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

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).

Blog image 3 DSCF1773

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.

Blog image 4 DSCF1871

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.

Blog image 5 IMG_6498

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).


31 January 2018

Nowadays and Anywhere: Jim Crace on his New Novel



A guest blog by Jim Crace, who will speak about love and grief, music and myth, how society treats its less fortunate and the creation of his new novel, The Melody, when he launches it at the Library in February.

My novels are hardly autobiographical. They tend to spring from something puzzling or troubling beyond my experience rather than from events in my own life. So it was with The Melody. About three years ago, I was on the 10th floor of a lavish hotel in Chennai, India, a guest of the Lit for Life Festival. Everything was perfect – except for one annoyance: I couldn’t sleep because of the ceaseless, metallic racket from the waste ground below my suite. I looked down from the window on my first restless night to watch the hotel’s garbage bins being toppled over and raided for food scraps by, mostly, feral dogs and a few other animals I couldn’t, in that half light, put a name to. A couple of them looked alarmingly like children. I lay awake, disturbed in every sense, until the waiter brought my breakfast on a tray.

What I’d witnessed at the bins had been a distressing and sobering sight, not just because of the disparity between my pampered life and theirs but also because it made me speculate from my elevated viewpoint how biologically debasing and destructive poverty must be. Those scavenging street children had seemed little more than animals.

That was the seed for the novel and it provided the question the narrative would hope to answer: What occupies the space between the human mammals in their hotel rooms and those amongst the bins? A realist, autobiographical writer, employing the pen as a camera, might have set the novel in 21st century Chennai.  I was wary of that. I was a white, privileged tourist there. Whatever I wrote would seem like a narrow, judgemental, post-colonial misrepresentation of a diverse nation about which I knew very little. India is so much more than poverty, of course. Besides, if a book were to be written on the subject of destitution in the sub-continent, there were plenty of talented Indian writers who would make a truer job of it than I ever could. Many have already done so. No, what I needed was a setting out of Asia and one which could not offend the citizens of any actual place. That meant making up an unnamed nation of my own, something I am very fond of doing. Minting a new world, rather than holding a mirror up to a real one, is a liberation I nearly always search for in my novels for the licence and the freedom it allows. Anything can happen in the realms of make-believe.

So The Melody is set in a time long lost (the late 1920s, say), on a coast unnamed (by the Mediterranean, perhaps) and in a town unbuilt, except within the pages of the novel. As in all the public places we enjoy, there is a throng of music, street life and romance, there are intrigues and shenanigans, there are good intentions and bad decisions. The only part of Chennai that survives is the night-time racket of the bins - but in The Melody these discords are relocated to disturb the wealth and poverty of an invented place that I hope can stand for Nowadays and Anywhere.

Jim Crace is the prize-winning author of several books, including Continent (winner of the 1986 Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize), Quarantine (winner of the 1998 Whitbread Novel of the Year and shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and Being Dead (winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award). His 2013 novel, Harvest, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was the winner of the International Dublin Literary Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Authour Press Shoot

24 January 2018

Just Plain Gone: Three Monographs from Etcher, Print-maker and Sculptor D.R. Wakefield

by Jeremy Jenkins, Curator for Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media.


Frontis Going Going Going                                       Frontispiece, Going Going Going

When I walk between the West End and the Euston Road I would cut through the British Museum galleries to vary my route. This would inevitably take me past the gigantic carved stone statue or moai, which were erected on Easter Island and looked over the villages on Rapa Nui. 

As I weave through the snakes of tourists and visitors in the British Museum’s Wellcome Gallery where Hoa Hakananai'a resides, I could not help thinking that if this stone monolith was imbued with some sort of consciousness what would he think?

It is likely he had seen it all before millennia earlier on his ancestral shore.  Indeed if, as is argued, he is representative of the pinnacle of  his society’s achievements it is likely he witnessed the slow  decline and collapse of  this home has there was a greater competition for the island’s limited resources. Another view is that it was the arrival of Europeans that began the decline.    

Contemporary British Publications recently took delivery of  three monographs from etcher, printmaker, and sculptor, D.R. Wakefield.  These works straddle the final steps documenting the transference of a range of mammals in the spectrum from endangered to extinct.

 An Alphabet of Endangered Mammals: A Collection of Etching Depicting Animals Considered Extinct in the Wild by 2050 takes the reader on an alphabetic journey starting with the Asian lion and ending Zubr, It includes the Nepalese giant elephant, the well-publicised precarious situation of the polar bear, and others, all of which are portrayed in tinted etching.  The etchings are pulled through a 19th century star wheel engraving press, while the type for each piece of text is assembled by hand, and pressed on an Albion press.


Endangered Polar Bear     A Polar Bear, An Alphabet of Endangered Mammals

The second volume in the package was Going, Going, Going: Some Thoughts on the Destiny of the Rhinoceros as an Icon of Natural History. The pages explore the predicament of an animal whose early representations and fossils were attributed to be evidence of the mythic unicorn, the rhinoceros. The level of detail and skill demonstrated in engraving and printing from the plates of this work is of the very highest standard and provide the reader with a detailed study of five different rhinoceros species including the Indian and black rhinoceros. 

The briefest of glimpses of the frontispiece leaves the reader in little doubt of the Wakefield’s view that poaching is responsible for the tragic decline in rhinoceros across the world.  This is further illustrated in the manner in which the book’s title has been printed, by simply embossing the final “Going” into the paper.  This echoes palaeontology where the only evidence of the existence of a creature is the imprint it made that subsequently became fossilised, such as the Tetrapod Trackway


Tetropod trackway           The Tetrapod Trackway, Valentia Island, County Kerry, Ireland. [permission, author]

These mental imprints reflect back on earlier representations of how the rhinoceros were perceived which in crude terms described it as a beast about the size of a horse with a horn. Combine this with archaeological evidence of knawel horns and third hand reports of beasts from the edge of imagination and there are fertile grounds for the conjuring of the image of the unicorn.  Indeed as late as the early eighteenth century the unicorn versus rhinoceros debate continued.   

Foldout 2 Going going going

                                            The Black Rhinoceros, Going Going Going

Finally, An Alphabet of Extinct Mammals almost seems to be the natural book end for this collection from Chevington Press. The fact that Wakefield illustrates the frontispiece of this work with a self-portrait which airs toward the creature-like seems to echo a warning to the reader about how closely our fate is intrinsically connected to mammals. 

Frontis piece ExtinctFrontispiece, An Alphabet of Extinct Animals 

There is something unique and particularly individual and characterful about the illustrations which are all yet beautifully faithful representations of these once majestic creatures. One of the most powerful messages in this work is the fact that Wakefield can fill the alphabet with extinct species. Most of the species illustrated have slipped in to extinction in the since the age of exploration.  This work is certainly not a corpus of Victorian expeditionary corpulence although it does include such examples as the Warrah or Falkland Islands dog which was “eased into oblivion” by the “inevitable government bounty” in the mid nineteenth century.    

Because of the new security measures placed at the entrances it is now not so easy to pass through the British Museum. So I must find a new route through the pollution choked city to meetings in town.


D.R. Wakefield, Alphabet of endangered mammals: a collection of etchings depicting animals considered extinct in the wild 2050, The Chevington Press: Goole, 2010. [British Library Shelfmark: RF.2017.b.58]

D.R. Wakefield, An alphabet of extinct mammals; The Chevington Press: Goole, 2009 [British Library Shelfmark: RF.2017.b.59]

D.R. Wakefield, Going, going, going: some thoughts on the destiny of the rhinoceros as an icon of natural history with etchings, The Chevington Press: Goole, 2015 [British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2322]

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Allen Lane: London 2005 [British Library Shelfmark: YC.2006.a.14921]



15 January 2018

It’s a kinda magick: Aleister Crowley

A guest blog by Rachel Brett, Humanities Reference Specialist

For those who believe in magic it’s reasonable to accept it can form in monochrome shades. Potentially the most infamous practitioner of the darker variety was Aleister Crowley (pictured below). Emerging from the Fin de siècle moment when, along with philosophers and psychoanalysists alike, he became interested in mysticism and the occult. Rebelling against his evangelical Christian upbringing causing his mother to dub him ‘The Beast’ a moniker amongst many he would adopt throughout his life as a magician.

ACrowleyCrowley began his magical apprentice training with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, other probationers included W.B.Yeats. Crowley however, developed an interest in goetia- the evocation of demons and would later believe Yeats was casting spells on him because he was jealous of his poetry… The clandestine life style Crowley was beginning to indulge in encompassing drug taking and sexual experiments cast a cloud over his progress with that magical order prompting him to seek wider magical landscapes.

He travelled extensively and studied a myriad amount of ancient eastern traditions from yoga, meditation to kabbalah. He married and shortly after in telepathic communication with his new wife made contact with the Egyptian god Aiwass, which resulted in him producing The Book of the Law which would serve as the basis for the magic system he dedicated his life to. The premises of his belief system was ‘Do What thy Will, Love is the Law’. Analogous to Nietzsche before him he believed that individuals held the power to be free and live according to their own desires, despite the effect of those desires. Having achieved top level magus status Crowley became head of Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) he added a ‘k’ to the spelling of magic and set about establishing the religion of Thelema that would guide in the new Aeon.

One vital element to Crowley’s practice was the attainment of a magic diary. He had a strong interest in science and felt that magic should use the ‘method of science with the aim of religion’. In the age of enlightenment knowledge received by reason could be scientifically calculated. The practice of magic for Crowley had to be studied in the same manner; collect data and look for repeatable patterns and repetitions. The diary was key to this procedure.

He kept a diary from his initiation into the Golden Dawn and expected all his students to do likewise. The process of keeping a diary was to record and reflect on experiences and effective exercises. The recording allowed theories and methods to be tested but also a tool to aid his most profound motto; know thy self and ones limits.

He chronicled everything in his diary, from Astrological charts, concentration exercises, dreams, daily observations to what he ate and when. The resolution was to show life as a spell that is willed for a purpose. Evocations were his way of confronting obstacles to the self. By recording all his thoughts, feelings and activities and the reflecting upon these illuminated his perceptions. The practice of keeping the diary was a disciplined aspect of training for the aspirant. The diary would be maintained for a year then reflected upon by the teacher before a pupil could become adept. The principle was for the magician to record their past, where they came from and how they were brought to the gateway of magic. The diary would function as the writer’s conscience that could be used for further experiments. The recording of all activities meant that the mind could not forget or falsely remember.

Sometimes coded cipher might be used, and grammar was banished. There would be no full stops, or use of the word failure Crowley writes in The Book:

“This full stop may never be written anywhere else; for the writing of the Book goes on eternally; there is no way of closing the record until the goal of all has been attained.”

Aleister_Crowley_as_OsirisPicture showing Aleister Crowley as Osiris

For Crowley the maintenance of a magical diary was so vital to attainment that he wrote a novel based upon his own experiences. ‘The Diary of a Drug Fiend’ is a fictional account premised on his own experiences.

Magicians diaries rarely survive least of all become published, the full set are still waiting publications. John Dee who was the astrologer of Elizabeth 1 also kept a magical diary. Some of his original manuscript form part of the British Library collections.

Aleister Crowley had many faces, an iconoclast, a poet, a mountaineer, a mystic and popular culture icon. His cultural influence began as early as 1908 when Somerset Maugham wrote The Magician a novel caricaturing Crowley. During the revolutionary 1960’s Crowley would posthumously become an alternative inspiration for the new generation from magicians to pop stars. It seems that the subterranean world of the magician is an enduring mystery that looks set to remain in our popular consciousness for a long time to come. Just remember magic isn’t just one colour…  

References books on magic can be located on the open shelves in Humanities one reading room.

05 January 2018

Diaries: Recording History in Many Voices

Guest blog by Travis Elborough author of  Our Twentieth Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters, published by Michael O’Mara.

 TravisElborough author photo (c) David X Green - croppedDiaries and journals as we know them now have been with us since at least the 16th century. But it wasn't until 1812 that the stationer John Letts first began selling a yearly almanack from his shop at the Royal Exchange in London – at that time home to numerous booksellers and coffeehouses and an area previously haunted by Pepys. The Letts Diary was an immediate success, attracting such devoted users as William Makepeace Thackeray who favoured the 'three shillings cloth boards' No 12 model, and continues to be published in a multitude of formats to this day.

I’ve never really kept a diary. But I am an inveterate reader of other people’s. For me, the appeal has always been their immediacy and intimacy. That unique sense of being addressed directly, and sometimes extremely candidly, by someone, perhaps from an age other than our own, is intensely seductive. At the British Library there is the added thrill of being able to consult the original diaries of the likes of Laurie Lee, Kenneth Williams, Alec Guinness, Beryl Bainbridge and Shiva Naipaul in the archives, their personalities coming across here in pen stroke and paper stock as well as in choice turns of phrase.

It has been an enormous pleasure and a real privilege to be able to consult such documents and the Library’s unparalleled collection of published diaries while putting together my latest anthology, Our History of the 20th Century. In this book I’ve used extracts from over a hundred different diarists, both the great and the good and the completely obscure, to present a kind of top down and bottom up account of Britain during the last century. My diarists range from politicians, heads of state, novelists, playwrights and celebrities to ordinary people and the largely unknown and unsung contributors to the Mass Observation Project.

But in any case, as an historian and author of books on vinyl records and the British seaside, diaries are where I go to try and find as instantaneous or unvarnished a reaction to events as possible. First impressions count because they tend to get superseded by the collectively agreed verdict of history. Take for example the funeral of Queen Victoria, an event which we condescendingly assume must have been greeted with great solemnity by the general public. And yet here is Arnold Bennett’s impression of the occasion from his journal on 2 February 1901:

This morning I saw what I could, over the heads of a vast crowd, of the funeral procession of the Queen. The people were not, on the whole, deeply moved, whatever journalists may say, but rather serene and cheerful.

Afterwards, Legge, Fred Terry and Hooley lunched with me at the Golden Cross Hotel, and all was very agreeable and merry.

Diaries are, of course, often far from authoritative and have no commitment to tell the truth or record incidents accurately. They are by their very nature subjective, and so subject to the egos, whims and biases of their writers. Bennett may, perhaps, have nursed a particular antipathy toward the old Queen, who knows? Elsewhere in his journals he denounces cocktails, admires Lyons Corner House restaurants and records meeting T S Eliot and asking the American-born poet if The Wasteland was intended as a joke.

This is another joy of diaries, they can often supply frank (and sometimes amusingly wrong-headed) assessments of artworks long since judged canonical. It is in her diary that Virginia Woolf famously confessed on reading James Joyce’s Ulysses to feeling ‘puzzled, bored, irritated, and disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. In turn Beatrice Webb writes off To the Lighthouse in her diary, deeming the ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative of Woolf’s 1927 novel ‘objectionable’ on the grounds that ‘even one’s own consciousness defies description’.

Our History Cover final - Travis elborough Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman might well have won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 and is widely regarded as a classic of post-war American theatre. One that continues to be studied and regularly performed all over the world but after seeing its first London run, Malcolm Muggeridge judged it ‘a wholly sentimental affair’, concluding in a diary entry for the 27 September 1949 that it was little more than ‘a glorified hard-luck story.’ He was similarly damning of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger too.

Anyone familiar with the work of the film and theatre director Lindsay Anderson, leading light of the Free Cinema movement who produced politically-charged movies like If and Britannia Hospital, might have expected him to take a rather dim view of Star Wars. And indeed he does, with the robots C3P0 and R2D2 in George Lucas’s cinematic space epic coming in for particular criticism. But it is also in the pages of his diary we learn, rather surprisingly, that in 1978 he was a committed viewer of the American television series The Incredible Hulk.

Armed with this knowledge is it tempting to imagine what Anderson, who late in his career worked unhappily with the 80s pop group Wham! on a documentary of their tour of China, might possibly have done himself with a Marvel comics movie.

Anderson died in 1994, the year Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party. And there is, if anything, nothing more distant than that recent past. What seems like yesterday remains a period when news of Princess Diana’s death, for instance, reaches all the diarists in my book via landline telephone, radio, terrestrial television and inky newsprint rather than by text, the internet or social media.

Today, of course, many more people choose to document their lives with pictures on Instagram and comment publicly on events, personal and political, on Facebook or Twitter rather than privately in the leaves of a diary. It will be interesting to see what future historians might then use to construct a similar volume about our current century. 

Travis Elborough’s new book Our Twentieth Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters is published by Michael O’Mara.

26 December 2017

Marking the centenary year of the death of the poet Edward Thomas.

Edward Thomas believed poetry to be the highest form of literature, yet it wasn’t until late in his life that he became a poet. For the greater part of his creative life he was a reviewer, critic and the author of a number of books on nature.  He was born on the 3 March 1878 in Lambeth to Welsh parents who instilled in him a strong sense of his Welsh heritage.  He was educated at St Paul’s School and then Oxford University. In 1899, while still an undergraduate, Thomas married Helen Berenice Noble, the daughter of an early mentor, James Ashcroft Noble, who had encouraged Thomas to publish essays based on the copious notes he took on his long country walks.  After Oxford, Thomas made a precarious living working as a reviewer on the Daily Chronicle much to the dismay of his father, who had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps by joining the Civil Service.  Thomas’s determination to earn his living as a writer was to cause a major rift between father and son.


Edward Thomas photograph circa 1905 Wikimedia Commons

In order to support his growing family Thomas had to take on more and more reviewing – leading him to declare to a friend that “I am burning my candle at three ends”, despite his dislike of what he referred to as his “hack work” he became a prominent and influential literary critic. It was through his growing status as a reviewer that Thomas became acquainted with Harold Monro, whose Poetry Bookshop was the centre for an emerging group of poets who became known as the Georgian Poets. The key members of the group at the time were Lascelles Abercrombie, W W Gibson, Rupert Brooke and John Drinkwater.

In 1911 Abercrombie moved to ‘The Gallows’ a house at Ryton, just outside the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire; he was soon followed to the area by Gibson who, with Abercrombie, persuaded the American poet Robert Frost to move to a house in Ledington called ‘Little Iddens’. The three of them formed what became known as the Dymock triangle.  The Dymock colony is looked back on today as an idyll, a short-lived golden time, brought to an end by the First World War.

Thomas first met Frost in October 1913 and was subsequently a frequent visitor to ‘Little Iddens’, often staying with Frost until he too rented rooms for his family in a nearby farmhouse. Other visitors to Dymock included Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater, Eleanor Farjeon, Ivor Gurney and W H Davies.  Thomas’s friendship with Frost was to prove a pivotal moment in Thomas’s life.  The two men would go for long walks in the surrounding countryside discussing poetry and life.  Frost has been credited as the catalyst in Thomas becoming a poet.  He suggested that Thomas take his prose and turn it into poetry. In the final two years of his life, Thomas was extremely prolific, writing over 140 poems.  One of his most famous is ‘Adelstrop’, written on the 24 June 1914, on a train journey to visit Frost.  The poem recounts an unscheduled stop that captures a moment of peace and tranquillity on a summer’s day, which later took on an extra poignancy for those about to be slaughtered in the coming war

There has been much speculation as to why Thomas enlisted in the army. Certainly we know he spent many hours deliberating over whether he should join up.  As a married man in his late thirties with three children to support he would not have been expected to enlist.  But enlist he did, on the 19 July 1915 as a private in the Artists’ Rifles.  A little over a year later he was promoted to corporal and worked as a map reading instructor, an occupation for which he was entirely suited and a position he could have retained for the duration of the war.  Ironically, it was the army that gave him the freedom to write, free from the financial worries of how to provide for his family.  In November 1916 he was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant, the following month he volunteered for active service.

Thomas arrived in France a few months before the commencement of a major Allied offensive, aimed at breaking through the German defences at Arras. The day before the battle, a shell landed near Thomas but failed to detonate.  That evening he was toasted in the Officers’ Mess for being blessed with luck.  The battle began on Easter Monday 9 April 1917, within the first hour Thomas was dead.  Some biographical accounts suggest he was killed by the concussive blast of a shell which left his body unmarked.  However, a letter from his commanding officer, which lay undiscovered in the New York Public Library for many years, reveals that he was killed by a direct hit through the chest.  The poems that were to make his name were published a few months after his death.

Perhaps his work has been overshadowed by the dominance of modernism, but many poets point to Thomas as an inspiration and he is seen by some as the bridge between Thomas Hardy and Ted Hughes. Hughes described him as “the father of us all”.  On Armistice Day in 1985, Hughes unveiled a memorial to First World War poets in Westminster Abbey, which included Edward Thomas among those commemorated.


Duncan Heyes, Curator, Printed Heritage and Contemporary British Publications.