English and Drama blog

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

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29 July 2022

Amber Akaunu reflects on her work with the Beryl Gilroy archive

By Amber Akaunu, filmmaker and artist, who was commissioned by the British Library to engage creatively with the Beryl Gilroy archive.

Reflecting on past projects and experiences is something that I admittedly had never even considered doing before spending time with Dr Beryl Gilroy’s archive. I didn’t see it as an essential aspect of my work as an artist and filmmaker until now.

The highlight of Gilroy’s archive for me were the reflective pieces of writings she wrote on her own work. They were detailed and read more like an essay, in comparison to her creative writings we see in books such as In Praise of Love and Children’ (1996). I loved reading them and realised how important it is to not only reflect on our practice in order to identify areas that deserve celebration as well as areas that can use some development, however it is also important in defining our narrative and legacy; and Gilroy has done exactly that.

 

A zoomed in image of handwritten reflective writing by Dr Beryl Gilroy in different colour pens
BL Ref Deposit 11286/1/10 – extracts from Beryl Gilroy’s reflective writing.

 

So, I want to follow Dr Gilroy’s footsteps and go on a journey of deep reflection on my experience working with the British Library:

I received an invitation to pitch an idea to make a body of work that responds to the archive of Dr Beryl Gilroy. This invite came only a week after I had moved to London and so it was an affirming and grounding first creative project to take on amidst a time of transition for me. On reflection, I think the consistency of coming to the British Library and viewing Gilroy’s archive was exactly what I needed at the time.

We often idolise Black women for all the incredible things we achieve in such harsh circumstances. We’re often thought of as the rose that grew from concrete, and although that tends to be an accurate representation, I really wanted my response to Dr Gilroy’s archive to look deeper into who she was. I decided to explore her roles as a mother, educator, psychologist and founding member of Camden Black Sisters. I also used these categories to highlight Black women in my life including; my mother (Jessica); my therapist (Amanda); my primary school head teacher (Mrs Wrigley); and Liverpool’s Black Sisters, who held summer schemes that I attended as a child. Through this process I got to realise how lucky I have been to be able to have incredible Black women in my life.

I enjoyed exploring Dr Gilroy’s role as a mother in particular, especially after meeting with Dr Gilroy’s daughter, Darla, an academic. It was inspiring to see the work she does to help keep her mother’s legacy alive and to hear the way she talks about her mother. It made me think about the close bond my mother and I have, and so it was fulfilling to be able to include my mother’s impact on me and link this with Gilroy’s impact on her own children, and of course the many other children through her role as an educator and one of London’s first Black head teachers.

I had begun writing a poem in my iPhone notes app a while ago about how Black women are the blueprint, and this project felt like the perfect reason to finish that poem and develop that idea further. I also wanted to extend this notion to include the fact the archive of Black women is also the blueprint to which we build from. I felt like the underlying message I took away from my time with Dr Gilroy’s archive showed the importance of archiving. Gilroy’s archive was a special first-hand look into her life and I am thankful that it exists.

I worked with my good friend Khadeeja to make a short film that brought to life the poem I had written. I sent Khadeeja a WhatsApp message asking her if she’d like to be in the film along with a screenshot of the poem. She then sent me a voice note response of her performing the poem perfectly. This is one of the reasons I love to collaborate with other creatives. Khadeeja brought the poem to life in a way I couldn’t have imagined. I loved that voice note recording so much that I used it in the film.

 

A close up shot of Khadeeja in Amber Akaunu's film the blueprint, Khadeeja is looking directly at the camera in front of a blue background
A screenshot from Amber Akaunu's 'The Blueprint' showing Khadeeja.

 

Alongside the film, I also created a zine that is titled The Blueprint, which is the same title as the film. The zine was designed by Lana Mauge-Tharpe, who was perfect for the project as not only is she incredibly talented, she also is a former student at Dr Gilroy’s school in North London.

Through colour, composition and typography, Lana was able to present my words in a fresh way. The zine also featured a QR code that allowed readers to access a blue inspired playlist I had made while working on the project.

In conclusion, I have learned a lot about Dr Gilroy, myself and my practice through this project and process and hope that visitors of the exhibition also felt like they got to know more about Dr Beryl Gilroy, her impact and the significance of her archive to the Black women that she has directly, and indirectly, impacted.

 

Image shows the front cover of The Blueprint, which includes a photo of Dr Beryl Gilroy and a crowd of school children
The Blueprint, a zine by Amber Akaunu

 

Further reading:

Beryl Gilroy | The British Library (bl.uk)

For enquiries regarding the Beryl Gilroy archive, please contact Eleanor Dickens [email protected]

15 July 2022

A researcher's story: using the Robert Aickman Archive at the British Library

by R.B. Russell, researcher, publisher and writer, who consulted the Robert Aickman Archive at the British Library and writes here of his experiences. 

Black and white photograph of Robert Aickman posing in front of bookshelves at Gledhow Gardens in 1980
BL Add. MS 89209/3/5. Robert Aickman at Gledhow Gardens, London. 1980

I first came across Robert Aickman (1914-1981) as the author of ‘strange stories’ (his own term), psychological tales that updated the traditional ghost story to the requirements of a more ‘knowing’ late twentieth century. I soon discovered that Aickman’s literary activities (he was also an editor of ghost story anthologies and wrote two volumes of autobiography) were just one part of his life. Another was his campaigning, largely successful, for the restoration of the inland waterways of Britain.

I was lucky enough to first see Aickman’s literary archive in 2014 when I visited his literary executor in Guiseley, West Yorkshire. At that time, Aickman’s manuscripts and typescripts were being stored in a spare bedroom. With my partner, Rosalie Parker, we produced an inventory of what was in the archive and we borrowed material to publish The Strangers and Other Writings (Tartarus Press, 2015) collecting together previously unpublished fiction and non-fiction. The Guiseley archive was ultimately acquired by the British Library in 2017. There are also collections of Aickman’s waterways papers at the National Archive in Kew and at the National Waterways Museum Ellesmere Port in Cheshire.

The more I found out about Aickman, the more interested I became in the man, and in 2020 I decided to write his biography. I realised there were several obstacles, however, and that any one of them might cause there to be a major shortcoming in the finished book. Until I started my research, though, I couldn’t be certain whether they were surmountable.

Typescript of We Are For The Dark: Six Ghost Stories with annotations
BL Add. MS 89209/1/70. Revised typescript for We Are For The Dark: Six Ghost Stories. The book, published in 1951, contained three stories by Elizabeth Jane Howard and three by Robert Aickman. Note Aickman’s amendment discarding the pseudonym ‘Robert Vigo’ in favour of his real name. The short-lived pseudonym was taken from the lead character in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1932 film The Blue Light. Reproduced by the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman.

The first problem was one shared by all researchers—the pandemic. I couldn’t consult any of the archives I wished to visit, meet up with anyone who knew Aickman, or visit any of the sites associated with him. However, since the 1990s I had amassed more research material than I realised, and now I had the opportunity to read it! If anything, being confined to home was a blessing in disguise. As for interviewing Aickman’s old friends, they were very helpful and they now had the time to share information with me. Those who might otherwise have been wary of using modern technology were happy to make Zoom and Skype calls.

I had to wait for the archives to re-open here in the UK, but there was another small collection of important material at Bowling Green University in America. Even if I could travel there at some unspecified time in the future, I wasn’t certain I could justify the expense. When I contacted them, I discovered the librarians were able to make pdf copies (for a modest fee) of all that I needed to see.

After a year of intensive and productive research from home, I was confident that many gaps in my knowledge would be filled when the British Library re-opened. There were only two major lacunae that concerned me.

The first was my inability to read Aickman’s letters to his American agent, Kirby McCauley. This mine of useful information was in the hands of a rare book dealer in the US.

The second was any concrete information relating to Aickman’s claim that he had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War, exempted from any kind of war work. This seemed out of character, and his old friends suggested several alternative theories, none of which could be verified. It seemed unlikely I would ever clear this up because the majority of official records relating to conscientious objection have been destroyed.

Black and white photograph of Robert Aickman reading in 1960
Robert Aickman 1960

In June 2021 Covid restrictions were lifted somewhat and Rosalie and I were finally able to travel from North Yorkshire to visit the British Library on the Euston Road in London. After our informal experience in Guiseley, I must admit that it seemed like an imposition to have to join the British Library in advance (in Wakefield), then to book tables in the reading room, and to have to book the material we wanted to see from the online catalogue. Pandemic restrictions meant that the number of items we could consult at any one visit was limited.

Photograph of R. B. Russell and Rosalie Parker smiling at the camera
R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker

However, over three days Rosalie and I looked through everything we asked for, and because of the friendly efficiency of the staff, we were able to see a little more besides. Despite the restrictions, the atmosphere in the reading room was relaxed and comfortable, and it was brought home to me how important it is to have this vital material publicly accessible (not kept in bedrooms, or overseas, owned by rare book dealers). So much was still uncertain in the world at that time, but there was something reassuring about being inside the British Library with the background sounds of murmuring voices, pages turning, and pencilled notes being made. I filled in all the gaps in my knowledge that I had been aware of, and discovered additional important material, besides.

My preparation for the visit to the British Library (which felt very long-delayed) meant that I extracted the most out of the three days. And I also discovered in the various files of Aickman’s correspondence carbon copies of all his letters to his agent. They were as important as I had expected.

This left just that one unanswered question—Robert Aickman’s apparent conscientious objection. I felt I knew Robert Aickman’s beliefs and motivations well by this time, and it didn’t ‘fit’ with his personality. It was out of character in the same way that one item in the British Library catalogue seemed out of place. Tucked away in a folder, according to the catalogue, was an application by Aickman to work for the Civil Service. I called up this folder to discover that the item had been mis-described (it has since been corrected). Rather than an unlikely application to work for the Civil Service, it was Aickman’s application to be considered a conscientious objector, and the decision that had been made.

Image of Robert Aickman's completed conscientious objection application
BL Add. MS 89209/3/3. Robert Aickman’s conscientious objection application decision

The biography came together at that point, although I still do not know what to make of the statement Robert Aickman submitted in support of his application for conscientious objection. He claims religious beliefs he does not profess anywhere else, and appears to contradict other statements he made. Whatever I may think of his justifications, he did receive the very rare judgement that he was exempt from any kind of war work.

My biography of Aickman was published in early 2022, as Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by Tartarus Press It contains extensive acknowledgements in alphabetical order, but if I had listed them in order of importance, along with Rosalie Parker, the British Library would have been towards the top.

6. RA Biog
Robert Aickman, An Attempted Biography by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press 2022

08 July 2022

The sea was rushing in - marking the bicentenary of the death of Percy Shelley

By Alexander Lock, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts. 

Today, 8 July 2022, marks the bicentenary of the death of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). One of the most politically radical of the Romantic poets, Shelley’s best known works include ‘Ozymandias’ (1818), ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ (1819), and ‘To the Skylark’ (1820). 

Shelley died at sea, aged just 29, on 8 July 1822. Earlier that month Shelley had sailed in his boat, the Don Juan, from his home in San Terenzo to Livorno. On that voyage he was accompanied by a young boat hand, Charles Vivian, and two close friends Edward Williams and naval officer Daniel Roberts. Shelley sailed to Livorno to meet Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron in order to develop their plans for the publication of a new anti-establishment journal The Liberal. Having accompanied Hunt to his accommodation in Pisa, on 8 July Shelley, Williams and Vivian set sail for home. Within a few hours the Don Juan was caught in a severe storm and all three men were lost at sea.

Shelley's body washed ashore near Viareggio on 18 July 1822 and William’s body was found on the same day three miles further along the shore. The remains of Vivian were discovered some weeks later. According to the friend who found them, Edward John Trelawny, Shelley was identified by the ‘volume of Sophocles’ he had ‘in one pocket, and Keats’s poems in the other’. Initially buried in quicklime, Shelley and Williams were exhumed and cremated on 16 August 1822 on the beach near Viareggio where they were found. It had been decided that Shelley’s remains should be interred near John Keats’ in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, whilst the remains of Williams were to be returned to England. In order to facilitate the movement of their bodies and overcome the Italian quarantine laws governing the burial of bodies washed from the sea, it was decided that the men be cremated.

Oil painting of Shelley's funeral showing mourners around the funeral pyre on a beach
An idealised representation of Shelley’s funeral in Louis Édouard Fournier, ‘The Funeral of Shelley’, 1889. Oil on canvas, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Public Domain

Following the funeral the ashes were collected for burial by Edward Trelawney who had also taken some of Shelley’s hair as a memento. He gave the hair and some of the ashes as a keepsake to Claire Clairmont – Mary Shelley’s stepsister and Lord Byron’s lover who was staying with the Shelleys in San Terenzo. These items would eventually pass to the British Library.

Fragment of Shelley's ashes in a framed golden mount
A lock of Shelley's hair and fragments of his ashes that once belonged to Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Shelley’s wife Mary Shelley
A lock of Shelley's hair in a framed golden mount
A lock of Shelley's hair and fragments of his ashes that once belonged to Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Shelley’s wife Mary Shelley

In the weeks leading up to his death, Shelley suffered from visions of drowning and death. In a letter written just after Shelley died – now in the British Library as Ashley MS 5022 – his wife Mary Shelley recounted how he dreamt that ‘the sea was rushing in’ and that he was strangling her whilst Edward Williams and his wife Jane looked on as corpses. After her husband's drowning, Mary began to consider how his visions might have foretold the future.

To mark the bicentenary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley, curators at the British Library worked with the poet Benjamin Zephaniah on a new Radio 4 programme ‘Percy Shelley, Reformer and Radical’. Presented by Zephaniah, the 2 part series brings a very personal take on Shelley’s work and how it influenced his own work and that of other poets. As part of this recording we showed Zephaniah the original draft of the ‘Mask of Anarchy’, Shelley’s annotated copy of ‘Queen Mab’, as well as the hair and ashes of the poet taken from his funeral pyre.

Curator Alexander Lock with Benjamin Zephaniah and the ashes of Percy Bysshe Shelley in front of them on a table
Curator Alexander Lock with Benjamin Zephaniah and the ashes of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Episode 1 was broadcast on Sunday 3 July and episode 2 will be aired on Sunday 10 July, at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4. The episodes will be available online after broadcast. 

Advert for the Radio 4 programme Percy Shelley Reformer and Radical