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


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