneous with Self’s letter. Untypically for Ballard, the postcard is typed. It begins by announcing itself as: ‘Olympia Monica – it doesn’t have the deep Monotype bite of your Olivetti, but it’s still deeply satisfying. I feel I could be setting Genesis for the first time. You’ve really started something in the Guardian.’ Ballard is referring here to Self’s ‘Writer’s Room’ remarks (6 Apr 2007) in which he said that he ‘loathe[s] computers more and more’ but owns two ‘beautiful’ Olivetti Lettera 32.

The writing space captured in Eamonn McCabe’s photograph for the Guardian is evocative of the archive. The yellow post-it notes in orderly rows on the walls are an integral part of Self’s method of work, his composition pathway: ‘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 […...]. When I'm working on a book, the Post-its come down off the wall and go into scrapbooks.’ Those scrapbooks and notebooks, and multiple drafts of all Self’s fiction – up to and including the novel Shark (2014), word-processed and typed – are the fascinating spine of the papers.

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Pages from How the Dead Live scrapbook of ‘post-it’ notes (Add MS 89203/2/4/68)

Far from being only a paper resource, however, the complete archive is in fact a typical contemporary hybrid collection, with ‘data’ – to use an apposite, if rather flat and unpromising term – stored in every conceivable form of media, from micro cassettes to obsolete floppy disks. Fading faxes, once a seemingly magical means of attaining immediacy, now evoke only a sense of faded urgency: copy deadlines and last-minute corrections, promotional itineraries, and pages of draft artwork from Ralph Steadman that once sped along the enchanted fibre-optic cabling before billowing out, grainy and faint. There are audio recordings on cassette (interviews for journalism assignments, with subjects as varied as Ballard, Morrissey, Damien Hirst and Cate Blanchett), radio and television broadcasts, and there is also a computer hard-drive awaiting a spot of digital forensic attention. Flatly pictured, the hard-drive makes an elegant image in yellow, green, orange and black. Inside the coloured box, drafts and distractions are captured indiscriminately. For the time being, only the paper archive is available to readers whilst work continues to transfer the remaining material to – in the irreducibly metaphorical language of the digital world – accessible platforms.

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Will Self’s computer hard-drive.


Self associates his disenchantment with writing on the computer with the coming of broadband. For some years now, he has been appraising the impact of the internet on the ways in which we write, read and think. In this, he has not been, of course, a lone enquiring voice – for an engaging overview of the issues, see, for example, Nicholas Carr, The Shallows (2010) – but Self has addressed the subject specifically as a writer of fiction: ‘when broadband came along in 2004 I understood intuitively it was inimical to the novel, an art form that depends upon the codex for its inception as well as its reception’ (Guardian, 18 June, 2016). On-line distraction is viewed as literary imagination’s worst adversary, the enemy of uninterrupted composition and the enemy of sustained reading. For Self, the novel is an experience best bounded by its paper covers.

In Phone, the final novel in Self’s recently completed trilogy, the information age is fully-fledged, and the smartphone is a ‘five-hundred quid worry bead’ in the hand. The looping and interwoven narratives of Umbrella (2012), Shark (2014) and Phone (2017) span the 20th century. Written in an ever-continuous present tense – it is always now – the novels explore the impact of technology on psychopathology, especially the technology of war and communications. They also tell a veiled and invented family history insofar as the three generations of the De’Ath family the trilogy portrays are based loosely upon three generations of Selfs, beginning with Sir (Albert) Henry Self (1890-1975), who is ‘Sirbert’. A substantial body of family letters and papers in the archive provides an illuminating documentary foreground to the transformation. Punning on the fictional family name, Phone ends with the word ‘death’, and concludes with a particular death – off-page – the death of weapons expert David Kelly.  

In Phone, a generation raised on Space Invaders goes to a war mediated by the screen: ‘Sitting in the transport’s booming fuselage, listening to the squaddies clustered round a laptop, who’d be watching one of the video montages it’s become de rigueur for your comrades to compile when you finish your tour: footage of the grunt footing it down dusty alleys, bracing a few rag heads, rattling around in an aypeesee and playing videogames – all to the accompaniment of the tinny-synthy chorusing you’re outta touch – you’re outta time …’ (p. 564).

MI6 agent Jonathan De’Ath, aka The Butcher, has broken the golden rule of tradecraft. He has sentimentally kept an ill-judged ‘data-set’ (yet another hybrid archive) of his clandestine affair with Lieutenant-Colonel Gawain Thomas, field commander of a regiment deployed in Iraq: ‘cassette tapes, compact and digitally versatile disks, external computer hard disks, photographs and photocopies which constitute his large data-set: an electroencephalogram of his and Gawain’s entire relationship, registering the rise and fall of their passion for one another’ (p. 556). With a memory as extraordinary as the retentive capacity of his grandfather (sage Sirbert), Jonathan remembers everything, yet still falls anxiously prey to the reassuring quiddity of evidential records. Gawain has been a lover under surveillance.

Returning to the German film, perhaps the ‘star’ of The Lives of Others is not the typewriter after all but the novel as book, an increasingly marginalised artefact in a digitally-driven culture, as Self has lately lamented. After German Reunification, the writer visits the Stasi archive (opened to public access as soon as 1992) to read his files. A trolley piled high with folders is wheeled out. Confused at first by the official record (part truth, and evidently part fiction), he soon realises that HGW XX/7 had protected him from arrest, even removing the concealed typewriter from his apartment just before it had been searched. The agent is now a postman. The writer tracks him down, intending to speak to him, but finds himself unable to do so. A couple of years later, HGW XX/7 – still walking his post around a much-graffitied Berlin – passes a bookshop. Prominently displayed in the window is a new novel by the writer, Die Sonate vom Guten Menschen [Sonata for a Good Man]. Intrigued, he enters the shop and examines the book. He discovers that it is dedicated ‘To HGW XX/7, in gratitude’. The shop assistant asks if he would like it gift-wrapped. ‘No,’ he replies, ‘it’s for me’. Here’s the film clip.

As for Will Self, he soon succumbed. Typewriterly lust got the better of him and he bought not one but two sleek Groma Kolibris. His ‘large data set’ at the British Library includes all the paper drafts they have so far produced. In 2015, however, he intimated that his German love affair may have run its course. You can’t get the parts, and engineers are hard to find. Now there is (or was) a new passion. It’s an old flame re-ignited: ‘for years I’ve had a twinkle in my eye when I gaze upon the slim, silvery forms of the Mitsubishi propelling pencils I customarily use to take notes’.

The first tranche of the Will Self archive is now available at the British Library: Add MS 89203. I spy graphic adventures, in a difficult hand, on the horizon.

21 February 2018

‘A little giggle’: Cataloguing Michael Palin

by Silvia Gallotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer at the British Library currently working on the Michael Palin archive. The archive, which has been generously donated to the British Library by Palin, covers his literary and creative life during the years 1965-1987 and will be available for the public to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room from spring 2018.


During a dialogue between Pontius Pilate and his centurions in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), Pilate dares his men to have a ‘little giggle’ at the name of his ‘fwend’ [sic] named ‘Biggus Dickus’ in Rome. Their attempt to stifle laughter is finally thwarted when Palin’s Pilate, in full Roman regalia, tells them the name of Bigus’s wife – Incontentia Buttocks.

When reading drafts of Palin’s early sketches written for The Two Ronnies, The Frost Report, or Do Not Adjust Your Set or when delving into notebooks and scripts for The Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Holy Grail or The Life of Brian, it is impossible to resist a ‘little giggle’ or even, sometimes, to burst into uncontrollable laughter like Pilate’s centurions.

As well as being a singularly valuable source of inspiration for new generations of comedians, writers and actors, Palin’s archive is also as entertaining as his finished work. The material not only reflects each stage of his creative process – from initial ideas, conceptualization, planning and organising to drafting and final revisions – but it also illustrates all the different phases of TV and film making, from pre and post-production to publicity and distribution.

 Palin organised his papers in files, each relating to a TV, film or literary project, spanning from his early career to his later performance in A Fish Called Wanda (1988). The files (all 200 of them) are currently being catalogued and include research material, notes, drafts, correspondence, scripts, call sheets, shooting schedules, financial statements, photographs, advertising posters, press reviews, distribution reports, and more. Showcased below are just a few examples of the material found in the archive related to Palin’s TV projects and films, ranging from early drafts to publicity ideas.


‘Karate Quickie’ – Excerpt from The Frost Report, 1966

The Frost Report was a comedy show produced and broadcast by the BBC, hosted by David Frost and written by comedians including Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Marty Feldman, Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker. The first episode was released on 10 March 1966. Each episode, presented by David Frost, covered different topics, such as education, love, money, trends.  Above is a draft of a comedy quickie written by Palin probably for the ’Frost Report on Leisure’. It is one of the numerous early drafts of sketches included in the archive, some of which were never used.


Page from a notebook used in the production of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1976-1977

Life of Brian was Monty Python’s third film, after And Now for Something completely Different (1971) and The Holy Grail (1975). Directed by Terry Jones and financed by George Harrison, the film caused controversy among some religious groups upon its release. Cinemas in Ireland, Norway and many UK cinemas banned the film, which was nevertheless a huge success elsewhere.

The above page comes from a notebook with Palin’s notes and drafts for the film. It is a draft of the scene where Pilate, Biggus Dickus and the centurion appear on the balcony in front of the crowd to announce the release of a prisoner. The combination of holograph manuscript and typescript clearly illustrates Palin’s editing process through which pages have been cut out and pasted back together in a different sequence.


Schedule for ‘The Entire History of England’, 24 Sep 1968-10 Jan 1969 from the TV sketch show series The Complete and Utter History of Britain

The Complete and Utter History of Britain was a six-part series written and performed by Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Produced by London Weekend Television, it was broadcast between 12 January and 16 February 1969. Above is a schedule for the show, handmade by Palin, with dates for rehearsal, filming and viewing. ‘The Entire History of England’ was the provisional title of the show. The archive includes other examples of shooting schedules as well as camera scripts for Monty Python’s shows and Palin’s films.


‘Frog This Way Up’ sign from ‘Across the Andes by Frog’ --  Ripping Yarns (1976)

Ripping Yarns was a television comedy series written by Michal Palin and Terry Jones. It ran for 2 series (8 episodes in total) and was broadcast on BBC from from October 1976 to October 1979. The sign above was made for the episode ‘Across the Andes by Frog’, directed by Terry Hughes and aired on 17 October 1977. The story had first appeared in Jones and Palin’s humorous book Bert Fegg’s Nasty Book for Boys and Girls (1974).


List of ‘Clothes for Rly Journey’ – Great Railway Journeys, May 1980

The above page is from a notebook is related to Palin’s first engagement as a TV presenter. A lover of trains, his episode of the series Great Railway Journeys was entitled ‘Confession of a Trainspotter’ and documented his journey from London to the Kyle of Lochalsh. It was filmed in May 1980 and this is Palin’s handwritten list of the clothes to take on the journey.


Notebook - The Missionary, 1983

Michael Palin is writer, lead actor (with Maggie Smith) and co-producer of The Missionary, film directed by Richard Locraine. His first film produced and performed without any of the Pythons, it was released in the U.S. in November 1982 and in the UK in January 1983. The notebook includes Palin’s notes about the publicity campaign and cinema openings in the UK, including drafts of commercials. This page gives an insight in Palin’s work at the publicity stage of film-making, with his notes for advertising posters and radio commercials.                                            

These items give just a small glimpse of the prolific and multifaceted career of one of Britain’s most loved figures.  We hope that being able to see all of this material for the first time will provide an insight into the history of show business and inspiration for future researchers and practitioners alike.  Palin’s influence is felt across disciplines, and access to his archive stands only to widen and deepen this influence.


All images reproduced with the kind permission of Michael Palin.

16 February 2018

Limehouse Lights and the Lunar New Year: London's Two Chinatowns and Literature

by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts. This month the Library is running a series of events under the name China in Focus with speakers from a number of disciplines related to the study and appreciation of China and diasporic Chinese communities. All material referenced in this blog post is available to consult in our Reading Rooms, either online or in person.

On February 18th London will become witness to a spectacle. The already loud and luminescent streets of Soho will shine even brighter and shout even louder than usual, as hundreds of thousands of people descend to usher in the Year of the Dog. Fantastical creatures will wind their way down Charing Cross Road – roaring past its rare and vintage book shops – towards Gerard Street – with its bilingual street signage and open-door all you can eat Chinese restaurants – down to Trafalgar Square, where an 18th century vice-admiral will look on with bemusement as the stage is set for the evening’s eclectic performances of music, dance, acrobatics and spoken-word. This is London at its most forward facing and outward looking; a city profoundly aware of its status as perhaps the most international city in the world; a city which understands a dynamic multiplicity of identities to be its singular identity, all contained in the all-encompassing and many-sided concept of the Londoner.


A Chinese style lion descends a building in Wardour Street, London with bilingual signage. Photo Credit: Garry Knight

But the history of the Chinese diaspora in London didn’t begin with this West End spectacle, nor did it even begin in the little group of neon-lit streets which we now call Chinatown, bounded informally by Shaftesbury Avenue in the north, Rupert Street to the west, Charing Cross Road to the east and Leicester Square to the south. Instead, the history of the Chinese diaspora in London begins further east, in the now regenerated Docklands where – under the shadow of Canary Wharf’s glistening glass-towers and luxury apartment blocks – little remains of the old Chinatown which formed around the Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This small assortment of specialist shops and meeting places which was built to serve the transient population of Chinese sailors working the ships docked on the Thames  soon responded to the growth of the London docks by becoming a fixed settlement, almost doubling in terms of its fixed population from 1901 to 1911. (Although it is still important to note that the numbers remained very small in actual terms, growing from just 55 men to 101 registered in the census data).


Two men meet outside a Chinese laundry on the corner of Caston Street, Limehouse, c.1917

In an already highly cosmopolitan district the Chinese remained a minority, but a highly visible one, attracting disproportionate attention from reporters and fiction writers who went to London’s East End hoping to experience the exotic mystery and romance of the Far East. Fiction writers like Thomas Burke in Limehouse Nights (1916) and Sax Rohmer in Tales of Chinatown (1922) set the tone for journalism in the period. In their work the industrial slum of Limehouse became an inscrutable and ingenious façade, behind which something mysterious or violent always lurked -- just out of reach. With very little material evidence to go on, these writers began to construct fantasy worlds out of the basements, attics and back-rooms of the neighbourhood: every business became a front; every drab house-front concealed rooms full of exotic and luxurious ornamentation; every interaction was littered with secret codes and by-words; and every foggy alleyway cloaked a shady scheming figure, ‘fading into a dimly seen doorway in a manner peculiarly unpleasant and Asiatic’ (Rohmer, Tales, p.56 [shelfmark: NN.7917]).


The front cover of the 1922 edition of Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, designed by C.R. Nevinson [shelfmark: X.989/27452.(9.)] 

In this imaginary landscape ideology and topology merged into one foggy symbol. The ordinariness of the district itself was no match for this logic – perhaps even working in its favour to deepen the sense of scandal and intrigue with every perceived evasion or near-encounter. Each time the real Limehouse failed to deliver the goods, the fantasy Limehouse was pushed further and further back into the unreachable parts of the tenement houses and restaurants, which would need to become positively labyrinthine in order to accommodate the ever more complex patterns of organisation and depravity which writers like Rohmer and Burke were obsessed. (Rohmer’s own Fu Manchu character is in some sense the epitome of this process; the physical embodiment of nothing less than a world-domination conspiracy, hatched in a Limehouse cellar-cum-secret lair). Given this propensity for pushing back and building conspiracies, it is unsurprising that one of the most prominent and lasting tropes which emerges from narratives of Chinatown during this period is the idea of uncovering, unmasking and bringing to light that which was supposedly hidden, inaccessible and inscrutable. Reports from the Illustrated Police News repeatedly show raids on Chinese business and homes, focusing specifically on the act of breaking down doors and pulling up floor-boards to find hidden gambling and opium dens lying beneath and behind the hum-drum facades.

4A page from the Illustrated Police News dated October 14th 1920 showing a police raid in Limehouse Chinatown. Thousands of digitised British newspaper pages are accessible through the British Newspaper Archive, which is available for free in the Library's Reading Rooms. 

Contemporary Chinese writing in Britain has been forced to deal with this legacy in one way or another. Like many diasporic writers and their immediate descendants, an ability to write themselves so often depends, either implicitly or explicitly, on their ability to confront those who have so often written for them. Wasafiri magazine was founded in 1984 to provide a dynamic platform for contemporary international writing in this self-defining mode, featuring a diverse range of voices from across the UK and beyond, with an emphasis on diasporic writers. The Library acquired the magazine’s archive in 2016, and despite the its excellent output and considerable influence and reputation, when reading the correspondence related to the production of a 2008 Olympic special edition titled ‘Writing China’, it is striking how difficult the process of compiling, curating and translating for this single issue had evidently been for the editorial staff, even with their collective expertise. As Rana Mitter, the Director of the Oxford University China Centre, suggested in a recent lecture at the Library’s Knowledge Centre, titled simply China in 2018, even the most avowedly cosmopolitan among us often harbour grave misunderstandings about Chinese culture and politics. All to often some vital thing is lost in translation, either culturally or literally.

Yet when I read contemporary Chinese British writing I find myself more often in the exuberant and playful streets of Soho than in foggy Limehouse. A dual-language collection put out by Lambeth Chinese Community Association entitled Another Province (1994), as perhaps the first major selection of Chinese writing in the UK is, as much as Wasafiri's ‘Writing China’ issue, a good place to start. In this collection we find ourselves in familiar locales (restaurants, take-aways, and tenement houses) but now the rules have changed. In Lab Ky Mo’s cameo  titled ‘Dining Alone at Wong Kee Restaurant with Seven Men’, the touristic gaze is turned outwards, towards the white diners in the Chinese restaurant. Their peculiar habits and social defenses against the infamously abrupt waiting staff are deconstructed as Mo pokes fun at their mild suffering. The story is an at times caustic but always funny piece of mock amateur anthropology of the kind that journalists were taking much more seriously in Limehouse a century beforehand. Similarly, Lili Man’ turns the tables  by examining the body, and more specifically the face in ‘A Batty Metamorphosis’. If the Chinese faces in Limehouse tended to be described as repetitious and unreadable, Man takes the readability of the face as a given when a Chinese woman wakes one morning to find herself with golden hair and blue eyes, but rather than having her identity issues resolved, her confusion is amplified.

An excerpt from Pui Fan Lee’s Short, Fat, Ugly and Chinese (1992) is particularly revealing in this regard. Lee's play is a tragicomic monologue describing the experience of growing up as a young Chinese woman in the UK. The action tracks Lee’s narrator through her panoptic Nottinghamshire hometown where white residents repeatedly comment upon and speculate on her body, imitate her voice and – revealingly –attempt to get behind the counter of the take-away where she works after school in order to discover its ‘operations’. Eventually, Lee’s narrator escapes, leaving for University in London where – with a tongue in cheek idealism – she tells us, ‘No one looks at you in London. No one cares. It’s great’ (Another Province, p.192 [shelfmark: 98/10076]). Ironically though, this line is delivered first on a West End stage, where an audience of Londoners is necessarily compelled to look at her as she makes herself uncomfortably visible under the limelight. Perhaps the issue at hand here, then, as for much diasporic writing, is less about cultivating invisibility than about becoming visible on one’s own terms. The end of the excerpt in Another Province sees Fan’s narrator move again, this time from her drab tenement flat in Tooting to the uninhabitable but magical streets of the West End; from London as it is often lived to London as it is often felt – and wished – to exist; from the secluded and marginal to the performative and visible; from Limehouse to Soho. These spaces are still symbols, but she is now free to move around in them and make them her own. Finally free from the weight of ‘the reputation of the whole Chinese population on [her] shoulders’, Lee’s narrator can begin to tell her own story, and we can finally listen (Another Province, p.179).