I am delighted to say that our November display of childhood memoirs (see last month’s blog post) has proved so popular, and there is such a wealth of diverse books in this category, that we are going to keep it going throughout December.
To mark the festive season, we are supplementing it with some unusual memoirs of Christmases past which we hope you will enjoy, as well as some on generally wintry themes.
Verily Anderson wrote a number of extremely funny memoirs, including of her life with a young family and a houseful of lodgers in Kensington after the Second World War. She also devoted herself to the history of her forebears, the illustrious Quaker families of Gurney, Hoare and Buxton, which included the great prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and the anti-slavery campaigner Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton. Her Scrambled Egg for Christmas is one of her memoirs – our 1970 copy has lovely illustrations and it’s worth getting past its old fashioned appearance as it really is a joy.
Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales is the definitive evocation of Christmas in a small Welsh town in the 1920s, but his fellow Welshman, the actor Richard Burton, also explored this theme with his A Christmas Story drawing on his own childhood memories of a Glamorgan mining community, where debates rage about religion and politics, chestnuts are roasted in the fire, and the child Richard dreads the humiliation of being given a second-hand Christmas present, the refurbished toy of a more privileged boy.
One of my favourite of the more idiosyncratic books in the Biography Collection is Crackers at Christmas by Hazel Wheeler, documenting the “Festive Trials of a Yorkshire Housewife” from the 40s to the 90s. Wheeler recorded the whole of her life in great detail, and this volume brings together her reminiscences of Christmas in Huddersfield over six decades, characterised by unrelenting deadpan gloom. From food preparation to family relationships, every subject is treated with the same acerbic pessimism. This is the perfect book for anyone who is not a fan of Christmas cheer, and strangely Hazel’s pared down Eeyore-ish narrative ends up being very uplifting.
More than any other figure from the English literary scene, Charles Dickens helped shape our Christmas mythology with his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, and in Dickens and Christmas his great-great-great granddaughter Lucinda Hawksley explores his personal and artistic relationship to the season as it was celebrated during his lifetime. (You can listen to an episode of our BioEpic podcast which looks at this in detail https://anchor.fm/bio-epic/episodes/BioEpic—Episode-3—Charles-Dickens-etiaql ).
Expanding our view from Christmas to the winter season in general, we have some wonderful books looking at the cold and dark time of year, and how its challenges and beauty affect us. For some the season is a real challenge to mood and wellbeing. Horatio Clare (The Light in the Dark, 2018) and Fraser Harrison (A Winter’s Tale, 1987) have both written rawly beautiful memoirs of marriage and fatherhood in rural settings during winter. Clare struggles with seasonal depression, and both writers evoke the steely challenges of winter and the coming of milder days both internal and external; these are moving and enlightening books to curl up with on a dark winter afternoon.
One of the greatest works of art to deal with winter is Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) which he composed in 1828 and which is one of nearly 170,000 pieces of music available to stream through Naxos via our website In Schubert’s Winter Journey, the celebrated tenor Ian Bostridge examines the music, how Schubert conceived it and what it has meant to Bostridge himself to interpret it, as well as how it relates to its historical context – a fascinating read which will deepen the appreciation of those who are already familiar with this music, and open it up to those who are not.
Finally, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ s Cold looks at how it feels to experience some of the most extreme conditions on earth and why the polar regions have gripped the imaginations of so many over the centuries. Brrrrr!
Whatever you are doing over the festive season, I wish you warmth and happiness, and all the very best for further reading adventures in 2022.
The inaugural issue of the first ever African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, appeared in March 1827. Its stirring front-page editorial stated “Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations”, encapsulating the truth that the experiences, needs and ideas of black people could only be expressed through the voices, pens and printing presses of black people. Black journalism has a fascinating and illustrious history, through which a rich tradition of brilliant minds sought to wrest the narrative of black experience from the dominant white commentators, fight the battle against racism and advance the cause of liberation.
As the earliest journalists recognised, no war could be waged – whether against the slave trade, which would continue for another four decades after the birth of Freedom’s Journal, or against lynching, the deprivation of civil rights, racist miscarriages of justice, institutional racism in the criminal justice system, government, and society generally – without a press created by and for black people. Newspapers were the way for individuals and communities to communicate with each other and challenge the racist misinformation that distorted the reality they knew. Campaigns of huge political importance were carried out through their pages, debates shaped, and injustice exposed. They also fulfilled people’s need for entertainment and leisure at a time when black people could only find themselves depicted in stereotypical caricatures in white media. In this month’s display of books from our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library, we mark Black History Month by looking at the stories of some of the most fascinating figures in black journalism.
Some of the biggest names in 20th century black literature, whose stories can be found in our collection, worked as journalists – the poet Langston Hughes was a columnist for Abbott’s Chicago Defender (see below), and the novelist Zora Neale Hurston [pic 1] was also a reporter (one of her most famous pieces of journalism was her reporting of the 1952 trial in Florida of Ruby McCollum, the black woman convicted of murdering the white doctor and “pillar of the community” who abused her over many years).
Lorraine Hansberry, [pic 2]the writer of the celebrated play A Raisin in the Sun wrote for the black newspaper Freedom, which was published by legendary singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Claudia Jones[pic 3], who founded the Notting Hill Carnival, set up the UK’s first black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette.
Anyone who has watched the wonderful Mangrove film in the Small Axe series of films by Steve McQueen will have seen the brief appearance of C.L.R. James, played by Derek Griffiths.
James [pic 4] was one of the most important journalists and historians of the period; he immigrated to Lancashire from Trinidad in 1932 and subsequently moved to London, where he wrote for many newspapers and was a leading figure in Marxist politics. In the late 50s James returned to Trinidad and became the editor of The Nation newspaper, though he spent the last years of his life back in the UK, living in Brixton. James was also an expert on cricket and was cricket correspondent of the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) in the early 1930s. Huge names of black history like W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey were also journalists, but in this blog post I would like to focus on a few names that may be less well known.
Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born in Georgia, USA in 1868; his parents had been enslaved until not long before his birth. [pic 5] After practising as a lawyer, in 1905 he founded The Chicago Defender newspaper, which went on to become the most widely read black-owned newspaper. Having himself made the journey from the South to Chicago, Abbott was passionate about what is known as “The Great Migration”, which saw many black people relocate from the Southern to the Northern United States to escape rural poverty and the horrific “Jim Crow” system of racial segregation. (During the first wave of this, between 1916 and 1940, 1.6 million black people resettled in the North.) Abbott used his newspaper to inspire others to make this journey, as he felt black people could have the opportunity to improve their circumstances only when they left the terrible conditions of the South behind. At the same time, he saw all too clearly that racism was also a huge problem in the North, and campaigned for equal civil rights, the end of discrimination in employment and education, and the end of persecution of mixed-race couples. Black railway porters, who in 1925 were to form the first official trade union led by African Americans, increased the paper’s circulation by distributing it on trains. It is estimated that at its most popular, the paper was read by four out of five of all black adults in the entire United States. (The paper still thrives 116 years after Abbott founded it, though two years ago it became online only.) We have a rare early biography of Abbott, written in 1955 by another African American journalist, Roi Ottley, whose career took off in the 1930s and who went on to become the first African American correspondent to file reports on World War Two for major national newspapers.
Born in Jamaica in 1941, Barbara Blake Hannah[pic 6] had been a TV newsreader and a contributor to a magazine run by her father Evon Blake (founder of the Press Association of Jamaica) before she arrived in the UK in 1964 and became a prolific journalist, her work being published in many national newspapers and magazines. In 1968 she became the first black reporter on Thames Television’s first regional news programme, London-based Today. Blake-Hannah interviewed many famous people, but what then transpired is a disgraceful indictment – viewers complained about having a black reporter on the programme, and rather than defending her, Thames Television dismissed her without explanation. She went on to work on a local news programme in Birmingham, commuting from London as no hotel in Birmingham would admit her. She also worked as a researcher on the BBC’s prestigious documentary series “Man Alive.” In 1972, Blake-Hannah returned to Jamaica to work on the ground-breaking film The Harder they Come. She has written extensively about Rastafarianism and was the first Rastafarian senator in the Jamaican Parliament for three years in the 80s. She is now the Chief Executive of the Jamaica Film Academy. Her autobiography Growing Out: Black Hair & Black Pride In The Swinging Sixties came out in 2016 and describes her experience in the UK.
Una Marson[pic 7] was an extraordinary woman who dese. Born in 1905 in rural Jamaica, she escaped her strict upbringing (her father was a Baptist minister) and was already a prolific journalist, playwright and poet by the time she was in her early twenties (at 21 she was assistant editor of The Jamaica Critic and by 23 she had set up her own magazine, the first Jamaican woman ever to do so). She came alone to the UK while still not yet 30 and threw herself into the world of black activism and feminism, travelled in Europe, the USA and Israel, and met such important figures as Paul Robeson and Haile Salassie. She worked alongside George Orwell as a BBC producer during the Second World War, the first ever black woman to be employed by the corporation. From 1942 she produced the BBC radio programme Calling the West Indies; she recreated it as Caribbean Voices, which ran for 15 years and showcased the work of important literary figures including Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul. She is considered to be the first major female Caribbean poet and a key voice in the development of feminism.
Finally, George Lamming, who is now 94 years old, was one of those who read Walcott’s poetry on Caribbean Voices produced by Una Marson. [pic 8] In 1951 he came to London from Barbados and began broadcasting for the BBC, and he wrote for the Barbadian magazine BIM. In the late 60s he embarked on an academic career in Jamaica and has been a visiting professor at universities throughout the USA and Australia. His book In the Castle of My Skin was written during his first couple of years in the UK, and though often classified as a novel, it is included in our Special Collection of Biographies because it is considered to be an autobiographical evocation of Lamming’s childhood and youth in Barbados. It is an exquisitely written book, which gives a unique insight into his home island at a particular moment in its history.
This black history month, we hope you will enjoy finding out more about these and other unique individuals from the history of black journalism [pic 9], inextricably interwoven into the history of activism, literature, politics, and culture.
Don’t forget to check out our BioEpic podcast, available on all major podcast platforms- Claudia at Kensington Central Library.
This month’s display from our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library focuses on secrets and deceptions. This is a rich subject for memoir, with many fascinating stories of people discovering family secrets that have been hidden for decades. Sometimes the exposure of a secret takes long, painstaking excavation; sometimes a split second’s revelation overturns everything an individual thought they knew about their background or those closest to them. Some secrets are never suspected until they are revealed; others resonate through suspicions and inconsistencies and sometimes pure gut feelings, until those concerned determine to find the truth.
Of course, there are fascinating stories of secrecy relating to warfare, diplomacy and the machinations of the State. Espionage and covert surveillance could be the subject of a whole display in themselves, so I am not focussing on them in this one; neither am I going to look particularly at criminal conspiracies, or at the terrible stories of people having to hide their sexual orientation due to the persecutory laws of previous times, or at the false identities forced upon people by war and tyranny. Instead I am focussing on the secrets and lies played out within families; although these may touch on huge historical themes, the reasons for secrecy are connected to intimate and domestic relationships.
Some people’s whole personal lives seem to be secrets they wish to guard from the world. This has often been true of the super-rich of twentieth century America, whose birth into situations that could never be “normal” has sometimes made them seek privacy to a pathological degree. If you are one of the richest women in the world, as the copper mining and railway heiress Huguette Clark was, your relationships with other people must inevitably be complicated.Clark progressively disappeared into a world almost no one could penetrate – apart from her personal nurse of 20 years, to whom she left over thirty million dollars in her will when she died in 2011 aged 104, triggering a legal battle involving several members of her family. Doris Duke‘s billions came from the family tobacco and hydroelectric industries – she became literally the richest woman in the world upon her father’s death in 1925. She stage-managed her life in a more sociable way than Clark, but her world was so full of strange unreliable characters that it is difficult to say what reality they could agree on.
For some people, deception becomes a lucrative career move. As spiritualism and the investigation of psychic phenomena gained huge popularity in the late Victorian period, attracting the attention of serious scientists and philosophers, a host of fake mediums and illusionist fraudsters sprang up. Ada Goodrich Freer was one of these, convincing many eminent intellectuals of her completely bogus psychic powers – her rise and fall is described in The Strange Story of Ada Goodrich Freer by Trevor Hall. By the same author, The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney is a truly tragic one – so devoted was Gurney to the scientific study of the psychic phenomena in which he passionately believed, that he suspended disbelief of cynical tricksters not dissimilar to Freer, in ways that led to his complete humiliation, despair and death in 1888.
Sometimes parents hide secrets from their children and try to erase all clues, but like the spindle in the story of The Sleeping Beauty, some echo of the past will always be overlooked – sometimes in such plain sight that one wonders about subconscious motivations. As a teenager, the eminent film critic Derek Malcolm chanced upon a book belonging to his father, which detailed the histories of important criminal cases. He was astonished to find his father’s name listed in the index, and further disturbed to find that all the pages relating to him had been torn out. His memoir Family Secretsis a moving account of his efforts to piece together the buried story of his parents’ involvement in a violent drama which made legal history before he was born. Diana Petre was the half sister of the distinguished writer and editor J. R. Ackerley – her unputdownable memoir The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley describes growing up as part of the secret, unofficial family their respectable father created outside his marriage, an experience which left her with a lifelong obsession with secrecy and duality.
Julie Metz‘s life was shattered when her husband died suddenly in his forties, swinging a wrecking ball through what had been an idyllic family life complete with seemingly happy marriage, beloved daughter, affluent lifestyle and beautiful home. After negotiating her first six months of agonising grief, Metz’s sense of loss was complicated, to put it mildly, by the discovery that her husband had at no time during their marriage been faithful to her, but had managed to conceal a series of long and sometimes concurrent affairs, in some cases with women she knew. Her book Perfection is a beautifully written record of a journey through deepening levels of loss – the loss of an adored husband, and the loss of the sense she had had of who he actually was.
Some secrets require a particular kind of courage and honesty to uncover. In the last couple of decades, as the children of Nazis pass into old age and confront last chances for confronting the past, and their grandchildren come of age, some have sought to find out the true extent of their forebears’ guilt with enormous courage. It’s hard to imagine a more traumatic discovery about her family’s past, or a more shocking way to discover it, than the experience of Jennifer Teege. Browsing in a library on an ordinary day, Teege found out for the first time that her maternal grandfather was none other than the concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler’s List). Plunged understandably into deep depression, Teege soon realised that she could not move forward without plunging herself into all the implications of this terrible, hitherto unsuspected truth. She began to make sense of trails of emotional damage in her family, and writes brilliantly about the pain of confronting the fact that, as the daughter of an Austrian mother and a Nigerian father, as she states baldly in the title of her book, “My Grandfather would have Shot Me“. Uwe Timm was a small boy when his older brother volunteered for the Waffen SS and was killed at the age of 19. As an adult Timm read fragments of his brother’s diary and was haunted by the question of the extent of his involvement in atrocities. The resulting memoir In My Brother’s Shadow is a moving example of the work of coming to terms with the scars of the past.
These are just some of the many books in our Special Collection of Biographies which tell the stories of secrets discovered and negotiated, and if you visit Kensington Central Library you can see many more as part of this display. Of course there is always something compelling about the dramas and mysteries of other people’s lives, but reading about very different secrets and how they relate to different situations and impulses is not just riveting – it can also tell us some profound things about how human beings construct and communicate their identities, and at what cost.
Claudia Jessop, Kensington Central Library
Don’t forget to check out BioEpic, our monthly podcast delving into the lives of fascinating people and their impact on our world, through our Special Collection of Biographies. Available on Anchor, Spotify, Apple, Breaker and Pocketcasts.
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.
Did you know that we have an insightful podcast exploring the Biography Store Collection?
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 “
“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.
March 8th is International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is Choose to Challenge. Our Special Collection of Biographies is full of the stories of inspiring and extraordinary women who challenged the norms of the societies they lived in, and improved the lives of their fellow women in vital ways. I have selected three women from very different backgrounds, whose work changed the experience of other women for the better, in three different areas of their lives.
Amelia Bloomer changed the way women dressed. Next time you put on tracksuit bottoms to go for a run (or just to relax on the sofa), spare a thought for Amelia Bloomer. Born in New York, she lived a life that spanned almost the whole of the nineteenth century, becoming the first woman to ever own and edit a newspaper specifically aimed at other women, in 1849. Amongst her lifelong advocacy for women’s rights, she is best remembered for her commitment to the cause of women’s dress reform. Bloomer felt strongly that the restrictive clothing women wore could only impede all aspects of their lives, cause them unnecessary discomfort, and operate as a form of oppression. Well off women were encumbered by elaborately decorative clothing and punishing corsetry. Even poor women were continually hampered by the length of their skirts. It seems amazing now that in the West, trousers for women were not really respectable until the middle of the 20th century, and their previous modes of dress made all kinds of activities from riding bikes to participating in sports to simply running for a (horse drawn) bus impossible. Bloomer championed the idea of loose gathered trousers worn under a shorter dress, allowing women to move more easily – these trousers became known as “bloomers”. A courageous group of like-minded women began to wear them in public, but were often harassed, mocked and even assaulted. But they had begun a century of slow progress towards the time when women could wear trousers without raising an eyebrow, and so be enabled to enjoy the same freedom of movement as men.
Onnie Lee Loganchanged the way women gave birth As Bloomer’s life almost spanned the 19th century, Logan’s did the 20th. In her farming community in Alabama, black women did not have access to clinical maternity care and they were helped to deliver their babies by “granny midwives”, who had no formal training but who were repositories of wisdom passed down for centuries. Logan came from a family where women had been practising as “granny midwives” for generations. Her heritage was both African American and Native American, and when she began to practise midwifery herself, aged 21, she drew on the traditions of both cultures. In 1949 Logan undertook formal training and was licensed by the Board of Health. She was able to give her patients the benefit of a new mixture of modern medical practice and family-centred care based on long experience and first-hand knowledge. These women benefited from as many modern medical safety measures as Logan could provide, while being reassured by the sensitivity of a woman who understood their community and cultural traditions at the deepest level. For a period of half a century, ending in the mid-80s, she is credited with delivering almost every baby born in two black neighbourhoods of Mobile, Alabama. She also delivered the babies of poor white women, and became a beloved figure throughout the community, though her autobiography does not gloss over the virulent racism she encountered. Logan emphasised practices that were still being seen as new and innovative by orthodox midwifery many years later, such as the participation of fathers, the use of relaxation and breathing techniques and the application of oils, and she encouraged women to give birth in different positions rather than flat on their backs, as was the conventional and often damaging expectation. Her autobiography is a fascinating record of a working life that spanned enormous changes – an unsentimental “Call the Midwife” of the Deep South, and a testament to an extraordinarily humane and expert woman.
Caroline Norton changed women’s rights in marriage. Norton left her unhappy marriage in 1836, and her husband sued her friend, the Prime Minister and future close confidante of Queen Victoria Lord Melbourne for adultery, involving all of them in an enormous scandal. Although he lost his case, he refused to divorce Lady Norton, and refused to let her see her sons. At a time when women who left their husbands were generally condemned and when it was perfectly legal for a man to beat his wife, Norton campaigned tirelessly to change the law relating to custody, divorce and property (married women were not allowed to legally own any property until 1870, when an Act of Parliament Norton had campaigned for was passed). A new biography of this courageous woman by Antonia Fraser will be published in May, and we have a clutch of books in our collection from Diane Atkinson’s excellent biography of 2012, to books from the 1940s and 1960s (see the cover illustration so characteristic of that period) – and Norton also makes an appearance in some sumptuous Edwardian collected biographies of “Queens of Beauty” and “Famous Women of Wit and Beauty”, where her celebrated beauty is recorded in wonderful engraved illustrations.
Check out our monthly podcast BioEpic, where we delve into the lives of fascinating people through our Special Collection of Biographies. Available on Anchor, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Breaker.
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.
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.