International Cat Day

Biographies from the Basement August 2021 – International Cat Day

August 8th is International Cat Day, when the British charity International Cat Care invites us to focus on the welfare of domestic cats and the efforts it has been making for over 60 years to promote cat health and combat neglect.  I have dipped into our Biography Store Collection to find out about some lives in which cats played a central role.


Anyone who has ever lived with cats understands how their idiosyncracies are woven into everyday life.  Marilyn Edwards and her husband shared their Cumbrian cottage with a series of cats and her descriptions resonate with love and delight.


The Irish playwright and journalist Hugh Leonard documented his life with cat companions with similar tenderness and humour, as did former MI5 operative Derek Tangye, who left a glamorous life amongst London’s intelligentsia to experience seasons full of plants and animals in remote Cornwall.  The landscapes of that county were also vital to Helena Sanders, who was active in Cornish politics, though it was far from those rugged shores that she made one of her biggest contributions to animal welfare; in Helena Sanders and the Cats of Venice, Frank Wintle describes how she set up a shelter for stray cats in that beautiful city.  In The Cat who Looked at the Sky, Thea Welsh describes how the seemingly sensible arrangement of sharing cat ownership with friends came up against the real demands and foibles of a trio of strong willed cats.


You don’t have to observe even the most cuddly of domestic cats for long to be reminded of their relationship to their wild cousins, the big cats of Africa and Asia.  Known for many wildlife TV documentaries, zoologist and photographer Jonathan Scott has lived amongst the lions of Southern Africa for over 40 years.  In The Big Cat Man, he describes getting to know a pride of lions intimately as they go about their lives. Big cats also stalk the pages of Tippi Hedren’s The Cats of Shambala - I knew Hedren as the glamorous star of Hitchcock films like The Birds and Marnie;  I had no idea that her passion for lions and tigers led her to spend years making the film Roar (1981).  Coordinating large numbers of wild cats, many members of the cast and crew sustained serious mauling injuries, including Hedren herself.  She set up The Roar Foundation to look after the film’s animal cast, and the Foundation’s Shambala Preserve in California, described in this memoir, is still home to several lions and tigers.

  Sometimes, a subtitle of one of the books in the biography store is intriguingly surreal – this is certainly the case with John S. Clarke: Parliamentarian, Poet, Lion-tamer by Ray Challinor.  Clarke, one of 14 children in Victorian Jarrow, was still a teenager when he worked in a circus training the lions which were still a staple of circus entertainment at the time, before going on to a career in politics, serving as Labour MP for Glasgow Maryhill from 1929 to 1931. Given how fierce the atmosphere of the House of Commons can be, I imagine his experience of training lions must have given him some useful skills for managing it.  

Finally, let’s turn to some memorable fictional cats, and to the artists and writers who created them.  The animator Oliver Postgate will forever hold a special place in the hearts of those who grew up in the 60s and 70s, as the creator of The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and other favourites.  In 1974 he brought us Bagpuss, the soporific, stripy, endlessly benign and unflustered cat whose waking from sleep brings all the toy occupants of the little girl Emily’s shop to life, and Postgate’s memoir Seeing Things is as enchanting and fascinating as you might expect. 

Kathleen Hale, whose widowed mother worked as a travelling salesperson, was fortunate in having her artistic talents spotted by a teacher.  She went on to join the artistic scene in London during the First World War, working as Augustus John’s secretary and socialising with the Bloomsbury set.  Her children’s book Orlando’s Evening Out (1941) was the first fictional picture book to be published under the Puffin imprint, the children’s arm of Penguin, the then less than 10-year-old publishing house which was to transform access to books for the general public.  It featured Orlando the Marmalade Cat, who starred in a total of 19 books spanning almost 40 years, and her exquisite auto-lithographic technique, by which the artist hand-layers overprinted colours to create chromatic blends, are typical of the period. Her wonderful autobiography is modestly entitled A Slender Reputation; she published it at the age of 96, and died at 101.

“The Painter of Cat Life and Cat Character” is an apt subtitle for our beautifully illustrated coffee table biography of Henriette Ronner, as the 19th century Dutch-Belgain painter brought out the singular identities of all the cats she rendered against the silks and velvets, polished wood and well-stuffed upholstery of bourgeois domestic interiors – her feline subjects are so vivid that you feel you could reach out and touch them.


   Colette is one of the most important figures of French literature, and throughout her work her love of animals and particularly cats is obvious – though she never sentimentalises, and renders nature in all its light and shade, ambivalence and cruelty.  The pedigree Chartreux Saha of her novella The Cat (1933) must be one of the most disconcerting cats in literature, sidling elegantly through the early married life of two young people, inspiring both hypnotised devotion and primal jealousy.  We have many wonderful books about Colette in the collection – her My Mother’s House and Sido is perhaps the best introduction to her masterly handling of animal and human relationships.

In the last few years two books about cats by Japanese authors have been enormous bestselling hits: Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles and The Guest Cat byTakashi Hiraide. Eighty years earlier, their compatriot the great Junichiro Tanizaki, often considered the greatest modern Japanese novelist, wrote the unforgettable A Cat, A Man and Two Women. Tanizaki was a literary genius and his memoir Childhood Years brims with his characteristic sensitivity and texture, describing the day to day life of a well to do family in late 19th century Tokyo.

   I couldn’t pursue the cat lover’s trail through the collection without pausing at the shelf where many books on Beatrix Potter are to be found.  She was originally a local, born in Bolton Gardens (a stone’s throw from Brompton Library) in 1866 and is of course famous for the beautifully painted and characterised animals of her 23 “Tales”. She depicted cats with the same detailed naturalism and sympathy she brought to all her animal subjects – Tom Kitten was always my favourite (he has his own tale and also features in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers) and her other feline creations were Miss Moppet, and Ginger who runs a shop with her friend the terrier Pickles in The Tale of Ginger and Pickles.


Claudia Jessop, Kensington Central Library.

Don’t forget to check out our podcast BioEpic, in which we delve into fascinating lives through our Special Collection of Biographies. Available on Anchor, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Breaker and Pocket Casts.

Summer Flowers

Summer is in full swing, and everywhere in gardens, parks, window boxes, and balconies, flowers are bursting with colour.  Flowers can be exciting, calming, awe inspiring – and somehow this summer they seem more wonderful than ever.  Of course, Chelsea has been home to the Royal Horticultural Society’s fabulous Flower Show for more than a century – this year it has been postponed to September, when I’m sure it will be the treasure trove we’ve come to expect. 

Our Biography Collection (Special Collection of Biographies) contains many books about famous gardeners and garden designers, plant collectors and those who developed the scientific understanding of flowers.  For this blog post I want to focus on three people who in very different ways have celebrated flowers and deepened our experience of them. 

Have a look at these exquisite flower pictures which date from the 18th century; it may surprise you to learn that their creator was a woman who completed almost 1000 of these images between the ages of 73 and 82.  You might be further surprised that they are not paintings, but collages.  Mary Delany was born Mary Granville in 1700.  Aged 17, she was married to a man of 60, as a way of consolidating the political aspirations of her aristocratic family.  He died eight years later, and she did not remarry until her early forties, when she became the wife of Irish clergyman Patrick Delany – they divided their time between Dublin and County Down.  Both Delanys were keen gardeners and Mary celebrated flowers in a range of creative work, including watercolour, embroidery and collages with shells.  Delany felt that delicate tissue paper could most closely evoke the texture of actual flower petals, and eventually perfected her original method which she called “paper mosaic”, building detailed flower images with tiny cut-out shapes meticulously layered, and mounted on black paper to dramatic effect (this was revolutionary, as botanical illustrations were traditionally given white backgrounds, echoing herbaria where plant specimens were always shown against white).  She was an expert botanist, and would dissect the flowers before depicting them, to make sure her work was accurate as well as beautiful. King George III and Queen Charlotte became huge fans, as well as friends.  She had a circle of other eminent friends, including Jonathan Swift, and the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who was a key figure in the founding and development of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. We are fortunate in having nine books about Mrs Delany in the collection, including a tiny volume of her letters from 1821 which is illustrated with a silhouette portrait of her at the age of 87 and a 21st century volume of recipes, remedies and etiquette tips gleaned from her letters.

William Robinson‘s career began humbly in Ireland, when he was employed as a teenaged “garden boy” by the Marquess of Waterford.  His precocious expertise with flowers led him to become one of the most influential gardeners of the late19th and early 20th centuries.  In 1861, when he was only 23, he moved to London to work at Regents Park, where he became an authority on British wildflowers.  He wrote a range of gardening books which were so successful that he was able to buy Gravetye Manor in Sussex, where he set about creating a magnificent range of gardens.  Robinson championed wild, natural styles of garden design, taking inspiration from the traditional English cottage garden – he railed against straight lines, “carpet” beds of monotonous bright colours, and the formality of topiary and statues (he was very critical of some of the contemporary plantings in Kensington Gardens, which he considered hideous). Instead he promoted the abundance of simple, often neglected, meadow flowers, blurring the boundary between garden and wild countryside, and bringing the Arts and Crafts aesthetic into the garden.  His were amongst the go-to books for millions of British gardeners up until the 1930s, when he died and his fame began to fade.

Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights is quite simply one of the most life-affirming books I have ever read.  A collection of essays written over a year, it is a catalogue of the small joys of everyday life, which poet Gay describes with lyricism, humour and an acknowledgement that delight co-exists with pain, and can be rendered more precious by it.  In his preface Gay lists nine themes that he traces coming up repeatedly over his year of “delights” – one of them is his garden, and I am including this book because many of its most incandescent passage relate to flowers, and remind us of their power to surprise us and to offer us joy in the middle of whatever else we are going through (in fact, flowers recur so often as a topic that as well as being classified on book websites as “Philosophy” and “Social Sciences”, the book may also be found in “Gardening”; Gay is a passionate gardener and founder of a community orchard in Bloomington, Indiana). Throughout the 102 essays, on a multitude of topics including friendship, loss, the African-American experience and the meaning of community, flowers make repeated appearances and are a recurring motif resonating with hope.  Many of the essays focus on the flowers Gay plants, cherishes, unexpectedly encounters and observes with what he calls “supreme attentiveness”.  The essay “Flower in the Curb” is a meditation on friendship, memory, loss, our relationship to public space and the serendipity of sudden beauty, all in three paragraphs, and though there is much more than flowers in Gay’s records of his “intense fleeting attentions”, flowers are a constant theme and some of the most memorable and uplifting passages are woven through with their scents and textures, and their profound redemptive meaning to Gay.

  • Claudia, Kensington Central Library 

BioEpic – A podcast exploring The Biography Store.

Did you know that we have an insightful podcast exploring the Biography Store Collection?

A glimpse of The Biography Store Collection at Kensington Central Library

Over to Katie Williams to tell us more…

“Claudia Jessop and I wanted to seek new opportunities to promote the Biography Store Collection. With over 90,000 items in the collection it is very heavily borrowed by a wide variety of people and we wanted to shine a light more on the people whose biographies or whose lives are not celebrated as much. I have loved reading Claudia’s blogs about our collections and I thought that it would be good to get it out there into podcast form. So we formed a scooby gang, including Emma Marsh and Jackie Hastick, and we set about coming up with ideas for people who we wanted to celebrate and the logistics of how it could work.

We were very fortunate to get support from our Comms team and our first podcast was launched to coincide with our Black History Month 2020 programme. It was an absolute pleasure to celebrate the life of Claudia Jones, who was responsible for the Notting Hill Carnival and who shaped the cultural and social lives of so many people.

Our mission is this: to shine a light on those who have made an impact on our world.

Its been a really amazing experience not just discovering these people but crafting something which people will stream and enjoy. Episode 6 (about the wonderful James Baldwin) and Episode 7 (Lady Charlotte Guest) are now live “

Listen to BioEpic here:

National Bike Week

“Every time Iseean adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race” said H. G. Wells, and I think I know what he means – there is something about seeing someone zooming down a hill, or stoically labouring up one, on a simple piece of machinery that uses only human muscle power to get them speedily from a to b, that is both reassuring and inspiring. Cycling is increasingly popular, and as we mark National Bike week from 30th May to 5th June, there can be no question that the more of us take to two wheels, the better it will be for our environment and for our fitness.    

   Our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library contains many books about professional cyclists, Olympians and Tour de France winners, but for this blog post I thought it would be interesting to focus on some people who didn’t cycle professionally, but in whose lives bikes played an important part in a variety of different ways. 

   The bicycle was vital to the clandestine work of resistance fighters and spies during the Second World War. It enabled operatives to make a quick getaway, travel anonymously, and blend into a crowd. Many heroes and heroines of the Special Operations Executive, responsible for covert operations behind enemy lines, made daring and essential use of their bikes, among them Australian Nancy Wake.  Parachuted into France in 1944, Wake’s mission was to liaise with local resistance fighters and distribute the weapons and funds sent to them from Britain.  When her team’s radio and codes were lost during fierce fighting with German troops, they were left with no way of updating and contacting the SOE in London; on a borrowed bike, Wake peddled a round trip distance of 300 miles to get access to the nearest means of communication.  Without the thousands of bicycles used for essential missions, the outcome of the war may well have been different.  Wake’s story and those of many of her valiant colleagues are told in Squadron Leader Beryl E. Escott’s Heroines of the SOE from our Collected Biography part of the collection (biographies of groups of people – this is a 3,000-book sub-collection within the collection).

Bikes have been vital to less dangerous peace time missions – for decades the image of the district nurse and midwife was linked to the bicycle (viewers of the BBC’s Call the Midwife will be familiar with the cape-flapping leap onto the bike in response to urgent calls).  Joan Markham and Joanna Jones are two of the district nurses whose memoirs we have; both books’ dust jackets feature evocative illustrations of the women with their bikes. In Nurse on the District, Jones describes battling loneliness as a young nurse newly arrived in postwar London but never loses her sense of humour.

In My Little Black Bag, Markham describes her wartime work in one of the poorest areas of Manchester. “I had ridden a bike since the Fairy Cycle days [a popular inter-war children’s bike] and, as a good horsewoman is one with her horse, so I was with my old iron steed”, she says.  [pic 3 and 4] 

   Emily Chappell gives insight into the life of a bike courier in London – with the increase in delivery services, more and more people are earning their living on two wheels and her beautifully written book What Goes Around describes our city from the vantage point of a keen observer zipping through traffic on other people’s crucial errands.  This is a memoir about much more than the experience of this particular job, investigating memory, imagination, community, and what it is to inhabit an endlessly changing city. 

   Though she was briefly famous, Annie Londonderry began and ended her life in obscurity, and was a very incongruous person to take on the challenge of proving that a woman could circumnavigate the globe on a bike, in 1894. Born Annie Cohen, a Jewish immigrant to the USA from Latvia, 24-year-old Annie was the wife of a very religious man and mother of three young children  – and had never ridden a bike before she resolved on her outrageous challenge.  A brilliant publicist, Annie donned the still-shocking bloomers (see the March Biographies from the Basement blog post!) after the first leg of her journey convinced her that long skirts and a corset were just not going to be viable.  She covered her clothing with embroidered advertisements in return for sponsorship – she even rented out the spokes of her wheels to be adorned with advertisements in ribbon form.  Her major sponsor was Londonderry Water, which explained her change of name – also a safety measure, as riding under the name Cohen or her married name Kopchovsky would have exposed her to the antisemitism that was rife at the time.  Annie’s accounts of her trip fell on a spectrum between wild exaggeration and outright fantasy – she spun gripping tales of countries she never visited at all – and she is certainly one of the extraordinary eccentrics of our collection, who you can encounter in the wonderful biography Around the World on Two Wheels by her great nephew Peter Zheutlin.

   Bikes can play a part in journeys of a very personal kind, and have their fair share of romantic associations. The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love by Per J Andersson pretty much does what it says in the title, which is to trace the story of Artist Pradyumna Kumar Mahanandia who fell in love with Charlotte Von Schedvin , a young Swedish woman whose portrait he painted while she was travelling through India in a van in 1975.  After two years of correspondence, the pair found that their feelings for each other had not faded, and Mahanandia resolved to join her in Sweden.  You can guess how he made the journey; the two married and had two children, and Mahanandia has enjoyed a successful career as an artist in Sweden.

   Another life changing bicycle ride was undertaken by Mike Carter, who in One Man and His Bike recounts how at the age of 45, while commuting to work on his bike, he made the decision to peddle around the whole of the coast of Britain, a distance of 5,000 miles (many cyclists claim to have their best ideas while cycling; indeed Carter reminds us that Albert Einstein claimed that the theory of relativity came to him while on his bike).  His life-affirming encounter with people and places is touching and humorous; recollecting how therapeutic hours on his bike have got him through emotionally difficult times since childhood, he expresses how the solitary contemplative cycle ride forms a connection between our own intimate emotions and the world that waits to be discovered at the end of an adventurous (cycle) path.

   Whether or not you are a cyclist yourself, I am sure you will find something of interest in these books and the 90,000 others in our Special Collection of Biographies.  Don’t forget to listen to our BioEpic podcast, available from Anchor, Spotify, Apple, Google, Breaker and Pocket Casts. 

  • Claudia, Kensington Central Library 

The History of Vaccinations

Every time I hear that someone I know has had their Covid 19 vaccination, I feel a sense of relief, and I was delighted to have my own first dose the other day.  Though the situation continues to be challenging for us all, and has brought so much sad loss, the vaccine gives us hope.

The history of humanity has been the history of a struggle against infectious disease.  Just a generation or two ago, diseases we now know only from history books and period dramas ravaged the population of this country and our lives have been transformed by our access to vaccinations against them.  Many of our older books in the Biography Collection still have notices pasted inside about what to do if the books have been exposed to infectious diseases. (Pic 1) (Until last year, these labels seemed like quaint relics of a distant reality – none of us imagined having to put books in quarantine again – but they show the prevalence of many serious contagious diseases not very long ago.)  Talk to someone in their 70s or 80s, and the chances are they will recall the death of someone they knew from these once all too common infections. My mother recalls with horror the death of her three year old cousin from diptheria at a time when it killed an average of 3,500 children a year in England and Wales, and my mother-in-law lost her father far too young due to TB (tuberculosis); a generation earlier, two of my grandmother’s siblings died in young adulthood from the same disease.  No family was untouched by the tragedies wrought by these lethal infections.

In the Special Collection of Biographies, we can find the stories of many of the people who developed vaccines, thereby saving millions of lives.  It would take too long to look at the inventors of all the most important vaccines, but here is a whistle-stop tour of just a few of them:

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner was the father of vaccination; in the 1790s he investigated the fact that milkmaids had a far lower rate of smallpox infection than average, and worked out that the cow pox they were catching from cattle was making them immune to the much deadlier smallpox (killer of 10% of the population at the time).  He had the revolutionary idea of introducing just the right amount of disease to produce immunity in healthy people.  Amongst many books about him, we have the earliest biography, published by his friend John Baron in 1838 (Pics 2 and 3)

Louis Tompkins Wright

Over a century later, Louis Tompkins Wright revisited smallpox vaccination in a military setting and invented the procedure of interdermal vaccination.(Pic 4) He was inspired by his doctor father, Ceah Ketchan Wright, whose achievements would have been impressive in any context, but were particularly remarkable given that he was born into slavery in Georgia. Wright followed his father into the profession, graduating from Harvard in 1915.  Serving as an Army Medical Corps Lieutenant in France during the Great War, he perfected the method whereby vaccine is injected into the skin rather than more deeply, which enabled him to vaccinate soldiers quickly and with reduced risk of infection. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his war service, and was subject to poison gas attack which affected his health for the rest of his life, and caused his death aged 61. He became a civil rights activist and was president of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) from 1935 until his death in 1952.  As the first African American to serve both as surgeon on the staff of a desegregated hospital (Harlem Hospital, where he eventually became Chief Surgeon) and as a police surgeon, Wright fought racism throughout his career, and protested against segregated medical care.  As his father had inspired him, so he inspired his two daughters, who both went on to become ground-breaking doctors and cancer researchers.

Jonas Salk

Polio was a huge problem in the twentieth century; panic would erupt, and public swimming pools be closed, when the disease went through a community.  It could be fatal, and could lead to permanent paralysis, sometimes meaning that the only way the sufferer could survive would be to live inside an “iron lung”, which enabled them to breathe but made any kind of normal life impossible.  Jonas Salk, the son of uneducated Russian Jewish immigrants to the USA, developed the vaccination in 1955. (Pic 5) He had previously developed a vaccine for flu, which the pandemic of 1918 had shown was a viral infection rather than a bacterial one, as had been believed.  He struggled with the huge fame and adulation he experienced after making his life-saving discoveries.

Many of us will remember having the BCG vaccination against TB as school children – but may not know that the “BCG” stands for Bacillus Calmette Guerin, after Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin, the  French immunologists who created the vaccine in 1921 – of whom unfortunately only French language biographies have as yet been published. (Pic 6) Robert Koch had won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work identifying the TB bacillus, which made a vaccine possible – it is extraordinary to realise that at one time, 1 in 7 of all deaths throughout the whole of global humanity was caused by this disease. (Pic 7)

Grace Elderling

At the Michigan Department of Health, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Elderling (pic 8) developed the vaccination for whooping cough (pertussis). It caused violent paroxysms of coughing, with the characteristic sound that gave it its name, which could be fatal, especially in children who were 95% of its victims.  Both women had survived the disease as children and were keenly aware of how easily they might not have done. As the Great Depression had led to the department being starved of funds and staff, the women undertook their research unpaid and outside their normal working hours.

Maurice Hilleman grew up on a farm in Montana, and later said that the deaths of his mother and twin sister shortly after his birth made him want to save lives, and that working with the chickens as a boy had led to his interest in biology. (pic 9) He went on to develop an incredible 40 different vaccines, including those for measles, mumps, and hepatitis A and B.  It is estimated that his work saves 8 million lives worldwide every single year.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about these people whose discoveries have saved so many lives, and may be inspired to read their stories.  Check out our BioEpic podcast available on Anchor, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public for more stories of fascinating people.

Repair, Renewal, Rejuvenation!

This blog post will be a departure from previous ones in that I won’t be focussing on the content of a particular biography, but on the physical care of the books.

Inevitably in a collection of this size and age, some of our books become fragile and need TLC to extend their borrowing lives.  I am able to do basic repairs having been taught some very useful methods by the wonderful Georgia Vossou, conservator at City of Westminster Archives Centre.  Georgia is a fount of wisdom on the history of paper production and binding, and all the technicalities of how books are made and what to do when things fall apart.  (When it comes to general handling of old books, three of her golden rules echo in my head every day, and anyone who loves books old or new should remember them too – never take a book off a shelf by its spine – spines tearing away at the top is probably the single most common injury old books sustain, due to this – instead, hook your fingers over and gently push an old or fragile book outwards from the shelf from the other side; never stack books on top of each other, and never squeeze them too tightly onto a shelf!)

My skills are basic, and I limit myself to minor problems with less old and precious volumes.  For anything more complicated, we have been incredibly fortunate to have the skills of an experienced and qualified volunteer, Sylvie Beaufils, who has been working wonders with archival glues, tapes, paper and cloth.  It is a wonderful thing to see some of our most sadly out-of-sorts books returned looking beautifully strengthened, refreshed, and ready for another lease of life for our readers.

Here is a batch of 19th and early 20th century books Sylvie recently repaired. They date from between 1879 and 1930, and have a combined age of 704 years!

In these before and after pictures, you can see the work done to ‘Anna Jameson: Letters and Friendships’ edited by Mrs Erskine Steuart and published by T. Fisher Unwin in 1915 – the head and tail of the spine were completely tattered, but are now robust enough to sustain the attention of years more interested readers (provided they obey that golden rule of not pulling the book by its spine, which is probably what caused the problem in the first place)! Jameson was a 19th century Anglo-Irish art historian, thinker and early feminist.

 

Sylvie has worked similar wonders with F. C. Burnand’s My Time and What I’ve Done with It (Macmillan, 1874), restoring the author’s elegant portrait photograph to its rightful place and replacing a completely missing portion of the spine.

I had slightly given up hope for Notable Personalities of 1927 (Whitehall, 1927); the binding was completely coming away and what was a once handsome volume grandly bound in shiny oxblood leather, with gilt-edged glossy pages and weighing a significant amount, was in sad disarray.  Sylvie ministered to it with tinted Japanese paper and an elegant method of board reattachment; binding and pages are reunited, and it is now ready for perusal by anyone interested in looking at its hundreds of photographs of the movers and shakers of nearly a century ago.

I hope you have enjoyed this insight into the physical care of the collection.  Next time, I will take a closer look at the books Sylvie has repaired, going inside the covers for some surprising revelations about what is inside!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

 

 

 

The Maimie Papers

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

Continue reading “The Maimie Papers”

Biographies from the Basement

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

We are delighted to have reopened the library, and it is possible for you to borrow books from the Biography Collection once again (as our regular readers will know, the collection is never open for direct browsing access to the public, but all except our most fragile books may be borrowed). To minimise staff trips to the store while our one-way system is in place, we have organised timed collections of books.  These will take place at 12pm and 5pm Monday to Friday, and at 12pm and 4pm on Saturdays.  Please email your requests to libraries@rbkc.gov.uk

With the social distancing measures we are currently taking in the library, it won’t be possible to have our normal monthly display of books from the collection. In this blog I will have a fortnightly look at a book, and will sometimes take the opportunity to showcase (virtually!) one of our most interesting, quirky or unusual volumes.  I will also feature a cover and an inscription. In every post I’ll include an extract of the biography of someone who lived in Kensington or Chelsea at some point – see if you can identify the person!  Hope you enjoy it.

 

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

 

Biography of the Week

Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography

By Zora Neale Hurston

“I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

When I first discovered Zora Neale Hurston’s writing in my early 20s, I was bowled over – the copy of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God I borrowed from Hammersmith Library opened up a world where poetic images tumbled and glittered like fragments of foil in a kaleidoscope, moving so quickly that I often had to revisit sentences to savour the impact.  But the writing was never self-conscious or showy, and Hurston’s underlying voice was perfectly controlled, generous and vital, sharp as a scalpel.  The power and inventiveness of her metaphors was such that I still remember some of them all these years later.

In 1942, at the same time as E. B. White was writing the essays we looked at last time, Hurston published Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography.  By this time, aged nearly 50, Hurston was a giant of the African American literary and scholarly scene, not only a writer of fiction but a leading anthropologist of African-American and Caribbean folklore.

She was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the explosion of African-American creativity which produced ground breaking art, literature, culture and commentary, centred on Harlem in the 1920s, but in later years she received less and less attention and had faded into the realms of forgotten writers by the time she died in 1960.  Opinion had been divided about her use of dialect in her novels – some felt it was a crude caricature of the speech patterns of her community, which risked feeding into racist stereotypes; others believed it was a way of celebrating the poetic cadences of the American South and exploring the way language enriches and subverts.  Her later work looked at class and gender and how they shaped the lives of disadvantaged women, both black and white.

In 1975, the writer Alice Walker led the way to a rediscovery of her work, which was rightfully placed at the forefront of American literature.  In the 80s, the publisher Virago which was dedicated to making unjustly neglected out-of-print women writers available brought her autobiography out in a British edition, which is the one we have.  Hurston brings the same sparkling prose to her own life story, the story of a woman finding her inimitable voice against all the odds presented by poverty and racism. It resonates with her energy and genius, and I found it no easier to put down than that novel I first read 30 years ago.

The covers of our books can be wonderful examples of particular fashions in graphic design. And it’s always intriguing finding inscriptions in books – some are dedications by the author, some are intimate messages commemorating the giving of a gift. This week’s cover and inscription are from the same book – Memoir of Edwin Bainbridge by Thomas Darlington, published by Morgan and Scott in 1888.  Bainbridge, aged 22, was one of the 120 victims of the eruption of Mount Tarawera, on the North Island of New Zealand, on 10th June 1886. He had been travelling the world, and died at his hotel. His old school friend Darlington set about interviewing everyone who had known him to present this tribute to his life and heroic death (survivors of the eruption remembered him leading prayers to comfort and fortify them).

The binding is an elaborate one very typical of the period, with gilt lettering and a detailed image of Tarawera.  The inscription inside reads “To dear Willie on his fifth birthday, July 2nd 1889. G. B. Saltash”.   It seems extraordinary to us that such a sombre book should have been presented to a five-year-old. Presumably G. S. Saltash considered it a duty to inspire little Wille with the austere example of the classic ideal of Victorian manhood that Darlington evokes – self-sacrificing, valiant in the face of danger, pious and athletic.  We recognise this type as a quintessential Victorian idea, and a key component of the triumphalist mythology of Empire.  I feel rather sorry for poor Willie – I can’t help thinking he might have preferred one of the colourful illustrated books of nursery rhymes or fairy tales that were popular at the time.

The last extract describing the life of a resident of Kensington was from Queen Victoria by E. Gordon Browne, published in 1915.  Victoria always emphasised the simplicity of her upbringing, and Browne quotes her as saying: 

“I was brought up very simply—never had a room to myself till I was nearly grown up—always slept in my mother’s room till I came to the throne.”

 Can you identify the subject of the following extract?  (A clue: it’s an artist and it’s the late nineteeth century).

“In his garden he had a motley collection of animals, peacocks, armadilloes, the wombat, woodchuck, or Canadian marmot, and other outlandish creatures, including the famous zebu.”