Secrets and Lies

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. 

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.

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:

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.” 

 

Love stories from our Biography Collection

In honour of Valentine’s Day, our February display of books from our Biography  Collection at Kensington Central Library is a bouquet of the joys and pains of romantic love Continue reading “Love stories from our Biography Collection”

Holocaust Memorial Day 2020: Stand Together

Don’t be content in your life just to do no wrong, be prepared every day to try and do some good.

Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from Nazi-occupied Europe

The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is: Stand Together. And from their website:

It explores how genocidal regimes throughout history have deliberately fractured societies by marginalising certain groups, and how these tactics can be challenged by individuals standing together with their neighbours, and speaking out against oppression.

In the years leading up to the Holocaust, Nazi policies and propaganda deliberately encouraged divisions within German society – urging ‘Aryan’ Germans to keep themselves separate from their Jewish neighbours. The Holocaust, Nazi Persecution of other groups and each subsequent genocide, was enabled by ordinary citizens not standing with their targeted neighbours.

Today there is increasing division in communities across the UK and the world. Now more than ever, we need to stand together with others in our communities in order to stop division and the spread of identity-based hostility in our society.
Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – this is a significant milestone and is made particularly poignant by the dwindling number of survivors who are able to share their testimony. It also marks the 25th anniversary of the Genocide in Bosnia.

As Holocaust denial, minimisation and relativism are on the rise, it becomes increasingly urgent to revisit the eyewitness testimony of survivors. Our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library includes over 50 memoirs of some who survived, and some who did not, spanning the 23 countries where the Jewish communities were systematically murdered as being “subhuman”, a designation the Nazis also applied to gay people, people with congenital disabilities and mental illness, Roma people, Slavic people, people of colour and all other “non-Aryans”, all of whom they hoped ultimately to eradicate.

We also have memoirs of those caught up in genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Darfur, and of those who though not part of the targeted groups, risked their lives to try to intervene, as well as memoirs of younger people trying to come to terms with their heritage and bravely negotiating the dark crimes of their forebears.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Inspirations from our Biography Collection

For this month’s special display from our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library, library staff were asked to nominate figures who had inspired them.

See what Steve Biko, RuPaul, Malcolm X, J. K. Rowling, Jimi Hendrix, Lauren Bacall, Tove Jansson, David Attenborough and many others mean to members of staff, learn more about them from their biographies – and see if we have a book about your own inspiring figure in our collection. With around 85,000 titles spanning two centuries of publishing, there is a good chance we do!

Mzu chose: Steve Biko

Bantu Stephen Biko…popularly known as Steve  Biko. Apart from teaching us that democracy is something to fight for, constantly, my inspiration,
Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977), was known for his slogan ‘black is beautiful’, which he
described as meaning ‘you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being.’ He fully understood that the foundation of any true
liberation is self-love.

Fani chose: Helen Keller

I would like to suggest one of my favourite authors, Helen Keller because this woman overcame her  dual disability and managed to live the life that she dreamt without barriers. I love the below words from her: ‘The best and most beautiful things in the world  cannot be seen or even touched- they must be felt  with the heart’.

Katie chose: Patrick Leigh Fermor

Adventurer, polyglot, lover of people and nature, Leigh Fermor  explored the world and wrote about its beauty. His ‘Time of Gifts’  books feature his walking journey from the Hook of Holland to  Constantinople and he has written many delightful books on his  daring exploits and travels.

Nina chose: David Attenborough

The most inspiring man who seems capable of uniting the whole world. People from all over the globe have grown up to the sound of his husky voice telling them about the weird and wonderful things that exist in nature, and many were made aware of dangers that threaten them though watching his programmes. He is a man so universally liked that I have no doubt he would be chosen as the President of the World if such a role existed.

If you’re nearby, do pop into the library and take a look at the display – we’re sure you’ll be inspired too.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Extra ordinary lives from our Biography Collection

This month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library gives us a holiday from the famous, the illustrious, the eminent, the idolised, the household-named, the great, the infamous and the notorious that inhabit our collection.

As well as housing many books about those we are likely to have heard of, the collection is also home to many memoirs of ordinary people with no special claim to being remarkable.  Often the only publication of a person who, perhaps looking back on a childhood in a long gone age, feels moved to record what everyday life was like back then, these books are fascinating records of the lives of ordinary working men and women.  Families, school, industry, war, immigration and emigration – all of these subjects are examined by a multitude of voices.

We can find evocations of particular times and places preserved for ever by those who, without ever intruding into the public eye, shared the lives of the man and woman in the street (or in the field, or on the mountain).

Location is often important in these kinds of books, with the authors striving to recreate a very specific corner of the world. Many London neighbourhoods feature – Lambeth in Mary Chamberlain’s record of the lives of working class women from 1913 to 1989, Bethnal Green whose atmosphere of the 1920s-40s was described by Doris M. Bailey, Blackfriars where Bella Burge ran a boxing ring from 1910, Islington where Gill Brason’s stint as a park keeper in the 70s shows us a neighbourhood on the brink of huge change.  Many regions of the UK, both rural and urban, are also given a voice – John Ackerman’s South Wales, Ralph Glasser’s Gorbals, Arthur Barton’s Jarrow, J. J. Bagley’s three centuries of Lancashire diaries; Anne Burling’s East Anglia, James Maggs’s Southwold, to name just a small sample.

 

We can also eavesdrop on ordinary lives around the world – a boyhood in Sierra Leone in the early 20th century is hauntingly described by Robert Wellesley Cole, Iris Gioia and Clifford Thurlow interview the people they meet on a trip to Eastern Europe at a pivotal moment in the history of the region, in 1990; the Dar family describe how their lives as carpet sellers are impacted by the tumultuous history of Kashmir; Forrest Carter leaves a unique record of Cherokee life in 1930s Tennessee, and Glückel of Hamelin recounts the highs and lows of her days in the Jewish community of Hamburg with such immediacy that it is hard to believe she was writing almost 400 years ago.

As usual, we have no shortage of local interest – read about Joe Nixon starting up a youth club in 1950s Notting Hill, Mary Wylde a 1930s Kensington housewife, and life at Holland Park School in the 80s as recounted by John-Paul Flintoff (I can vouch for the accuracy of that particular account, being an ex-Holland Park pupil of exactly Flintoff’s vintage)!

Again as always, our  Biography Collection yields a rich harvest – Isobel Charman’s “The Great War, the People’s Story” looks at the impact of that huge conflict on ordinary citizens, R. J. W. Selleck’s “Not so Eminent Victorians” finds 19th century immigrants to Australia building an education system to transform people’s lives, and there are socio-cultural studies of a typically progressive kind from the 60s, taking a sample of 14 year old school children or of young people in care and interviewing them about their hopes and dreams.  Many people have chosen to write about their working lives – so we have a survey of working people from Hackney in the 1930s, and stories of countless professions including taxi driver, station master, nurse, teacher, miner, shop assistant and cowboy.

It’s not quite true to say that all of the writers featured are people you’ll never have heard of.  Some of the people featured in these books later became famous, sometimes through the books themselves – Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, for example, is a classic of rural British memoir, and Jennifer Worth has become familiar to all through her “Call the Midwife” books and their enormously successful TV adaptation.  But all of them are accounts of life before fame or fortune had visited, when they were deep in the obscurity of ordinary life.

What is proven by these commonplace, everyday memoirs is that, in fact, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.  These writers are visited by extraordinary and sometimes deeply strange turns of events. Some go on to do unusual things that take them far from their beginnings. They are caught up in epic moments of world history.  But even if they simply live out their lives in relatively uneventful ways, they show that every life is in its own way remarkable, and that the voices of those who have never sat at a high table or stepped on a red carpet are often the voices that tell us most about who we were and are.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Edited to add –

If you’re interested to read more about some of the people mentioned in this post, do take a look at the eResources we have on biographies such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These are free to use with your Kensington and Chelsea library card.

50th anniversary of the moon landing

Fifty years ago, the relationship of people to the moon changed forever in a way our ancestors could scarcely have imagined.  For millennia, people all over the world had watched the moon, worshipped it, immortalised it in poetry and song, attributed all kinds of influences to it, and acquired scientific understanding of it.  On 21 July 1969, hours after landing their spacecraft on 20 July, two human beings actually walked on it.

This moment has become iconic, and it’s not hard to imagine the impact it must have had at the time.  Twenty per cent of the world’s population watched the ghostly glowing images of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong taking those “giant steps for mankind” (and this at a time when there was far less electronic imagery in people’s lives than there is now).  It was the subject of the BBC’s first ever all-night broadcast, and even fifty years later still boasts the fifth largest TV audience of all time.

Knowing that the mission of Apollo 11 was successful, it is hard to remember that at the time this success was far from taken for granted; President Nixon’s speech writer prepared a just-in-case address to be read if the two astronauts failed to get back safely to their craft and had to be abandoned to a lunar death.  In the event, the joy of the interplanetary phone call in which Nixon congratulated them as they stood on the moon was sustained by their safe return.

The cumbersome movements of the heavily-suited men on the moon’s surface was the culmination of the 15-year-old Space Race, one of the key battles of the Cold War – after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first man to enter outer space in 1961, the USA was determined not to lose out on another extra-terrestrial “first”.

As always, our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library doesn’t disappoint, and has yielded a host of astronauts, cosmonauts, astronomers, space engineers and astrophysicists for this month’s display.  We can read Buzz Aldrin’s own descriptions of his moon walk in his evocatively titled “Magnificent Desolation”, in which he also writes movingly of the painful struggles of his life on earth.  We have some books produced (in English) in the Soviet Union – a 1962 edition of the memoirs of “Hero of the Soviet Union – Soviet Cosmonaut no. 1” Yuri Gagarin, and another from 1979 with the story of the Soviet side of the Space Race described in dramatic prose.

We have some fascinating biographies of some of the men and women whose scientific work helped pave the way for the moon landing  –  like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, sometimes called “the greatest woman astronomer of all time”, and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983, who was still a teenager when his formulation of the “Chandrasekhar Limit” led to the discovery of neutron stars and black holes.

Placing the moon landing within its context in the history of science, we have some wonderful books on the great minds who moved forward understanding of the universe in previous centuries – find Newton, Einstein, Corpenicus, Kepler, Galileo and Hawking in biographies that illuminate all their faces and phases.

Space exploration will continue to develop – and, despite having been walked on by mere mortals, the moon retains its mysterious beauty, and continues to inspire love songs.  That hazily-filmed moment in 1969 still haunts all those who witnessed it live, and still resonates with the sense of how tiny we are, and how great we can be.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library