Secrets and Lies

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. 

Harry Potter Extravaganza at Kensington Central Library!

The third annual Harry Potter Book Night has been and gone but we here at Kensington Central Library are still buzzing from the excitement from last week’s Harry Potter Extravaganza event.

Regretfully, the professors of Hogwarts were unable to find time in their busy schedules to come along to the event but did entrust us with some of their best prefects.

There was a lot of magical fun to be had, take a look and see what we got up to.

Continue reading “Harry Potter Extravaganza at Kensington Central Library!”

17 Books for 2017

Here are seventeen books we recommend you read this year!

1. The Humans by Matt Haig
This book is about an alien’s trip to earth, but it’s also about what it means to be human. It’s funny and uplifting and it explains the difficulties and the joys of being alive.

2. Slade House by David Mitchell
This is a clever ghost story about a paranormal house. You never know whether you can trust what you’re reading.

3. The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain
A dramatic family saga full of secrets and lies. Gripping! Continue reading “17 Books for 2017”

Free Comic Book Day in Kensington & Chelsea Libraries!

Celebrate and discover the amazing world of comics on Free Comic Book Day!

Free Comic Book Day 2015

Taking place annually on the first Saturday in May, Free Comic Book Day is a single day when participating comic book specialist shops around the world give away comic books – and this year, for this first time, we are very pleased to have some free comics from Forbidden Planet to give away at some of our libraries.

Participating libraries will have a poster advertising they are taking part. It’s first come, first served, so if you are an avid comic fan, visit one of the participating libraries – Brompton, Kensington Central or North Kensington Library – on Saturday 2 May to pick up your special free copy.

Free Comic Book Day 2015: DC Comics Divergence
Free Comic Book Day 2015: DC Comics Divergence available at Brompton, Kensington Central and North Kensington libraries.

What are we giving away? DC Comics: Divergence
A first look at upcoming storylines, featuring three 8-page previews for the June releases of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, as well as Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok’s launch of the “Darkseid War” within Justice League featuring the biggest villains in the DCU – Darkseid and the Anti-Monitor, and Gene Luen Yang’s DC Comics debut with celebrated artist John Romita, Jr on Superman.

Rating: Teen

Why not join the library and check out the graphic novel collection at the same time? All of RBKC’s lending libraries have a comics section, including great Manga titles at Brompton Library. If there’s something in particular you’re looking for, check the catalogue in advance to find out where it’s in stock. Once you’ve whetted your appetite, you should know that there will soon be a whole lot more for you to enjoy, as a recent big stock buy means that what you see on Saturday is just the start…

If you’ve suggestions for future stock, we’d love to hear your views – contact Customer Services Assistant David Bushell at Brompton Library. and Happy Free Comic Book Day!

[Rachel]

Celebrating World Book Day with Jeremy Strong

Stephanie Webb, Lending Librarian, writes:

Now in its 17th year, World Book Day is a celebration of authors, illustrators and books and most importantly reading. Across the Triborough area it is a major event in the school year and we at Kensington Central Library were privileged to host the multiple award-winning children’s author Jeremy Strong. His titles include the “My brother’s famous bottom” series, the “Hundred-mile-an-hour dog” series and his latest title, “Romans on the rampage” He had an audience of over 250 people roaring with laughter when he visited the library on World Book Day, Thursday 5 March.

Jeremy Strong ,by Justine Stoddart
Jeremy Strong ,by Justine Stoddart

The interactive sessions were attended by 8 school classes, teachers and volunteers from Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea.

Jeremy kept everyone amused with tales of his childhood and the inspirations for his bestselling books. He explained why all writers need a fridge and shared with us his very first reworking of the legend of Jason and the Argonauts (written at the age of about 8 and complete with spelling mistakes and the castle door with no handle!). He also answered a range of burning questions and signed copies of his books which were available for sale.

Jeremy Strong at Kensington Central Library for World Book Day, March 2015
Jeremy Strong at Kensington Central Library for World Book Day, March 2015

As has become traditional on World Book Day, many pupils and teachers came along dressed as their favourite book characters so we had several Matildas (Roald Dahl), several Dr. Suess’s and a Captain Underpants (but, thankfully, no characters from “50 Shades of Grey”!)

As an encore, Jeremy kindly signed two books which will be the prize for an upcoming competition. Watch this space!

A big thanks to Jeremy and everyone who turned out to see him on that breezy morning.

I believe in unicorns (and that books are magic)!

Last week, Kensington Central Library hosted a marvellous magical performance, by Wizards Present, of the stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book “I Believe in Unicorns”

Five classes, of over 150 children and their teachers, from schools in Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea were entranced by this fabulous story about how lives can be transformed by books, stories and of course libraries and librarians.

Roll up roll up...who wants to see something amazing?
Roll up roll up…who wants to see something amazing?

Not only was the script and the performance magical, but the props used were magical too! The children gasped as books opened up to become houses and villages, books within books, books used to represent mountains and lakes, and they concealed other surprises as the story unfurls as Tomas, with his newfound love of books, becomes instrumental in saving his burning library when his village is devastated by war.

The children and staff loved it. We even discussed it at our whole school assembly today

And here it is...an actual unicorn!
And here it is…an actual unicorn!

We think this is an excellent example of how libraries can work with schools to inspire and create a love of books, stories and reading!

If you’re interested in finding out more about library events for schools, keep your eye on the Schools Bulletin (for WCC), the Schools Circular (for RBKC) and the School Staff Zone (for LBHF)