THE BRITISH LIBRARY AND ME
‘I am very happy to let you know that the Library’s Heritage Acquisition board has approved us making an offer and, as expected, expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for your archive being acquired by the British Library. [It] will be a wonderful addition to the library and I am very pleased to have been part of making that happen.’
Eleanor Dickens, Curator
Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts
In case I haven’t mentioned it…
Please allow me to share with you a glimmer of good news.
Last September the British Library (once part of the British Museum) bought my entire archives of professional and personal ‘papers’. Although curators from several different B.L. departments were involved, this was a single transaction, spearheaded by the Department of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, and negotiated on and off for the best part of a year (thanks largely to delays caused by Covid-19).
The B.L’s initial interest was in my performance work but, having paid a first visit to my flat, this expanded to include a wider spectrum of my activities.
The acquired holdings eventually amounted to about 100 large boxes of material, principally covering my career in alternative theatre (scripts, scrapbooks, creative notes, letters, workshops, etc.) but also encompassing:
- my literary consultancy reports and related writings
- teaching/academic activities
- unpublished personal writings and artwork from my 1940s childhood onwards, including school exercise books, stories, poems, cartoons, notebooks, diaries
- travels abroad and early 1960s folk music memorabilia
- 1970s collage artwork
- family photo albums and other ancestral documents
- thousands of personal reviews of books, films, theatre, radio and TV productions
- ephemera and cuttings on various themes, including religious leaflets and 1960s countercultural material.
In addition to paper works, the collection includes 35 mm. slide transparencies, CD-Roms, video and DVD items, and 30-year’s worth of miscellaneous digital material.
At one point, as many as five B.L. curators and staff members were simultaneously at work in my home auditing the material, eventually packing it all up and driving it away by lorry to the library’s base in London, where I was later invited to view it in storage.
Access and other aspects
* Much to my surprise, the curator leading the transaction described the collection as one of the largest, most varied and best assembled holdings in private hands that she’d ever seen. (And I thought it was just another pile of junk, waiting its turn for a spare place in the neighbourhood skip.)
* I was told that the Phantom Captain performance material fits well with the B.L’s existing contemporary theatre company collections, notably Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop and the first British experimental theatre ensemble – The People Show. That’s good enough company for me.
* The B.L. team was so unsure how much to offer me for the collection that – with my permission – they brought in an independent assessor to advise. They subsequently made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
* All this material is now officially the property of the British Library, though not yet available to the public. It seems that everything – literally everything – acquired by the B.L. has to be read by special reading staff to ensure its legality. And since the B.L. has its own stringent storage procedures, the process of re-assembling and checking as large and varied an archive as my own could take up to three years! However, special arrangements can be made for viewing specific material during this limbo period.
* The B.L. would like to promote and publicize the acquisition rather than just letting it stagnate on the shelves, so I may be invited in due course to participate in some kind of promotional event (if I should live so long).
* Preparing for handover so large a part of a lifetime’s accumulated stuff has been an emotional roller-coaster in many ways – the pangs of remembrance, rediscovery, separation and all that. But the stuff hasn’t disappeared (I tell myself). It’s stored less than half an hour’s tube-ride away from my home; has liberated some much-needed domestic space; is being expertly preserved by professionals; and will eventually be made accessible to future cultural historians from the Planet Zog. It has also provided a late jab of artistic recognition that’s been spiritually nourishing and helped me and my family to bear up in the face of the endless barrage of calamitous news.
There’s a lot more I could say, which I may do in due course, but let this suffice for now, with due apologies if I’ve been repeating myself again.
To explore Neil’s performance work further go here
For detailed accounts of the work of Phantom Captain go here