Feel Good Friday – British Library Tour hosted by The Educational Writers Group

As part of the EWG social gathering on Friday 23rd September, we met at the new Society of Authors headquarters where we enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch and I must say I was particularly enamoured with the couscous which was delicious. this was the first time I had been to the new building and I was impressed at how spacious it was. We had time to meet other members of the EWG some whom I had not seen since before the lockdowns and I met several new faces.

Society of Authors (c) Tim Gallinger

After lunch, we had a short walk to the British Library. At the library we were met by curator Helen Melody who gave us an introduction to the British Library’s Contemporary Literary and Theatrical archives with her colleague Rachel Foss.

The materials they presented included a volume of handwritten correspondence with John Masefield from the Society of Authors archive. John Masefield was Poet Laureate from 1930 and President of the society from 1937. One of the letters was asking about suitable wording in a contract to give permissions for his poems to be put to music in the US and also included in anthologies. There were also a Ted Hughes Birthday Letters notebook for us to look at. Of course, we had to ask for each page to be turned to read the handwritten letters but this added to how special it was.

I was also able to see the autographed manuscript of J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun showing his alterations, two beautifully illustrated poetry notebooks by Lawrence Durrell, an autographed playscript by Victor James de Spiganovicz, an annotated typescript of To Sir With Love by E. R. Braithwaite, one of the largest scrapbook volumes from the P. G. Wodehouse archive and the autographed manuscript of In Praise of Love and Children by Beryl Gilroy .

British Library archives –
manuscript of J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun

But my personal favourite archive exhibit was the six Little Nippers Books written by Beryl Gilroy, which I spent way too long looking at wanting to read every page. The Little Nippers Book series are humorous early readers tackling issues of race designed by Leila Berg in reaction to the middle-class Ladybird Peter and Jane books. She worried too many young readers would see, ‘…no reflection of themselves, nothing that tells them they belong in this world.’

Beryl Gilroy was the first black headteacher in London. She is heralded as one of the most extensively published Caribbean writers of her time. Her Little Nippers Books were based on her experience with children she taught in Camden. They were published in the 1970’s and depict children of different ethnic origins. For more information on Beryl Gilroy see: The British Library – Beryl Gilroy. Other contributors to the Little Nippers Books include Jaqueline Wilson, Shirley Hughes and George Him.

When we had finished looking at the archives, which went way too quickly, we were given a tour of the library itself led by librarian and tour guide extraordinaire, James Hughes. He told us a bit about the history of the building and how it was built to amalgamate the arts and the sciences for the first time. I was particularly impressed that a large part of the building is eco-friendly using recycled materials, down to the white oak shipped from a US sustainable forest which was not available in the British Isles.

James told us some interesting facts about the eight levels of archives in the basement. I learnt how they have been especially designed to prevent damp and any excessive water is pumped into the River Fleet and the books are they kept at a constant temperature of 15C. Our next stop was the Alan Turin Centre where we saw the original Enigma machine and letters from Lady Lovelace to Babbage.

Enigma machine at the British Library

Then we were taken behind the scenes and allowed to sit in £400 seats especially deigned to support the majority of people sitting for long periods of time and we learnt the lighting in the reading rooms is designed to prevent flickering. After this we looked at the King George III archives, which includes the King’s Maritime collection of sea charts.

Next we went to my favourite room of all – The Treasures room. Here the lights are kept low to help preserve the books and documents. There were so many things to see in this room that at first I felt a bit overwhelmed at the sheer wonder of it, as it hosts many sacred texts from around the world.

As well as the Guttenberg Bible and the history that surrounds it, I particularly liked the desk Jane Austen wrote her novels given to her by her father in 1794, some of the original writings from Charles Dickens and Shakespeare’s First Folio compiled in 1623, seven years after his death and published by Isaac Iaggard and Edward Blount. I also liked Florence Nightingale’s original Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East that had convinced the authorities of the importance of hygiene in the army hospitals.

We ended the tour by taking a look at the Magna Carta. This peace treaty was first issued by King John in 1215.

On the whole this was one of the best events I have attended at the Society of Authors so far. I would highly recommend it.

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