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

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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

Cityread London 2018

May’s display from the Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library showcases books related to the Spanish Civil War, as the Cityead London book this year is The Muse by Jessie Burton, a novel set partly during that time – and Cityread starts tomorrow, 1 May.

Obviously, we have picked from our shelves biographies of major political actors in the conflict, such as General Franco and the Republican President Caballero, as well as cultural figures with an association with the conflict, such as Picasso and Lorca, along with commentators such as Orwell. But we have also found that we have a fair number of volumes by or about the many ordinary people who fought in the conflict, particularly those volunteers from overseas who joined the International Brigades on the Republican side.

The Spanish Civil War is widely viewed as the prelude to the Second World War, happening as it did between 1936 and 1939, and consequently as predominantly a conflict between Democracy and Fascism. However, on closer examination, things seem much more complicated – so complicated that Biography Store team have almost despaired of writing anything brief and coherent on this topic.

The history of Spain for the hundred or so years before the outbreak of the war is very complicated but arguably characterised by extreme internal instability following the loss of nearly all of the Spanish empire in the Americas by the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. This was followed by attempts to modernise in competition with the other European states on a new basis. But Spain remained very underdeveloped compared to these other states in the early twentieth century, economically, socially, and politically, so that the hardship suffered in the Great Depression led to fresh instability and ultimately the War.

This was broadly between on the one side the conservative, pro-church, Army-backed “Nationalist” forces supported by Nazi Germany and Italy and on the other the Republican coalition of liberals, socialists, anarchists, and communists, which was backed by the Soviet Union, though the Republican side was far from entirely united. In this sense, one could see the war as a repeat (but with a very different outcome) of the Russian Civil War, rather than as a prelude to the Second World War. Nevertheless, the rather half-hearted support for the Republic by the Soviet Union and the non-intervention of the ‘Western’ powers can be seen as cautious foreign policy positions – wishing not to provoke premature outright confrontation with the Axis powers.

Do come into the library and take a look, and also check out our Cityread London events that are happening this month.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

 

 

 

Civil rights movement: leaders and activists

On 4 April it will be 50 years since the world was shocked by the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis, Tennessee. Our display of books from the Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library this month is about the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in which he was one of the key figures.

When the movement began there already existed certain civil rights for black people in the US at a federal level; an issue was ensuring their enforcement by the federal government against the wishes of state governments in the South controlled by (rich) white people. These civil rights included various amendments that had been made to the US federal constitution following the American Civil War. These had ended slavery and given African-Americans citizenship and the vote (the last for males only, in line with the law for whites at the time).

However, these legal equalities between blacks and whites could only be effectively imposed in the South by the use of force by the federal government in the face of fierce resistance, and once troops were withdrawn in the late 1870s , black people were gradually intimidated out of political participation, leading to a simmering compromise whereby slavery had been ended but Southern states passed local laws denying equal civil rights and imposing segregation, which were not effectively opposed at federal level.

In the 1950s, this still unresolved conflict led to the civil rights movement. Segregation and systematic abuse continued to degrade and brutalise black people in the South; lynchings went uninvestigated, corrupt authorities advanced a racist agenda, and black people who had fought in the armed services during World War II against the most racist of fascist ideologies found on their return that they were treated as second class citizens in their own country. The civil rights movement achieved limited legalistic effects – limited, certainly with hindsight, because massive inequality in access to material resources partly along racial lines persists in the US as in all of human society at present.

Like all campaign movements, the civil rights movement encompassed various strands, organisations, and personalities: Martin Luther King, with his Christian and pacifist tinged political strategy; the more militant Malcolm X, joining King’s organisation from the Nation of Islam; bodies of the organised working class and university students (these two in particular encompassing many whites); and many more.

We have aimed in the books we have chosen to go beyond the better known figures, exploring the stories of many people associated with the civil rights movement in many ways.  So, as well as biographies of King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, we have books on performers like Nina Simone and Paul Robeson,  whose commitment to the struggle was interwoven with their art, and sports stars like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, who refused to separate their identities as world famous sportsmen from the injustices inherent in their experiences as black citizens.

In the realm of very personal stories, we have James McBride telling the story of the marriage of his white mother to his black father against the backdrop of racial intolerance, Jan Carew recalls travelling with Malcolm X and their intimate discussions about his world view, and Charles Denby’s Black Worker’s Journal gives a detailed and evocative picture of life in a Detroit car factory negotiating the assaults of race and class prejudice.  We hope this display will deepen and broaden our perspective on a movement which continues to reverberate.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Vote 100 2018

This month’s display of books at Kensington Central Library from our Biography Collection is to mark that 100 years ago today women got the vote for the first time.

 

On 6 February 1918, royal assent was given to the Representation of the People Act, and for the first time over 8 million British women were entitled to vote. The original legislation enfranchised only those women who were over 30 and owned property above a certain value, or who were university graduates still living in the constituency of their university. (It took another decade for women’s eligibility to vote to be based on the same terms as men’s.) It was widely considered to be a recognition of women’s role in the First World War (as almost thirty years later, their role in the Second led to women being given the vote in France), but the change in the law was also preceded by several years of increasingly militant protest and agitation by women determined to end their exclusion from the democratic process.

This month, we mark the centenary of this momentous legislation with a special display of suffragette and suffragist biographies from our special Biography Collection in Kensington Central Library. From the most famous names of the movement, like the Pankhursts, to working class women like Annie Barnes, campaigners for the female franchise left fascinating accounts of how they struggled and why. Picking up the resonance of the bitter conflicts of a century ago, we can also hear the voice of Mrs Humphry Ward, a passionate opponent of women’s suffrage.

I was unable to put down, amongst others, the memoir of Lady Constance Lytton, who created an alter ego, complete with physical disguise, so as to serve her sentence in Holloway Prison without deriving any benefit from her aristocratic status. Her intimate, immediate account of the conditions of the suffragette prisoners as they were force fed, tortured by being hosed with water, and degraded with filthy clothes and bedding, is a deeply shocking reminder of how much was endured for the cause.

To tie in with this display, we are delighted to be marking the service to that cause of a local woman, Kate Parry Frye, with a talk by her biographer Elizabeth Crawford . Elizabeth Crawford will be focusing on the biographies of this Kensington activist and of some of her fellow suffragists, and author Sonia Lambert will be reading excerpts from fictionalised accounts of women’s experiences that she has created based on extensive reading of the testament of suffragettes. The event will take place at  Kensington Central Library on Monday 26 February, 6pm – 7.45 pm. Book your free place via Eventbrite

One of the challenges we face with our Biography Collection displays is that some of our most fascinating books are hiding behind some of our least alluring bindings! Although we’re all familiar with the adage “never judge a book by its cover”, we are always looking for ways to entice potential readers to overcome their resistance to borrowing these less than beautiful-looking volumes. This has proved particularly true this month, with some of our truly compulsive suffragette memoirs looking, frankly, a little unglamorous. Our solution is to enhance these with a wrapper showing a picture of the author, and a quote from the text which will hopefully whet your appetites.

The Biography Store Team at Kensington Central Library

The Reformation

In the run-up to the major Christian festival of Christmas, the display of books from the Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is focusing on the period of rapid change in Western European Christianity known as the Reformation, in the year that marks 500 years since the events traditionally taken as being the starting point for the process.

Martin Luther

The main emphasis, inevitably, has to be on Martin Luther and other dissident thinkers in the German-speaking world, the traditional starting point for the Reformation being the nailing by Luther, to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, of his Ninety-Five Theses. This notwithstanding, it does appear that, although nailing notices to church doors was a regular practice at the time, there is no direct evidence that Luther actually did do this in this particular case. What is certain is that the theses were circulated in the context of debate at a private university (i.e. not a church institution) which was supported by Luther’s local secular lord, and that Luther’s personal arc and the Reformation more widely were partly given impetus by local and wider conflicts between church and secular state.

This factor is arguably even more straightforwardly to the fore in events in England: the conflict between state and church authority over the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon; the dissolution of the monasteries; the establishment of what amounts to a national catholic church in England, i.e. one which on the one hand does not acknowledge the international authority of the Pope, but on the other maintains the episcopal system and stops short of the much wider structural and theological changes that characterise Lutheranism, Calvinism, and other nonconformist denominations.

Whatever your belief system, the Biography Collection team wish you celebration and recuperation over the period of holidays following the northern-hemisphere winter solstice.

Black History Month – writers

Our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library display for October marks Black History Month with a showcase of writers from around the world. From literary giants like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes to unjustly neglected writers like Bessie Head, our display is a starting point from which to explore black voices.

Among many from the Americas we have: Zora Neale Hurston, who portrays the harsh realities of life in the Deep South in nevertheless rich poetic language; Ralph Ellison whose prose urges the reader to confront the painful truths of political struggle; Maya Angelou and Alice Walker whose appearance on the literary scene in the 1980s offered a view of black women’s lives written from the inside.

African writers like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe and more recent British voices like those of Aminatta Forna, Colin Grant and Jackie Kay investigate cultural dislocations and rediscoveries of heritage across continents.

We have interspersed our biographies this month with the works of some of these writers and hope you will enjoy both.

We are inaugurating a new strand of our displays this month, which will link some of the books in our Biography Store Collection to current film and TV, and also commemorate those famous people who have recently died. So this month, as the film “Goodbye, Christopher Robin” comes out, we have books on A. A. and Christopher Milne, and on Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe who are portrayed in the film “Borg vs. McEnroe”. Sad news of the death of Liz Dawn prompted us to display her autobiography.

The Biography Store Team at Kensington Central Library

Midnight’s Parents – The Partition of India in 1947

This month’s display of books at Kensington Central Library from the Biography Collection store comprises works by and about figures who shaped events leading up to and during Partition.

While many of us will be familiar with major actors such as Gandhi, Jinnah, Mountbatten, and Nehru, staff researching for the display this month discovered that, for example, in 1905 Curzon, as viceroy, divided Bengal into two administrative divisions along roughly religious lines, though the resulting political crisis led to re-unification in 1911.

 

Also on the British ‘side’, a new viceroy, Minto, took over in 1906, and Kitchener was also involved in events around this time as British military chief in India.

Edwin Montagu, as Secretary of State for India, was responsible in 1919 for several reforms that gave Indians more influence in India.

Atlee and Cripps of the post-War Labour government were also involved, the former having been a supporter of Indian independence for years.

There were also many less well-known politically active individuals from the Indian ‘side’ at the time, including one woman, Sarojini Naidu, a poet, and the first woman to become the governor of an Indian state (United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, 1947-49).

Maulana Azad, the senior Muslim leader of the Indian National Congress, promoted Hindu-Muslim unity, secularism, and socialism, and was prominent in the development of education in India after independence.

Subhas Chandra Bose, another senior Congress politician, later fell out with other Congress leaders and tried to end British rule in India with the help of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II.

The Biography Store Team at Kensington Central Library

Anyone for tennis?

To get us in the mood for next month’s Wimbledon Tennis Championships, our Biography Collection display for June (in the foyer of the Lending Library at Kensington Central Library) features stars of the Wimbledon courts from the distant and more recent past.

One of the most interesting features of our unique collection is that its huge breadth and scope (over 80,000 volumes spanning more than two centuries) allows the opportunity to rediscover names that have receded over the decades, as well as those we grew up with (who in the 50-ish age group can forget the flowing hairstyles and theatrical tantrums of Wimbledon in the 70s?!) and those we’ll be hearing a lot of again over the next few weeks.

So, we’ll be displaying a fascinating book on Maud Watson, who was the first ever Ladies’ Singles champion in 1884 (though the MBE she eventually received was not for her tennis glory but for her work as a nurse during the First World War).  Victorian modesty prevailed even on the courts, and it is difficult to imagine how she played at all in a floor length skirt over corset and petticoats. Alongside her will be much more recent, glossily illustrated books on the likes of Andy Murray and Serena Williams.

I have to admit my knowledge of tennis could be written on a ticket for Centre Court, but the stories in these books cover universal themes of ambition, glory, struggle and how emotions and relationships are managed in the glare of publicity and the rigour of remorseless training from a very young age.  And that thwack of ball on racket, against the cheers and groans of the crowd, must be one of the most evocative sounds of this time of year.

If you would like to learn more about our special collection of biographies, we will be having an event on Wednesday 14 June, from 2 to 3pm as part of the Festival of Learning. We will be giving an introduction to the collection and then a chance to look at some of our most interesting books.  Book a free place at your nearest Kensington and Chelsea library.

And we have more info here about our other Festival of Learning events.

The Biography Store Team at Kensington Central Library

The Kennedys at Kensington Central Library

Did you know that Kensington Central Library is home to the Biography Collection? It contains approximately 80,000 books with over 1,000 new titles added each year. One of our readers has said that it ‘equals the British Library.’

It began as part of the Metropolitan Special Collection which was set up among the London boroughs in the 1950s. Every title in the collection is available to view and borrow.

Every month, the library staff put together a display from the collection; this month’s display features the Kennedy family to mark the centenary of the birth of the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy on 29 May.

JFK display

Click here for  more information on the collection.

 

Tim Reid, Kensington Central Library