THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

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

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

10 December 2018

‘Some little language of their own’: English and Scottish dialects, and the desire for a private language

by Rahul Bery, Translator in Residence at the British Library for 2018-19. The British Library’s Translator in Residence scheme, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), offers a translator the opportunity to become part of the British Library’s multilingual community of staff, readers and visitors for one year.

Earlier this year, I found myself vigorously agreeing with a Guardian Long Read article which effectively argued that the English language was not so much a liberating lingua franca as a highly successful virus, an invasive species; the linguistic equivalent of a grey squirrel or cane toad. Around the same time, I was reading Olga Tocarczuk’s Booker-winning Flights, and reacted even more strongly to this passage:

“There are countries out there where people speak English…It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language. Oftentimes, their only language…How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions…all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures ­– even the buttons in the lift! – are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them…I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own…so that for once they can have something just for themselves.”

This is something I’d been feeling for a while, but I’d never seen it expressed so clearly before.  It encompassed so many of my frustrations: the experience (probably shared by many first language English speakers who speak another language) of being spoken back to in English when abroad, even when you’ve clearly demonstrated your competency or fluency; having to convince writers whose work you’re translating that, however good their English is, your choice of words *is* the best one; even my occasional sense of doubt that literary translation into English is something I should be doing. After all, does the world really need more English?

And yet, I’ve spent the vast majority of life in the UK, speaking English. I love the way the language looks and sounds, its idiosyncrasies, the way it sounds in Cardiff, Derbyshire, Birmingham, not to mention the wider Anglophone world. Given its status as an international language, as Tocarczuk suggests, it is easy to forget that English is just another West Germanic language, and the (only) private language of hundreds of millions of people. As translator-in-residence here at the BL, I’m interested in exploring not only linguistic diversity in general, but diversity within languages, especially as spoken in different areas of modern Britain. Additionally, my selfish desire to have a truly private language has got me wondering about forms of English that cannot be easily understood by non-natives, or even other English speakers.

So I was delighted to read first line in Liz Berry’s poem ‘Birmingham Roller’, written in Black Country dialect - ‘Wench, yorwm the colour of ower town’ – or a line in another of her poems simply listing words: ‘bibble, fettle, tay, wum’. I had a similar feeling looking at the first line of Hugh McDiarmid’s Braid Scots epic A drunk man looks at the thistle: ‘I amna fou' sae muckle as tired - deid dune.’

 

Bery Translation Blog Photo

Before I start getting complaints, I’m aware that Scots is not so much a version of English as a sister West Germanic language, which evolved alongside, rather than from, its southern neighbour. All the same, it comes as a relief to know that there are utterances that look and sound like English, but which the Polish narrator of Flights—with their privileged access into the private lives of hundreds of millions of Anglophones—would struggle to comprehend. In fact, many native speakers may struggle to comprehend them; think of initial reactions to Trainspotting or the Gallagher brothers having to be subtitled on US TV. The BL’s Head of Contemporary British Collections and Scottish Poet, Richard Price, recommended another great example of this kind of writing to me. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Glasgow Beasts an a Burd, as well as being a beautiful artefact, with papercut images by John Picking and Pete McGinn (due to its small print run I also had to make my first trip into the Rare Books Reading Room to see it), is a gloriously irreverent journey written in a tongue that is certainly not the international language of airports and lift instructions. It documents the poet’s transmogrification into various animal forms, all the while retaining a strong grasp of Glaswegian:

syne

ah wis a midgie

neist a stank

foon that kin o

thankless

I love not only the sounds, but also the spellings he uses, like ‘Didjye’, which could be Somali word, or ‘hail simmer’, which could be so many things (in this instance, it’s ‘whole summer’).

English has become dominant partly due to its incredible ability to evolve over time, and absorb the syntax and vocabulary of the languages it supplants, from Welsh to Urdu. Maybe those of us who wish to regain some sense of ‘privacy’ in our speech will have to harness this power and create new Englishes, at least until some other language replaces it on the international stage, and we can go back to merely being speakers of an obscure West Germanic tongue.

30 November 2018

Judges Announce Shortlist for 10th Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets: Library Celebrates Awards’ Anniversary

by Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the Library’s Contemporary British collections of poetry pamphlets and artists’ books. The Library will be holding a poetry reading on the 10th December in celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the awards.  Poets include Christine de Luca, Omikemi Natacha Bryan, Charlotte Gann, Richard Scott and Phoebe Stuckes. You can read more about the event here.

The judging panel for the 2018 Michael Marks Awards have shortlisted five pamphlets and four publishers for the 10th anniversary of the awards. The judges were:

  • Sasha Dugdale, poet, translator and editor
  • Rachel Foss, head of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library
  • Declan Ryan, poet and critic
  • Sir Nicholas Penny, art historian

Marks Awards Blog

Pamphlets shortlisted for the 2018 Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets

The judges commented on the diversity of the submissions they received, and shortlisted the following pamphlets:

  • Gina Wilson, It Was and It Wasn’t (Mariscat Press)
  • Rakhshan Rizwan, Paisley (The Emma Press)
  • Ian Parks, If Possible (Cavafy Poems) (Calder Valley Poetry)
  • Liz Berry, The Republic of Motherhood (Chatto & Windus)
  • Carol Rumens, Bezdelki (The Emma Press)

The judges highlighted the calibre of this year’s shortlist, praising Wilson’s “dry wit”, Rizwan’s “tonal sharpness” and Parks’ “musicality”. They felt that Berry’s poems had an “electric charge”, and commended Rumens’ “savage and wild but beautifully cadenced” work.

 Four publishers were also shortlisted for this year’s publishing award:

  • Bad Betty Press – Amy Acre
  • The Emma Press – Emma Wright
  • Guillemot Press – Luke Thompson
  • Tapsalteerie – Duncan Lockerbie

This shortlist includes both new publishers, such as Bad Betty Press, which was founded last year, and more established publishers, such as The Emma Press, which won the award in 2016.

Luke Thompson’s Guillemot Press is an example of a publisher which plays with the possibilities of the pamphlet form, while Duncan Lockerbie’s Tapsalteerie Press shows a commitment to eclecticism, highlighting the crucial space the pamphlet offers to new and emerging writers.

The winners of the poetry, publisher and illustration prizes will be announced at the awards ceremony at the British Library on 11th December. The winning poet and publisher will each receive £5000, and the winning illustrator will receive £1000.

The winning poet will also be invited on a residency at the Harvard Centre for Hellenic Studies in Greece in the spring of 2019.

The Contemporary British Publications team at the British Library have created a new pamphlet to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards.This pamphlet features poems from each of the previous winners of the award, many of which were written during the poet’s residency in Greece. The winners of the illustration award have produced artwork in response to three of the poems in this pamphlet.The Michael Marks Charitable Trust and The Eccles Centre for American Studies have generously supported the production of this pamphlet.

Please join us in what promises to be an exciting evening of poetry and reflections on the success of the first 10 years of the Michael Marks Awards.

09 November 2018

C M Taylor on ‘keystroke logging project’ with British Library

a guest blog by Craig Taylor, whose latest novel, Staying On, is published by Duckworth in 2018. In 2014 he began a project with the British Library to document the creative process of writing the book, using key-logging software. You can reach Craig on Twitter at @CMTaylorStory.

Re-entering the academic world after starting work as an Associate Lecturer on the Publishing degree at Oxford Brookes University, I began speculating about writer’s archives. Did previous scholars have access to more hand-written and typed drafts of works in progress - actual objects showing the shaping of works of art - but with the normalisation of computerized authorship, were these discrete drafts abolished in the rolling palimpsest of write and digital re-write?

Plus, I was considering a new novel myself, but as I have written elsewhere, emotionally I was daunted by the long-haul loneliness of novel writing, a process I considered in my most despairing moments as like wallpapering a dungeon.

I spoke to my friend Mark about these two things - the lost drafts and the loneliness - and in a flash he had the answer: ‘Put a piece of malware on it.’

He meant that if I put some malware, or spyware, on my computer to note everything I did, it would record all changes made to an evolving manuscript, plus it might offer a weird kind of company for me in my wallpapered dungeon.

It was worth a shot.

I contacted the digital curation team at the British Library in April 2013 and they could not have been more transparent, accessible and curious. We started talking about how digital production intersected with the scholarly recovery of the creation of works of art, and it turned out that my first view of things was off. Forensic curatorial techniques for salvaging the development of a manuscript on a hard drive did exist. It was just that they could not often be used, due to issues of privacy. How could you go into a writer's hard drive if they were writing and receiving email from multiple others from the same computer they were writing on, and writing on topics that might be of a personal sensitivity to one or more of the correspondents? Without complex legal initiatives and sensitive multiple consent, you just couldn’t.

But a simple solution was available. To save us from running into privacy issues, I would just buy a separate machine on which I wrote only the novel. I’m not the world’s richest guy, so I bought a pretty basic reconditioned laptop. After all, I was only going to write prose.

1

The reconditioned keylogging laptop on my writing desk at home.

We negotiated a contract where (to put it crudely) the data was the British Library’s but the resultant book was mine, and then we looked round for some software. The curation team found a piece of keylogging software called, Spector Pro about which Jonathan Pledge, a curator of contemporary archives at the British Library has recently written:

"The software used for capturing the writing process on the Craig Taylor project was the keylogging software, Spector Pro produced by SpectorSoft. In 2015 the company was rebranded as Veratio; Spector Pro is no longer part of the product range and is no longer supported. Spector Pro works with Windows variants from Windows XP to Windows 7.

After installation on a host computer, Spector Pro works by running undetected as a background application and cannot be accessed via the normal Windows user interface (it is not visible in the Applications folder). Access to the programme is by a default keyboard combination Control-Alt-Shift which brings up a password dialog box. The password is set by whoever installs the programme.

As keylogging software Spector Pro is not terribly sophisticated and seems to have been specifically designed for low-level company surveillance of employees, potentially without their knowledge. It is possible to run Spector Pro as a visible programme but this would seem to negate its original stated purpose.

Spector Pro can track and record chat conversations (as transcripts), emails (sent and received), websites visited and, most importantly for this project, keystrokes made, not only what has been typed within an application; but mouse and keystroke usage across the whole computer system."

The software was installed on my empty computer and I set to work.

But what had I done? I’d offered myself as a guinea pig, with my every wrong-turn, reappraisal, edit and mistake noted, recoverable and time and date stamped. Not only that but the novel proved punishingly hard to write. It wasn’t just that I was also writing a film script and an app, plus working as an editor of fiction and a university lecturer, and it wasn’t just that one of my young daughters was often to be found perched on my desk asking me questions, it was also the content of the book. I was aiming for a clarity of prose and of story, and for a universal relatability of protagonist, that I had never sought before.

The going was slow, but when I got the chance, and when I had chunk of work, I would arrange to come in to the British Library to download the data. I visited on eight separate occasions. My first visit was in October 2014, and my last was in March 2018. By the time we had finished we had generated 222GB of date, captured across 108, 318 files.

So, what exactly do we have?

We have information on every keystroke typed:

2
This shot shows the raw data usage as a list. By far the largest number of keystrokes concerns writing/typing as well as work on editing (Find & Replace) with the remainder comprising system activity including backups.

 

Plus, we have thousands of screenshots, one captured every few seconds each time activity on the host computer is detected.

3

From the moment the computer is logged into until the moment it is shutdown. Screenshots allows an output as either still images (.jpg or .BMP) or as black and white video (.avi).

And we have text outputs:

4

Text output from ‘Keystrokes Typed’ for a single tracked session. As seen from the detail below the header provides information on the Application used, the start of activity and the title of the file being worked on. The greyed text represents the tracked movements with typed words rendered in bold. Time stamps are given, with the green text signalling the start of activity and red the end.

During the writing I had no access to the software on my computer and I had no clear sense of the data being produced. But while I never knew what it was doing, it actually did help me begin again with novel writing, to get over that initial hump in the road. Somehow the writing felt collaborative, not only because the software was recording me, but also because of the digital curation team who were taking the data.

I have been asked if knowing that the work was being recorded made me self-conscious, and, sure at first, I was minding my Ps and Qs a bit, trying to seem like a more competent writer. But that didn’t last. Soon I realised that I quite wanted mistakes to show. It seemed an act of solidarity with the writers I was teaching, to really show them what I had often told them, that writing is born from repetition, that every writer has blind spots – weak theme, two dimensional characters, flimsy plotting – and that only re-writing cures these ills. It seemed like honesty to uncover the tottering beginnings of what most people would only consume as the solid, finished article.

Not only that. I forget about the keylogging software recording my every character because of the story itself. I wrote earlier that it was a difficult novel to write, because I aimed to write as simply and truthfully and compassionately as I was able. Aims I found to be not as readily available to me as I would have flattered myself to hope. I forgot about the keylogging going on as I wrote because the difficult writing became immersive – as I hope the reading of it will be - because my story and my characters - Tony and Laney, Jo and Nick - absorbed me, and in the end it was their story that cured me of my wallpapered dungeon, the keylogging project being the booster to get the journey started.

And so now, what are we going to do with the data? Well, I’m not going to do anything with it, I don’t have the skills. The data is now placed in the public domain, under a Creative Commons BY license, running free at :  https://data.bl.uk/cmtaylorkeylogging/. So, if you are a scholar of digital humanities, or a digital artist or a creative visualizer, be our guest. The data is there to be played with. It would be lovely to know what you did with it.