Category Archives: language

Early innovation – The Italian Academies 1525 to 1700

Academia_SpensieratiA little while ago I attended a staff talk at the British Library on a project to catalogue books published by the Italian Academies dating from 1525 to 1700.

I have to admit this was a new topic for me, but as the speakers explained, the Learned Academies represent a vital aspect of early modern culture. They were the first intellectual networks of early modern Europe. Consisting of approximately 600 Academies in Italy in the period 1525-1700, they were responsible for promoting debate and discussion in a wide range of disciplines. These varied from language and literature, through the visual and performing arts to science, technology, medicine and astronomy.

In some ways these were the Silicon Valley’s or Silicon Roundabouts of their day.

Some were formally constituted, with published rules and lists of members; others were much looser groupings of like-minded individuals, often young men, with common interests. The Academies functioned as alternative institutions to the universities and the courts, and numbered among their members pioneering scientists, writers, artists, political thinkers, and representatives of both sexes and all social classes.

The Academies also had a more playful aspect, devising for the academy and for each member amusing names which were often represented visually in punning illustrations and devices. International in membership, and in correspondence with scholars across Europe, they were fundamental to the development of the intellectual networks later defined as the République des Lettres, and to the dissemination of ideas in early modern Europe. The range of interests and the very large number of Academies and their publications makes these institutions central to the study of early modern European culture.

This project involves a collaboration between three of the UK’s leading research institutions: Royal Holloway University of London; the University of Reading; the British Library. The project also has its own Facebook page with some images from the collection.

One of the major outcomes of the project is a comprehensive database of information on Academies from across the Italian peninsula, detailing their membership and publications. This is publicly accessible through the British Library on-line catalogue at: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/ItalianAcademies/

Galileo_Galilei

Portrait of Galileo Galilei – one of the more well known Academy members

 

On the Road again with Jack Kerouac and the American landscape

kerouac1As I have mentioned before, the British Library is a constant source of cultural surprises and delights.
This time the source is our display of the original 150 foot long manually typed manuscript scroll of Jack Kerouac’s modern classic On the Road. I popped down one lunchtime to have a look at this unusual form of a first draft of the novel, which I had last seen in Russell Brand’s infamous BBC documentary following some of Kerouac’s routes across America.

The notes alongside the display in the library were intriguing and made it sound as though this unedited version would make for a more interesting read than the modified published edition of the book.

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Source – http://ontheroad29.wikispaces.com

Fortunately our shop stocked both the ‘proper’ version and a Penguin edition of the original scroll (in book form). A week later and I have finished this amazingly freewheeling and raucous book and regret not having read it years ago. Kerouac is superb at bringing to life the prodigious American landscape as he criss-crossed the country hitch-hiking and driving various borrowed cars.

His evocative road trip text took me back to my gap year trip, travelling 13,000 miles around the USA and Canada on a motorbike. In particular the steamy heat of New Orleans, the vast open plains and die straight roads of Texas, and the chilly winding passes of the Rocky Mountains heading into New Mexico. I also fell in love with the poetic names of towns encountered along the way such as Indio, Blythe, Salome, Flagstaff, Wichita, Rapid City, Des Moines, Mobile, Clint and my favourite Cimarron at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

I have to admit the idea of reading a book with no paragraphs and little punctuation was somewhat intimidating, but the story grips you like a roller-coaster from the beginning, and I found myself not wanting to get off. I enjoyed the fact this version contained all the real names, places and sometimes shocking details (mostly changed in the edited version to avoid libel cases and the censor).

As the back page blurb puts it;
‘In this influential odyssey of jazz and drugs, of filling stations and marriage licences, of sex, and poolsharks, and hiballs, Kerouac tells the real story of his travels with car thief and Beat icon Neal Cassady, and the famous friends they met, drank with, and ignored.’

Perhaps the biggest surprise came from the reading the 100 pages of notes that came with the Penguin version. The manuscript had gained mythological status from the story that Kerouac wrote it in one continuous three week blitz, fuelled by coffee and Benzedrine. I found it hard to believe such a literary feat could be produced just like that out of thin air, and the reality proved very different. The manuscript was actually the culmination of many years of experimenting and frustration for Kerouac in trying to create what he called the “Official Log of the Hip Generation”. So although written in a whirlwind of manic typing, Kerouac had several previous manuscripts to call on, as well as being surrounded by piles of notebooks and letters.

An unexpected surprise came in the last few pages of the book as Kerouac, Frank Jeffries and Neal Cassidy (the unlikely hero of the story) and roll into Mexico City towards the end of their final road trip. Apparently a dog called Potchky had eaten the final section of the scroll. It seem hard to believe that this mythological ‘dog ate my homework’ excuse used by teenagers across the world, had actually befallen the sole copy of the novel. Fortunately the editor of the Penguin edition was able to use a revised version written by Kerouac shortly afterwards, so no harm seems to have been done to the ending of story.

For me the biggest irony of the intense three week writing period designed to capture the essence of this new era, was that it took a further six years and much wrangling between the author and publishers before the print version finally appeared in bookshops.

On_the_road_book

 

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands – I’ve pinned my tale on the map

writing-britainOur great new exhibition which opened last Friday is called Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, and features some wonderful exhibits which have never been seen in public before.

These include loans coming directly from writers such as Hanif Kureishi, Jonathan Coe, Ian McEwan, and Posy Simmonds. You can read regular updates on the exhibition on the English and Drama blog.

The exhibition is all about exploring how the landscapes and places of Britain permeate our great literary works. And on the exhibition website is the chance to participate by adding your own literary geographic reference.

Just choose a literary work from any period and any form (e.g. a novel, a poem, song lyric or a play) that relates to a specific location in Britain or Ireland. Then say a little about your chosen item, and how the author has captured the spirit of the place, and what it means to you.

Pooh_Shepard1928

Image from Wikipedia

I couldn’t resist revisiting my youthful playground of the Ashdown Forest. I grew up in Forest Row in the heart of Sussex, and spent many a happy hour exploring 500 Acre Wood. This was the basis for A. A. Milne’s fictional Hundred Acre Wood, the landscape for the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

I have a strong memory of a 10th birthday party egg-hunt under the tall Scots pines at Camel’s Clump and amongst the ferns and bracken. Thanks to the Conservators of Ashdown Forest the place is pretty much the same as it was back in Winnie-the-Pooh’s days.

Russell_Brand_Arthur_Premier_mike

Image from Wikipedia

I also put in an entry for Grays in Essex as the stamping ground for the young Russell Brand, which features heavily in the first of his two (so far) rather childishly titled autobiographies, (unless you believe his claim to be inspired by the fictional Nadsat language from A Clockwork Orange).

In My Booky Wook, Brand talks at length about growing up in this rather miserable town. He believes that part of his determination to become famous was as an escape route from this grey and mundane environment.

Early on in his career he revealed a passion for Jack Kerouac, and his classic novel On the Road. Together with his writing partner Matt Morgan, he travelled across the United States from coast to coast.

I met the notorious comedian briefly in 2007, when his book signing tour came to Brighton. And, in between seducing the young woman in the queue in front of me, and insulting my 14 year old son, he expressed a great interest in visiting The British Library. Although I suspect he has been rather too occupied with his burgeoning Hollywood film career since then to find the time.

Reinventing Shakespeare with Lenny Henry

Lenny_HenryI have just returned from a trip to the National Theatre in London to see Lenny Henry in The Comedy of Errors.

This is not going to be my attempt at a theatre review, as many others are far better qualified to do that than me.

Also, I had better get my confession to not being a great fan of Shakespeare out of the way early on too. However, I should point out that Lenny Henry himself was also in this camp until relatively recently as he revealed in his Radio 4 series, What’s So Great About…

In fact that show led to an invitation to appear as Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds directed by Barrie Rutter. The Daily Telegraph reviewer described his performance as “This is one of the most astonishing débuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen.” And resulted in Henry winning the best newcomer award at the age of 51.

The point I want to make is how this very contemporary version of the play creates an unexpected new angle on something dating from 1594. Who would have expected to be presented with a helicopter rescue with winch-men descending from above within the first few minutes.

The play was set in its original location of Ephesus, but updated to a rather sleazy present day by Director Dominic Cooke, with gangster bosses, pool halls, throbbing night clubs and racy prostitutes.

It felt really quite strange to listen to Shakespeare’s words coming out of the mouths of Essex bleached blonds with estuary accents. Or watching an ambulance with flashing lights swerve onto the stage and a gang of white-coated men emerge and begin pursuing our heroes Antipholus and Dromo around the stage in a Keystone Cops style chase.

From a comment I heard on the way out of the theatre, “soooo disappointing wasn’t it, none of the gentle charm of Shakespeare”, not everyone was happy with this interpretation. But, for me it not only made for an, at times, breath-taking spectacle, it also made the sometimes impenetrable Shakespearean language alive and vivid. Once again the Bard has been re-invented for another generation to enjoy.

Comedy_of_Errors

An evening in the charming company of Amanda F***ing Palmer and her ukulele

I actually wrote this blog post late on Monday night, but thanks to the unpredictable nature of web editing, the whole thing disappeared in mid-edit. Whilst mustering the energy to start again from scratch, who should pop-up on my iPod but the Dresden Dolls. Considering I have over 5,000 songs, it is set to random, I took this as a sign to finish what I had started.

As I have mentioned before, the British Library is a wonderfully eclectic place, and the events we hold reflect this.

This Monday saw a performance from Amanda F***ing Palmer to a full house of her loyal and adoring fans in the intimate setting of British Library conference centre. With the exception of a couple of songs played on an electronic piano, AFP accompanied herself with a ukulele and mandolin.

 She was also joined on stage for a couple of songs by new husband Neil Gaiman, who just happens to be an award winning science fiction writer, who surprisingly hails from my home town of East Grinstead. Neil also gave a talk earlier in the day as part of our excellent Out of this World science fiction exhibition (which closes on 25 September).

I have to admit to not being aware of what I now understand is the cult of AFP, before Monday, so like any good librarian did a bit of desk research. I discovered she has performed as a solo performer, the driving voice of The Dresden Dolls, the Emcee in Cabaret, and as half of the conjoined-twin folk duo Evelyn Evelyn. And that her approach to clothes seems to be ‘less is more’. So I was somewhat surprised by her initial rather prim and proper outfit (below).

All rights reserved by Hannah Daisy

However, it did not take long for her to revert to her more ‘traditional’ attire of basque and suspenders (below with Neil Gaiman).

(Many thanks to Hannah Daisy for allowing me to use her wonderful photos of the evening.)

All rights reserved by Hannah Daisy

Although Amanda’s cabaret style of music is not normally my cup of tea, I was really impressed by her intelligent lyrics, humour and emotional depth.

The only slight niggle from the evening’s entertainment was the swearing. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not easily offended by rude words, and of course AFP’s stage name gives something of a clue to what might be expected at her shows. But I am now rather bored by the number of visitors to the British Library who seem to think that swearing in such an august institution is terribly naughty, and so irresistibly cool.

My first encounter with the  f word at the library was back in 1997, courtesy of James Brown founder of Loaded Magazine, and perhaps not so surprising given his role as father of the ‘Lads mag’. You can still see him in action on our YouTube channel.

Not long after came Richard Reed of Innocent Smoothies fame,
and Sam Roddick founder of ‘erotic emporium’ Coco De Mer, and daughter of the Body Shop legend Dame Anita Roddick.

Perhaps both could be excused because this was how they expressed their great passion for their business activities.

However, the same cannot be said of comedy veteran Arthur Smith, who during his set at What’s So Funny @ British Library last January, lead a rousing chorus of “I am the Mayor of Balham / oh yes I f***ing am / I am the Mayor of Balham / I f***ing f***ing am”

I could see he was positively revelling in his ‘rebellious’ swearing.

So, I’m afraid on Monday I refused to sing along when Amanda asked us to yell “f*** it”, in response to prompting during her performance of Map of Tasmania. Although, from the sound of it, I was probably the only one not joining in.

The evening wasn’t all swearing however, and including a surprisingly warm mention of my local (and rather dull) town of Crawley, for being the home-town of Robert Smith founder of 80’s pop band The Cure.

She has also covered Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in concert with her father, which is a good sign of musical taste in my opinion.

Needless to say, in our age of social media connections, you can follow both Amanda and Neil on their twitter feeds with half a million, and one and a half million followers respectively.

I can’t wait to see what surprises the library will throw up next.

Evolving English exhibition – One Language, Many Voices

I just love words. They are one of my favourite things in life, so I am really excited about our new Evolving English exhibition, where we will be exploring our wonderful language, from Anglo-Saxon runes to modern day rap.

My favourite word for some time has been serendipitous, both for its sound and meaning. As a very poor speller (sp), I am intrigued by what I consider to be ridiculous spellings, which I would never guess how to say. For instance, how about the dance groups The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs. Did you get they are pronounced Chumleys and Fanshaws respectively?

I also noticed last week that David Usborne writing in the new i newspaper from the Independent, is not averse a bit of language creativity. He used the term ‘courtesy-impaired’ passengers in reference to the story about Steven Slater the ‘air rage’ steward. I did a little digging a found an article titled Courtesy-impaired peers frustrate fellow worker by Diane Crowley in the Chicago Sun-Times from 20 September 1990.

Here are some great language websites I have come across over the years:

Wordia – the online dictionary, which brings words to life through video.

Dictionary of English slang and colloquialisms of the UK

Save the Words is all about trying to stop them from disappearing.

ToneCheck™ is an e-mail plug-in that flags sentences with words or phrases that may convey unintended emotion or tone, then helps you re-write them.

Phrases.net Thousands of common phrases, sayings and idioms that can be browsed, searched, heard, and translated to several language.

100 Most Often Mispelled Misspelled Words in English

AlexHorne.com Can one man deliberately invent a successful new word? Is it possible to break into the dictionary? What is a pratdigger?

Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices

The first exhibition to explore the English language in all its national and international diversity. Iconic books and manuscripts, set alongside engaging everyday texts, show the social, cultural and historical strands from which the language has been woven.

In the exhibition and on this website you will also be able to take part in a national initiative to record how English is spoken all over the UK. You will be able to submit a recording of yourself reading ‘Mr Tickle’ to form part of the British Library’s collections. Add your email address at the top of the page to join our mailing list.

‘Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices’ also looks beneath the tip of the linguistic iceberg at comics, adverts, text messages, posters, newspapers, trading records and dialect recordings that make up the bulk of the English language.