A world of writers from the Biography Collection

As we look forward to celebrating World Book Night on Tuesday 23 April, this month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library brings together biographies of great twentieth century writers in languages other than English. There are a couple of exceptions, such as Han Suyin who wrote in English but whose autobiographical works are considered some of the greatest records of modern Chinese history and Wole Soyinka whose Anglophone work is pivotal to African literature.

Including many winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, this is a parade of some of world literature’s greatest voices, some of whom waited many years to be translated into English. Some are household names, some less well known outside their own continents; all open worlds of artistic beauty and cultural insight, and their biographies allow us to follow the experiences of how great writers develop in very different cultures and environments.

In a departure from our usual displays, which include only books from our Biography Collection, we have this month included some of the fiction by these writers alongside their biographies and memoirs, in the hope readers will discover some less familiar gems.  From Chile’s Isabel Allende to Austria’s Stefan Zweig, including Finland’s Tove Jansson (better known as an artist, her exquisite short stories were not available in English until decades after she wrote them); India’s Rabindranath Tagore, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, Japan’s Junichuro Tanizaki, Isaac Bashevis Singer who brought his native Yiddish from Poland to the US and became the custodian of a vanished culture and many, many more, discover a world of writers on our shelves.

Happy World Book night from us to you all, happy reading!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

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Loves of the Famous

In honour of Valentine’s Day, this month’s Biography Store display at Kensington Central Library is on the theme of Loves of the Famous.

Many couples have walked on the world stage as separate individuals in their own right – but what of the more intimate stories of the relationships between them?

How have the relationships between Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip, between Bill and Hilary Clinton or between Gilbert and George helped inform the work they do?

What was the experience of the partners inhabiting the shadows behind their more famous significant others – sometimes, as in the case of Alice B. Toklas, made the subject of the other’s art?

Then there are the private passions which became part of the mythology and iconography of some of the biggest Hollywood stars – Burton and Taylor, Bogart and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy.

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Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

Amongst the biographies of the famous which focus on all aspects of their private and public lives are those which concentrate on marriages, affairs and liaisons, sometimes official, sometimes clandestine, and show that the same passions and problems recur in all human love stories.

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Jackie and John F Kennedy

Some of the most intimate records of relationships are love letters by the famous – though sometimes famous for very different things than their romantic passions (who knew Ramsay Macdonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, was such a one for sweet nothings?

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Or that Albert Einstein called his first love “my little everything” and worried constantly that he might have upset her?)

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Henry the VIII could be pretty risqué and was not backwards in coming forwards in his letters to Anne Boleyn.

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Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII

Some of the love letters included are intensely private, and the writers would never have imagined they would be read by anyone other than the addressee.  Some have become famous as works of literature and historical testaments in their own right, like Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis”, his letter written to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas from Reading Gaol, which shows that the intimate minutiae of feelings come before the retrospective resonance of socially significant moments.

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Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

Some – like the correspondence between Abelard and Heloise in the 12th century – are classics of world literature, and prove that whatever the forms of expression used, human emotions are still very recognisable across the centuries.

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Wallis Simpson and Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII)

One of my favourites is one of those many books in the Biography Store Collection which give an intriguing insight into previous times – it’s Royal Love Letters, a collection from 1911.  The publisher is none other than Mills and Boon, and it seems not only the content of their books but their presentation has definitely been spiced up in the last 108 years.  This is a decorous volume – although maybe the deep purple binding hints at the passionate content – and the illustrations are of various royal personages looking very correct, not a steamy clinch in sight.  A list of other available titles doesn’t quite set the pulse racing, and apparently Mills and Boon didn’t only produce romantic titles in the Edwardian era: “Rambles in the Black Forest” and “Nerves and the Nervous” were amongst its non-fiction offerings.

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Barack and Michelle Obama

We hope you enjoy our Valentine’s selection of the romances of some of our most celebrated figures.

Christmas memories from our Biography Collection

Our December display for the Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is an unashamedly nostalgic celebration of some Christmas traditions, ancient and modern, from the cosily kitsch to the highly artistic.

The display falls into two halves. First there are the memoirs of Christmasses past. Published in 1955, Mary Clive’s Christmas with the Savages is a hilarious reminiscence of an Edwardian childhood Christmas staying with the Savage family of upper class eccentrics, like a kind of surreal, unruly version of Downton Abbey. Suzanne Lambert’s Christmas at the Ragdoll Orphanage is a heart-warming tear-jerker set in 1930s Newcastle; perfect for curling up by the fire with a mince pie. With chapter headings including “Near Collapse”, “An Awful Smell” and “Difficult Guests”, Hazel Wheeler’s Crackers at Christmas records a half-century of Yorkshire Christmases between the 40s and the 90s with a stoic misery that combines Eeyore and Scrooge, and paradoxically manages to be immensely cheering for those of us with mixed feelings about the festivities. From 1908, Queen Alexandra’s Christmas Gift Book was designed to look exactly like a personal photograph album belonging to the royal family, featuring intimate snaps and homely captions.

The second half of the display focuses on some of the people who created or invented rituals and experiences we cherish as part of Christmas. Their Christmas contributions may only have represented a small part of their achievements, but provide a good starting point for looking more closely at their lives. As you would expect, there are some Great Victorians – Henry Cole, who as well as founding the Victoria and Albert Museum, gave us the first commercially produced Christmas card; Isabella Beeton, who perfected the recipe for what we now know as Christmas pudding; Christina Rosetti, whose poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” has become one of our most popular carols – and of course, Dickens, the man who probably did more than any other to create the dream of a London Christmas in the mid-nineteenth century to which our imaginations have returned for generations, with his surprisingly scary and moving, life affirming A Christmas Carol. (Did you know he was involved in a court case about a plagiarised version of it? We include an account of this extraordinary footnote in literary history). No Prince Albert, I’m afraid, as it seems the idea that it was he who introduced the Christmas tree to Britain is erroneous – in fact we owe that to his wife’s grandmother, fellow German Queen Charlotte, and have included a fascinating biography of her.

Christmas in Hollywood has always been a sparkly affair, so you can find Frank Capra, director or It’s a Wonderful Life, Irving Berlin, composer of “White Christmas”, and a host of singers including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Nat King Cole, who have provided the soundtrack for countless “Merry Little Christmasses”.

The story of Kensington’s own Peter Pan was the first great Christmas “show for all the family”, so J. M. Barrie is included – as is Tchaikovsky, whose Nutcracker ballet continues to enchant. Composers of some of the most magnificent Christmas music are also here – Handel (The Messiah), Bach (Christmas Oratorio), Britten (A Ceremony of Carols and St. Nicolas) and Vaughan Williams (Fantasia on Christmas Carols). All of these works are available through our website via the Naxos Music Library  (There’s free access to this for library members)

So turn down the brussels sprouts, retrieve the tinsel from the dog, turn off the TV for a while and enjoy a biographical glimpse at some of the people who have sprinkled a little sparkle over Christmasses we have loved.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Armistice Day

A century ago, at 5 o’clock on the morning of November 11th 1918, the armistice which marked the end of the First World War was signed in a railway carriage at Compiègne in France.  Seven hours later, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, arms were laid down and hostilities ceased.  So ended four years of violence during which a million British servicemen had died and nearly two million had suffered permanent life-changing injuries. The excitement that had affected many at the outset, as they predicted celebrating victory “by Christmas”, had given way to exhaustion, disillusionment, trauma and grief.  What is striking about many contemporary accounts is the absence of joy – notwithstanding the noisy celebrations that erupted all over the country’s streets, the prevailing mood expressed in diaries and letters is one of weary relief haunted by loss and, often, a terrible sense of futility.

Everyone knew that the “war to end all wars” had changed the world forever, and that the Edwardian society that preceded it was now as distant as another planet.  Several ancient European empires had collapsed, including the ancien regime in Russia, swept away by revolution.  Many people clearly saw in the punitive peace terms eventually imposed on Germany the seeds of another conflict – often predicting, with uncanny accuracy, the 20 year interval that would precede it.

Things had changed enormously for women.  Two million women who statistics suggest would otherwise have married were to remain single due to the deaths of so many of their male peers, and this led to an influx of women into the professions (which generally excluded married women).  Women were soon to be granted the vote; middle class women like Vera Brittain, whose Testament of Youth is one of the most famous of First World War memoirs, had worked as nurses at the front and seen horrors their genteel upbringings would never have acknowledged possible.  They were keen to live their lives in a way that acknowledged how far their experiences had diverged from those of their mothers and grandmothers, and to participate in all arenas of politics, society and the arts.

People knew that as well as being an ending, the armistice marked the beginning of an enormous task – the rebuilding of society and the rehabilitation of individuals broken by war.

For this month’s Biography Collection display, we have a range of books which shed light on this moment of history.  We have many memoirs of combatants and nurses, poignant reminders of the scale of suffering involved.  We have memoirs of some of the doctors charged with trying to mend damaged bodies and minds, including Charles Myers, who studied “shell shock”, and Harold Gillies, who pioneered new treatments for the terrible facial injuries that the modern weapons of this modern war had caused.  We have the accounts of the politicians and military leaders who were there when the armistice was signed, and those who contemplated how to transform Britain into a “land fit for heroes”.  We have the poets and painters who revolutionised their art forms in order to describe their trench experiences.  We have those who addressed the problem of how to memorialise the massive human loss – like Edwin Lutyens, architect of the Cenotaph, and Sir Fabian Ware who founded the Imperial War Graves Commission.  To give a sense of the zeitgeist, we have portraits  of some of the leading figures of the day in both intellectual and popular culture: as the bells rang to mark the armistice, Sydney Blow’s production of “The Officers’ Mess” was the hot ticket on the West End Stage (with its rousing number, “Handsome Herbert of the Horseguards”), the hits of Al Jolson and Irving Berlin were on every fashionable phonograph, Charlie Chaplin was already beloved of cinema audiences, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was hailed as a milestone of the biography genre (and encapsulated in its style the dismantling of the old order), and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier was one of the first novels to wrestle with the psychological legacy of war.

A century on, the scale of loss and suffering endured in the First World War still shocks.  Nothing evokes what it was actually like to live through its bloody course and traumatised aftermath more powerfully than contemporary records like diaries and letters, and the memoirs of those attempting to make sense of an event that transformed and overshadowed their lives.  We hope that they will bring to life for readers this critically important moment in our history, a hundred years ago.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Lives at sea

We are an island nation, and throughout our history the sea has been inextricably mixed into our lives, whether we experience it as part of our immediate environment, learn about its place in our history, or trace its many marks on our language and literature. Images of the sea and seafaring metaphors sparkle and surge through our poetry and our idioms, and the sea exerts a pull of mystical romance.

To mark National Maritime Day on 1st September, our Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library features memoirs of lives at sea. There are books tracing how the sea influenced artists and writers including Conrad and Turner, and books recording the experiences of sailors and fisherman struggling to maintain a livelihood in often pitiless conditions.

Many have been drawn to engage the sea in battles for supremacy, leading to amazing feats of endurance and will – these are the loan yachts-people, circumnavigators and channel swimmers who lead us through their life-changing struggles. There are intimate and personal records of how the sea effected changes in relationships and the sense of self (my personal favourite is Gwynneth Lewis’s Two in a Boat, an account of how the superficially crazy idea of going to sea became a jumping-off point for profound insights into the nature of moods, marriage and metamorphosis).

Our naval history is inevitably linked with painful themes of colonialism and war, and we have books on how projects of land conquest and trade depended on the conquest of the sea from the Elizabethan period onwards, and on how the protagonists of terrifying sea battles understood their experience.

And of course, there are pirates, with brutal realities often far stranger than the romantic legends we have inherited.

We hope you will dive in and find something to interest you.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Summer Reading Challenge 2018

This year’s Summer Reading Challenge launches in our libraries tomorrow, Saturday 14 July. The challenge is fun, free and designed for all children whatever their reading ability and it’s been designed to help children to improve their reading skills and confidence during the long summer holidays.

Children can read whatever they like for the challenge – fact books, joke books,
picture books, audio books or you can download a book,  just as long as they are borrowed from the library.

 

This year’s Summer Reading Challenge is called Mischief Makers – Dennis the Menace, Gnasher and friends invite the children taking part to set off on a hunt for Beanotown’s famous buried treasure.

 

Each of our libraries will be holding special events for children of all ages, some of these are listed now on our website Pop in to your local Kensington and Chelsea library  to find out more about the Summer Reading Challenge and collect a special  events programme.

 

Great names of British comedy

It’s fifty years since the first broadcast of that classic of British comedy, Dad’s Army, and this month our Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library showcases the life stories of some of our funniest men and women. We have a truly enormous number of books celebrating the comic genius of stand-ups and sitcom stars. With intimate glimpses of the highs and lows of their real lives, we find that the tears of a clown are often a real phenomenon, while some stars have brought their comic talents to their own memoirs so that their trials and tribulations cause tears of laughter as we read.

The vintage funny business is all here – from the Victorian double entendres of Marie Lloyd and the silk dressing-gown cool of Noel Coward, to the surreal capers of ITMA (It’s That Man Again), Round the Horne and The Goons and the even more surreal and subversive – and perhaps also quintessentially British? – comic kaleidoscope of Monty Python.

I wonder if I am alone in finding Private Frazer’s mournful cry of “We’re doomed!” strangely reassuring – it’s interesting that over the years we have loved so may characters who express comic despair at life’s frustrations, with a special place in our collective psyche for the hapless melancholy of Tony Hancock, the car-thrashing frenzy of Basil Fawlty, the tightlipped defeatism of Victor Meldrew and the wailing lament of Steptoe junior as his father greets another faux pas with a malevolent toothless grin. There’s that traditional strand of social competitiveness, snobbery and one-upmanship to relish in many of our best loved characters too (Fawlty and Steptoe’s anguish has a lot to do with this, and think also of Hyacinth Bucket, Rigsby,and Margot). The “saucy” humour of the seaside postcard resonates in the Carry On era and Benny Hill, and British comedy has also always had a healthy disrespect for the institutions of authority, taking the wind out of the sails of power in Yes, Minister and of the criminal justice system in Porridge.

Through the alternative scene of the 80s, shows like The Kenny Everett Video Show, Not the Nine O’ clock News, The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents and Three of a Kind all represented seismic shifts in comedy styles and pushed the boundaries of what made us laugh.

More recent faces feature in our display too, like Walliams and Lucas, Mitchell and Webb, Miranda Hart, Michael McIntyre, Sarah Millican and James Corden – and there is no shortage of hilarious women – Wood, Windsor, and Walters; Lipman, Tate, French and Saunders, and many more.

There are so many, many great names of British comedy, that I am already wondering how I could have written this blog piece without mentioning by name, for example, Tommy Cooper, Kenneth Williams, Spike Milligan or June Whitfield – and you will doubtless have your favourites who you can’t believe I have not included! I am glad to say this embarrassment of comic riches is reflected in our Biography Collection, with our display representing the tip of an iceberg of hundreds or comic biographies. If you can’t find your favourite, just ask.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Women in medicine

Female medical students currently outnumber their male counterparts in the UK. This is a situation that would have seemed incredible to the earliest female doctors.

In 1865, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first British woman to qualify to practice medicine. (The first woman, that is, since Dr James Barry, who though born female, lived her adult life as a man so that she could practice medicine from 1815, her secret only being discovered after her death.) Even with her qualification, Anderson was excluded from work in any hospital. She set up her own practice and launched a remarkable career in medical work, and in the furtherance of women in the profession and in wider society.

However, the battle for women to become doctors was very far from over. It is difficult for us to appreciate how strongly, and with what sometimes vicious misogyny, women’s entry into the profession was resisted well into the 20th century. A medical career was considered by the male establishment to be far too physically arduous and intellectually rigorous for any woman’s capabilities. All kinds of quasi-medical theories were propounded in support of this view – all the more bizarre when you consider that these were often expressed by highly educated men in the scientific community: they included the idea that too much study would cause a woman’s womb to atrophy.

These prejudices were enshrined in the regulations of the most important medical institutions. During the first half of the century, women were still barred from training at the major hospitals – with the sole exception of the Royal Free, where Garrett Anderson had established the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. Although for some women, the shortage of men during the First World War around the time that they qualified provided a timely career-boost, allowing them access to institutions that were forced in desperation to admit them. Between the wars, it was still common for job advertisements in the British Medical Journal to specify that women need not apply.

In 1911, Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Apparently unmoved by her achievements, Sir Henry Butlin, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, delivered a lecture in the same year in which he stated unequivocally that he believed women to be unsuited to medical research. An indication of how slow attitudes were to change is that 30 years later, in 1941, Sir Robert Hutchison, President of the Royal College of Physicians, told female medical students “medical women make excellent wives, while their qualification is always a second string to their bow.”

Against this background, the achievements of the early female doctors are all the more impressive, and we are pleased this month to be able to display fascinating biographies and memoirs of many of them (from our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library), as well as those of contemporary women doctors writing about the stresses and joys of their chosen career.

We are also delighted to tell you about an exciting event linked to this display: on Monday 18 June, 6 to 7.30 pm here at Kensington Central Library, Dr Abby Waterman will be discussing her compelling memoir “Woman in a White Coat”. This is a wonderful read which describes with great humour and honesty her journey from an impoverished girlhood in the East End to a wide-ranging medical career.

You can book a free place to this event via Eventbrite 

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

All about us

A post from our Service Development Manager, Angela Goreham – about what RBKC Libraries have to offer.

R Research for a project that interests you
B Booking a PC, a place at an event
K Knowledge as we all need this
C Connect (to others in the community and the wide world)

L Lending items for your pleasure or information
I Information that will help you with your day to day or forward planning
B Baby activities and information to help new parents
R Reading – a core skill and past time in any format
A Access us at any time and from anywhere
R Resources – varied and plentiful, in different formats to suit different needs
Y Young and old – we’re here for everyone

Are you 1 in 840,344? Or maybe you are 1 in 515,004? They’re odd numbers you might say, but the first one is the number of times the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s libraries were visited between April 2017 and March 2018 and the second is how many items were borrowed during the same period – how many did you account for?

104 people from our local communities supported the Library Service by volunteering with us and over 40,000 people came to one of the events that we held.

They are huge numbers but we always want to beat our previous year’s figures so please come along to one of our libraries, find out what we can do for you and you can help us pass last year’s numbers.

There are six libraries within the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – find out more about them and what we offer by either visiting us in person or our website or you can call us on 020 7361 3010.

Book Break reading groups in Kensington and Chelsea

This is guest blog post from Liz Ison. She works for The Reader and looks after the Book Break reading groups that run in Kensington and Chelsea . Over to Liz to tell us more…

Do you love stories, poems and great literature?

Would you like to find out what shared reading is?

Did you know that there are many shared reading groups going on in your local neighbourhood running every week?

Meet The Reader, an organisation that is passionate about the power of reading together.
We at The Reader are the pioneers of Shared Reading. The volunteer Reader Leaders who run our weekly groups, bring people together to read great literature aloud.

Groups are open to all, readers and non-readers alike. Come along and listen to stories and poems read aloud. It’s an opportunity to read and talk together in a friendly and relaxing environment. Free refreshments provided!

Our shared reading groups have been running locally for many years bringing shared reading to the residents of Kensington and Chelsea. We work in libraries, community centres and other organisations spreading the joy of shared reading.

Here are what our group members have to say about shared reading:

“I’ve felt really happy since the session with you —bought myself some flowers the next day…and went for a long walk while listening to music— all in one day. Our happy thoughts trigger happy chemicals in our brain.” Aysha

“An anchor during the week”

“It always makes me feel more fulfilled than the other days”

  • 95 % look forward to the group as an important event in the week
  • 84% think the reading session makes them feel better*

Here are some groups to try in our local libraries:

Brompton Library – Tuesday, 10.30am to 12 noon
Chelsea Library – Tuesday, 2.30 to 4pm
Kensington Central Library – Tuesday, 2 to 4pm
North Kensington Library – Thursday, 3 to 5pm
North Kensington Library – Saturday, 10.30am to 12 noon

We look forward to welcoming you to a group soon. To find other shared reading groups in your area you can contact:

Erin at erincarlstrom@thereader.org.uk or call 07483 972 020

Liz at lizison@thereader.org.uk or call 07807 106 815

More information is on the The Reader website too.

And if you’d be interested in volunteering with us, get in touch!

 

* 2017 Reader evaluation data for Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea shared reading groups