Biographies from the Basement: Miscellaneous Delights

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

I have had great fun this month finding titles for our December display of books from our Biography Collection. The theme for the festive season is ‘Miscellaneous Delights’, and the idea was to have a cornucopia of the uplifting, the amusing, the comforting and the life-affirming, a lucky dip of upbeat reads to be enjoyed over the holidays. Our displays throughout the year often tackle serious themes and big historical subjects – this month it’s a metaphorical Christmas stocking bulging with sweet treats and decorative sparkle. While there might be a slant towards frivolity, these books aren’t sentimental or vacuous – but they are all the kind of books that are perfect for escaping into by the fire, and which provoke a small sigh of satisfaction as you finish them, feeling enriched.

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

Ross Gay’s Book of Delights was one of the books that sustained me over the pandemic, and to which I have returned many times. I mentioned it in a previous blog post, and it’s perfect for this miscellany – every day for a year, the poet and gardener Ross Gay wrote a short essay on something he had experienced that had delighted him. Each delight, described in his lyrical style, is simultaneously personal and universal – small moments of daily life to which he gives himself completely.

Although these delights give an insight into the fabric of Gay’s own life, he blends his inward and outward gazes so that what unfolds on the page is an individual’s immersion in the wide world, through an open heart and a cherishing eye. The delights lead to observations on all sorts of matters, and Gay doesn’t shy away from grappling with painful issues – the challenges of the African-American experience, the fragmentation that haunts modern urban life, the loss of friends – but insists on delight as an essential tool for negotiating the world. Who knows, it might even inspire you to make a new year’s resolution to start keeping your own daily ‘Book of Delights’.

No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute by Lauren Elkin
No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute by Lauren Elkin

Lauren Elkin does something similar to Gay in her No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute. Public transport is often seen as an alienating experience, particularly since the advent of the smartphone. On her daily commute across Paris by bus, Elkin decided to subvert her phone, turning it from a barrier between herself and her fellow passengers to a means of recording her experiences of observing them and thus feeling closer to them. Her short daily accounts were typed quickly into her phone as and when she perceived something that caught her imagination, and cumulatively they represent a beautifully vivid picture of quotidian, humdrum Paris life.

The snatches of overheard conversation, small dramas between strangers, ceaseless silent voices of advertising and ever-changing panoramas outside the bus windows will be familiar to anyone who travels around a big city on public transport, where we are intimately close to our fellow humans, and at the same time all in our own private worlds. Like Gay, Elkin encounters pain and loss during her months of making these percussively brief diary entries, and like him she succeeds in highlighting the beauty of ordinary life.

Happy Thoughts by Francis Burnand
Happy Thoughts by Francis Burnand

Francis Burnand’s Happy Thoughts is, strictly speaking, a book that shouldn’t be in the collection at all; though it masquerades as a diary, it is actually a work of fiction. At some point in its 132 year history (our edition was published in 1890, though the book was originally serialised in the humorous magazine Punch in the 1860s), this book was erroneously put into our collection to take its place amongst the real stories of real people, popping up with a different consistency, like the traditional sixpence in the Christmas pudding. It seems a shame to evict it after all this time – and it includes many references to real events and real people of the time.

Before there was Charles Pooter of George and Weedon Grossmith’s masterpiece The Diary of a Nobody (also first serialised in Punch in the late 1880s), there was the unnamed protagonist of Happy Thoughts, whose hapless adventures are brought to hilarious life through his ‘diary’. Burnand was Punch’s editor from 1880 to 1906, and a friend of local cartoonist Linley Sambourne (whose former home at 18 Stafford Terrace is open to the public and can’t be recommended highly enough.

He was the editor of The Diary of a Nobody, but over 20 years before its publication he had introduced his own bumbling, socially inept, absurd but lovable hero. Imagine if you can a sort of English Victorian version of Larry David in Curb your Enthusiasm, minus the misanthropy, constantly doing the wrong thing in ways he doesn’t even understand, and making things much worse while trying to make them better. The fact that the book is a collection of the ‘Happy Thoughts’ he continues doggedly to note down, while everything falls hilariously apart around him, is one of the delicious jokes of this gem of a book. Don’t forget that the digitised issues of Punch from 1841 to 1992 are available completely free on our website, and can afford hours of enjoyment including the work of Burnand, the Grossmiths and Sambourne.

These are just three of the delightful books from our Biography Store Collection which are available to brighten your dark winter evenings.

You can also enjoy the pleasures of bookish life, with the deadpan humour of overworked bookshop manager Shaun Bythell, the rapturous reminiscences of literary agent’s assistant Joanna Rakoff and the comfort through adversity of the reading journey Alice Ozma undertook with her father. Share the joy of pets, on dog walks with Edward Stourton or Michele Hanson, or with Martin Whybrow and his pet tawny owl.

Enjoy the eccentricities of Diana Holman-Hunt’s grandmothers, savour the warmth of the love between the apparently temperamentally incompatible, such as Max Apple and his irascible grandfather, literally savour the recipes sprinkled by Maya Angelou through the pages of Hallelujah! the Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes. Laugh out loud at the letters between members of the Mortimer family and the the razor sharp wit of David Sedaris.

Discover that the stresses of family life have never been more recognisable and more hilariously rendered than by Shirley Jackson, better known for the macarbre and haunting, in her memoirs of motherhood, and that it’s never too late for love and adventure in the company of Jane Juska. Revisit the childhoods of Tove Jansson and Natalia Ginzburg in surreal and very comic ways, and get acquainted with the compassionate and affirmative world view of RuPaul.

These books are guaranteed to raise your mood and broaden your perspective, so come in and have a look, and we wish you all the joys of the season.

Biography Central podcast logo
Biography Central podcast

Oh and before I go: don’t forget to catch up with our podcast ‘Biography Central’. It’s available at Anchor, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Google Podcasts – and wherever you get your podcasts.

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.