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

07 November 2018

Celebrating Poetry Pamphlets

By Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the Library’s Contemporary British collection of poetry pamphlets and artists’ books. More information about the upcoming event,  Poetry Pamphlets Celebration, can be found here

Pamphlets are a crucial site for poetic innovation, allowing writers to experiment and offering readers cheap access to new work. Often small enough to fit into your pocket, pamphlets are the ideal way to sample new poetry from an unfamiliar writer. This frequently overlooked form has provided a platform for almost all of our established poets, from Ted Hughes to Carol Ann Duffy, at different stages in their career.

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A selection of poetry pamphlets from the British Library’s collections.

To celebrate the poetry pamphlet and the important role that it plays in the UK poetry scene, The Michael Marks Award is hosted annually by The British Library, in partnership with the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, The Wordsworth Trust, the TLS and Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS). Since it was founded in 2009, the awards have grown to include prizes for publishers and illustrators as well as for poetry. Despite the ease with which poetry can now be accessed online, the pamphlet form has flourished over the last decade, and the quality of the submissions to the awards each year attest to this. To mark the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards, we will be hosting a poetry reading on the 10th December, featuring shortlisted poets from previous years. Join us in hearing poems and reflections by Charlotte Gann, Christine De Luca, Richard Scott, Phoebe Stuckes, and Omikemi Natacha Bryan.  

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Charlotte Gann is a writer and editor from Sussex. Poems have appeared in The Rialto, The North and Magma, among many others, and her pamphlet, The Long Woman (Pighog Press), was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award in 2012. Since then, she published a full collection, Noir, with HappenStance – in 2016. This book – which grew from the seed of the pamphlet – asks: what are we to do with the darkness? The things, and people, often left silent and invisible. Originally, Charlotte studied English at UCL; much later, an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development at the University of Sussex. By day, she works as an editor – currently, editing a monthly magazine based in her hometown, where she lives with her husband and two teenage sons.


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Christine De Luca lives in Edinburgh where her working life was spent in education.  She writes in English and Shetlandic, her mother tongue.  She was appointed Edinburgh's Makar (laureate) for 2014-2017.  Besides several children’s stories and one novel, she has had seven poetry collections and four bi-lingual volumes published (French, Italian, Icelandic and Norwegian).  She’s participated in many festivals here and abroad.  Her poems have been selected four times for the Best Scottish Poems of the Year (2006, 2010, 2013 and 2015) for the Scottish Poetry Library online anthologies.  She has been a member of Edinburgh’s Shore Poets for 25 years. Christine is a linguistic activist, visiting schools, writing articles and taking part in conferences on mother tongue issues.  She is a member of Hansel Cooperative Press which publishes poetry and other literary writings in Shetland and Orkney.  She also enjoys translating children’s classics from Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson into Shetlandic. 

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Richard Scott was born in London in 1981. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies including Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Swimmers, The Poetry of Sex (Penguin) and Butt Magazine. He has been a winner of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize, a Jerwood/Arvon Poetry Mentee and a member of the Aldeburgh 8. His pamphlet 'Wound' (Rialto) won the Michael Marks Poetry Award 2016 and his poem 'crocodile' won the 2017 Poetry London Competition. Soho (Faber & Faber) is his first book. 

 
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Phoebe Stuckes is a writer and performer from West Somerset. She has been a winner of the Foyle Young Poets award four times and is a Barbican Young Poet. She has performed at the Southbank Centre, Wenlock Poetry Festival and was the Ledbury Festival young poet in residence in 2015. Her writing has appeared in the Morning Star, The Rialto, The North and Ambit. Her debut pamphlet, Gin & Tonic is available from Smith|Doorstop books and was shortlisted for The Michael Marks Award 2017.

 

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Omikemi Natacha Bryan is a writer, poet based in London. Her work has been published in numerous magazines including Ambit and Rialto and featured in Bloodaxe's Ten: poets of the New Generation. Her debut pamphlet poetry collection, If I talked everything my eyes saw, was shortlisted for the 2017 Michael Marks Award. She currently works as an associate writer for Vital Xposure theatre. 

 

02 November 2018

Introducing the Artists of Artists Books Now

by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

The Artists Books Now event series is nothing without the artists and their works. This post offers brief introductions to those taking part in next Artists Books Now evening, on the 5th of November.  We have programmed the event around the theme of ‘Place’, asking the artists and other contributors to interpret that as they wished.

First, the  writer and UK Canal Laureate 2018 Nancy Campbell:

    'Since 2010, a series of residencies at museums and galleries in the Arctic has resulted in artist’s books on language and landscape including How to     Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic, which received the Birgit Skiöld Award in 2013. Collaboration is an important part of her practice; her work with     the New York based artist Roni Gross is demonstrated here by two books, The Night Hunter and Tikilluarit. Nancy’s other publications include     Disko Bay (shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016 and the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize) and a cultural history of books     and the environment, The Library of Ice, published this month by Simon & Schuster. Nancy is currently the UK’s Canal Laureate, a collaboration     between The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust, part of the Arts on the Waterways programme.'

 

 

1Image used with kind permission of Nancy Campbell

 

Véronique Chance, artist and Senior Lecturer at the Cambridge School of Art, explores:

    ‘[t]he representation of the body in contemporary art practice, and its relationship to performance, technology, documentation and the embodied     dynamics of spectatorship. The cross-disciplinary, cultural and creative dynamics of running as a mode of artistic enquiry and expression.     The impact of technology on contemporary art practice/s, especially developments in reproductive media and their role within the ‘expanded’ field     of printmaking.’

 

2Image used with Kind Permission of Véronique Chance.

 

The work of Artist Edmund Clark links issues of history, politics and representation through a range of references and forms including photography, video, documents, found images and installation:

    ‘A recurring theme is engaging with state censorship to represent unseen experiences, spaces and processes of control in contemporary conflict     and other contexts’.

3Image used with kind permission of Edmund Clark. 

Recent MA graduate of Royal College of Art Leonie Lachlan 'is concerned with the ever-evolving relationship between two and three dimensions. She is interested in material and linguistic utterances of spatial concepts. These often find themselves embedded in and performed by the printed page [...] propositions hover on the border between spaces; actual, represented or analytical, ideas of that which is both everywhere and nowhere; they interact with the different modes she encounters with her practice. Her works traverse many materials but she always return to the book. An obsession with flatness and illusion is ever-present; in many cases planes might suppress or compel a sculptural urge.'

An insight in to the text of her 2017 Meeting Point with the opening stanzas of Municipal Kid (MK):               

    'Journey from the middle

    of no consequence as

    there is no beginning or end,

    these do not matter anyway.

    Departure is delayed

    a couple of minutes

    we pull away from Euston

    into the blue April morning.

    Train so new

    seats so very green,

    my disappointment

    reflected around the carriage.

    Opposite

    the man doesn’t finish his Innocent smoothie,

    discards his sandwich packet

    alights at Hemel Hempstead…'

4Image used with kind permission of Leonie Lachlan.

The evening's host is Professor Chris Taylor from the Department of Fine Art at the University of Leeds. He is a practicing artist, curator and publisher working in the field of contemporary printmaking and artists’ books, with a particular interest in the role of the book as primary medium within contemporary art practice. He is co-editor of the Wild Pansy Press, a collective art practice and small publishing house based in the School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies.In addition Taylor is co-director of PAGES, an ongoing initiative which provides the structure and impetus for wide ranging activities promoting the development of the medium of the artist’s book, and its dissemination and reception to a growing and diverse audience. PAGES’ annual programme includes the International Contemporary Artists’ Book Fair and a curated projects series, held in partnership with The Tetley centre for contemporary art in Leeds. The evening will have a discussion between Taylor and Clive Phillpot to explore the concept of ‘Place’ within the framework of an artists’ book.

24 October 2018

The Cambridge Love Letters from Ted Hughes to Liz Hicklin

by guest blogger Di Beddow, PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London, researching Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Cambridge. Recently acquired by the library, letters and cards from poet Ted Hughes to Elizabeth Hicklin (née Grattidge) have  been catalogued  (Add MS 89198) and are available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room via our online catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts. Read more  on our Ted Hughes Discovering Literature page. Reach Di on Twitter at @DiBeddow, and read more about her work here.

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Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin, Copyright British Library Board
 

Recently acquired by the library, letters and cards from poet Ted Hughes to Elizabeth Hicklin (née Grattidge) have been catalogued (Add MS 89198) and are available for reading in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Hicklin, a nurse at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge met Hughes when he was an undergraduate at Pembroke College in the early 1950s. The couple were in a relationship for several years with Liz meeting the Hughes family in Yorkshire and joining the students in The Anchor public house where according to Daniel Huws, a friend of Ted’s at Cambridge ‘She smiled indulgently at the proceedings’ (Memories of Ted Hughes 2010 p.16) The letters shed light on a period which is not as well documented as most of Hughes’s life and work; it gives insight into his views on Cambridge; his friendship groups; his family and his writing, travel and career plans.

Liz, the recipient of the letters, was from Manchester originally, but left both her home and Cambridge eventually to emigrate to Australia where she lives today.  At one point the couple thought they would both emigrate and join Gerald, Hughes’s  brother, but Liz left for America first and whilst the relationship did not survive her departure, the correspondence is warm and tender from Hughes. He calls her, ‘My darlingest bunnyown’ and ‘My darling Bunpussington.’When he considers the end of their relationship with the distance between them, he is totally candid - ‘I dare say you’d have shown more faith in me if I’d shown you more honesty.’  He appreciates that she may well meet someone else abroad, but he insists, ‘I love you Bun, don’t ever doubt that.’ The letters and postcards were sent over a two year period and shed light on the time when as he says in ‘Fidelity’ from Birthday Letters that he graduated, but remained part of the culture in which he had studied – ‘Free of University I dangled/ In its liberties’.

In one letter he writes of his plan for an autobiographical novel about Cambridge and a book of fairy tales for children.  This is significant in that traditionally it is given that Hughes wrote little whilst at Cambridge; he tells Liz though that he has ‘…an idea for a book.  Two books in fact. One is about Cambridge. An autobiography of a student written from I’m not quite sure what angle, during three years, and to sell as a soft back popular thing.’

Just six months later he was to meet Sylvia Plath in Cambridge and she was to start a book called Falcon Yard which was to tell the story of her meeting and relationship with Hughes in Cambridge.  He goes on to say that - ‘The book about Cambridge would be very cynicial (sic), I feel, very cruel to everyone I knew - but the interesting things about everyone I knew, now I look back, seem to have been their absurdities.  I don’t think that I remember it with much affection’.

This is a popular view of Hughes at Cambridge, as an outsider and a critic, for example, of the Cambridge teaching of English Literature; one recalls Hughes’s dream of a burnt fox which considered his latest essay and warned him “Stop this. You are destroying us.” ‘(Letter to Keith Sagar 16 July 1979) However, Hughes made strong and lasting relationships with several of his Cambridge contemporaries and he finishes his letter to Liz reassuringly, telling her that she is not incorporated in his slight of the Cambridge circle -  ‘You’re just no part of it, you’re nothing but a good memory, my very best. Ever’.

The postcards are all sent from Europe when Hughes was on holiday with his Uncle Walt. In one from Spain, showing the cathedral in Tarragona he says, ‘Nothing but tombs of gold and lapis lazuli…’ which resonates with one of Liz Hicklin’s anecdotes of their relationship written up in an article included in the folder; she tells that Hughes would recite his favourite poem, Yeats’  ‘Oil and Blood’ in the pub.  The poem begins, ‘In tombs of gold and lapis lazuli’ and it accentuates the mysterious phenomenon of decaying corpses in tombs, with heavenly or supernatural scents and oils.  Indeed, Hughes continues on the card - ‘…what a melancholy choosing faculty I have.’

Six poems and literary fragments are also included. The majority of the drafts are untitled with the exception of ‘Sheep’ and ‘Nessie’. Two of the drafts are written in another hand and not Hughes's. ‘Sheep’ is a typewritten copy of the poem which appeared in Season Songs published in 1976, whilst ‘Nessie’ has some skilled sketches for which Hughes became known whenever he was writing for children; signing publications for those dear to him, or simply when doodling.

Finally there are two photographs, one of Hughes fishing at the age of 22, taken by his brother Gerald and another, more interesting perhaps, of the couple at a May Ball in Pembroke.  Liz has written on the back that it was taken at 3 a.m. and Liz has sunk into an armchair with Hughes standing beside her. Linking this photo back to a letter Hughes sent home in May 1954, reveals that the similar profiles of the two were noted by several peers.  Hughes writes in a letter home - ‘There is a girl here that I shall take with me (to Australia) if I still feel like it, and probably marry her before I go…She is a nurse and from some angles looks very like me, everyone says.’ (Selected Letters p.25)

Liz’s article on her memories of the relationship is added to the material and proves to be a useful commentary on the folder.  Hughes’s courtship of Liz bears strong resemblances to the way he courted Plath, using pet-names, reading poetry and what he calls in Birthday Letters (‘The Owl’) his ‘masterpiece’, aping the sound of a hurt rabbit in order to attract owls.  Liz describes this in terms similar to that of Plath’s amazement - ‘Ted made a whining sound with moistened lips and a cupped hand.  Creatures appeared from nowhere - rabbits from their burrows, a stoat at his feet.  Birds swooped overhead. “They think it’s an animal in distress,” he said.  A trick learnt as a small boy, trailing his big brother over the moors, trapping rabbits and delivering newspapers for the family business.’

The wit of both Hicklin and Hughes brings their mutual attraction alive; she recalls receiving a written invitation from Hughes, ‘Would you like to come to tea? I have a ghost in my room.’  When she does attend his room she is taken aback by the drawings of birds with clawed feet and hooked beaks over the walls.  When Hughes tells her he intends to be a writer of children’s stories, she notes the murals and induces, ‘You’ll scare them to death.’

This folio of material enchants with its anecdotes and proves to be a rich resource for the lesser-known Cambridge period of Ted Hughes.

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

19 October 2018

About Artists Books Now

by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

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One of the purposes of Artists’ Book Now is to introduce our visitors to the rich collections of artists’ books within the British Library and to widen the use of artists’ books across the research community beyond the Library.

From the outset, the project was concerned with how to get the audience engaging with the material in manner which could inspire debate, discussion and greater interaction. Traditional Library mechanisms of dissemination such as the Reading Room, exhibition, digitisation or even show and tell present various limitations to what is possible, particularly when dealing with artists’ books. Hence, we hit upon the concept of a host conversing with the artist themselves while presenting their work. Presenting the work in this manner heightens intimacy between the work and its viewer, as well as allowing the maker's thoughts about the work, and its creation, to emerge more fully.  

A key question for a national library, or any cultural institution for that matter, is how best to preserve the collection while ensuring maximum possible access and engagement. By negotiating this interchange between the audience and artists’ books, with the help of the artist, it is hoped that  a richer and fuller experience will be possible.  By using baggy themes as frames for the individual events, the co-curators hope that types of work not normally seen or discussed together will suddenly find common ground. It should be noted that this is all seen through a “Contemporary” lens, demonstrating that, while artists’ books certainly do offer up the pleasures of visual and physical artworks, and can and do use contemporary artistic techniques and aesthetics, they are also important witnesses to the the present, allowing myriad issues, concerns, and interests to surface for contemporary audiences.

 

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18 October 2018

Shiva Naipaul: An Unfinished Journey

In our final Windrush blog before the exhibition closes on Sunday, I would like to focus on Shiva Naipaul, the award-winning novelist and travel writer whose archive is held here at the British Library.

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Shiva Naipaul photographed by Fay Godwin in 1974. Detail from Godwin Photo 5/229(1).

Shivadhar Srinivasa Naipaul (Shiva for short) was born in Trinidad in 1945, part of a family descended from the indentured workers who came to the Caribbean from India in the 19th century. He was one of seven children born to his journalist father Seepersad and his mother, Droapatie Capildeo. Five of his siblings were girls; the only other boy in the family being his elder brother Vidiadhar, later to become better known as the Nobel Prize-winning novelist V S Naipaul.

Sogee_Capildeo_Maharaj_with_9daughters_2sons resized

Shiva Naipaul's maternal grandmother, Sogee Capildeo Maharaj (centre of middle row), matriarch of the Capildeo family of The Lion House, Chauganas, Trinidad, 1935. Pictured with her two sons and nine daughters including Shiva's mother Droapatie. University of Tulsa VS Naipaul Archive.

The male members of the family vanished early from Shiva’s childhood: his father died when he was only seven, by which time his elder brother had already left for England to study at Oxford University. Other members of Shiva’s wider family were also leaving for England in this period in order to pursue higher education or professional careers. The ritual of the dockside farewell – ‘the familiar Trinidad ritual of “going away”’ - became ingrained in Shiva’s memory, as did the fantasy of what England would be like:

‘England’ was in the air virtually for as long as I can remember. But it was a diffused presence; part of a texture of feeling and imagination, particularly the latter. The element of fantasy and daydream was very strong indeed.

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Essay on impressions of England, from the Shiva Naipaul Archive Add MS 89154/8/8. Image © The Estate of Shiva Naipaul. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

These are the formative experiences he writes about in the essay pictured above which is currently on display in the Windrush exhibition (and available in full on our new Windrush Stories website). This untitled piece of prose was written sometime after Shiva’s arrival in Britain in 1964, by which time England had become a concrete reality for him though he could still recollect the days when his idea of the ‘mother country’ was fuelled by his escapades in English literature. The prime ‘source of fantasy’ in the Naipaul household was his father’s bookcase. Although he only read a few pages from the ‘dusty volumes’ by British authors, ‘I returned to that bookcase again and again. It was a corner under the steps in which to dream in a vague, ill-defined way about England – the place from which those blue air-letters were posted; the place to which my brother – whom I hardly remembered – had gone.’

Shiva followed in his brother’s footsteps in more ways than one, studying at Oxford before embarking on a literary career. In an autobiographical essay ‘My Brother and I’ (published in An Unfinished Journey in 1986), Shiva acknowledges that having always ‘suffered by comparison’ with his brother ‘my choice of career must seem like an exercise in masochism’. But writing came to him unconsciously, ‘It happened. Or rather, it began to happen slowly and haltingly, fed by despair’ at his lack of academic success during his last year at Oxford. What would turn out to be his first novel, Fireflies (1970), was initiated then, as described in An Unfinished Journey, p28:

It began as I was sitting at my desk, staring at a page of Chinese characters (I was doing a degree in Chinese), which danced meaningfully across the frail paper… it began when, for no reason I can fathom, a sentence came into my head. ‘The Lutchmans lived in a part of the city, where the houses, tall and narrow…’

I pushed away the books and papers in front of me, wrote down the sentence and started to follow it.

After a further two years’ work on the manuscript, the tragicomic family saga Fireflies was published to great acclaim, winning the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize as well as the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Jock Campbell New Statesman Award. It was followed in 1973 by the Whitbread award-winning novel The Chip-Chip Gatherers, which like Fireflies was set in the Indian Trinidadian community. The next decade saw Shiva change tack to write in new genres, publishing short fiction, non-fiction, journalism and travel writing, no less excellent for the change in form. North of South (1978), Black and White (1980), and Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth (1984) were followed by one more novel, A Hot Country (1983), before Shiva’s early death from a heart attack in 1985 at the age of forty. A posthumous collection of prose, An Unfinished Journey, was published the following year.

Though Shiva was rightly at pains to point out that writing was, for him, an act of independence and autonomy, a ‘breaking loose of the doppelgänger absolutism’ that had bound him to his brother in others’ eyes, there were aspects of the brothers’ lives that paralleled each other. Both men struggled to fit in in England, not ‘being straightforwardly Indian or straightforwardly West Indian’ as Shiva put it in his 1973 essay ‘Living in Earl’s Court’.

This is a sentiment that V S Naipaul expands upon in another exhibit in the Windrush exhibition. In a letter to Shiva from 1969 he remarks upon the sense of alienation he feels as a Caribbean author writing for an English literary market that will never really understand him.

The same letter also contains a note of hearty congratulations to Shiva for finishing his first novel together with advice on handling publishers and agents. It is one of a number of family letters that can be found in the Shiva Naipaul Archive alongside the working drafts of his books, notebooks, travel diaries, business correspondence and other papers. The Archive was generously donated to the Library in 2015 by Shiva’s widow, Jenny Naipaul. The collection is fully catalogued and we hope that it stands as a staging post in Shiva’s ‘unfinished journey’ for all those interested in researching the work of this important writer.

12 October 2018

Artists’ Books Now: 'Place'

by Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

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The morning after our Artists’ Books Now evening back in April, I was stopped in a stairwell and congratulated on contributing to such as wonderful event.  I was somewhat surprised to hear this, mainly because the colleague I was speaking had been unable to attend! Nevertheless, as more feedback came in from audience members directly, I came to see this as a clear example of the power of word of mouth – last night’s enthusiasm had traveled quickly and perhaps was still travelling. And of course, I could only take a little of the credit as a co-curator – the artists and the books they brought to the event were the real stars.

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Photograph taken from the event in April, reproduced with the kind permission of Sophie Loss

So now as we find ourselves and the end of Summer with Autumn drawing in, it is a good time to  remind my colleagues, and you, that all will have the opportunity to  attend  the next evening  in the Artists’ Books Now  series, which is due to take place on 5 November 2018 at 6:30pm in the Knowledge Centre, British Library. In a similar vein to April’s ‘Now’-themed event the evening will explore the meanings and pleasures of artist’s books in the contemporary scene, this time from the perspective of ‘Place’.

Professor Chris Taylor, the artist and academic, will be master of ceremonies, joined by the book artist and poet Nancy Campbell, the photography and video artist Véronique Chance, artist Leonie Lachlan, and fine artist and photographer Edmund Clark. The essayist, art writer, curator, librarian Clive Phillpott will be in conversation with Professor Taylor. 

03 October 2018

Poetic Afterlives: Change through Artistic Reimagining

Imogen Durant is a PhD student at the University of Manchester. She currently on a placement at The British Library, looking at connections between poetry and art in the Contemporary British collection of artists’ books and poetry pamphlets.

For this year’s National Poetry Day, we have been asked to think about the idea of change. Poetry’s ability to inspire its audiences makes it a powerful vehicle for change. And, while poems change us, poems are themselves changed as they are read and interpreted. Part of the joy of reading a poem is the creative freedom we have in interpreting it, and this process of understanding changes the poem’s impact on the world.

 During my placement with the Contemporary British Publications team, I have been thinking about the process of publishing: how publishing changes a text, and how a text might change the world it is released into. Focusing on the library’s collection of contemporary British poetry pamphlets and artists’ books, I have been looking at books and pamphlets which are often published independently and produced in small print runs. 

 One thing that has particularly struck me when reading these ephemeral texts is that even after being published, a text does not remain static. In the same way that poems can change their readers, so too can a poem be changed as it is reinterpreted in new forms and mediums. Many of the writers and artists in the collection return to texts that have inspired them. Collaborating with others, they creatively reimagine existing works, allowing the texts to change and develop in their afterlives. 

An example of this is Susan Johanknecht and Katharine Meynell’s Poetry of Unknown Words (2017). Written in response to Iliazd’s Poesie de mots inconnus (1949), which Johanknecht and Meynell describe as ‘a collective work by 23 poets and 23 illustrators – a male line-up with two women’, Poetry of Unknown Words takes inspiration from a wide range of texts and artwork to produce a ‘feminising response to Iliazd’.[1] The poet H.D.’s jellyfish metaphor in Notes on Thought and Vision (1919) provides inspiration for one section of the text. Printed on thin photo paper to resemble ‘the ‘flimsy’ typewriter paper in the HD Archive at Yale’, this section haptically reproduces H.D.’s metaphor through its use of ‘translucent & visceral’ material.[2]  

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Section from Poetry of Unknown Words inspired by H.D.’s Notes on Thought and Vision

Structured as a series of loose pamphlets collected in a transparent box, the ‘unbound’ nature of Poetry of Unknown Words offers a new experience with each encounter, as the order of the sections changes through the process of reading. This structure demonstrates the way that sections of poetry and artwork can be changed by simply being contrasted or juxtaposed with other texts. In the same way that an exhibition highlights connections between items and images in order to construct a narrative, Poetry of Unknown Words reveals the ongoing relevance of historical texts by placing them alongside contemporary references.

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Complete text of Poetry of Unknown Words

Johanknecht and Meynell play on this comparison to an exhibition by including a ‘notes & colophon’ section, which resembles an exhibition catalogue.

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‘notes & colophon’ section from Poetry of Unknown Words

Highlighting the texts which inspired each section, the ‘notes and colophon’ section also changes the reader’s understanding of the sections of poetry and artwork by providing additional information. For example, the comment that Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas in Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) are ‘still clearly pertinent’ is supported, in this section, by a black and white photo of an activist on a Women’s March in 2017.

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Photograph inside the ‘notes & colophon’ section

In Poetry of Unknown Words, Johanknecht and Meynell give new life to Iliazd’s form, responding to and reinventing texts by women which have been ‘hidden from history’.[3] In this way, they show that published works are not simply historical items but that they have the capacity to change, and be changed, by modern audiences and readers. 

 Photographs used with kind permission of Susan Johanknecht and Katharine Meynell.

 

 

[1] Susan Johanknecht Katharine Meynell, ‘Poetry of Unknown Words – for the book to come: process notes and reading (im)material scraps’

http://www.gefnpress.co.uk/about/essays&downloads/OEI%20Gefn_Press.pdf Accessed 01/10/2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Susan Johanknecht and Katharine Meynell, ‘Poetry of Unknown Words’ (London: Gefn Press, 2017).

24 September 2018

Banned Books Week 2018 has landed: 50 years of creative freedom on the British stage

Or The Misadventures of Slangwheezy, Bawlrot, Bluewink and Leerit

Banned Books Week logo


Banned Books Week 2018 has arrived and this year our theme is theatre censorship, prompted by the fact that this week sees the 50th anniversary of the laying down of the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil – the implement that had become synonymous with stage censorship in this country. On 26 September 1968 a new Theatres Act came into force, bringing to an end a system that had been in place since 1737 in which every new play in Britain due to be performed in a licensed theatre was required to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for examination. But how did it all work? Which plays were banned? Who really made the decisions and what kind of things were disallowed? Moreover, how could you cheat the system?


Here at the British Library – home to the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection - we’ll be honouring the anniversary a day early by taking a look at the often-mystifying inner workings of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. If you’d like to find out more and see performed a specially-written scene by playwright Vinay Patel (Murdered By My Father; An Adventure) join us tomorrow evening for CENSORED: Inside the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. Tickets are still available from the British Library Box Office.


The Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection at the British Library is the largest manuscript collection we hold, consisting of scripts for virtually every play written between 1824 and 1968, together with reader’s reports and correspondence files for 20th century plays. This collection, together with plays in our early modern manuscripts collection, provide an unparalleled insight into the workings of theatre censorship since the late 16th century when the role of the Master of the Revels was expanded under the jurisdiction of Edmund Tilney. While Shakespeare would have had to have his scripts approved by the Master of the Revels, the role of censor was later passed to the Lord Chamberlain, another office of the royal household. The modern roots of stage censorship, however, lie in the political machinations of 1737 when Prime Minister Robert Walpole championed a new Act of Parliament to prevent dramatists such as Henry Fielding from publicly embarrassing him. Indeed, the first play to fall foul of the new law was Henry Brooke’s Gustavus Vasa (1737) which features a villainous character bearing a resemblance to Walpole.


Though there were no hard and fast rules of censorship, the representation of living or recently dead public figures was a key preoccupation for the Lord Chamberlain and his staff, and chief among these concerns was the representation of monarchs (not surprising given that the Lord Chamberlain was answerable to the King or Queen). Surely the weirdest depiction of a monarch on stage must be Edward Bond’s Early Morning (1968), set in a surreal alternative reality in which Queen Victoria is having a lesbian relationship with Florence Nightingale and heaven approves of cannibalism.


The principles by which the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (LCO) operated were set out in a report to the Joint Select Committee in 1909 and remained broadly relevant through to 1968, although social attitudes changed over time and even within the same year there was not necessarily consistency of interpretation.


The Lord Chamberlain to remain the Licensor of Plays, […] and that he should license any play submitted to him unless he considers that it may reasonably be held –
    (a) To be indecent;
    (b) To contain offensive personalities;
    (c) To represent on the stage in an invidious manner a living person, or a person recently dead;
    (d) To do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence;
    (e) To be calculated to conduce crime or vice;
    (f) To be calculated to impair friendly relations with any Foreign Power;
    (g) To be calculated to cause a breach of the peace.

Our collection demonstrates that comparatively few plays were banned (i.e. refused a licence) outright – although these include famous works such as Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881), Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) and Jean Genet’s The Maids (1947). Other banned works are less well known to us today such as Marc Connelly’s Pullitzer Prize winner, The Green Pasture, which was disallowed in 1930 for representing God as an African American. The Lord Chamberlain referred his decision to both King George V and the Archbishop of Canterbury, both of whom approved the ban. Though the LCO occasionally made exceptions to the rule about not representing god on stage, The Green Pasture was not deemed worthy of special treatment and in fact the ban was upheld until the 1960s despite multiple resubmissions over the years. In other cases, the type of subject matter likely to elicit an outright ban included abortion (Harley Granville Barker’s Waste), male impotence (Marie Stopes’ Married Love aka Vectia), lesbianism (Lilian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour), incest (Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author), masturbation (Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening), prostitution (George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession) and extreme violence (Edward Bond’s Saved).


In most cases, however, the censorship of plays took the form of a list of script changes required by the Lord Chamberlain. Negotiations between LCO staff and theatre managements over revisions are well-documented in the archive. Colourful phrasing was modified. Out went ‘from arsehole to breakfast time’, a line from Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker (1960). Samuel Beckett was obliged to replace farting with belching in Waiting For Godot (1954). And David Rudkin managed to get away with substituting the dialect word ‘firk’ for ‘fuck’ in Afore Night Come (1962). Sometimes managements negotiated over changes – see the defence of the central imagery in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger – and in other cases, when all else failed, they circumvented the system with private club performances (Osborne’s story of male prostitution and transvestism A Patriot for Me, also presented at the Royal Court, being a classic example).


Leaving aside the wider issue of freedom of expression, the absurdity of attempting to censor texts whose full meaning only becomes evident in the visual medium of performance became increasingly obvious as the 20th century progressed. Even in 1909 the playwright Henry Arthur Jones pointed out the difficulty (as quoted in Nicholson, The Censorship of British Drama Volume 1, p8):


One reason that makes the Censorship impossible today lies in the fact that modern plays are no longer chiefly pieces of declamation and lengths of dialogue… The Censor sits in his office vetoing Sophocles and Shelley and Ibsen, and their kin ancient and modern, with the full text of their plays before him. Meanwhile Mr. Slangwheezy and Mr. Bawlrot are almost out of his reach, and Mr. Bluewink and Mr. Leerit slip away from him altogether.


The LCO did its best to anticipate visual gags and crude gestures, but it didn’t always succeed: Mr Bluewink and Mr Leerit really did escape their notice in many cases. The LCO had, for example, failed to realise that a plank of wood brought on stage during the 1959 musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be would be held at a suggestive angle – one of many vulgarities that was only spotted by LCO staff when a slew of letters of complaint prompted them to go and check up on Joan Littlewood's production.

Tomorrow our experts Dan Rebellato, Steve Nicholson and Kathryn Johnson will be discussing both the humorous side of the work of the LCO and the serious consequences it had for artistic expression in Britain. As well as the obvious effects of theatre censorship documented in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection, there are of course the more insidious effects of an invisible self-censorship. As Steve Nicholson puts it:


Some artists may persist in their work and their principles even if they anticipate that what they produce will be disallowed; but others, with livings to make, surely will not.’ (The Censorship of British Drama Volume 1, p2)

If this has piqued your interest, why not pick up a banned play mentioned in this blog or see the Banned Books website for more events on censorship taking place this week.

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