Holocaust Memorial Day 2020: Stand Together

Don’t be content in your life just to do no wrong, be prepared every day to try and do some good.

Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from Nazi-occupied Europe

The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is: Stand Together. And from their website:

It explores how genocidal regimes throughout history have deliberately fractured societies by marginalising certain groups, and how these tactics can be challenged by individuals standing together with their neighbours, and speaking out against oppression.

In the years leading up to the Holocaust, Nazi policies and propaganda deliberately encouraged divisions within German society – urging ‘Aryan’ Germans to keep themselves separate from their Jewish neighbours. The Holocaust, Nazi Persecution of other groups and each subsequent genocide, was enabled by ordinary citizens not standing with their targeted neighbours.

Today there is increasing division in communities across the UK and the world. Now more than ever, we need to stand together with others in our communities in order to stop division and the spread of identity-based hostility in our society.
Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – this is a significant milestone and is made particularly poignant by the dwindling number of survivors who are able to share their testimony. It also marks the 25th anniversary of the Genocide in Bosnia.

As Holocaust denial, minimisation and relativism are on the rise, it becomes increasingly urgent to revisit the eyewitness testimony of survivors. Our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library includes over 50 memoirs of some who survived, and some who did not, spanning the 23 countries where the Jewish communities were systematically murdered as being “subhuman”, a designation the Nazis also applied to gay people, people with congenital disabilities and mental illness, Roma people, Slavic people, people of colour and all other “non-Aryans”, all of whom they hoped ultimately to eradicate.

We also have memoirs of those caught up in genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Darfur, and of those who though not part of the targeted groups, risked their lives to try to intervene, as well as memoirs of younger people trying to come to terms with their heritage and bravely negotiating the dark crimes of their forebears.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Inspirations from our Biography Collection

For this month’s special display from our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library, library staff were asked to nominate figures who had inspired them.

See what Steve Biko, RuPaul, Malcolm X, J. K. Rowling, Jimi Hendrix, Lauren Bacall, Tove Jansson, David Attenborough and many others mean to members of staff, learn more about them from their biographies – and see if we have a book about your own inspiring figure in our collection. With around 85,000 titles spanning two centuries of publishing, there is a good chance we do!

Mzu chose: Steve Biko

Bantu Stephen Biko…popularly known as Steve  Biko. Apart from teaching us that democracy is something to fight for, constantly, my inspiration,
Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977), was known for his slogan ‘black is beautiful’, which he
described as meaning ‘you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being.’ He fully understood that the foundation of any true
liberation is self-love.

Fani chose: Helen Keller

I would like to suggest one of my favourite authors, Helen Keller because this woman overcame her  dual disability and managed to live the life that she dreamt without barriers. I love the below words from her: ‘The best and most beautiful things in the world  cannot be seen or even touched- they must be felt  with the heart’.

Katie chose: Patrick Leigh Fermor

Adventurer, polyglot, lover of people and nature, Leigh Fermor  explored the world and wrote about its beauty. His ‘Time of Gifts’  books feature his walking journey from the Hook of Holland to  Constantinople and he has written many delightful books on his  daring exploits and travels.

Nina chose: David Attenborough

The most inspiring man who seems capable of uniting the whole world. People from all over the globe have grown up to the sound of his husky voice telling them about the weird and wonderful things that exist in nature, and many were made aware of dangers that threaten them though watching his programmes. He is a man so universally liked that I have no doubt he would be chosen as the President of the World if such a role existed.

If you’re nearby, do pop into the library and take a look at the display – we’re sure you’ll be inspired too.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Chelsea Library’s special reading events: a recap

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers
who participated in Chelsea Library’s reading events in 2018 and this year. A big
thank you and here’s to many more in 2020!

Our next reading event is on Tuesday 21 January when we will meet Ruth Galloway and read from ‘The Crossing Places’ by Elly Griffiths.

What is so special about Chelsea Library’s reading events? Well, we  read extracts from the books aloud; we share favourite moments and discuss relevant issues and characters. But, if you just want to listen and comment, and do not wish to read, that is fine too. You do not have to be a book club member to join us either. Sometimes readings are linked with a film or a TV series, such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Miserables and Gerald Durrell’s The Durrells.

An Evening with Tolstoy, in September 2018, marked the 190th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s birthday. That was our first such event and we focused on ‘Anna Karenina’ We watched a few remarkable moments from film adaptations, and then passionately commented about the right or wrong choices of actors in these films. We read in English, Russian. Italian and Serbian, completely oblivious that one of the guests present was one of Tolstoy’s descendants. Amazing!

In October 2018 we read from the Great War diaries and letters written by female doctors and nurses.

Last December we met to celebrate the 175th anniversary of ‘A Christmas Carol’. Since that time, this Ghost story of Christmas has become an irrefutable symbol of Christmas, and Marley and his companions – ghosts of Christmas past, present and future –have become some of the most popular ghosts in literature. So, gathered enthusiastic readers took part in reading my abridged dramatized version of Dickens’ classic and we all had a great time playing Scrooge, Marley, Bob, Tiny Tim … and eating mince pies.

For this December I decided to stay within the supernatural milieu and we read extracts from the ‘Haunted house’. If you have not read it before, it is never too late. Please, read these paragraphs to give you a flavour what you can expect. It is funny, it is witty – Dickens at his best. Serve with mince pies and brandy cream, as we did. Delicious!

“It was a solitary house, standing in a sadly neglected garden: a pretty even square of some two acres. It was a house of about the time of George the Second; as stiff, as cold, as formal, and in as bad taste, as could possibly be desired by the most loyal admirer of the whole quartet of Georges. It was uninhabited, but had, within a year or two, been cheaply repaired to render it habitable; I say cheaply, because the work had been done in a surface manner, and was already decaying as to the paint and plaster, though the colours were fresh.”

After first few weeks of living there the narrator’s state of mind became “so unchristian”. “Whether Master B.’s bell was rung by rats, or mice, or bats, or wind, or what other accidental vibration, or sometimes by one cause, sometimes another, and sometimes by collusion, I don’t know; but, certain it is, that it did ring two nights out of three, until I conceived the happy idea of twisting Master B.’s neck—in other words, breaking his bell short off—and silencing that young gentleman, as to my experience and belief, forever.”

Back to earlier this year and to honour my French readers, I chose Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ for January 2019.

 

When I had ‘Hamlet’ in mind, the idea was to involve the Danish Embassy and talk about Helsingborg / Elsinore castle. For somebody like me, with English as a second language, the challenge of reading Shakespeare aloud (and not to kill the beauty of the masterpiece in the process) was a daunting prospect. That worry proved to be needless. Everyone present was reading Shakespeare with such ease, as if they were eating Victoria sponge cake and drinking English tea. Fantastic! (The Danish Embassy were too busy to spare anyone, but I had to go to Copenhagen and visit Hamlet’s castle. Could not find anything rotten there.)

Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ followed. We watched extracts from Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptation, laughed at Mr Collins, argued as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy did, and even had heated discussion with a Jane Austen-expert who was in attendance. Marvellous!

Our June reading session was dedicated to holidays, to Corfu, to Gerald Durrell and his fantastic book ‘My Family and Other Animals’. Who could blame the Durrells for moving to Corfu after this kind of August in Bournemouth?

“July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it. Along the Bournemouth sea-front the beach-huts turned blank wooden faces towards a greeny-grey, frothchained sea that leapt eagerly at the cement bulwark of the shore. The gulls had been tumbled inland over the town, and they now drifted above the house-tops on taut wings, whining peevishly. It was the sort of weather calculated to try anyone’s endurance.”

So, the Durrells moved to Corfu, in 1935, ‘like a flock of migrating swallows.’ The lush green landscape greeted them on their arrival.

“Halfway up the slope, guarded by a group of tall, slim, cypress-trees, nestled a small strawberry-pink villa, like some exotic fruit lying in the greenery. The cypress-trees undulated gently in the breeze, as if they were busily painting the sky a still brighter blue for our arrival.”

Talking about people and animals we discovered that one of the readers, Emina, featured in Maria Perry’s book ‘Chelsea Chicks’, with a story that involved her very social parrot.

In September 2019 we had a guest speaker, Sir John Nott, who talked about his book ‘Memorable Encounters’, in which he selected twenty famous people who made a distinctive impression on him, from Margaret Thatcher, Enoch Powell, to Robin Day and Ted Hughes.

Sir Nott’s career in politics and business has given him a unique perspective on some of the key events in British public life. The gathered audience were obviously charmed by his witty comments.

In October I was so happy that Simon Brett accepted my invitation and included Chelsea Library in his busy and dynamic schedule. Simon is a renowned author of comedy thrillers, mystery who-done-it novels and has written to date 106 novels. He is best known for his Mrs Pargeter novels, the Fethering series and the Charles Paris detective crime series. In 2014, he was presented with The CWA Diamond Dagger and in 2016, he was awarded with OBE for his services to literature.

Simon talked about his career, his books and characters and we laughed and thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

Here is an extract from ‘Mrs Pargeter’s Principle’, which he read to the audience.
It is just after Sir Normington’s funeral.

“Helena Winthrop, in designer black, did not look prostrated by grief, but then she had been brought up in the upper-class British tradition that any display of emotion was unseemly and embarrassing. Also, her face no longer had the capacity for much change of emotion. Feeling the approach of age, she’d had some work done, which had left her with an expression of permanent surprise at how old she was.
She had acted as hostess at many public events for her husband and appeared to bring the same professionalism to this one as she had to all the others. The absence of Sir Normington on this occasion was not something to which she thought attention should be drawn… though her guests did seem to want to keep talking about him.
Mrs Pargeter, experienced in widowhood, wondered whether Helena Winthrop would fall apart into a weeping mess the minute she got back to her empty Mayfair home, but rather doubted it. Unshakeable stoicism was ingrained into women of Helena’s class. She had spent so long suppressing her emotions, Mrs Pargeter reckoned, that she wouldn’t recognize a genuine one if it bit her on the bum.”

Edited to add this part – Simon sent us this lovely quote  in response to this piece and we thought we’d share it with you.

I greatly enjoyed my visit to read and talk at Chelsea Library. The audience was acute and perceptive, a legacy of the series of events which had been set up to encourage reading in the borough. I remember, when I first started doing library talks, the plea ‘Has anyone got any questions?’ used to be followed by a profound silence and a lot of people looking at their feet. That, I’m glad to say, is no longer the case. The growth of book groups and events, like those set up by Zvezdana Popovic in Chelsea Library, have ensured a much readier and more informed response. As an author, I always find such sessions fascinating, because they always make me question – and sometimes even make changes to – the way I write. So, keep up the good work, Zvezdana.

 

I hope that you have enjoyed sharing this recap from our previous reading events. One of our future events is definitely reserved for the Brontë sisters. Tell me which book (or author) you would like to be included and we’ll go from there.

Once again, best wishes.
God bless us, everyone!

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

Dogs and cats at Christmas time

As the festive season approaches, thoughts turn to cosy domestic scenes and some of us will be lucky enough to be sharing our festivities with a beloved pet, so we have had a rummage in our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library for memoirs of dog and cat friends – and found a treasure trove which we hope you will enjoy.

True to form, our very special collection reveals its diversity in this as in all other areas – so we meet dogs who are the reliable companions of people with disabilities, the cherished workmates of farmers and shepherds, the dear friends of some of our most familiar celebrities, and dogs who have shared wartime experiences, often with heroic fortitude.

We have memoirs of those whose work is the rescue of dogs and cats from abandonment and cruelty, and those whose have themselves been rescued by their pets from loneliness and despair, pets immortalised in beautiful artwork, pets with all their eccentricities. Curl up with one of these heartwarming stories – perhaps with your own beloved canine or female friend close at hand.

Also in the spirit of festive conviviality, we have dipped into the part of our special collection comprising of oversize books, to peep into some of the family photograph albums of the famous past and present, finding intimate pictures of family life – sometimes recorded by humble amateur snaps and sometimes by great photographers – and a glimpse of Christmases past.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Christmas with Dickens

We have a special reading event at Chelsea Library this Tuesday 3 December, 6.30pm – we will be reading extracts from Charles Dickens’ favourite Christmas stories. Perfect for this time of year along with mince pies, mulled wine, Santa Claus coming to town, enchanted shop windows and more.

“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail”

“God bless us, every one!”


If this event sounds just the thing to get you into the festive spirit, then come along.  You can book a free place here on Eventbite.

And as a taster, here’s an extract from ‘The Haunted House’ –

Under none of the accredited ghostly circumstances, and environed by none of the conventional ghostly surroundings, did I first make acquaintance with the house which is the subject of this Christmas piece.  I saw it in the daylight, with the sun upon it.  There was no wind, no rain, no lightning, no thunder, no awful or unwonted circumstance, of any kind, to heighten its effect.  More than that: I had come to it direct from a railway station: it was not more than a mile distant from the railway station; and, as I stood outside the house, looking back upon the way I had come, I could see the goods train running smoothly along the embankment in the valley.  I will not say that everything was utterly commonplace, because I doubt if anything can be that, except to utterly commonplace people—and there my vanity steps in; but, I will take it on myself to say that anybody might see the house as I saw it, any fine autumn morning.

The manner of my lighting on it was this.

I was travelling towards London out of the North, intending to stop by the way, to look at the house.  My health required a temporary residence in the country; and a friend of mine who knew that, and who had happened to drive past the house, had written to me to suggest it as a likely place.  I had got into the train at midnight, and had fallen asleep, and had woke up and had sat looking out of window at the brilliant Northern Lights in the sky, and had fallen asleep again, and had woke up again to find the night gone, with the usual discontented conviction on me that I hadn’t been to sleep at all;—upon which question, in the first imbecility of that condition, I am ashamed to believe that I would have done wager by battle with the man who sat opposite me.  That opposite man had had, through the night—as that opposite man always has—several legs too many, and all of them too long.  In addition to this unreasonable conduct (which was only to be expected of him), he had had a pencil and a pocket-book, and had been perpetually listening and taking notes.  It had appeared to me that these aggravating notes related to the jolts and bumps of the carriage, and I should have resigned myself to his taking them, under a general supposition that he was in the civil-engineering way of life, if he had not sat staring straight over my head whenever he listened.  He was a goggle-eyed gentleman of a perplexed aspect, and his demeanour became unbearable.

It was a cold, dead morning (the sun not being up yet), and when I had out-watched the paling light of the fires of the iron country, and the curtain of heavy smoke that hung at once between me and the stars and between me and the day, I turned to my fellow-traveller and said…

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

The fall of the Berlin Wall

This month’s display from our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall .

9th November is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wall had been the most potent symbol in Europe of the Cold War separation between the Communist USSR and its satellites and allies on the one hand, and the US and its allies on the other.

The evening of the 9th of November 1989 was a decisive point in the ending of this separation, as the Berlin Wall quite suddenly ceased to function as a meaningful barrier in a divided Germany, with people from both sides starting to move freely through checkpoints and literally over the top of the structure.

Our display of books from our special Biography Collection focuses on the key political personalities associated with this uniquely resonant moment, and also memoirs of ordinary people’s lives behind the “Iron Curtain”.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Extra ordinary lives from our Biography Collection

This month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library gives us a holiday from the famous, the illustrious, the eminent, the idolised, the household-named, the great, the infamous and the notorious that inhabit our collection.

As well as housing many books about those we are likely to have heard of, the collection is also home to many memoirs of ordinary people with no special claim to being remarkable.  Often the only publication of a person who, perhaps looking back on a childhood in a long gone age, feels moved to record what everyday life was like back then, these books are fascinating records of the lives of ordinary working men and women.  Families, school, industry, war, immigration and emigration – all of these subjects are examined by a multitude of voices.

We can find evocations of particular times and places preserved for ever by those who, without ever intruding into the public eye, shared the lives of the man and woman in the street (or in the field, or on the mountain).

Location is often important in these kinds of books, with the authors striving to recreate a very specific corner of the world. Many London neighbourhoods feature – Lambeth in Mary Chamberlain’s record of the lives of working class women from 1913 to 1989, Bethnal Green whose atmosphere of the 1920s-40s was described by Doris M. Bailey, Blackfriars where Bella Burge ran a boxing ring from 1910, Islington where Gill Brason’s stint as a park keeper in the 70s shows us a neighbourhood on the brink of huge change.  Many regions of the UK, both rural and urban, are also given a voice – John Ackerman’s South Wales, Ralph Glasser’s Gorbals, Arthur Barton’s Jarrow, J. J. Bagley’s three centuries of Lancashire diaries; Anne Burling’s East Anglia, James Maggs’s Southwold, to name just a small sample.

 

We can also eavesdrop on ordinary lives around the world – a boyhood in Sierra Leone in the early 20th century is hauntingly described by Robert Wellesley Cole, Iris Gioia and Clifford Thurlow interview the people they meet on a trip to Eastern Europe at a pivotal moment in the history of the region, in 1990; the Dar family describe how their lives as carpet sellers are impacted by the tumultuous history of Kashmir; Forrest Carter leaves a unique record of Cherokee life in 1930s Tennessee, and Glückel of Hamelin recounts the highs and lows of her days in the Jewish community of Hamburg with such immediacy that it is hard to believe she was writing almost 400 years ago.

As usual, we have no shortage of local interest – read about Joe Nixon starting up a youth club in 1950s Notting Hill, Mary Wylde a 1930s Kensington housewife, and life at Holland Park School in the 80s as recounted by John-Paul Flintoff (I can vouch for the accuracy of that particular account, being an ex-Holland Park pupil of exactly Flintoff’s vintage)!

Again as always, our  Biography Collection yields a rich harvest – Isobel Charman’s “The Great War, the People’s Story” looks at the impact of that huge conflict on ordinary citizens, R. J. W. Selleck’s “Not so Eminent Victorians” finds 19th century immigrants to Australia building an education system to transform people’s lives, and there are socio-cultural studies of a typically progressive kind from the 60s, taking a sample of 14 year old school children or of young people in care and interviewing them about their hopes and dreams.  Many people have chosen to write about their working lives – so we have a survey of working people from Hackney in the 1930s, and stories of countless professions including taxi driver, station master, nurse, teacher, miner, shop assistant and cowboy.

It’s not quite true to say that all of the writers featured are people you’ll never have heard of.  Some of the people featured in these books later became famous, sometimes through the books themselves – Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, for example, is a classic of rural British memoir, and Jennifer Worth has become familiar to all through her “Call the Midwife” books and their enormously successful TV adaptation.  But all of them are accounts of life before fame or fortune had visited, when they were deep in the obscurity of ordinary life.

What is proven by these commonplace, everyday memoirs is that, in fact, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.  These writers are visited by extraordinary and sometimes deeply strange turns of events. Some go on to do unusual things that take them far from their beginnings. They are caught up in epic moments of world history.  But even if they simply live out their lives in relatively uneventful ways, they show that every life is in its own way remarkable, and that the voices of those who have never sat at a high table or stepped on a red carpet are often the voices that tell us most about who we were and are.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Edited to add –

If you’re interested to read more about some of the people mentioned in this post, do take a look at the eResources we have on biographies such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These are free to use with your Kensington and Chelsea library card.

50th anniversary of the moon landing

Fifty years ago, the relationship of people to the moon changed forever in a way our ancestors could scarcely have imagined.  For millennia, people all over the world had watched the moon, worshipped it, immortalised it in poetry and song, attributed all kinds of influences to it, and acquired scientific understanding of it.  On 21 July 1969, hours after landing their spacecraft on 20 July, two human beings actually walked on it.

This moment has become iconic, and it’s not hard to imagine the impact it must have had at the time.  Twenty per cent of the world’s population watched the ghostly glowing images of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong taking those “giant steps for mankind” (and this at a time when there was far less electronic imagery in people’s lives than there is now).  It was the subject of the BBC’s first ever all-night broadcast, and even fifty years later still boasts the fifth largest TV audience of all time.

Knowing that the mission of Apollo 11 was successful, it is hard to remember that at the time this success was far from taken for granted; President Nixon’s speech writer prepared a just-in-case address to be read if the two astronauts failed to get back safely to their craft and had to be abandoned to a lunar death.  In the event, the joy of the interplanetary phone call in which Nixon congratulated them as they stood on the moon was sustained by their safe return.

The cumbersome movements of the heavily-suited men on the moon’s surface was the culmination of the 15-year-old Space Race, one of the key battles of the Cold War – after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first man to enter outer space in 1961, the USA was determined not to lose out on another extra-terrestrial “first”.

As always, our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library doesn’t disappoint, and has yielded a host of astronauts, cosmonauts, astronomers, space engineers and astrophysicists for this month’s display.  We can read Buzz Aldrin’s own descriptions of his moon walk in his evocatively titled “Magnificent Desolation”, in which he also writes movingly of the painful struggles of his life on earth.  We have some books produced (in English) in the Soviet Union – a 1962 edition of the memoirs of “Hero of the Soviet Union – Soviet Cosmonaut no. 1” Yuri Gagarin, and another from 1979 with the story of the Soviet side of the Space Race described in dramatic prose.

We have some fascinating biographies of some of the men and women whose scientific work helped pave the way for the moon landing  –  like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, sometimes called “the greatest woman astronomer of all time”, and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983, who was still a teenager when his formulation of the “Chandrasekhar Limit” led to the discovery of neutron stars and black holes.

Placing the moon landing within its context in the history of science, we have some wonderful books on the great minds who moved forward understanding of the universe in previous centuries – find Newton, Einstein, Corpenicus, Kepler, Galileo and Hawking in biographies that illuminate all their faces and phases.

Space exploration will continue to develop – and, despite having been walked on by mere mortals, the moon retains its mysterious beauty, and continues to inspire love songs.  That hazily-filmed moment in 1969 still haunts all those who witnessed it live, and still resonates with the sense of how tiny we are, and how great we can be.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Victorian diaries in our Biography Collection

Our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is home to many different kinds of biographical book, and that includes a large number of diaries.  These provide a very special kind of insight into a people’s lives.

Some diaries have become vital parts of the world’s heritage and have been read by millions, like those of Anne Frank and Samuel Pepys.  Some are the private jottings of ordinary people, whose experience of key moments in history have made them invaluable witnesses.  Others, kept by the famous, may have been written with at least one eye on posterity, or may have been intended to be private, and now afford a glimpse behind the public mask.

Diaries can mix records of hugely significant events and musings on enormous philosophical questions with the minutiae of everyday life – so the Pre-Rapahelite artists documented by William Michael Rossetti debate the meaning of art one minute and complain about faulty stovepipes, sore throats and toothache the next (many diaries reveal the chronic discomfort of life in earlier periods), and George Bernard Shaw meticulously records the prices of the train tickets, newspapers and ginger beer he purchased on the way to lecture engagements at which he speculated about the future of humanity.

This year’s Cityread London showcased the fictional London diary of a young Muslim woman in Sofia Khan is not Obliged by Ayisha Malik.  We wanted to plan an event to link our Biography Collection to this, and were also mindful of the fact that it was the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth, down the road at Kensington Palace, on 24 May.  The idea of having a look at some of the diaries in our collection that were kept by diverse London residents and visitors during Victoria’s reign gave me a great opportunity to dip into some wonderful examples of one of my favourite kinds of biography, eventually selecting thirteen different voices to try to give some snapshots of London life between 1837 and 1901.

Given that most diaries in this period – and certainly most of those published – were kept by the well-to-do, it was a challenge to find the voices of those in more humble circumstances, but the diary of Hannah Cullwick gives a unique insight into the life of a domestic servant, and the struggles of the destitute were shockingly recorded by minister’s daughter Helen G. McKenny as she made philanthropic visits in the Old Street area.

I was fascinated to read about Keshub Chandra Sen’s visit to London to promote links between British and Indian social reformers, and to discover that Leo Tolstoy’s visit to a school in Chelsea as part of research into setting up schools for the peasant children on his Russian estate, left a legacy of 24 individual school boys’ accounts of a single day in 1861, on which they studied, played, fought, had boating accidents and acted as fences for stolen goods, amongst other things.

Local Kensington detail gave Marion Sambourne’s diaries an especial charm, and the fact that Malik’s Cityread book continues the genre of the humorous fictional diary which has given us Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones, allowed me to look at a Victorian fictional diary – Happy Thoughts by F. C. Burnand – which graced the pages of Punch 20 years before its more famous successor The Diary of a Nobody, (which Burnand edited), and which is still laugh-out-loud funny over 140 years later.  Of course, Queen Victoria herself was a prolific diarist, and extracts from her own writings revealed a remarkable juxtaposition of the stately and the intimately domestic.

The bulk of our Biography Collection dates from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (although of course it comes right up to date with some very recent publications, and our oldest book dates from the early seventeenth century), so this was also a good opportunity to look at some of the physical aspects of our Victorian books.  The late Victorians loved the glamorous glitz of gilding on their bindings, and many biographies of this period sport beautifully detailed medallion portraits of their subjects.

It’s always very evocative to look at the handwritten inscriptions, personal bookplates, school prize labels and typically ornate library stamps of this period – in the spine of one book I found part of a Victorian newspaper advert, and the wonders of the Internet allowed me to reconstruct the full text.

This unique collection contains a treasure trove of insights and knowledge, not only in the content of the books, but also in their physical fabric, which gives a fascinating sense of the Victorians who wrote, published, bound, decorated, inscribed, catalogued and kept them, preserving them in private and public libraries until they found their way to our collection, where we can enjoy them today.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019

The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced on Wednesday 5 June; and well done to Tayari Jones’ with her book An American Marriage.

We’d already blogged about some of the titles on this year’s shortlist.

And here are our thoughts about the others, including this year’s winner.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My Sister the Serial Killer by Okinyan Braithwaite

Set in Nigeria and, as the title suggests, this novel is about two sisters, one a beautiful serial killer and the other a plain nurse who cleans up after her sister’s crimes.  This is not really a crime thriller, but a dark comedy.  The book is energetic and very funny.  It surprises and delights and has a young feel about it.  The younger sister, Ayoola, is at once a seductive beauty, a cold-blooded killer, a spoilt daughter and a young woman preoccupied with fashion and social media.  The older sister, Korede, is serious and dutiful by contrast, in love with a doctor she works with who inevitably falls for her Ayoola.  The sisters’ relationship is complex – competitive and antagonistic, but they are partners, each one suffering in their own way and both needing the other.  This book stayed with me and I loved its vibrant style.  It can seem a little like a soap opera, but what is done very well and what lingers after the story is finished, is the view of a society that perpetuates violence against women on many levels.  Like Circe and Ordinary People, it has a lot to say about what it means to be a woman and women’s complex relationships with each other.  This book stood out as highlighting important issues is a very clever, funny and new way.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Middle sister lives in a world where it is dangerous to be interesting, dangerous to have a name or to name others; a world where what is said or unsaid can have devastating consequences. Middle sister tries to keep to herself but when Milkman takes an interest in her the rumours begin to spread.

When I started this it felt like science fiction or dystopia but as I learned more about Middle Sister’s world I started to think perhaps this was closer to home than I thought. It cleverly exposes the absurdity of what we are willing to accept as normal. It has an unusual structure as it is written almost as a stream of consciousness and the story jumps around a lot chronologically. It is so original that it doesn’t really remind me of anything I’ve read before. I think one of the most striking things is how current and of the moment it feels and so I was not surprised it won.

 The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker 

‘The Silence of the Girls’ is the perfect title for Pat Barker’s reimagining of ‘The Iliad’ told through the eyes of Briseis. Briseis is the cause of the infamous quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles and yet in Homer’s version, although we get to hear powerful speeches from both the men, Briseis remains silent. Pat Barker finally gives her a voice.

Despite being based on a myth, the story feels incredibly real as Pat Barker doesn’t shy aware from writing about the realities of war. The war camp is filled with the rats, disease and the constant threat of violence. Barker shows how Briseis and the other women become objects belonging to the men who yesterday killed their husbands and brothers.

Most of the book is told in the first person from Briseis’s viewpoint, but about half way through we also get chapters in the close third person, from Achilles perspective. Achilles character is beautifully portrayed in all his cruelty and violence, but he never becomes just a monster, he is always a real man with complex emotions. Despite this, I much preferred Briseis’s chapters and wonder if the book would lose anything if it was told only in her voice.

There has been a flurry of feminist retellings of myths recently but I think this is one of the best. It made me look at ‘The Iliad’ differently and it raises questions about who gets to tell our stories. At one point in the novel Briseis tries to run away from Achilles and chose her own fate, but she is unable to do so. She concludes that she can never escape the story that ultimately belongs to Achilles.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones 

An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial. They are a young married couple planning their “American dream” future together when the unthinkable happens and Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. We watch as their plans for their lives unravel and we hear the story from the viewpoint of three different characters.

It is difficult to discuss the plot without giving too much away, because there are a few surprise twists and turns that I didn’t expect. It deals with themes of loyalty, family, history, race and the American justice system. All three of the main characters are so realistically portrayed with all their dreams and faults that you are always invested in their stories, even if you don’t always find them likeable.

Although I felt some of the other books in the shortlist were more innovative, this is one of the most beautifully written. I love the way Tayari Jones weaves words together. I also found it very moving. For me the letters Roy and Celestial write to each other while he is in prison were the most powerful. Several chapters near the middle of the book are made up of just these letters and it is handled so skilfully that it’s all we need to move the story along.

Fiona and Phillipa, Brompton Library