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.

Victorian diaries in our Biography Collection

Our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is home to many different kinds of biographical book, and that includes a large number of diaries.  These provide a very special kind of insight into a people’s lives.

Some diaries have become vital parts of the world’s heritage and have been read by millions, like those of Anne Frank and Samuel Pepys.  Some are the private jottings of ordinary people, whose experience of key moments in history have made them invaluable witnesses.  Others, kept by the famous, may have been written with at least one eye on posterity, or may have been intended to be private, and now afford a glimpse behind the public mask.

Diaries can mix records of hugely significant events and musings on enormous philosophical questions with the minutiae of everyday life – so the Pre-Rapahelite artists documented by William Michael Rossetti debate the meaning of art one minute and complain about faulty stovepipes, sore throats and toothache the next (many diaries reveal the chronic discomfort of life in earlier periods), and George Bernard Shaw meticulously records the prices of the train tickets, newspapers and ginger beer he purchased on the way to lecture engagements at which he speculated about the future of humanity.

This year’s Cityread London showcased the fictional London diary of a young Muslim woman in Sofia Khan is not Obliged by Ayisha Malik.  We wanted to plan an event to link our Biography Collection to this, and were also mindful of the fact that it was the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth, down the road at Kensington Palace, on 24 May.  The idea of having a look at some of the diaries in our collection that were kept by diverse London residents and visitors during Victoria’s reign gave me a great opportunity to dip into some wonderful examples of one of my favourite kinds of biography, eventually selecting thirteen different voices to try to give some snapshots of London life between 1837 and 1901.

Given that most diaries in this period – and certainly most of those published – were kept by the well-to-do, it was a challenge to find the voices of those in more humble circumstances, but the diary of Hannah Cullwick gives a unique insight into the life of a domestic servant, and the struggles of the destitute were shockingly recorded by minister’s daughter Helen G. McKenny as she made philanthropic visits in the Old Street area.

I was fascinated to read about Keshub Chandra Sen’s visit to London to promote links between British and Indian social reformers, and to discover that Leo Tolstoy’s visit to a school in Chelsea as part of research into setting up schools for the peasant children on his Russian estate, left a legacy of 24 individual school boys’ accounts of a single day in 1861, on which they studied, played, fought, had boating accidents and acted as fences for stolen goods, amongst other things.

Local Kensington detail gave Marion Sambourne’s diaries an especial charm, and the fact that Malik’s Cityread book continues the genre of the humorous fictional diary which has given us Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones, allowed me to look at a Victorian fictional diary – Happy Thoughts by F. C. Burnand – which graced the pages of Punch 20 years before its more famous successor The Diary of a Nobody, (which Burnand edited), and which is still laugh-out-loud funny over 140 years later.  Of course, Queen Victoria herself was a prolific diarist, and extracts from her own writings revealed a remarkable juxtaposition of the stately and the intimately domestic.

The bulk of our Biography Collection dates from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (although of course it comes right up to date with some very recent publications, and our oldest book dates from the early seventeenth century), so this was also a good opportunity to look at some of the physical aspects of our Victorian books.  The late Victorians loved the glamorous glitz of gilding on their bindings, and many biographies of this period sport beautifully detailed medallion portraits of their subjects.

It’s always very evocative to look at the handwritten inscriptions, personal bookplates, school prize labels and typically ornate library stamps of this period – in the spine of one book I found part of a Victorian newspaper advert, and the wonders of the Internet allowed me to reconstruct the full text.

This unique collection contains a treasure trove of insights and knowledge, not only in the content of the books, but also in their physical fabric, which gives a fascinating sense of the Victorians who wrote, published, bound, decorated, inscribed, catalogued and kept them, preserving them in private and public libraries until they found their way to our collection, where we can enjoy them today.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

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

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

Post-war British actors

This month the theme of our Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library is ‘Post-War British Actors’.  From the iconic glamour of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to the compelling stories of more recent stars like Emma Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch, we have a range of fascinating biographies which give an insight into the worlds of film, theatre and TV as they have evolved over the last seven decades.

It’s a huge field, but we are putting particular emphasis on actors who have written their own memoirs – several, like Dirk Bogarde, were gifted writers whose reminiscences have become classics, and Rupert Everett’s beautifully written memoirs contain some of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read! As it is Oscar season, we’ll also be including as many UK actors as possible who have been honoured with one of the world’s most famous trophies.

If reminiscences of stage and screen interest you, you are sure to enjoy hearing actor Robert Gillespie read from his new memoir ‘Are You Going to Do That Little Jump?’ A hilarious, poignant, and at times provocative assessment of the profession that has been his life’s work. Join him on Tuesday 20 March 2018, 6.30 to 7.45pm at Kensington Central Library. Book your free place via Eventbrite

The Biography Store team at 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

Musical anniversaries 2018

This month’s display of books from the Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library showcases musicians with significant anniversaries in 2018. Those we have most books on in the collection are Leonard Bernstein (born 1918), Claude Debussy (died 1918), and Gioachino Rossini (died 1868), but we include many others.

Gioachino Rossini

Other hard copy resources for music in our libraries are:

• Scores in at Kensington Central Library’s store

• CDs at Kensington Central Library

• DVDs of operas, shows etc and books on music, across all all our libraries

• A special collection of music reference books at Kensington Central Library

All these can be looked for on our library catalogue

We also have resources online:

Naxos Music Library – we have a workshop about using this music streaming service, more details below

Biographical and newspaper online resources useful for musician biographies and performance and recording reviews

Naxos Music Library workshop

Naxos Music Library workshop
Friday 26 January
2 to 3pm
Kensington Central Library

Come along to our workshop to find out more about the Naxos Music Library, the music streaming service which is free for library members. You will be shown how to:

  • Access the service
  • Find the sort of music you are interested in
  • Find multiple recordings of a work, or all the recordings available on the site by one recording artist or composer
  • Put together a playlist of your favourite music
  • Share your favourite tracks or albums

This event is free, no need to book – just turn up.

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.

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

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