Biographies from the Basement: April 2022

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. Over to Claudia to tell us more –

Display at Kensington Central Library

During April we are having two displays of books from our special Biographies Collection. The first is to complement the wonderful exhibition provided for us by the Pilecki Institute: ‘Passports for Life’. This exhibition tells the fascinating story of The Ładoś Group – Polish diplomats who were involved in a rescue operation to help Jews escape the Nazis during the Holocaust. This exhibition of photographs, original documents and audio-visual displays will be on the ground floor of Kensington Central Library until Tuesday 31 May.

Fourteen Letters by Feliks Topolski

To give an insight into the contribution of Polish Jews to twentieth century culture before the Holocaust, we are displaying biographies of some leading literary, artistic and scientific figures including Sholem Asch, Feliks Topolski, Marie Rambert and Leopold Infeld.

A Day of Pleasure by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The leading figure in Yiddish language literature to date, and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1978, was Warsaw-born Isaac Bashevis Singer. No one documented the Polish-Jewish world with the detail, vigour and beauty that he did, and we have several wonderful books about him, alongside many of his best known novels.

A Contrary Journey with Jill Culiner event

If the history of Jewish life in Eastern Europe interests you, you may also like a forthcoming event on Tuesday 26 April at 6.30pm, when writer and artist Jill Culiner will be discussing her book A Contrary Journey, describing her travels in Ukraine and Romania, in the footsteps of Jewish Enlightenment poet Velvel Zbarzher. This is an online event; you can book your place on Eventbrite.

Display at Kensington Central Library

It is World Book Night on Saturday 23 April, and for our second Biographies Collection display this month we are homing in on some people whose lives revolved around books – but who were not necessarily authors. We have found an array of publishers, literary agents, book sellers, book collectors, editors, translators and general bibliophiles – and, of course, librarians. These bookish lives from throughout history and from around the world can tell us much about how books come into being, and what they mean to those who spend their days looking after them, preserving them and making them available.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell’s memoir of running a second hand book shop in the Scottish town of Wigtown had me laughing out loud. In a dead pan style, Bythell documents the eccentricities of staff and booksellers and the highs and lows of serving a clientele of collectors, aficionados, the indecisive and bemused, the pedantic and demanding, and the endlessly browsing tourist. There is a serious point about the increasing challenge of eking out a living in this field, but Bythell’s caustic humour belies an obvious passion for his trade.

I remember the first time someone I knew ordered an obscure, out of print American book online, and awaited its delivery with excitement. I couldn’t believe that the internet made it possible to track down such books and have them drop through the letterbox. This has become commonplace (though still often very expensive – if it’s biographies you are looking for, don’t forget that our collection contains thousands of out of print and rare titles, including many published overseas).

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Before such things were dreamed of, Helene Hanff, in her flat in New York City, had no way to acquire the old English literary editions she loved other than to write air mail letters, and in this way she developed a correspondence with the manager of a Charing Cross Road antiquarian bookshop that spanned two decades.

84 Charing Cross Road was an address that became famous when she published her exchange of letters with Frank Doel in 1970 (her book was made into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in 1987). Any booklover who hasn’t already read this classic celebration of friendship and bibliophilia is in for a real treat – the bond that gradually develops between the reserved Doel and the ebullient Hanff is tender and moving, and the insight into post war life in the US and UK is fascinating. The fizzing excitement as Hanff unwraps the parcels containing her yearned-for editions of Austen and Donne, and the quieter but no less profound delight as Doel takes delivery of her grateful gifts of still-rationed treats resonates down the decades and reminds us of the importance of human contact and the ability of books to cement friendships.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakof

New York City was also the place where Joanna Rakoff, in her early twenties, took up her first job as assistant to a literary agent in 1996. Her memoir My Salinger Year describes learning the ropes of the industry, at the same time as learning, in a whirlwind of coming-of-age insights rendered in lovely and witty prose, who she is and what kind of life she wants to have in the world of books. The title refers to the fact that the agency’s most illustrious client is the giant of American literature J. D. Salinger, by then in his late seventies. Knowing his reputation as an irascible recluse, Rakoff quails at the thought of encountering him – but his kindness and gentleness in their telephone conversations tell a different and irresistible story.

Caribbean Publishing in Britain: A Tribute to Arif Ali by Asher and Martin Hoyle

Arif Ali came to London from Guyana in 1957. In 1966 he began running a green grocer’s shop in Tottenham; because it was one of only a few places where Caribbean produce was available, it became a place where immigrants from the Caribbean would gather, and Ali began importing newspapers from their home islands. In 1970, Ali sold the shop to set up the publishing company Hansib, which became the largest black-run publishing company in Europe. For over 20 years he published three newspapers and two magazines, the most popular of which was the Caribbean Times. In 1997 Ali sold his newspapers to concentrate on books.

Hansib Publications has brought out hundreds of titles, showcasing writers from Britain’s Caribbean, Asian and African communities, and a range of books on the experiences and concerns of these communities. Ali has been an activist on many issues, and his contribution to making black British voices heard in the context of a ‘mainstream’ publishing industry that neglected them, has been immeasurable. We have a wonderful and quite rare book in our collection called Caribbean Publishing in Britain: A Tribute to Arif Ali by Asher and Martin Hoyles, which although it foregrounds Ali, also looks at other publishers who immigrated from the Caribbean and used their books to change and enrich British society.

So Much to Tell by Kaye Webb

Anyone who grew up in the 60s and 70s and enjoyed reading might find the name Kaye Webb rings a bell.  Webb, one of whose first jobs was to answer children’s letters to Mickey Mouse Weekly magazine in the 1930s (she was paid tuppence per response), was editor of Puffin Books, the children’s arm of Penguin, between 1961 and 1979, her name appearing on the flyleaf of many much-loved books.

This is often looked on as a golden age for children’s fiction, and Webb oversaw Puffin editions of classics like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and Rosa Guy’s The Friends as well as obtaining the paperback rights of earlier classics including Mary Poppins and Dr Doolittle.  In 1967 she founded the Puffin Club, whose members (‘Puffineers’) received a fortnightly magazine full of articles by leading children’s authors, and the chance to participate in quizzes and writing competitions, meet-the-author events, and links with other kids who loved reading.  The magazine thrived for over 40 years and at its peak had 200,000 readers, and its graphic design has become iconic.  Webb’s third husband was the artist Ronald Searle, best known for creating St Trinian’s and for illustrating Geoffrey Williams’s Molesworth books. 

A less well known, and still sadly topical episode in Webb’s life is that in 1960 she and Searle (who had survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp) produced Refugees 1960, a report on the situation of refugees 15 years after the end of the war, with text and pictures based on their travels to meet refugees all over Europe at the invitation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

For those of us lucky enough to work with books, there are many ways that we experience looking after them and sharing them – but the best way to encounter them is still to browse amongst the shelves and find what you most want to curl up with, which might well be a biography to take you straight into another place and time.

Don’t forget our podcast Biography Central (formerly BioEpic), available on Anchor or wherever you get your podcasts. You can hear more about our special Biographies Collection.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library