The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee – British and Commonwealth memoirs from seven decades

You can’t have failed to notice the media coverage of the fact that this year marks the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  Her Majesty has become the longest serving British monarch ever. 

Queen Elizabeth II: A Photographic Portrait by Philip Ziegler

She was crowned in June 1953, but in fact became Queen upon the death of her father George VI in 1952 (the interval between her accession to the crown and her coronation was in keeping with tradition which requires such an interval after the death of a monarch). The quiet, restrained 25 year old was launched into one of the most important and high-profile roles in the world, and could not have known at that point that she would fill it for more than seven decades, until recently with her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at her side.

Elizabeth the Queen: The real story behind The Crown by Sally Bedell Smith

Britain and the world have changed beyond recognition since the beginning of her reign, which was dubbed at the time ‘the new Elizabethan age’.  Elizabeth II became sovereign of a nation still recovering from world war, when despite having a woman on the throne, married women still needed their husband’s signatures for any major purchase, homosexuality was illegal and recent immigrants from the Commonwealth faced intense organised racism, not least in our own borough of Kensington (Kensington and Chelsea were yet to amalgamate at that time).

Over the last seventy years society has been through huge changes, in Britain, in the Commonwealth and formerly colonised nations, and it seems almost incredible that our head of state has been the same person throughout this time, uniting generations as a reference point – our oldest generation still remembers her as a child addressing the nation on the radio and as a teenager contributing to the war effort, and emulated her glamorous fifties style in an era when female office workers were expected to arrive for work fully kitted out in mandatory hat, gloves and high heels.

Princess Elizabeth’s Wedding Day published by H.A. & W. L PITKIN LTD

Alongside her role on the world stage, as history’s dramas have played out, the Queen has also of course lived the life of an individual woman, and the nation has watched her experience the highs and lows of being the matriarch of a family that has had its fair share of drama, tragedy and scandal.

Our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library contains around 150 biographies of Her Majesty, from quaint pictorial albums commemorating her childhood in the 1920s and 30s, to detailed and incisive biographies which place her in historical and socio-political context.  There is also an array of beautifully produced ‘coffee table’ books full of photographs from her extraordinary life.  For the month of June we will be displaying some of these in the lobby of Kensington Central Library, and you are welcome to come and browse through them; all are available to borrow. 

Alongside them, we will be displaying a range of memoirs of some ordinary people from throughout the Queen’s reign, with an emphasis on memoirs of our local area where possible, and with an additional focus on people writing about what it was like to experience some of the social cataclysms of their eras.  Come and read about the 50s through to the 00s and beyond through the eyes of a range of people from all walks of life in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Biographies from the Basement: April 2022

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. Over to Claudia to tell us more –

Display at Kensington Central Library

During April we are having two displays of books from our special Biographies Collection. The first is to complement the wonderful exhibition provided for us by the Pilecki Institute: ‘Passports for Life’. This exhibition tells the fascinating story of The Ładoś Group – Polish diplomats who were involved in a rescue operation to help Jews escape the Nazis during the Holocaust. This exhibition of photographs, original documents and audio-visual displays will be on the ground floor of Kensington Central Library until Tuesday 31 May.

Fourteen Letters by Feliks Topolski

To give an insight into the contribution of Polish Jews to twentieth century culture before the Holocaust, we are displaying biographies of some leading literary, artistic and scientific figures including Sholem Asch, Feliks Topolski, Marie Rambert and Leopold Infeld.

A Day of Pleasure by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The leading figure in Yiddish language literature to date, and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1978, was Warsaw-born Isaac Bashevis Singer. No one documented the Polish-Jewish world with the detail, vigour and beauty that he did, and we have several wonderful books about him, alongside many of his best known novels.

A Contrary Journey with Jill Culiner event

If the history of Jewish life in Eastern Europe interests you, you may also like a forthcoming event on Tuesday 26 April at 6.30pm, when writer and artist Jill Culiner will be discussing her book A Contrary Journey, describing her travels in Ukraine and Romania, in the footsteps of Jewish Enlightenment poet Velvel Zbarzher. This is an online event; you can book your place on Eventbrite.

Display at Kensington Central Library

It is World Book Night on Saturday 23 April, and for our second Biographies Collection display this month we are homing in on some people whose lives revolved around books – but who were not necessarily authors. We have found an array of publishers, literary agents, book sellers, book collectors, editors, translators and general bibliophiles – and, of course, librarians. These bookish lives from throughout history and from around the world can tell us much about how books come into being, and what they mean to those who spend their days looking after them, preserving them and making them available.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell’s memoir of running a second hand book shop in the Scottish town of Wigtown had me laughing out loud. In a dead pan style, Bythell documents the eccentricities of staff and booksellers and the highs and lows of serving a clientele of collectors, aficionados, the indecisive and bemused, the pedantic and demanding, and the endlessly browsing tourist. There is a serious point about the increasing challenge of eking out a living in this field, but Bythell’s caustic humour belies an obvious passion for his trade.

I remember the first time someone I knew ordered an obscure, out of print American book online, and awaited its delivery with excitement. I couldn’t believe that the internet made it possible to track down such books and have them drop through the letterbox. This has become commonplace (though still often very expensive – if it’s biographies you are looking for, don’t forget that our collection contains thousands of out of print and rare titles, including many published overseas).

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Before such things were dreamed of, Helene Hanff, in her flat in New York City, had no way to acquire the old English literary editions she loved other than to write air mail letters, and in this way she developed a correspondence with the manager of a Charing Cross Road antiquarian bookshop that spanned two decades.

84 Charing Cross Road was an address that became famous when she published her exchange of letters with Frank Doel in 1970 (her book was made into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in 1987). Any booklover who hasn’t already read this classic celebration of friendship and bibliophilia is in for a real treat – the bond that gradually develops between the reserved Doel and the ebullient Hanff is tender and moving, and the insight into post war life in the US and UK is fascinating. The fizzing excitement as Hanff unwraps the parcels containing her yearned-for editions of Austen and Donne, and the quieter but no less profound delight as Doel takes delivery of her grateful gifts of still-rationed treats resonates down the decades and reminds us of the importance of human contact and the ability of books to cement friendships.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakof

New York City was also the place where Joanna Rakoff, in her early twenties, took up her first job as assistant to a literary agent in 1996. Her memoir My Salinger Year describes learning the ropes of the industry, at the same time as learning, in a whirlwind of coming-of-age insights rendered in lovely and witty prose, who she is and what kind of life she wants to have in the world of books. The title refers to the fact that the agency’s most illustrious client is the giant of American literature J. D. Salinger, by then in his late seventies. Knowing his reputation as an irascible recluse, Rakoff quails at the thought of encountering him – but his kindness and gentleness in their telephone conversations tell a different and irresistible story.

Caribbean Publishing in Britain: A Tribute to Arif Ali by Asher and Martin Hoyle

Arif Ali came to London from Guyana in 1957. In 1966 he began running a green grocer’s shop in Tottenham; because it was one of only a few places where Caribbean produce was available, it became a place where immigrants from the Caribbean would gather, and Ali began importing newspapers from their home islands. In 1970, Ali sold the shop to set up the publishing company Hansib, which became the largest black-run publishing company in Europe. For over 20 years he published three newspapers and two magazines, the most popular of which was the Caribbean Times. In 1997 Ali sold his newspapers to concentrate on books.

Hansib Publications has brought out hundreds of titles, showcasing writers from Britain’s Caribbean, Asian and African communities, and a range of books on the experiences and concerns of these communities. Ali has been an activist on many issues, and his contribution to making black British voices heard in the context of a ‘mainstream’ publishing industry that neglected them, has been immeasurable. We have a wonderful and quite rare book in our collection called Caribbean Publishing in Britain: A Tribute to Arif Ali by Asher and Martin Hoyles, which although it foregrounds Ali, also looks at other publishers who immigrated from the Caribbean and used their books to change and enrich British society.

So Much to Tell by Kaye Webb

Anyone who grew up in the 60s and 70s and enjoyed reading might find the name Kaye Webb rings a bell.  Webb, one of whose first jobs was to answer children’s letters to Mickey Mouse Weekly magazine in the 1930s (she was paid tuppence per response), was editor of Puffin Books, the children’s arm of Penguin, between 1961 and 1979, her name appearing on the flyleaf of many much-loved books.

This is often looked on as a golden age for children’s fiction, and Webb oversaw Puffin editions of classics like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and Rosa Guy’s The Friends as well as obtaining the paperback rights of earlier classics including Mary Poppins and Dr Doolittle.  In 1967 she founded the Puffin Club, whose members (‘Puffineers’) received a fortnightly magazine full of articles by leading children’s authors, and the chance to participate in quizzes and writing competitions, meet-the-author events, and links with other kids who loved reading.  The magazine thrived for over 40 years and at its peak had 200,000 readers, and its graphic design has become iconic.  Webb’s third husband was the artist Ronald Searle, best known for creating St Trinian’s and for illustrating Geoffrey Williams’s Molesworth books. 

A less well known, and still sadly topical episode in Webb’s life is that in 1960 she and Searle (who had survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp) produced Refugees 1960, a report on the situation of refugees 15 years after the end of the war, with text and pictures based on their travels to meet refugees all over Europe at the invitation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

For those of us lucky enough to work with books, there are many ways that we experience looking after them and sharing them – but the best way to encounter them is still to browse amongst the shelves and find what you most want to curl up with, which might well be a biography to take you straight into another place and time.

Don’t forget our podcast Biography Central (formerly BioEpic), available on Anchor or wherever you get your podcasts. You can hear more about our special Biographies Collection.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Women’s History Month: ground-breaking women

Women’s History Month poster from Kensington and Chelsea Libraries

March is Women’s History Month, and our display of books from our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library highlight’s some of history’s most ground-breaking women. Every profession, every arena of social, cultural, political, or religious engagement, every artistic genre, and every field of achievement were once reserved exclusively for men.

In each of these fields, into which women have broken through over generations of slow and often difficult progress, there was a ‘first’ woman: the first to practice as a doctor in the UK (Elizabeth Garrett Anderson), the first to pilot a plane (Amelia Earhart), the first to win a Nobel prize (Marie Curie), the first to be the provost of an Ivy League University (Condoleezza Rice), the first to have an exhibition of paintings in a major gallery (Georgia O’Keeffe), to become a self-made millionaire (C. J. Walker), and on and on through every area of excellence.

In this blog post we focus on three very different female ‘firsts’ from the past who changed the landscape for their fellow women for ever.

The first female to publish a book

Book cover of ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’

Although her mentor and fellow Norfolk woman, the anchoress Julian of Norwich, is credited with being the first woman to publish a book in the English language, the Christian mystic Margery Kempe (1373–1438) has particular significance in relation to our Biographies Collection because her The Book of Margery Kempe is generally considered to be the first work of autobiography-not only by a woman, but by any individual-to be published in English.

Like most people during this period, Kempe was illiterate (it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that women’s rates of literacy caught up with men’s). She employed a scribe to write her book at her dictation, describing her religious visions. Unlike Julian of Norwich and other early female theologians and mystics, Kempe was not a nun but was a married woman with 14 children. She was tried for heresy several times due to her encroaching on religious activities reserved for men, but was not convicted, and went on to travel on pilgrimages in Europe and Jerusalem. 

The first UK female physician and surgeon

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836–1917) has an impressive list of ‘firsts’ to her name: as well as being the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in the UK, she co-founded the first hospital to have a female staff, became the first female dean of a British medical school, the first woman to serve on a school board and the first British woman to become a mayor.

Portrait image of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Born to a prosperous family in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, Anderson was frustrated with the limited education provided to her as a girl. As a young woman, she was determined to become a doctor. She began practicing as a nurse at the Middlesex Hospital in London while studying with private tutors, and despite excelling herself, she was forced to leave after male medical students objected to her presence in lectures. Inspired by the first American woman to become a physician, Elizabeth Blackwell, whose London lecture tour she attended, Anderson eventually obtained her medical degree through the Society of Apothecaries, via a loophole in its constitution that made it unable to exclude women. However, she was still unable to practice until gaining a further qualification, which was only available to women at the Sorbonne in Paris (she learned French especially for the purpose).

In 1866, Anderson set up the St. Mary’s Dispensary, which became the New Hospital for Women in 1872, just after Anderson married and before the birth of the first of her three children. It was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in 1918 and remained open until 1976; it still exists in the form of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing of University College Hospital. Its mission was to provide medical care for poor women, whose health was often terribly neglected. In the 1870s, Anderson became involved in debates about the suitability of medicine as a profession for women, most notably countering the arguments of the eminent psychiatrist Henry Maudsley, who contended that too much intellectual exertion would render women infertile and/or insane. Anderson argued that the reverse was true, and in fact, it was boredom and frustration, and being starved of purpose and intellectual stimulation, that were injurious to women’s health.

The first self-made female millionaire in America

Book cover of ‘Madam C.J. Walker’

Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1910) became the first female self-made millionaire in America. This would have been a landmark achievement for any woman in the late nineteenth century, but for one born into dire poverty, the daughter and sibling of enslaved people in Louisiana, it is remarkable. Walker had been employed as a domestic servant while still a child, having been orphaned at the age of seven and married at the age of fourteen to protect herself from abuse within her family. A strong motivation for her business enterprises was to secure a better future for her own children.

After working for a cosmetics company, Walker saw a gap in the market for hair care products for black women. Through a combination of time-honoured recipes passed down through generations and the modern laboratory research she funded as her business grew, Walker produced beautifully packaged products, developed a mail order service, and was the first woman to give her name to a brand. In addition to acquiring a beautiful mansion (which became a hub for the greatest names in the African-American community), state-of-the-art early motor cars, and all the luxuries that wealth made possible, Walker ploughed a large proportion of her vast fortune into philanthropic work. She invested in training schools for beauticians and for women wanting to run their own businesses, and causes such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, to whom she made the biggest single donation they had ever had.

Her business expanded into the Caribbean and was so well known and trusted for so long that it became part of the cultural landscape. Only this year, a heritage line of products using her name and paying tribute to her work is being marketed in the United States. Though she became richer than she could have imagined as a young girl, Walker never forgot her early days and the people amongst whom she had grown up, whose lives were blighted by poverty and racism. Her generosity to a variety of causes was legendary, and on her sadly early death at 51, she bequeathed two-thirds of all future profits of her company to charity. 

Photo of Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library

We hope you enjoy discovering these and other trailblazing women, whose stories are told in our Biographies Collection.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Check out our relaunched podcast, Biography Central, here https://anchor.fm/biographycentral or wherever you get your podcasts.

Amplifying the stories of queer artists: LGBT+ History Month

February is the joyous month to celebrate LGBT+ history across the UK. This annual-month long celebration aims to educate and amplify the historic milestones from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

Visual artists from our Biography Collection

This year we are excited to shine the light on LGBT+ visual artists from our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library, which contains many fascinating books exploring the lives of LGBT+ artists, some household names like David Hockney, Gwen John, Francis Bacon and Maggie Hambling, and others far less well known. For this blog post our colleague, Claudia, will be focusing on two very different 20th century artists, from very different backgrounds, whose sexuality and the obstacles society put in their way informed their lives and art.

Romaine Brooks was an American heiress who moved to Paris in the 1890s, while still in her teens, to develop her career as a painter. Having the financial means to avoid the poor areas frequented by struggling garret-dwelling artists, she set up home in the fashionable 16th arondissement, and painted portraits of aristocrats – some of whom, including the Princesse de Polignac, became her lovers.


Copyright: © Photo RMN – Droits réservés

Brooks had previously lived in England, and a spell in St Ives saw her refining her palette from the bright, strong tones of her earlier work, to the muted greys which became her trademark. Brooks favoured masculine attire, cutting a glamorous and elegant figure in austerely tailored coats, wing collars, top hats and a short haircut (long before the shocking “Eton crop” became fashionable for “flappers” in the 1920s). Many of her portraits of women show their subjects in similar outfits, providing a rich record of women subverting the rigidly gendered clothing of the time and signalling their sexual preferences.

Brooks had a 50 year relationship with the writer Natalie Barney, whose salon in the rue Jacob spanned six decades. Brooks was one of a circle of women who were determined to live as their true selves in the face of prejudice, and created great artistic records of the lives of their peers.


Beauford Delaney | Whitney Museum of American Art

Beauford Delaney also made the journey from America to Paris, but sixty years after Brooks did, and in middle age. By this time, he was an established painter, having made his name with his haunting modernist depictions of the homeless and disenfranchised in Depression era New York City.

A native of Tennessee, whose mother had been born enslaved, Delaney began painting at an early age (as did his brother Joseph, who also became a professional artist). His period in New York City coincided with The Harlem Renaissance, a huge flowering of African American art, music and literature, and he was active in radical politics. James Baldwin wrote movingly of Delaney as his “spiritual father”, “the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist”.

After Delaney’s death, Baldwin wrote: “He has been menaced more than any other man I know by his social circumstances and also by all the emotional and psychological stratagems he has been forced to use to survive; and, more than any other man I know, he has transcended both the inner and outer darkness.”

Implicit in these words is Baldwin’s recognition of Delaney’s struggle as a fellow black gay man – although a prominent member of gay Bohemian circles which were carving a place in the arts and society, Delaney struggled with the shadow cast by the homophobia of the time and of the church teaching of his youth. His mental health deteriorated, partly as a result of the pressures of negotiating his sexuality in a hostile society. His work is inflected with the vision of the raw and tender vision of the outsider, the artist seeking to elevate the humane truths of existence above the violence and cruelty of exclusion.

Fashioning James Bond

We host a wide variety of events in our libraries, both online and in person for residents and visitors in Kensington and Chelsea. And colleagues who work for the council like to come along too.

Elrica, who works for the borough, came along to Kensington Central Library last month to hear author, Llewella Chapman, speak about her book on the history of the costumes and fashions in the James Bond films. Over to Elrica to hear more…

Author Llewella Chapman

Who would’ve thought that Kensington and Chelsea would be the place to be for Bond-related events? It wasn’t that long ago when we had the world premiere of No Time To Die at the Royal Albert Hall. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of attending Llewella Chapman’s book launch at Kensington Central Library. Fashioning James Bond is Chapman’s contribution that analyses how womenswear and menswear within the Bond films as iconic as the screenplay themselves.

Elrica’s photo from the night

In her talk, she explained that there are three core themes that she approached the subject matter: the agency of the actors and actresses, as well as the costume designers behind-the-scenes; the hidden labour involved in developing the costumes; and the costumes themselves. Her being a trained costume designer, she has a first-hand understanding of the work involved to use clothing to make characters more visible than others, and that there is a lot of decision-making that is not always credited.

Chapman explained how it took around seven years to conduct her research; her book is a scholarly synthesis of a variety of in-person and online archives and sources. It shows that there is a great history to be unravelled in how and what decisions were made that led to some of the most ‘iconic cinema graphics’. I was amazed at the wealth of information she read and analysed in order to write her book, more so given that she used the ‘old-school’ notebook and paper method to note down her insights.

I am excited to read her piece of work, more so being able to have had the chance to see Chapman speak so openly. During the pandemic, we have not had the opportunity to attend in-person book talks, and I am grateful for hearing Chapman speak. It was evident from her talk of the passion she holds for the Bond costumes and the people that were able to make them become the ‘icons’ themselves.

If you missed the event, don’t worry as Llewella Chapman is back on Friday 11 February to tell us how James Bond got his style from the tailors of Westminster. There’s more info and you can book a place on Eventbrite.

Many thanks to Elrica for coming along and her blog post, we’re glad she enjoyed the event! If you’d like to keep up to date with what’s happening in our libraries do subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2022: One Day

Every month or so, our colleague, Claudia takes a look at our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. It’s a collection of 80,000 books to which we add 1,000 new titles a year. This month, Claudia looked at our collection to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

To mark  Holocaust Memorial Day on  27 January, each year the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust chooses a different theme to commemorate the Holocaust and the Cambodian, Bosnian, Rwandan and Darfur genocides. To mark it, we have displayed some of the many Holocaust memoirs from our  Biographies Collection in Kensington Central Library. This year the theme is One Day. 

I have chosen as one day to focus on, the 19 July 1943 and how it was recorded by some diarists of the Holocaust whose work is in our Biographies Collection. I have displayed excerpts from the diary entries for that day alongside the books. Diaries are a particularly intimate, immediate and powerful form of autobiographical record, and the youth of some of these writers (Anne Frank undoubtedly the most famous) as well as our knowledge of their ultimate fates, underlines their poignancy and power. I chose this date for personal reasons – it was the birthday of a dear family friend who was living through the Holocaust as a child at the time.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2022 book display at Kensington Central Library

Looking at this one day through the words of some of the memoirs reveals the geographical scope of the atrocity and the fact that it occurred over thousands of days, days which had sunrises and sunsets like any others, which were people’s birthdays and anniversaries, but on which the evils of hatred and bigotry violated the most fundamental human values, and which are rightly considered amongst the darkest in human history.   

Some of the diaires I looked at ended before 19 July 1943, because the diarist did not survive beyond that point. For those, I have chosen the closest diary entry to take an excerpt from. I am also displaying other biographies of Holocaust survivors, refugees, rescuers, witnesses and those who did not survive, and some general books on the historical background to the genocide.

Another key reason why I chose the date 19 July 1943 was a way of dedicating this display to a beloved friend, born in Prague and a resident of West London for the past 75 years. This day was her 10th birthday. Between the ages of 8 and 12 she was imprisoned in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, where her family was murdered.

Most children who survived the Holocaust were those who had been taken into hiding before deportation or managed to leave as refugees. She was one of a tiny minority to survive the camps themselves, due to being used as slave labour rather than being murdered on arrival. As the defeat of the Nazi regime approached, she was marched to Belsen, from where she was liberated by allied troops. A relative who had emigrated to London several years earlier recognised her on a radio broadcast appealing for relatives of child survivors, and she came to live in London where she has led a full and good life and been dearly loved by her family and friends. 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust, over 90% of Europe’s total population of Jewish children.

Antisemitism is currently on the rise across Europe. One of its most pernicious strands is Holocaust denial. It is thus extremely important that we read the records of those who experienced the persecution, and are moved by their testimony to fight bigotry and hatred.                                          

Christmas Past and Words of Winter

I am delighted to say that our November display of childhood memoirs (see last month’s blog post) has proved so popular, and there is such a wealth of diverse books in this category, that we are going to keep it going throughout December.

To mark the festive season, we are supplementing it with some unusual memoirs of Christmases past which we hope you will enjoy, as well as some on generally wintry themes.

Verily Anderson wrote a number of extremely funny memoirs, including of her life with a young family and a houseful of lodgers in Kensington after the Second World War.  She also devoted herself to the history of her forebears, the illustrious Quaker families of Gurney, Hoare and Buxton, which included the great prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and the anti-slavery campaigner Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton.  Her Scrambled Egg for Christmas is one of her memoirs – our 1970 copy has lovely illustrations and it’s worth getting past its old fashioned appearance as it really is a joy.

Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales is the definitive evocation of Christmas in a small Welsh town in the 1920s, but his fellow Welshman, the actor Richard Burton, also explored this theme with his A Christmas Story drawing on his own childhood memories of a Glamorgan mining community, where debates rage about religion and politics, chestnuts are roasted in the fire, and the child Richard dreads the humiliation of being given a second-hand Christmas present, the refurbished toy of a more privileged boy.

One of my favourite of the more idiosyncratic books in the Biography Collection is Crackers at Christmas by Hazel Wheeler, documenting the “Festive Trials of a Yorkshire Housewife” from the 40s to the 90s.  Wheeler recorded the whole of her life in great detail, and this volume brings together her reminiscences of Christmas in Huddersfield over six decades, characterised by unrelenting deadpan gloom.  From food preparation to family relationships, every subject is treated with the same acerbic pessimism.  This is the perfect book for anyone who is not a fan of Christmas cheer, and strangely Hazel’s pared down Eeyore-ish narrative ends up being very uplifting.

More than any other figure from the English literary scene, Charles Dickens helped shape our Christmas mythology with his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, and in Dickens and Christmas his great-great-great granddaughter Lucinda Hawksley explores his personal and artistic relationship to the season as it was celebrated during his lifetime.  (You can listen to an episode of our BioEpic podcast which looks at this in detail    https://anchor.fm/bio-epic/episodes/BioEpic—Episode-3—Charles-Dickens-etiaql  ). 

Expanding our view from Christmas to the winter season in general, we have some wonderful books looking at the cold and dark time of year, and how its challenges and beauty affect us.  For some the season is a real challenge to mood and wellbeing. Horatio Clare (The Light in the Dark, 2018) and Fraser Harrison (A Winter’s Tale, 1987) have both written rawly beautiful memoirs of marriage and fatherhood in rural settings during winter.  Clare struggles with seasonal depression, and both writers evoke the steely challenges of winter and the coming of milder days both internal and external; these are moving and enlightening books to curl up with on a dark winter afternoon.

One of the greatest works of art to deal with winter is Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) which he composed in 1828 and which is one of nearly 170,000 pieces of music available to stream through Naxos via our website In Schubert’s Winter Journey, the celebrated tenor Ian Bostridge examines the music, how Schubert conceived it and what it has meant to Bostridge himself to interpret it, as well as how it relates to its historical context – a fascinating read which will deepen the appreciation of those who are already familiar with this music, and open it up to those who are not.

Finally, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ s Cold looks at how it feels to experience some of the most extreme conditions on earth and why the polar regions have gripped the imaginations of so many over the centuries.  Brrrrr!

Whatever you are doing over the festive season, I wish you warmth and happiness, and all the very best for further reading adventures in 2022.

Claudia Jessop, Kensington Central Library

Naxos Music Library eResource

Our colleague, Hiru at Kensington Central Library has taken a good look at one of our eResources.

Access our eResource, Naxos Music Library online for free, with your Kensington and Chelsea library card.

You can check out online music streaming with Naxos Music Library and much more. Whether it’s orchestral, ballet, opera, vocal, world, rock, jazz and even your favourite film music, you can listen in peace at home, in a crowded tube, among friends or at work.

Naxos Music Library is the world´s largest online classical music library. Stream over two and half million tracks, with 600 titles being added each month.

A selection of musical genres subscribers can choose from
Search results for Jazz Waltz

Learn about your favourite music, listen to samples of works to learn about a composer or genre. Try the different playlists or create your own. If you are a music student, try out the resources page, where you find aural training exercises and work analysis of different composers.

You will be amazed on what you can find on the Naxos Music Library. Just by typing Swan Lake in the keyword search on the Categories tab, you would find 492 recording to listen to:

Search results for the well know ballet, Swan Lake

Introduce children to classical music and stories from ballet:

Delve into world music, music of different countries, including the English Country Garden:

Immerse yourself into opera.  There are 821 recordings of the Barber of Seville:

You can stream on your laptop, tablet or smart phone.  No need for an app, just click on this link to login with your library card: https://rbkc.naxosmusiclibrary.com/login/library/card

Resources page on Naxos Music Library

Childhood memoirs for World Children’s Day

Did you know we have a special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library? It’s a collection of 80,000 books to which we add 1,000 new titles a year. Every month or so, our colleague, Claudia takes a look at this very special collection. This month, she has been looking at childhood memoirs.

Today Saturday 20 November is World Children’s Day. It commemorates the Declaration of the Rights of the Child by the UN General assembly on 20 November 1959 (its precursor was adopted by the League of Nations 35 years earlier, drafted by Eglantyne Jebb who founded Save the Children).

One of the most fundamental things that all human beings share is that we were all once children, though the experience of childhood varies enormously.  For this blog post and the accompanying display on the ground floor of Kensington Central Library, I wanted to concentrate on peoples’ own childhood memoirs, rather than on reconstructions of the childhoods of the famous written by others.  

Many writers and artists return to their childhood to examine the source of their inspiration; those interested in social history and psychology look to it to cast light on changing times and psychic development.  Many other people who are not necessarily professional writers are drawn to revisit childhood memories, often in their later years as the understanding that the world in which they grew up has gone forever makes it appear more urgent to record it. We have many childhood memoirs linked to particular places and eras, some recording vanished rural lifestyles with a golden glow of perhaps selective nostalgia, others recording harsh conditions and the fight to improve them. Notwithstanding the huge differences in childhood experiences, as in all human experiences, certain features of childhood memoirs recur around the world and throughout history – the sense of the freshness and intensity of perceptions, the partial understanding of things that become clearer as we mature, and often the huge influence of significant people in forming who we become.

My Father’s Places by Aeronwy Thomas

It is fascinating to see famous people through the eyes of their children, and memoirs of the children of important figures can give unique insight into those people’s daily lives and intimate relationships.  Aeronwy Thomas, daughter of the poet Dylan Thomas, records the brilliance and volatility of both of her parents, and the wild beauty of their home at Laugharne on the estuary of the River Taf in Carmarthenshire, in a childhood full of love and joy as well as instability, alcoholism and poverty. Vyvyan Holland’s father, Oscar Wilde, appears more as a haunting absence than a quotidian presence in the memoir he wrote in his sixties.  He describes the collapse of his happy childhood when Wilde was imprisoned under the persecutory homophobic law of the day, and his mother’s flight abroad with their children in an attempt to shield them from the scandal.

The Education of Little Tree by Forest Carter

Childhood memoirs can give extraordinarily acute glimpses of ways of life because children’s eyes tend to focus on and record details that adults may overlook and which may be left out of historical analyses, giving a depth and texture to our understanding. The Education of Little Tree is Forest Carter’s memoir of his childhood being brought up by his Cherokee grandparents in Tennessee in the 1930s and is a depiction of a world threatened by the dominant culture. The unsentimental immediacy with which childhood memories are laid down, and with which some especially gifted writers depict them, makes stories like that of Little Tree’s removal to school to be “educated” out of his culture and heritage by those who think it is inferior, particularly piercing – here is another child, like Holland, who suffers due to bigotries he cannot understand and who as an adult must try to make sense of what was inflicted upon him.

The Woman Who Saved Children by Clare Mulley

Although not childhood memoir, I had to include in this display our biographies of Eglantyne Jebb, who as mentioned above was the extraordinary woman who founded Save the Children and drafted the original declaration of the rights of the child adopted by the League of Nations in 1924.  Jebb’s urgent commitment to enshrining children’s human rights grew in the wake of the situation in Germany and Austria after their defeat in the First World War, when economic breakdown brought about by punitive peace terms caused the starvation of many children. 

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

So I have included several moving memoirs and diaries of children caught up in war and genocide – the most famous such document is undoubtedly The Diary of Anne Frank, of which we have several editions; we also have the diary of Zlata Filipovic, describing her life during the war in Bosnia between the ages of 11 and 13, Loung Ung’s memoir of the Cambodian genocide, and more recently Malala Yousafzai’s description of her incredible fight for girls’ education in Pakistan, and how it led to her near-fatal shooting.

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova

Other memoirs of children experiencing totalitarianism include Carmen Bugan’s wonderful Burying the Typewriter, about being a dissisdent’s daughter in Communist Romania, and Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs, about negotiating the rigid demands on a Young Pioneer in the Soviet Union. Very different demands were made of child stars like Shirley Temple and Drew Barrymore, and other child celebrities whose stories we can find in our collection.

Aké by Wole Soyinka

Some of the world’s greatest writers have left records of their childhoods that rank among their finest works.  The great Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki describes growing up in Tokyo in   the 1890s and in My Reminiscences, giant of Bengali literature Rabindranath Tagore carefully examines the influences that awakened his curiosity and activated his genius.  Ngugi Wa Thiongo, who grew up to become one of Africa’s greatest literary figures, wrote Dreams in a Time of War about his 1940s boyhood in Kenya, and Wole Soyinka, another giant of African letters, produced an unforgettable childhood memoir in Aké, about his village childhood in 1940s Nigeria. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the most important Yiddish writer, recorded his childhood in a Jewish Warsaw that was to be destroyed, including his eavesdropping on the conflicts brought to his father’s rabbinic court.

Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee

Some childhood memoirs have been treasured inclusions in bookshelves around the world for decades – Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie are both such classics, which cast fascinating light on the adults they became, and the subsequent books they wrote. Some childhood memoirs glitter with irreverent humour – Norman Lewis’s Jackdaw Cake and Natalia Ginzburg’s The Things We Used to Say (also translated as Family Sayings) deal with serious subject matter, but highlight the ridiculousness of childhood’s confrontation with adult eccentricity in a way that is extremely funny – this is also true of Gerald Durrell’s childhood memoirs, brought to TV screens in the recent popular ITV series.

Children’s views of their own lives provided invaluable social insight to sociologists, and we have some fascinating period pieces from the sixties, when Donald Measham interviewed a group of suburban children about the experience of being 14, and Ronald Goldman followed up children who had been taken into care – our Collected Biography Collection, a sub-group of the main Biography Collection which deals with groups of people, includes many books about groups of children united by a common experience, like wartime evacuees or children brought up under colonial rule.

As well as these memoirs of childhoods distinguished by historical drama or by subsequent fame, we have many memoirs of more simple, less eventful childhoods remembered by those who chose to preserve them with tenderness, regret, celebration, pain or humour – or, often, a mixture of all these.  I hope you will enjoy discovering childhood from around the world and across the centuries.

Black History Month: Celebrating Fashion Designers Willi Smith and Duro Olowu.

The Costume and Fashion Special Collection at Chelsea Library celebrates Black History Month this October.

Chelsea Library is home to the Costume and Fashion Collection, a treasure trove of books and magazines chronicling the history of Costume and Fashion. This also includes an archive of British Vogue dating from 1923 to the present.

The Costume and Fashion Collection is supported by the digital resource Bloomsbury Fashion Central (https://www.bloomsburyfashioncentral.com/library-card-log-in?linkPassUrl=https://www.bloomsburyfashioncentral.com/), a comprehensive research tool for students, professionals and anyone interested in fashion and is free to use online with your library card.

For this year’s Black History Month, we are featuring the work of two designers: Willi Smith (1948-1987), whose important legacy has often been overlooked and Duro Olowu, the Nigerian born, British designer, who in 2003 opened his first boutique in the North Kensington. Both featured in major exhibitions in 2020.

The cover of Willi Smith: Street Couture

Willi Smith

It has been over thirty years since Willi Smith’s death and last year saw the first retrospective of his work – Willi Smith: Street Couture at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York.

 Willi Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1948. Initially he studied fashion illustration but later went on to study Fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York. Early in his career he worked for Arnold Stassi, a designer known for his high society ball gowns. He then worked for Digit Inc. Sportswear, where he quickly made name for himself and was nominated for the prestigious Coty Award in 1972. After Digits Inc. went bankrupt in 1973, he unsuccessfully set up a company with his sister Toukie Smith and then in 1976 while in India, inspired by the cotton fabrics and street fashion, he and his friend Laurie Mallet came up with the idea of setting up WilliWear Ltd and by the time they return he had designed a capsule collection that was ready to go.

WilliWear quickly captured the interest of the fashion industry. His designs crossed over from sportswear to couture. His clothes were oversized, colourful and gender fluid. He was the first designer to unite womenswear and menswear under the same label. This is echoed in his unisex patterns for Butterwick and McCall’s, which still seem radical today.

Willi Smith’s design ethos was that his clothes should be functional, fun, affordable and cross boundaries of race, gender and social status. He was inspired by how people on the street dressed. He called it Street Couture for his seminal Fall 1983 Collection. It was urban not ballroom. He famously said, ‘Being black has a lot to do with being a good designer. My eye will go quicker to what the pimp is wearing than to someone in a gray suit and tie…Most of these designers who run to Paris for color and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It’s all right there’. (Vogue online July 2020)

Willi Smith was one of the few successful ‘non-white’ designers at the time to navigate the fashion industry on his own terms and by the time of his death in 1987, aged thirty-nine from an AIDS related illness, he had become the most successful black designer in history with annual sales of over twenty-five million dollars and selling in five hundred stores worldwide.

Willi Smith pioneered Streetwear which has influenced generations of designers. Throughout his career he worked creatively with artists, architects, filmmakers and dancers. Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer were amongst the artists who he worked with on his ground-breaking artist t-shirts in 1984 – now ubiquitous in the industry. He started collaborating with Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1967 and in 1985 designed the worker’s uniforms for the wrapping of the Pont Neuf in Paris. The radical architects SITE created his urban street vision for his show rooms and with artists Nam June Pak and Juan Downey his fashion shows became more performance than catwalk.

So, it seems strange that his legacy has largely been overlooked. Perhaps it was because his career was cut short, maybe it was also due to ‘the negativity associated with AIDS at the time’ (James Wines, SITE, Surface Magazine Jan 2020). But it is also true, as Kim Jenkins, founder of the Fashion and Race Database says ‘…fashion history for the most part, has been white history. On the whole, we have designers of color missing from our textbooks’ (WMagazine Jan 2020).

The cover of Duro Olowu: Seeing.

Duro Olowu 

Duro Olowu is a Nigerian born British designer. In 1998 he opened his first boutique off  the Ledbury Road in Notting Hill with Elaine Golding, called Olowu Golding, where he showcased  his early designs  and Elaine Golding’s shoes. Then in 2004 he launched his womenswear label.  His  Spring-Summer 2005 Collection was an instant success and he was named New Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards, the only designer to receive the award prior to their first runway show. His empire line dress with flowing sleeves, dubbed the ‘Duro’ became a sensation, hailed ‘Dress of the Year’ by both American and British Vogue.

Duro Olowu punctuates designing with curating. He moves with ease between Fashion and  the Art worlds. Last year he guest curated Seeing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where he brought together over 300 works of art selected from public and private collections from around the Chicago area arranging them in thematic groups.

Previously in 2016 he curated ‘Making and Unmaking’ at the Camden Arts Centre in London. Mixing and placing works which included photographs, paintings, sculpture and fabrics. The exhibition was like wandering through his stream of consciousness. There was a sense of freedom, where seemingly unconnected work flowed from room to room in a kind of beautiful choreography. In the interview with Glen Ligon for the exhibition he explained, ‘…the process of discovery and experimentation is very empowering and that is what ‘Making and Unmaking’ is ultimately about’ .

Duro Olowu’s designs are a sophisticated  play of pattern, colour and cut, suffused with the influence of African textiles, with their symbolism and how they translate to the street fashion of a continent and then melded seamlessly with western couture to create designs that are both powerful and subtle at the same time.

The exhibition publications: Willi Smith: Street Couture, Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Rizzoli Electa, 2020 and Duro Olowu: Seeing, Naomi Beckwith, Prestel, 2020  are on display in Chelsea Library during the month of October in the Costume and Fashion Collection.

For further information on Willi Smith, the Willi Smith Community Archive created inconjunction with Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum gives personal accounts and insights into the designer by people who knew and worked with him. https://willismitharchive.cargo.site/

You can also listen to Duro Olowu in conversation with Valerie Steele, fashion historian, who also curates  Bloomsbury Fashion Central’s fashion photograhphy archive. The conversation is from the Series: at home: Artists in Conversation, Yale Centre for British Art.  https://youtu.be/71ZdF_YVVbQ

Nadia, Chelsea Library.