British library

Fascinating exhibitions – clunky editorialising: Breaking the News at the British Library reviewed

In The Spectator office’s toilets there are framed front covers of the events that didn’t happen: Corbyn beats Boris; ‘Here’s Hillary’; Jeremy Hunt wins the Tory leadership contest. The British Library has something similar at its Breaking the News exhibition. The difference is that these ones actually made it to the newsstand. It’s enough to make any passing journalist break into a sweat. ‘Titanic sinks, no lives lost’, reported the Westminster Gazette in April 1912; ‘King Louis XVI dodges the guillotine’, we are told in the 1793 issue of the London Packet. The Sunday Times’s 1983 Hitler diaries hoax appears in this hall of infamy. So does ‘The Truth’, the

Why I need to become a French citizen

After weeks of living in the 18th century, going everywhere on foot and encountering few other souls, I drove to Marseille for a hospital appointment and got stuck in a crazy traffic jam. As a reintroduction to the human race, it was a brutal shock. Hooting, shouting, sirens, blue lights, motorcyclists doing wheelies, cars mounting pavements and grass verges, cars forcing a path through the stationary traffic using their bumpers as buffers: utter chaos. In an hour and a half the three-lane queue moved forward 80 yards. The chaos reminded me of a taxi ride I once took from Palermo airport. On the half-hour drive into the city we had

Roald Dahl, Ted Hughes and the postmodern inquisition

On the third day after his cancellation, Ted Hughes rose again. Having published a spreadsheet listing his possible association with ‘wealth obtained from enslaved people or through colonial violence’, the British Library backed down, making a public apology to his widow and withdrawing ‘unreservedly’ the reference ‘to a distant ancestor’. A natural first response to this decision would be to welcome it as a sensible step, particularly given that the ‘ancestor’ in question had died almost 300 years before his birth, probably lost money on his involvement with the Virginia company, wrote a pamphlet decrying slavery, and, perhaps most importantly, died childless and celibate – raising certain intriguing questions about how the

What has Ted Hughes’s ancestor got to do with his poetry?

Scandalously, we never studied Ted Hughes at school. As the Poet Laureate is arguably the finest British poet of the 20th century this would be a scandal wherever I attended (‘studied’ would be pushing it) but I attended Calder High in Ted’s home town of Mytholmroyd. Though the grand total of my published poems stands at seven, we share connections, Ted and I. When my first novel was published — set in a fictionalised version of the Calder Valley — I was a guest of the Ted Hughes Festival. As a teenager in the 1980s, I tended Sylvia Plath’s grave. By then Ted was already a bogeyman for some of the area’s

The gentle genius of Mervyn Peake

To be a good illustrator, said Mervyn Peake, it is necessary to do two things. The first is to subordinate yourself entirely to the book. The second is ‘to slide into another man’s soul’. In 1933, at the age of 22, Peake did precisely that. Relinquishing his studies at the Royal Academy Schools to move to Sark, in the Channel Islands, he co-founded an artists’ colony and took to sketching fishermen and romantic, ripple-lapped coves. He put a gold hoop in his right ear, a red-lined cape over his shoulders, and grew his hair long, like Israel Hands or Long John Silver. The incredible thing was that he had yet

The artist who left no physical record of her work

While locked-down galleries compete to keep their artists in the public eye — or ear — by uploading interview podcasts, a treasure trove of earlier recordings is being overlooked. Artists’ Lives, part of the British Library’s oral history archive, is a collection of interviews with 370 artists, 200 of which are available on the British Library Sounds website. As an account of British art of the past century they are more comprehensive than Vasari’s Lives and more reliable, coming as they do from the horse’s mouth. They are also exhaustive. But for those who haven’t got all day to follow the fascinating career of Guyanese-born Frank Bowling RA through 17

A tax on intellectuals: Terrace Cafe at the British Library reviewed

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom, and it sits like a red-brick crab on the Euston Road, on the site of an old goods yard between St Pancras and Euston. The older British Museum Library, whose collection was founded on the books of George III, Sir Hans Soane, Robert Harley and Sir Robert Cotton, was in the British Museum, but that gorgeous reading room is now a glass atrium with overpriced cafés and shops selling historical tat for children: cultural vandalism, then, and incitement to migraine. Instead we have the red-brick crab. It was opened by the Queen in 1998 and it is Grade I-listed,