Biographies from the Basement

Welcome to our new series, where Claudia talks about some of the wonderful biographies we have on our cloudLibrary and also held in the basement at Central Library.  Over to Claudia…

At Kensington Central Library, we are fortunate in having the largest special collection of biographies in the country (and possibly further afield!) – 85,000 volumes of published biographical material: biography, autobiography, collections of letters, diaries, journals and speeches.

While our libraries are closed, it is obviously not possible for these books to be borrowed, or for you to see them on display.  But for biography fans, there are many wonderful titles available to download from Cloud Library and as audiobooks from RB Digital, both accessible through our website.  To keep your biographical curiosity satisfied, I thought I would have a regular look at one of these, and also take the opportunity to showcase (virtually!) one of our most interesting, quirky or unusual volumes from the collection, to whet your appetite for future borrowing from that treasure trove – or to look at an aspect of the collection. In every post I’ll include an extract of the biography of someone who lived in Kensington or Chelsea at some point – see if you can identify the person!  Hope you enjoy it.

Who am i againWho am I, Again?
By Lenny Henry

This autobiography, published last year, is available from both Cloud Library and RB Digital.  I listened to the audio version on RB Digital, read marvellously by Henry himself.  Though it is at times extremely funny, as you would expect, it is also a penetrating, contemplative look at  the past from a man who has gained retrospective understanding – some of it complex and painful – of the young boy he once was, catapulted to fame while still a teenager. It was a very lonely furrow Henry ploughed as a black British entertainer in the 70s, and it can be hard to read of his struggles with the deep and chronic racism he encountered.  It forced him to make difficult choices, and he makes clear how it affected him at every point in his career. If you are looking for sentimental nostalgia about the decades Henry describes, you won’t find it here.

As the title suggests, this is a book about identity, and an attempt to unite and resolve the disparate strands – the boy trying to honour his family’s values and his heritage while participating in the rough and tumble of a playground life that can turn nasty; the novice performer wondering if he can negotiate the journey between the working men’s clubs of Dudley and the glittering West End; the huge TV star wondering if he is really accepted; the wise older man making sense of it all.  Henry looks honestly at how insecurity troubled every phase of his life – he slowly sifts the past with an eye for the poignant as well as the humorous detail, and through it all his love for his family resonates, leaving the reader (or listener!) with the sense that it is that love that has rooted him through all of it.

One man's meatThis week’s book from the Biography Collection is One Man’s Meat, by E. B. White.  White is most famous as the author of the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart LittleOne Man’s Meat is a collection of sketches of life on his small farm on the coast of Maine, which were published in the New Yorker between 1938 and 1944.  They are funny, beautiful, and full of the warmth and tolerance that will be familiar to the readers of his children’s books. White was worried that his descriptions of slow-paced days spent writing, looking after his animals, talking with neighbours and enjoying family life might jar when the wartime world beyond was full of darkness and terror – but in amongst all the kindly humour and tranquil observation, there is a commitment to wrestling with the ideas and fears of the time, and enough gently-expressed politics to get the book banned by the armed services, much to White’s amusement – later the ban was lifted, and tens of thousands of servicemen carried special portable “Armed Service Editions”.*  White is the sort of writer who makes you feel that if more people could share his outlook on life – tolerant of himself and others, enjoying the simple pleasures, wondering about how to get things right both practically and ethically, without ever being prim or humourless – the world would be a better place.

* (The American Essay in the American Century by Ned Stuckey-French, University of Missouri Press, 2011)

Extract of the week:  Whose surprisingly simple childhood routine in a famous building in Kensington in the 1820s is being described here?  (Answer next time!)

The family life was regular and simple. Lessons, a walk or drive, very few and simple pleasures made up her day. Breakfast was at half-past eight, luncheon at half-past one, and dinner at seven. Tea was allowed only in later years as a great treat.

 Claudia, Kensington Central Library

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