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

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. 

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’:


 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.


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.

New Winter 12-1280x1024

  Lorca rosas sp text brighten-800

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.

Hunting Wren boxes 2  3 002-1280x1024


29 october 2011 CR and UT 040-800

29 october 2011 CR and UT 002

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.

  IMG_6064 crop

  IMG_6070 crop

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:


James Simpson



09 November 2017

Workshops, Websites and Belly-worms: Work Experience at the British Library

As a sixth form student already practically fossilised under the pressure of A Levels, I remember my school’s decision to have a Year 12 work experience week (just after exams) was met with an overwhelming shout of fury throughout my year. A week on my grandad’s farm moving cattle through muddy fields‒ No Thank You! So, I took it upon myself to leave sleepy Dorset and find somewhere far, far away from any cows, where I would be genuinely fascinated with the work and the people (not that my grandad isn't interesting, you understand). Therefore, when I discovered that the British Library provided a work experience opportunity, I was utterly determined to surround myself with all things literature and history. Up at the crack of dawn (or what felt like the crack of dawn - 9.00 am feels unnaturally early for a teenager), I was ready for applications to open. By 9.30, my application had been sent ‒ the irrevocable action complete. All that was left to do was to wait as somebody decided my fate: cows or codices. I was pessimistic. It felt entirely impossible that I should be so lucky as to be accepted. So, naturally when I received an email from the British Library saying, ‘We are pleased to confirm that we will be able to offer you a placement’, I was overjoyed.

I was placed in the Learning team, with the people who make Discovering Literature, the Library’s excellent literature website. These were resources that I had used personally for school work, and in my extra-curricular reading. ‘What an amazing opportunity!’ I thought, ‘to be involved in the research behind one of my favourite websites for the subject I love most ‒ perfect!’

Oliver and Andrea by the King’s Library

I entered the British Library like a puppy, excited to an almost embarrassing degree, gawking at the deep browns, reds and greens that seemed to radiate from the tower of King George III’s books. My line manager Andrea Varney made me feel welcome immediately, giving me an opportunity to discuss what I had been reading, and why I love literature.

My tasks throughout the placement included: helping with school workshops; providing feedback on the Discovering Literature website; creating a guide for the ongoing Russian Revolution exhibition. I decided that my guide would be targeted towards students who had just finished their GCSEs and were looking to begin A Level History next year. I used the sources in the exhibition to form the basis of A Level style questions that would challenge students, and encourage historical debate, with an emphasis on analysis and evaluation. To my giddy pleasure, my guide was quite a success, and I was fortunate enough to have it read by the exhibition curators themselves. In the school workshops I was given the opportunity to experience the way the Library inspires young people with its amazing collection. It was a particular pleasure to see the awestruck faces of students surrounding an original version of the Magna Carta from 1215. Providing my perspective on the Discovering Literature website was also very enjoyable, as I was able to witness first-hand the work that goes into producing these extensive resources.

There were many highlights during my work experience. One was a Library tour, where I learned all kinds of pithy statements which I would later reel off to impress relatives and my dad’s work colleagues in London, such as: ‘The Library boasts a collection of 150 million items’, and ‘Every year the shelf-space required for new publications increases by 12 kilometres’. Another was to peruse an early dictionary with edits by Dr Samuel Johnson himself ‒- being the child that I am, I was quick to note down the definition of ‘belch’ and ‘belly-worm’.

Bellygods, Bellyrolls and Belly-worms in Samuel Johnson’s annotated Dictionary C_45_k_3_vol1_BEL_BEL

Also, leafing through the first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost from 1688 was particularly thrilling. However, perhaps what I enjoyed most was the opportunity to discuss literature and art with a group of people who were equally obsessed with books. Everybody was so welcoming and lovely, and certainly made me feel at home far away from the fields of Dorset.

  Satan  first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost
Satan in the first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost, 1688

My week at the British Library has to be one of the best weeks in my life so far (and I am making every effort not to exaggerate to a ridiculous extent). The opportunity to be independent in London, immerse myself in what I love, and surround myself with wonderful and interesting people, has given me a definite idea of what I want to do in the future. I can't wait to return for my own research.

Oliver Stockley

01 November 2017

Robert Aickman: Strange Stories in the Archive

On the 10th November the British Library will be hosting Even Stranger Things: A Night for Robert Aickman. It will be an uncanny evening of readings and discussion to mark the arrival of Robert Aickman’s archive at the British Library. The archive has now been catalogued and this blog explores some of the riches to be found in the collection.


Many know Aickman the conservationist, who dedicated much of his life to saving the British canal system and co-founded the Inland Waterways Association in 1946. But many also know Aickman the writer, author of 54 short stories, 3 novels, 2 autobiographies, numerous articles, and other works that remain unpublished.

His archive reflects all stages of Aickman’s literary career, from the very early days to his death in 1981. For most of his literary output, it is possible to see the different stages of Aickman’s creation process: a holograph manuscript, a corrected typescript and/or a final clean typescript. This makes the collection an invaluable resource for those interested in his writing technique and style.

Examples of his early writing include essays, plays and poems composed during his time at Highgate School (early 1930s), and many articles from the 1940s, when Aickman started writing theatre and drama reviews for the periodical The Nineteenth Century and After (he became their dramatic critic in 1945) and film reviews for The Jewish Monthly.

Aickman’s most popular creation are his short stories, or ‘strange stories’ as he preferred to call them - the term ‘ghost stories’ he thought ‘unsatisfactory’. Fifty-three of them are included in the archive (the one missing is Ringing the Change), as well a few unpublished and unfinished stories.

In addition to his two published novels and autobiographies, the British Library holds manuscripts of Aickman’s only unpublished novel entitled ‘Go Back at Once’, written in 1975, and his philosophical work ‘Panacea’, which Aickman wrote in 1936 but never succeeded in getting published.


Title page of We Are for the Dark, Aickman’s first collection of stories, with Elizabeth Jane Howard, 1951. The working title 'Ghost Stories for Women' and Aickman's pen name Robert Vigo are crossed out - Add MS 89209/1/70 Reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman

Aickman’s work as editor is also reflected in the archive: typescripts of his first collection of stories We are for The Dark, produced in collaboration with Elizabeth Jane Howard and published in 1951, and 8 more collections, some of which were never published. Most notably, Aickman edited The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories from 1964 to 1972.



First page of holograph manuscript of Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal [1971] - Add MS 892092/1/37 Reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman

The collection also includes the author’s literary correspondence, which provides fascinating insights into his creative mind and his views on writing. Aickman kept carbon copies of most of the letters he wrote (on bright pink paper). Amongst others, he corresponded with many fellow authors from the U.K. and the U.S., including Lady Cynthia Asquith, L.P. Hartley, Ramsey Campbell, T.E.D. Klein, and Russel Kirk.


Letter from RA to Lady Cynthia Asquith (at James Barrie Publishers) sending her some of his stories, 9 Feb 1955 - Add MS 892092/4/36 Reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman

Three letters are particularly revealing:

  • In December 1975, Aickman writes a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in which he compares ghost stories to poetry as ‘they enlarge not merely the imagination but also some other less definable aspect of the reader’s being’. ‘Nothing’ he adds ‘is more lethal to the effect that a ghost story should make than for the author to provide alternative materialist solution. This reduces a poem to a puzzle and confines the reader’s spirit instead of enlarging it’ (ref. no. Add MS 89209/4/55).
  • In a letter to literary agent Carol Smith, in August 1976, he distinguishes between ‘entertainers’ who ‘write for a specific market’ and ‘artists’ who ‘ write in response to a voice inside them which they cannot control beyond a certain point – which indeed, almost dictates to them, an experience that has several times came my way and which regularly produces one’s best work (such as Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal)’ - This was officially recognised as one of Aickman’s best stories and won the World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1975 (ref. no. Add MS 89209/4/57).
  • And finally, in a letter to Ramsey Campbell in June 1978 he writes: ‘I always read each story aloud to a selected person after it has been completed; and thereafter usually revise various things which came to light only by that process. After these revisions, I generally read the story aloud to some other selected person…There is nothing like reading aloud for the tidying up of stylistic shortcomings’ (ref. no. Add MS 89209/4/59).

Large part of Aickman’s correspondence is with his American literary agent, Kirby McCauley, who became his good friend and great admirer. McCauley successfully got some of his stories published in the United States, by Charles Scribner’s Son.

In the U.K., Aickman was initially represented by Herbert (Bertie) Van Thal who wrote to him in 1963 after reading his story Ringing the Changes. According to Felix Pearson, Aickman’s literary executor, this was the turning point in his writing career: Aickman sent his novel The Late Breakfaster, previously refused by many publishers, to Van Thal who managed to get it published in 1964.

Aickman’s personal correspondence includes letters from Lord Douglas, who he met in 1941, Peter Scott, who was involved with the Inland Waterways Association, and actress Margaret Rawlings.

A smaller portion of the archive contains papers relating to the literary agency which Aickman named Richard Marsh Ltd., in honour of his grandfather, author of the supernatural novel The Beetle (1897). Aickman set up the agency in 1944 with his wife, Edith Ray Gregorson, who left her job at the World Press Feature agency and took some of the clients with her, including the caricaturist and cartoonist Victor Weisz, known as Vicky. Partners in the agency were also photographer Howard Coaster and his wife.

There are also family papers in the collection, which include some correspondence of Richard Marsh, typescripts of some of his short stories, and part of the holograph manuscript of his novel The Beetle. The posthumous papers included in the collection are helpful in understanding how Aickman was viewed by his friends and colleagues.

If Aickman the writer was perhaps not sufficiently appreciated during his lifetime, his archive opens up many opportunities to bring back to life some of his best stories and the man who was behind them.

by Silvia Gallotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer 

12 October 2017

Discovering Literature: 20th century drama

‘I visited this play last night and endured two hours of angry boredom’; ‘A piece quite without drama and with very little meaning’. This was one audience member’s summary of the first London production of Waiting for Godot  – now regarded as Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece of 20th century drama. This wasn’t, however, the opinion of just any regular audience member – but an examiner for the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which until 1968 examined and licensed all plays for public performance. Heriot was called on to review the play in production following a letter of complaint from Lady Howitt, who was appalled by the play’s ‘lavatory references’ (f. 8r) and wanted it banned. According to Heriot, audience members ‘fled, never to return’ – except for ‘a sprinkling of young persons in slacks and Marlon Brando pullovers with (according to sex) horsetails or fringes’.


© Crown copyright

This is just one of the stories that you can find on the new 20th-century theatre phase of our free educational resource, Discovering Literature, which launched earlier this month. From production photographs of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey to manuscript drafts of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, the website draws on the British Library’s rich literary and theatrical archives to examine the work of 14 key dramatists. Aimed at A Level students, teachers and undergraduates, as well as the general public, this phase of Discovering Literature aims to show the developments and innovations on the British stage over the course of the century – which saw playwrights and practitioners breaking new ground with the subjects and characters they portrayed, and the forms and styles they experimented with.

We’ve digitised over 100 collection items, from manuscript drafts – offering fascinating glimpses into the creative processes behind the plays – to contemporary production photographs, reports from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, reviews, posters and programmes, which help to shed light on the plays’ cultural, historical and political contexts.

Highlights online for the first time include:

  • Manuscript of A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, written when she was 19 and typed on her employer’s notepaper, on a borrowed typewriter. You can view the entire original manuscript of the play, and discover the notes and changes made by Delaney and Joan Littlewood, director of Theatre Workshop.


Orphan work licence


Orphan work licence


© the Sir Terence Rattigan Charitable Trust

  • Script extracts from Oh What a Lovely War, with notes and rewrites by Joan Littlewood that reveal how the show evolved through a process of discussion, improvisation and experimentation by Littlewood, Gerry Raffles and members of the Theatre Workshop cast, in collaboration with Charles Chilton.


© Joan Littlewood Estate

  • One of several unpublished draft typescripts of The Black Jacobins, C L R James’s 1967 play about the Haitian Revolution.

In addition, we have partnered with institutions including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading and the J B Priestley Archive at the University of Bradford, to showcase archive material from different collections held in the UK and US. Highlights include:

  • John Osborne’s notebook for Look Back in Anger (held by the Harry Ransom Center), featuring title ideas for the play including ‘My Blood is a Mile High’, ‘Farewell to Anger’, ‘Angry Man’ and ‘Man in a Rage’ before Osborne hit on the iconic ‘Look Back in Anger’.
  • Letter from a young J B Priestley, sent from the front line during World War One (held by the University of Bradford). Priestley’s wartime experiences shaped his awareness of class division and injustice, which would greatly influence his political life and his writing in later life.


© The Estate of J.B. Priestley. © J.B. Priestley Archive, Special Collections, University of Bradford.

Alongside this digitised collection material, you’ll find 40 newly-commissioned articles by leading scholars, critics, directors and curators. Michael Billington explores Oh What a Lovely War and The Birthday Party, Yvonne Brewster reflects on forming Talawa Theatre Company and producing The Black Jacobins, Jeanette Winterson writes on the impact of Shelagh Delaney and A Taste of Honey, and Dan Rebellato considers Look Back in Anger. We’ve also covered influential theatre practitioners and genres, ranging from Brecht to, more recently, the work of Punchdrunk .

There are new interviews, too. We spoke with Max Stafford-Clark about directing Top Girls and Our Country’s Good at the Royal Court in the 1980s, and created film interviews with actor Murray Melvin, who reflects on his experiences starring in the original and ground-breaking Theatre Workshop productions of A Taste of Honey and Oh What a Lovely War.


© Estate of J V Spinner (born in Walthamstow).

Lastly, teachers should also find our teaching resources area helpful. These downloadable resources offer a range of ideas for how to use the digitised collection items and articles in the classroom.

This new phase of material joins our existing site on 20th century poets and novelists, which went live in May 2016. Discovering Literature first launched in 2014, focussing on Romantic and Victorian literature, and the resource continues to grow, with the ultimate aim being to cover the backbone of English Literature from Beowulf to the present day – and to use our collection to enrich the study and enjoyment of literature.

Explore more:

Katie Adams, Content Manager: Digital Learning


03 October 2017

A guest blog by Henry Woolf

A performance of Spider Love, based on a play by Mick Goldstein, adapted and arranged by Jeremy Goldstein, verse by Henry Woolf will take place at the British Library, Monday 16th October 18.00-20.00.

Spider Love

Photo Darren Black (Henry Woolf and Jeremy Goldstein)

Henry Woolf writes:

Writers are an awkward lot. When they’re dead they just won’t lie down. One visit to The British Library Archives in London will convince you of that. The words of these archived writers, assumed to be safely dead, fly off the page as fresh as a daisy, as warm as toast or as cold as ice but all as indubitably aliveas when they were first put down on paper. Death doesn’t necessarily have the last word. Thank heaven for the British Library archives which make these wonderful words available to anyone and everyone at absolutely no cost at all.

I feel all this very keenlywhen I visit the Harold Pinter Archive and re-read some of the hundreds of letters he wrote to myself and his other friends. He is still alive, forever, captured in the very pages that dropped through my letter box, his pages crackling with affection and energy.

Six of us including Harold and myself made up Harold’s ‘Gang’ We were friends for sixty years. I am the only one officially alive now. I wrote about us in The Guardian in 2008:‘A bunch of determined solipsists is how I would describe the six of us as we bowled about Hackney in the late forties and fifties our lives central to the workings of the Universe. We had mostly met at school encouraged by the shining example of our English teacher, Joe Brearley, to put our lives first and the world second’.

What does that mean?

Well in 1947 the world was too much with us; the Holocaust still loomed; atomic bombs had incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Cold War was being manufactured to keep the American economy going. What lay in store for us looked pretty bleak. We could prove to be the last generation. No future. No children. Did we agonise over this? Discuss our unhappy fate in the small hours? Not a bit of it. By silent agreement we put the day-to-day world to one side. Once we breathed its infected breath we were goners.

If you want a glimpse of what we were like then, how particular, how different from each other and yet sharing a common language, a common stance, read Harold Pinter’s novel, The Dwarfs, written when he was twenty-two. He brilliantly captures young men in all their pride and peacock before society closes in and squeezes the life out of them.

All at once life has caught up with me. The past has stepped off the pages of my friends’ letters and into the living breathing worldof a stage play by Mick Goldstein, one of our closest friends. The play was discovered after his death by his son Jeremy Goldstein who has since adapted it and turned it into Spider Love. It’s about Mick’s complicated life and his friendship with Harold and the rest of us. The British Library has generously encouraged Jeremy and a company of professional actors to present a rehearsed reading of the play on October 16th. Before the reading, Michael Billington the distinguished drama critic of The Guardian and Pinter’s biographer, will engage in a discussion about the play with myself, and in a moment of shameless self-promotion, at some point in the evening I shall be signing copies of my recently published memoir, Barcelona is in Trouble.

Jeremy's adaptation of Mick’s play includes myself as I am today at 87 (c. 2017) in the action of the play which takes place in 1975. A time traveller leading us to a Promised Land is not a bad description. I seem to represent the link between the past, present and future, and The Promised Land evokes the unknown fulfilment of the hopes, we as young men carried within us sixty years ago.

At first Spider Love seems a pretty straightforwardaccount of a man’s unhappy marriage and his own voyage of self-discovery. The play is lively enough, but one feels one has visited its territory before that is, until it dawns on us that everyone in the play not just Mick, is leading a double life. They too are looking for their own Promised Land of their imagination that was the unspoken promise of their youth.

Of course young people today have their own passionate views on life just as we had and feel the same energy and joy, but they express it differently and their approach to the world of politics that we all inhabit is much more straightforward than ours ever was. These days, young people are much more ready to speak up about their concerns than we were, and will confront what they consider to be the dishonest aspects of society, taunting their enemies with marvellous chants like truth to power which resonate with a wonderful confident optimism against the sleazy spin doctors we know so well today. We were much more wary of our shoddy, power corrupted world that was about to blow itself up.

Jeremy has kindly let me write some verse for the play as well as including some poetry that seems to marvellously capture its central theme. One of my favourite lines, and Harold Pinter’s too, is by the poet John Donne who wrote‘At the four corners of the imagined world blow your trumpets angels!’Surely we ourselves are the angels Donne is addressing as well as any supernatural beings that might be in the vicinity. The message is simple, there is more to life than the daily trudge at least for people like ourselves, the affluent few, who need only an economic surplus to release their imagination. On a much more jingle jangle level I wrote a verse myself on a similar theme:

‘What’s that drumbeat, what’s that thunder?
It’s the boys who’ve gone down under,
Beating on the door of wonder
That never closed inside your creaking heart.’

It is places like The British Library with its archives and other collections that help keep the door of wonder open in all our creaking hearts.

Henry Woolf, July, 2017.

Henry Woolf

Photo Darren Black (Henry Woolf)

‘Spider Love’ is a new play forming part of an international art project inspired by the political and philosophical beliefs of Harold Pinter and his Hackney Gang. The play will be read at The Knowledge Centre British Library on 16 October, and from 8 November its companion project ‘The Truth to Power Café’ tours the UK and internationally with Index on Censorship at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford. Devised by London Artists Projects

29 September 2017

Banned Books Week in prison

A guest post by Susan Selby, Library Manager at HMP Garth

Banned Books Week at HMP Garth

Preparing the Banned Books Week display at HMP Garth. Photograph © Susan Selby.

We are now putting the finishing touches to our displays and activities for Banned Books week. Our reading group will be holding a discussion around censorship and our poetry group will be delving into Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

We have hidden books under cover and studded our shelves with 'banned' books in wrappers. This is our normal stock but people who have asked why we are wrapping them have been surprised when told the books have been banned - no one believes that Harry Potter could be banned but it has happened in some US states!

Word searches to find the titles of banned books will be available, together with bookmarks. Borrowers are going to be asked for comments with the intention of making a display as a follow up to the event.

We have also made links with our Safer Custody and Equalities team as many of the reasons that books are banned i.e. homophobia and racism, are issues that are being dealt with within the prison system.

As well as encouraging reading, it is hoped that discussing the censorship of books will open a dialogue about why people see banning as an option, about the the reasons why books have been banned and whether they are still relevant today. Challenges are faced by institutions like prisons; mental health, violence, gender identity issues and religious intolerance. By highlighting how these issues are used as excuses for challenging books we can hopefully break down some of the prejudices that are held.

This blog is published as part of Banned Books Week 2017 (24-30 September).

Banned Books Week was first initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. The 2017 UK contribution to Banned Books Week features events staged by a variety of cultural organisations including the British Library, Free Word, Royal Society of Literature and Islington Library and Heritage Services. British Library events can be found here.

  Banned Books Week logo

27 September 2017

Standing With Salman: Banned Books Week looks back at The Satanic Verses

Add_ms_88930_2_2_1989_death_penalty - Copy

Detail from Salman Rushdie campaign literature, 1991, Add MS 88930/2/2

As part of this year’s Banned Books Week programme we’re hosting an event on Thursday evening looking back at the controversy surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Lisa Appignanesi of the Royal Society of Literature will chair a panel discussion with freedom of speech campaigners Melvyn Bragg, Frances D’Souza and Caroline Michel, together with human rights activist Yasmin Rehman. There are still a few tickets left for Standing With Salman but they are running out fast so book now if you would like to come along.

The Rushdie controversy seemed an apt choice for our contribution to Banned Books Week as the British Library is home to the archive of the Salman Rushdie Campaign Group. The collection comprises the working papers of the campaigners who banded together to support Salman Rushdie as the fatwa imposed on him by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini neared its 1000th day. By 1991, two years on from the publication of The Satanic Verses, opposition to the novel had reached frightening proportions. The book’s Japanese translator had been murdered and the Italian translator badly beaten up, two imams had been shot in Brussels and there had been riots in Pakistan and India resulting in the deaths of seven people and hundreds of injuries. As the violence worsened and the prospect of Rushdie returning to a normal life seemed farther away than ever, literary agent Caroline Michel joined forces with broadcasters Melvyn Bragg, Alan Yentob and others to galvanize the literary world into standing up for freedom of speech. The plan was to gather support from 1000 writers to mark the 1000th day of Rushdie’s life under the fatwa on 11 November 1991.

Things didn’t turn out quite the way they had been planned. In preparation for Banned Books Week I have been looking back through the archive, reading my way through the letters, minutes, petitions and press releases that were generated by the campaign. What becomes clear is that the grand plan for a 1000th day event in Westminster Central Hall had to be scaled back at the Government’s request due to concerns that it might impact on negotiations for the release of British hostage Terry Waite. Despite the Foreign Office’s concerns, the writers gathered anyway – albeit in a less high-profile location - and speeches were given by Hanif Kureishi and Günter Grass among others. These can be read in the archive alongside Rushdie’s own statement condemning the Foreign Office which was read out on his behalf, a public appearance being far too dangerous due to the £1.5 million bounty on his head.

It is the statements of support from other writers and prominent figures that form the bulk of the archive and they make for interesting reading. When I opened the files I found it poignant to see a handwritten letter from the late Alan Rickman, lamenting the fact that Rushdie would still be in the care of Special Branch come November, his life ‘a bargaining point in our Government’s trade interests’. There’s also Kazuo Ishiguro’s warning that ‘History will not forgive today’s world leaders if for reasons of short-term expediency, the “death sentence” method of political terrorism is permitted to become to the nineties what hi-jacking and hostage-taking was to the seventies and eighties’. Graham Swift takes a different tack, reminding us of literature’s power to live in our imaginations and asking us to read this award-winning book before arguing against it.

Not all those petitioned by the campaigners were in support of Salman Rushdie: Dirk Bogarde's letter sets out his reasons for not supporting him (he calls Rushdie an ‘arrogant fool’). Another high profile critic of Rushdie at the time was Roald Dahl, who wrote to The Times arguing that ‘In a civilised world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech’. You can see the full range of responses from writers in the series of incoming correspondence (Add MS 88930/1/1-7).

Thirty years on from the writing of The Satanic Verses, the book remains just as relevant to us today for its critique of British society as much as its commentary on fundamentalism of all kinds. If you can’t join us on Thursday evening, celebrate your freedom to read by picking up a copy of this much-discussed but under-read book. And if you would like to read more about controversy, The Rushdie File (London: Fourth Estate, 1989) edited by Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland is a great place to start.

The Salman Rushdie Campaign Archive is available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room and the catalogue is searchable on Explore: Archives and Manuscripts. Check out our Sound & Moving Image Catalogue for recordings of Rushdie reading from and discussing the book.

This blog is published as part of Banned Books Week 2017 (24-30 September). 

Banned Books Week was first initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. The 2017 UK contribution to Banned Books Week features events staged by a variety of cultural organisations including the British Library, Free Word, Royal Society of Literature and Islington Library and Heritage Services. British Library events can be found here.

Banned Books Week logo