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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
We hope you enjoy discovering these and other trailblazing women, whose stories are told in our Biographies Collection.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The inaugural issue of the first ever African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, appeared in March 1827. Its stirring front-page editorial stated “Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations”, encapsulating the truth that the experiences, needs and ideas of black people could only be expressed through the voices, pens and printing presses of black people. Black journalism has a fascinating and illustrious history, through which a rich tradition of brilliant minds sought to wrest the narrative of black experience from the dominant white commentators, fight the battle against racism and advance the cause of liberation.
As the earliest journalists recognised, no war could be waged – whether against the slave trade, which would continue for another four decades after the birth of Freedom’s Journal, or against lynching, the deprivation of civil rights, racist miscarriages of justice, institutional racism in the criminal justice system, government, and society generally – without a press created by and for black people. Newspapers were the way for individuals and communities to communicate with each other and challenge the racist misinformation that distorted the reality they knew. Campaigns of huge political importance were carried out through their pages, debates shaped, and injustice exposed. They also fulfilled people’s need for entertainment and leisure at a time when black people could only find themselves depicted in stereotypical caricatures in white media. In this month’s display of books from our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library, we mark Black History Month by looking at the stories of some of the most fascinating figures in black journalism.
Some of the biggest names in 20th century black literature, whose stories can be found in our collection, worked as journalists – the poet Langston Hughes was a columnist for Abbott’s Chicago Defender (see below), and the novelist Zora Neale Hurston [pic 1] was also a reporter (one of her most famous pieces of journalism was her reporting of the 1952 trial in Florida of Ruby McCollum, the black woman convicted of murdering the white doctor and “pillar of the community” who abused her over many years).
Lorraine Hansberry, [pic 2]the writer of the celebrated play A Raisin in the Sun wrote for the black newspaper Freedom, which was published by legendary singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Claudia Jones[pic 3], who founded the Notting Hill Carnival, set up the UK’s first black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette.
Anyone who has watched the wonderful Mangrove film in the Small Axe series of films by Steve McQueen will have seen the brief appearance of C.L.R. James, played by Derek Griffiths.
James [pic 4] was one of the most important journalists and historians of the period; he immigrated to Lancashire from Trinidad in 1932 and subsequently moved to London, where he wrote for many newspapers and was a leading figure in Marxist politics. In the late 50s James returned to Trinidad and became the editor of The Nation newspaper, though he spent the last years of his life back in the UK, living in Brixton. James was also an expert on cricket and was cricket correspondent of the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) in the early 1930s. Huge names of black history like W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey were also journalists, but in this blog post I would like to focus on a few names that may be less well known.
Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born in Georgia, USA in 1868; his parents had been enslaved until not long before his birth. [pic 5] After practising as a lawyer, in 1905 he founded The Chicago Defender newspaper, which went on to become the most widely read black-owned newspaper. Having himself made the journey from the South to Chicago, Abbott was passionate about what is known as “The Great Migration”, which saw many black people relocate from the Southern to the Northern United States to escape rural poverty and the horrific “Jim Crow” system of racial segregation. (During the first wave of this, between 1916 and 1940, 1.6 million black people resettled in the North.) Abbott used his newspaper to inspire others to make this journey, as he felt black people could have the opportunity to improve their circumstances only when they left the terrible conditions of the South behind. At the same time, he saw all too clearly that racism was also a huge problem in the North, and campaigned for equal civil rights, the end of discrimination in employment and education, and the end of persecution of mixed-race couples. Black railway porters, who in 1925 were to form the first official trade union led by African Americans, increased the paper’s circulation by distributing it on trains. It is estimated that at its most popular, the paper was read by four out of five of all black adults in the entire United States. (The paper still thrives 116 years after Abbott founded it, though two years ago it became online only.) We have a rare early biography of Abbott, written in 1955 by another African American journalist, Roi Ottley, whose career took off in the 1930s and who went on to become the first African American correspondent to file reports on World War Two for major national newspapers.
Born in Jamaica in 1941, Barbara Blake Hannah[pic 6] had been a TV newsreader and a contributor to a magazine run by her father Evon Blake (founder of the Press Association of Jamaica) before she arrived in the UK in 1964 and became a prolific journalist, her work being published in many national newspapers and magazines. In 1968 she became the first black reporter on Thames Television’s first regional news programme, London-based Today. Blake-Hannah interviewed many famous people, but what then transpired is a disgraceful indictment – viewers complained about having a black reporter on the programme, and rather than defending her, Thames Television dismissed her without explanation. She went on to work on a local news programme in Birmingham, commuting from London as no hotel in Birmingham would admit her. She also worked as a researcher on the BBC’s prestigious documentary series “Man Alive.” In 1972, Blake-Hannah returned to Jamaica to work on the ground-breaking film The Harder they Come. She has written extensively about Rastafarianism and was the first Rastafarian senator in the Jamaican Parliament for three years in the 80s. She is now the Chief Executive of the Jamaica Film Academy. Her autobiography Growing Out: Black Hair & Black Pride In The Swinging Sixties came out in 2016 and describes her experience in the UK.
Una Marson[pic 7] was an extraordinary woman who dese. Born in 1905 in rural Jamaica, she escaped her strict upbringing (her father was a Baptist minister) and was already a prolific journalist, playwright and poet by the time she was in her early twenties (at 21 she was assistant editor of The Jamaica Critic and by 23 she had set up her own magazine, the first Jamaican woman ever to do so). She came alone to the UK while still not yet 30 and threw herself into the world of black activism and feminism, travelled in Europe, the USA and Israel, and met such important figures as Paul Robeson and Haile Salassie. She worked alongside George Orwell as a BBC producer during the Second World War, the first ever black woman to be employed by the corporation. From 1942 she produced the BBC radio programme Calling the West Indies; she recreated it as Caribbean Voices, which ran for 15 years and showcased the work of important literary figures including Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul. She is considered to be the first major female Caribbean poet and a key voice in the development of feminism.
Finally, George Lamming, who is now 94 years old, was one of those who read Walcott’s poetry on Caribbean Voices produced by Una Marson. [pic 8] In 1951 he came to London from Barbados and began broadcasting for the BBC, and he wrote for the Barbadian magazine BIM. In the late 60s he embarked on an academic career in Jamaica and has been a visiting professor at universities throughout the USA and Australia. His book In the Castle of My Skin was written during his first couple of years in the UK, and though often classified as a novel, it is included in our Special Collection of Biographies because it is considered to be an autobiographical evocation of Lamming’s childhood and youth in Barbados. It is an exquisitely written book, which gives a unique insight into his home island at a particular moment in its history.
This black history month, we hope you will enjoy finding out more about these and other unique individuals from the history of black journalism [pic 9], inextricably interwoven into the history of activism, literature, politics, and culture.
Don’t forget to check out our BioEpic podcast, available on all major podcast platforms- Claudia at Kensington Central Library.
This month’s display from our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library focuses on secrets and deceptions. This is a rich subject for memoir, with many fascinating stories of people discovering family secrets that have been hidden for decades. Sometimes the exposure of a secret takes long, painstaking excavation; sometimes a split second’s revelation overturns everything an individual thought they knew about their background or those closest to them. Some secrets are never suspected until they are revealed; others resonate through suspicions and inconsistencies and sometimes pure gut feelings, until those concerned determine to find the truth.
Of course, there are fascinating stories of secrecy relating to warfare, diplomacy and the machinations of the State. Espionage and covert surveillance could be the subject of a whole display in themselves, so I am not focussing on them in this one; neither am I going to look particularly at criminal conspiracies, or at the terrible stories of people having to hide their sexual orientation due to the persecutory laws of previous times, or at the false identities forced upon people by war and tyranny. Instead I am focussing on the secrets and lies played out within families; although these may touch on huge historical themes, the reasons for secrecy are connected to intimate and domestic relationships.
Some people’s whole personal lives seem to be secrets they wish to guard from the world. This has often been true of the super-rich of twentieth century America, whose birth into situations that could never be “normal” has sometimes made them seek privacy to a pathological degree. If you are one of the richest women in the world, as the copper mining and railway heiress Huguette Clark was, your relationships with other people must inevitably be complicated.Clark progressively disappeared into a world almost no one could penetrate – apart from her personal nurse of 20 years, to whom she left over thirty million dollars in her will when she died in 2011 aged 104, triggering a legal battle involving several members of her family. Doris Duke‘s billions came from the family tobacco and hydroelectric industries – she became literally the richest woman in the world upon her father’s death in 1925. She stage-managed her life in a more sociable way than Clark, but her world was so full of strange unreliable characters that it is difficult to say what reality they could agree on.
For some people, deception becomes a lucrative career move. As spiritualism and the investigation of psychic phenomena gained huge popularity in the late Victorian period, attracting the attention of serious scientists and philosophers, a host of fake mediums and illusionist fraudsters sprang up. Ada Goodrich Freer was one of these, convincing many eminent intellectuals of her completely bogus psychic powers – her rise and fall is described in The Strange Story of Ada Goodrich Freer by Trevor Hall. By the same author, The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney is a truly tragic one – so devoted was Gurney to the scientific study of the psychic phenomena in which he passionately believed, that he suspended disbelief of cynical tricksters not dissimilar to Freer, in ways that led to his complete humiliation, despair and death in 1888.
Sometimes parents hide secrets from their children and try to erase all clues, but like the spindle in the story of The Sleeping Beauty, some echo of the past will always be overlooked – sometimes in such plain sight that one wonders about subconscious motivations. As a teenager, the eminent film critic Derek Malcolm chanced upon a book belonging to his father, which detailed the histories of important criminal cases. He was astonished to find his father’s name listed in the index, and further disturbed to find that all the pages relating to him had been torn out. His memoir Family Secretsis a moving account of his efforts to piece together the buried story of his parents’ involvement in a violent drama which made legal history before he was born. Diana Petre was the half sister of the distinguished writer and editor J. R. Ackerley – her unputdownable memoir The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley describes growing up as part of the secret, unofficial family their respectable father created outside his marriage, an experience which left her with a lifelong obsession with secrecy and duality.
Julie Metz‘s life was shattered when her husband died suddenly in his forties, swinging a wrecking ball through what had been an idyllic family life complete with seemingly happy marriage, beloved daughter, affluent lifestyle and beautiful home. After negotiating her first six months of agonising grief, Metz’s sense of loss was complicated, to put it mildly, by the discovery that her husband had at no time during their marriage been faithful to her, but had managed to conceal a series of long and sometimes concurrent affairs, in some cases with women she knew. Her book Perfection is a beautifully written record of a journey through deepening levels of loss – the loss of an adored husband, and the loss of the sense she had had of who he actually was.
Some secrets require a particular kind of courage and honesty to uncover. In the last couple of decades, as the children of Nazis pass into old age and confront last chances for confronting the past, and their grandchildren come of age, some have sought to find out the true extent of their forebears’ guilt with enormous courage. It’s hard to imagine a more traumatic discovery about her family’s past, or a more shocking way to discover it, than the experience of Jennifer Teege. Browsing in a library on an ordinary day, Teege found out for the first time that her maternal grandfather was none other than the concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler’s List). Plunged understandably into deep depression, Teege soon realised that she could not move forward without plunging herself into all the implications of this terrible, hitherto unsuspected truth. She began to make sense of trails of emotional damage in her family, and writes brilliantly about the pain of confronting the fact that, as the daughter of an Austrian mother and a Nigerian father, as she states baldly in the title of her book, “My Grandfather would have Shot Me“. Uwe Timm was a small boy when his older brother volunteered for the Waffen SS and was killed at the age of 19. As an adult Timm read fragments of his brother’s diary and was haunted by the question of the extent of his involvement in atrocities. The resulting memoir In My Brother’s Shadow is a moving example of the work of coming to terms with the scars of the past.
These are just some of the many books in our Special Collection of Biographies which tell the stories of secrets discovered and negotiated, and if you visit Kensington Central Library you can see many more as part of this display. Of course there is always something compelling about the dramas and mysteries of other people’s lives, but reading about very different secrets and how they relate to different situations and impulses is not just riveting – it can also tell us some profound things about how human beings construct and communicate their identities, and at what cost.
Claudia Jessop, Kensington Central Library
Don’t forget to check out BioEpic, our monthly podcast delving into the lives of fascinating people and their impact on our world, through our Special Collection of Biographies. Available on Anchor, Spotify, Apple, Breaker and Pocketcasts.
One of the greatest French and European novelist of the 20th century, Marcel Proust, was born 150 years ago, on 10 July 1871. This post, by Zvezdana at Chelsea Library, is about ‘the madeleine moment’.
His masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (A la recherche du temps perdu), also translated as Remembrance of Things Past, is generally viewed as an allegorical search for truth. It consists of seven novels, published between 1913 and 1927 (the last three books were published posthumously). During the war years, the author revised his novels, enhanced the realistic and satirical elements, deepened its feelings, and became determined, even obsessed, to finish his novels with the ultimate Time Regained (Le Temps retrouvé) before his death.
The first volume, Swann’s Way, is one of the most distinguished novels of childhood. It starts with the narrator’s simple statement: ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early.’ It soon becomes clear that this man suffers from insomnia. He tosses and turns in his bed, falling to and from various levels of partial wakefulness and drifting on confusing gusts of memories that surface just for a few seconds, only to tease the sleeper. For a long time, when he lays awake at night and revives old ‘intellectual’ memories of his childhood in Combray, he thought that the past was lost, forgotten, flavourless.
Those who fall asleep as soon as their head touches the pillow, they would probably agree with Alfred Humbolt’s observation, whose publishing company rejected Proust’s manuscript in 1913:
I may be as thick as two planks but I can’t understand how a gentleman can take thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before going off to sleep.
Certainly, a reader does not need to be insomniac to appreciate and intensely enjoy Proust’s writing.
Proust portrays an oversensitive boy and his impressions and memories of his family, friends and acquaintances, superbly brought back to life by the famous taste of a madeleine cake dipped into lime-flower tea. The novel is the story of Proust’s life, but not a simple autobiography. The way how Proust treats his main themes – the meaning of love and time – is what keeps the novel fresh and relevant to readers hundred years ago and today, alike.
When he remembers Swan, his other friends and family members, from his childhood, it was not the same as what he knew and understood as an adult. Moreover, the people he was associated with, had also very different views about the same issues and other people. Their age, social status, gender – influenced and colour theirs and his perception, inevitably.
A ‘real’ person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, he remains opaque, offers a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift.
Proust’s question is how to discover the real meaning, how to filter the real memory from later made-up memories. The narrator involuntarily recalls an episode from his childhood after tasting a madeleine cake dipped in lime-flower tea.
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.
Suddenly, the years of closed, forgotten and forbidden events and memories are thawing away and reviving the real past, the truth.
‘The madeleine moment’ – or Proust effect – became the most famous literary device in French literature. The expression ‘a madeleine de Proust’ describes ‘smells, tastes, sounds or any sensations reminding you of your childhood or simply bringing back emotional memories from a long time ago’.
Inspired by Proust’s novel, I wonder if reading of a particular book has triggered something like ‘a madeleine moment’ for you? Has a book affected you so much that whenever you taste a certain food or drink, that you are so vividly transported into the realm of that book?
Some examples from library staff –
In Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ Pierre Bezukhov, as a prisoner of war, shares a potato and the whole philosophy of human existence with another man. How they appreciated every single morsel of that potato, has stayed with them.
Which book do you automatically associate with a special food or particular cuisine? And, after tasting that food, did you crave for more or you were quite disappointed?
Authors such as Andrea Camilleri take specific care to add food and particular cuisine to their characters.Inspector Montalbano is the perfect example. Many Sicilian restaurants reinvented themselves by offering dishes mentioned in Camilleri’s novels – ‘Eat like Montalbano’. The author even created a glossary at the of his novels with useful explanations of Italian dishes. For example, the glossary in ‘The Sicilian Method’ described sartu di roso and spaghetti alla carrettiera.
What about Robert Burns? If you are not aware, the Scottish poet is third in line after Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria in the number of statues dedicated to a non-religious figure worldwide. Few literary figures convey more about nationhood than Robert Burns on the day of his birthday, 25 January, when Scots celebrate Burns Night – eating traditional haggis, drinking whisky and reciting poetry. And you do not need to be Scottish to celebrate.
Has a book affected you so much that whenever you taste a certain food or drink, that you are so vividly transported into the realm of that book?
Years ago, I always associated pomegranate seeds with Greek mythology – Persephone and Hades. However, after‘Midnight Sun’ by Stephenie Meyer my connotations have been updated. For better or worse, apples also received a new makeover, adding her Twilight tinge to a previous combination of a biblical and fairy-tale image.
Has a fictional character from a novel or film led you to try a particular food, to consume that martini ‘shaken – not stirred’ or even to buy (or dream of buying) a car they’re driving?
Well, I almost choked on a spoonful of peanut butter after watching Brad Pitt in ‘Meet Joe Black’!
According to Crains’s Chicago Business newspaper:
‘James Bond has inspired sales of Aston Martins and BMWs with his super-cool onscreen wheels. Now a vampire who drives a Volvo is getting the attention of young drivers. Since the release of ‘Twilight’ in 2008, teens and young adults have been drawn to the Volvo C30, driven by the character Edward Cullen.’
According to one of our young readers, this is exactly what many of her friends did:
I remember how right after the release of the first ‘Twilight’ film everyone was mesmerised by the film, but also by the classy new Volvo Edward Cullen was driving. At that time a few of my friends had passed their driving tests and wanted their first car to be ‘Edward’s car’ as they called it.’
What about smells and sounds? Do you imagine suddenly bumping into the Durrells while immersed in the music of the cicadas and the distinct scent of pine trees?
‘Spring merged slowly into the long, hot, sun-sharp days of summer sung in by cicadas, shrill and excited, making the island vibrate with their cries. In the fields the maize was starting to fill out, the silken tassels turning from brown to butter-blond; when you tore off the wrapping of leaves and bit into the rows of pearly seeds the juice would spurt into your mouth like milk. On the vines the grapes hung in tiny clusters, freckled and warm. The olives seemed weighed down under the weight of their fruit, smooth drops of green jade among which the choirs of cicadas zithered.‘
‘When the sun sank there was a brief, apple green twilight which faded and became mauve, and the air cooled and took on the scents of evening.‘
‘The sea was smooth, warm, and as dark as black velvet, not a ripple disturbing the surface. (…) Then suddenly the moon, enormous, wine-red, edged herself over the fretted battlement of mountains, and threw a straight, blood-red path across the dark sea.’
Roaming through Proust’s novel can easily lead us to the Belle Époque, to Parisian artistic saloons, to some of the most loved artists and famous expositions, to our own memories.
‘It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it (our own past): all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.’
According to the general French view, everyone has their own ‘madeleine de Proust’ and the question is: what is yours? We’d love to hear them, so please do comment below.
As it’s Plastic-Free July, our book review blog will be the title ‘Marcovaldo’ by Italo Calvino.
This week, Richard from Brompton Library will be reviewing Marcovaldo, by Italo Calvino. Marcovaldo is a collection of Italian stories talking about the beauty and the ugliness of both the countryside and the city.
Over to Richard to tell us more!
“If you’ve ever seen the film, Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot, you might recognise a similar lyrical style that is both poetic and comical in Marcovaldo. The character of the title is an Italian redneck labourer from the provinces with a love of nature, who moves to a large northern industrial city with his family.
The book comprises a collection of stories/chapters that follow this family through the seasons of the year. In the Forest on the superhighway for example, the family go in search of firewood, only to find billboards on the edge of the city; in the night, the short-sighted highway police officer confuses snatches of the family sawing through the panels with the billboard images and assumes they are part of the advertisements. Another story captures Marcovaldo’s reaction to the city transformed by winter snow.2
If you want to try out this unique and compelling read, pick up Marcovaldo today from one of our branches or via ebook –