Category Archives: literature

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.

on_the_road_scroll

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.