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

Childhood memoirs for World Children’s Day

Did you know we have a special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library? It’s a collection of 80,000 books to which we add 1,000 new titles a year. Every month or so, our colleague, Claudia takes a look at this very special collection. This month, she has been looking at childhood memoirs.

Today Saturday 20 November is World Children’s Day. It commemorates the Declaration of the Rights of the Child by the UN General assembly on 20 November 1959 (its precursor was adopted by the League of Nations 35 years earlier, drafted by Eglantyne Jebb who founded Save the Children).

One of the most fundamental things that all human beings share is that we were all once children, though the experience of childhood varies enormously.  For this blog post and the accompanying display on the ground floor of Kensington Central Library, I wanted to concentrate on peoples’ own childhood memoirs, rather than on reconstructions of the childhoods of the famous written by others.  

Many writers and artists return to their childhood to examine the source of their inspiration; those interested in social history and psychology look to it to cast light on changing times and psychic development.  Many other people who are not necessarily professional writers are drawn to revisit childhood memories, often in their later years as the understanding that the world in which they grew up has gone forever makes it appear more urgent to record it. We have many childhood memoirs linked to particular places and eras, some recording vanished rural lifestyles with a golden glow of perhaps selective nostalgia, others recording harsh conditions and the fight to improve them. Notwithstanding the huge differences in childhood experiences, as in all human experiences, certain features of childhood memoirs recur around the world and throughout history – the sense of the freshness and intensity of perceptions, the partial understanding of things that become clearer as we mature, and often the huge influence of significant people in forming who we become.

My Father’s Places by Aeronwy Thomas

It is fascinating to see famous people through the eyes of their children, and memoirs of the children of important figures can give unique insight into those people’s daily lives and intimate relationships.  Aeronwy Thomas, daughter of the poet Dylan Thomas, records the brilliance and volatility of both of her parents, and the wild beauty of their home at Laugharne on the estuary of the River Taf in Carmarthenshire, in a childhood full of love and joy as well as instability, alcoholism and poverty. Vyvyan Holland’s father, Oscar Wilde, appears more as a haunting absence than a quotidian presence in the memoir he wrote in his sixties.  He describes the collapse of his happy childhood when Wilde was imprisoned under the persecutory homophobic law of the day, and his mother’s flight abroad with their children in an attempt to shield them from the scandal.

The Education of Little Tree by Forest Carter

Childhood memoirs can give extraordinarily acute glimpses of ways of life because children’s eyes tend to focus on and record details that adults may overlook and which may be left out of historical analyses, giving a depth and texture to our understanding. The Education of Little Tree is Forest Carter’s memoir of his childhood being brought up by his Cherokee grandparents in Tennessee in the 1930s and is a depiction of a world threatened by the dominant culture. The unsentimental immediacy with which childhood memories are laid down, and with which some especially gifted writers depict them, makes stories like that of Little Tree’s removal to school to be “educated” out of his culture and heritage by those who think it is inferior, particularly piercing – here is another child, like Holland, who suffers due to bigotries he cannot understand and who as an adult must try to make sense of what was inflicted upon him.

The Woman Who Saved Children by Clare Mulley

Although not childhood memoir, I had to include in this display our biographies of Eglantyne Jebb, who as mentioned above was the extraordinary woman who founded Save the Children and drafted the original declaration of the rights of the child adopted by the League of Nations in 1924.  Jebb’s urgent commitment to enshrining children’s human rights grew in the wake of the situation in Germany and Austria after their defeat in the First World War, when economic breakdown brought about by punitive peace terms caused the starvation of many children. 

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

So I have included several moving memoirs and diaries of children caught up in war and genocide – the most famous such document is undoubtedly The Diary of Anne Frank, of which we have several editions; we also have the diary of Zlata Filipovic, describing her life during the war in Bosnia between the ages of 11 and 13, Loung Ung’s memoir of the Cambodian genocide, and more recently Malala Yousafzai’s description of her incredible fight for girls’ education in Pakistan, and how it led to her near-fatal shooting.

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova

Other memoirs of children experiencing totalitarianism include Carmen Bugan’s wonderful Burying the Typewriter, about being a dissisdent’s daughter in Communist Romania, and Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs, about negotiating the rigid demands on a Young Pioneer in the Soviet Union. Very different demands were made of child stars like Shirley Temple and Drew Barrymore, and other child celebrities whose stories we can find in our collection.

Aké by Wole Soyinka

Some of the world’s greatest writers have left records of their childhoods that rank among their finest works.  The great Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki describes growing up in Tokyo in   the 1890s and in My Reminiscences, giant of Bengali literature Rabindranath Tagore carefully examines the influences that awakened his curiosity and activated his genius.  Ngugi Wa Thiongo, who grew up to become one of Africa’s greatest literary figures, wrote Dreams in a Time of War about his 1940s boyhood in Kenya, and Wole Soyinka, another giant of African letters, produced an unforgettable childhood memoir in Aké, about his village childhood in 1940s Nigeria. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the most important Yiddish writer, recorded his childhood in a Jewish Warsaw that was to be destroyed, including his eavesdropping on the conflicts brought to his father’s rabbinic court.

Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee

Some childhood memoirs have been treasured inclusions in bookshelves around the world for decades – Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie are both such classics, which cast fascinating light on the adults they became, and the subsequent books they wrote. Some childhood memoirs glitter with irreverent humour – Norman Lewis’s Jackdaw Cake and Natalia Ginzburg’s The Things We Used to Say (also translated as Family Sayings) deal with serious subject matter, but highlight the ridiculousness of childhood’s confrontation with adult eccentricity in a way that is extremely funny – this is also true of Gerald Durrell’s childhood memoirs, brought to TV screens in the recent popular ITV series.

Children’s views of their own lives provided invaluable social insight to sociologists, and we have some fascinating period pieces from the sixties, when Donald Measham interviewed a group of suburban children about the experience of being 14, and Ronald Goldman followed up children who had been taken into care – our Collected Biography Collection, a sub-group of the main Biography Collection which deals with groups of people, includes many books about groups of children united by a common experience, like wartime evacuees or children brought up under colonial rule.

As well as these memoirs of childhoods distinguished by historical drama or by subsequent fame, we have many memoirs of more simple, less eventful childhoods remembered by those who chose to preserve them with tenderness, regret, celebration, pain or humour – or, often, a mixture of all these.  I hope you will enjoy discovering childhood from around the world and across the centuries.

A world of writers from the Biography Collection

As we look forward to celebrating World Book Night on Tuesday 23 April, this month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library brings together biographies of great twentieth century writers in languages other than English. There are a couple of exceptions, such as Han Suyin who wrote in English but whose autobiographical works are considered some of the greatest records of modern Chinese history and Wole Soyinka whose Anglophone work is pivotal to African literature.

Including many winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, this is a parade of some of world literature’s greatest voices, some of whom waited many years to be translated into English. Some are household names, some less well known outside their own continents; all open worlds of artistic beauty and cultural insight, and their biographies allow us to follow the experiences of how great writers develop in very different cultures and environments.

In a departure from our usual displays, which include only books from our Biography Collection, we have this month included some of the fiction by these writers alongside their biographies and memoirs, in the hope readers will discover some less familiar gems.  From Chile’s Isabel Allende to Austria’s Stefan Zweig, including Finland’s Tove Jansson (better known as an artist, her exquisite short stories were not available in English until decades after she wrote them); India’s Rabindranath Tagore, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, Japan’s Junichuro Tanizaki, Isaac Bashevis Singer who brought his native Yiddish from Poland to the US and became the custodian of a vanished culture and many, many more, discover a world of writers on our shelves.

Happy World Book night from us to you all, happy reading!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library