Category Archives: Creative writing

Working class stories

Author Tony White introduces a series of new works by Brunel creative writing students inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. We’ll be posting a story or poem per week for the next 8 weeks.

This spring I’ve once again been a visiting lecturer at Brunel University London, where I’ve been privileged to teach two groups of postgraduate students from Brunel’s Creative Writing masters courses on an MA module called ‘Writers at Work’ that explores creative writing projects in education and in the community, giving postgraduates the skills and tools needed to design, run and evaluate writing workshops and other activities, including residencies and live literature events. Part of the module has involved the students undertaking archival research in the Special Collections section of Brunel Library.

Students taking part in one of the ‘Writers at work’ module workshops using the Burnett Archive in Special Collections

Brunel Library’s Special Collections is located on Level 3 of the library, and is home to a varied range of collections, used by students and visiting researchers, and to support teaching. The collections cover a wide range of subject areas, including transport history, the Channel Tunnel, poetry and dialect, equality and advocacy. You can read descriptions of them on the Collections page.

For ‘Writers at Work’, the creative writing postgraduates focused on the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, which contains more than 230 memoirs of working class life, some dating back to the late 18th century.

The Burnett Archive is a fascinating resource, and the texts are rich in day-to-day detail of family lives and relationships, politics and work, expressive language and dialects, and the realities of poverty and working class life in the UK during the 19th and 20th centuries. These memoirs make for fascinating reading. There are stories of orphanage and school life, migration, of running away to the circus or to sea, of town and country, and of forgotten customs and folklore. There are wounding encounters with two world wars and a merciless class system, as well as truly heartbreaking stories of extreme poverty, homelessness and domestic violence.

Dr Nick Hubble of Brunel’s English Department – and author of the recent The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (Edinburgh University Press, 2017) – has been undertaking British Academy-funded research on the Burnett Archive, exploring the relationship between working-class autobiography, proletarian autobiografiction and social change. For Hubble the Burnett Archive is:

a window on to the relationship between self and the world as understood by ordinary people in often extraordinary times, which sheds light on how structures of feeling evolve and new socio-cultural values emerge.

For me, it has been really heartening to see a new generation of emerging writers responding to, and gaining confidence from these rare documents from the past: voices that but for the work in the early 1970s of John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall, might otherwise have been lost. Working with the Burnett Archive gives the creative writing students a working introduction to archival research, learning transferable skills and protocols that they may take up in their own professional lives as writers, but it is primarily an invaluable reminder that working class and other marginalised voices are often excluded from literature and mainstream culture; and an opportunity to address and counter such exclusions.

Brunel creative writing postgraduates have used the historical texts as the inspiration for new pieces of writing, which in turn may create new kinds of insights and focus into the worlds held within the Burnett Archive, as well as finding new ways to relate these historical accounts to contemporary life. For the next 8 weeks, as part of the ‘Writers at Work’ module, we’ll be sharing a selection of these new works here on the Special Collections blog: stories, autobiographical accounts, and poetry by Brunel postgraduates Caren Duhig, Kathryn Gynn, Marie-Teresa Hanna, Katie Higgins, Ella Jukwey, Josa Keyes, Iris Mauricio, Alisha Mor, and Anna Tan.

Tony White’s latest novel The Fountain in the Forest is published by Faber and Faber. He is the author of five previous novels including Foxy-T and Shackleton’s Man Goes South, several novellas and numerous short stories. White has been creative entrepreneur in residence in the French department at King’s College London, and writer in residence at London’s Science Museum and at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. White has worked in the national office of Arts Council England, and in 1994 he founded the artists’ book series Piece of Paper Press. From 2010–2018 Tony White chaired the board of London’s award-winning arts radio station Resonance 104.4fm.

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Looking for inspiration?

for Hillingdon Literary Festival’s creative writing competition? This year’s theme is Outer limits: hidden lives and in Special Collections you’ll find some collections that mark the perfect jumping off point for your creative writing on this topic.

Bill Griffiths would probably have identified himself chiefly as a poet, but he was also an academic, small press publisher, local historian, linguist and scholar of English dialect. For some of his life he lived locally, on a houseboat not far from the campus here at Brunel. After a fire he relocated north where he became an advocate for prisoners, an organiser against council schemes and an unearther of things on the edge of mainstream culture. His archive, housed here in Special Collections, showcases this diversity, containing hundreds of examples of his work and correspondence, along with the sources, research notes and labour behind them.

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Read an earlier blog post about Griffiths’ research into dragons.

Another series of hidden lives well worth investigating is our Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. These highlight the lives of ordinary people, for example Alice Collis’ account of a strike in a printing firm in 1911 or the lives of servants.

National Storytelling Week 2018

We celebrated National Storytelling Week in Special Collections between 27 January and 3 February 2018. Groups of students with an interest in creative writing were introduced to items from our collections as a source of inspiration, and encouraged to write a story for reading aloud with help and support from their tutor, Emma Filtness.

National Storytelling Week

The students sought inspiration from some of our unique and distinctive collections

Some of the items they looked at our highlighted in this post, and they also made extensive use of our Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.

Ladies Home Journal 1948 edited

Advertisement from Ladies Home Journal 1948

You can hear recordings of some of the students’ stories here:

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Sam Green

Ordinary people – exceptional lives

Hillingdon Literary Festival takes place on Friday 6 – Sunday 8 October 2017, with a theme of Ordinary people – exceptional lives. There’s a whole weekend of activities planned, and Special Collections will be playing a part on Saturday 7 October with a workshop on life writing and Special Collections.

We’ll be exploring life writing using autobiographies from the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. You can explore other creative writing ideas using Special Collections in other posts on this blog.

You can book your place here on any of this weekend’s workshops.

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50 objects 42: William Belcher’s Navy service

One of the Burnett collection of working-class autobiographies held at Brunel is that of William Belcher (1884 – 1961).  He served in the Navy 1903 – 8 and 1914-19, and was an electrician from 1919 onwards. Much of the interest in his autobiography lies in the supporting documents that accompany the notebooks: his school certificates, shorthand qualifications, and his naval career record.

Here are a selection of the documents in question, giving insights not just into Mr Belcher’s history but into the history of education and into the record-keeping of the Royal Navy.

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50 objects 37: Reactions to Old Age

Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing”  was a project run  at the Brunel Centre for Contemporary Writing  between 2009 and 2012, as part of the cross council New Dynamics of Ageing programme.

One of the research methods used was to set up eight reading groups of University of the Third Age members across London in order to read, write about, and discuss postwar novels featuring different representations of ageing. The data generated by these reading groups now forms part of Brunel’s Special Collections, and is available for further research. Aspects of the participants’ writing complements the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, in reflecting the everyday ups and downs of the lives of ordinary people; they also give first-hand accounts of issues related to ageing and to the way society views the elderly.

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Some of the books used in the reading groups

A flavour of the content is given by a brief study of the information given by one participant. Each reader was given a unique identification code in order to preserve anonymity; this one is known as SEL003, and she participated in a reading group in South-East London. From SEL003 we have a brief life history, and three diaries recording her reading of the set novels, her views of their representations of aspects of ageing, and her group’s discussions of them.SEL003 was born in Dublin in 1938 to a well-off family, reared by a nanny, and sent to a Quaker boarding school. Her favourite school subjects were maths and handwork, and since neither she nor her mother could think of a career formed of those two things, she became a teacher. She is now thoroughly enjoying her retirement, and her writing constantly reflects her joy and optimism about her current, fulfilling, lifestyle.

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The end of SEL003’s “Life History” document

She writes in a lively, enthusiastic, style. The reading diaries cover her thoughts in general of the books, characters, and authors, but also her perspicacious comments on subjects arising, including how one’s writing style changes with age; whether it’s possible to predict which individuals will get Alzheimer’s; how society is geared towards younger people and how the young patronise the elderly; whether it’s appropriate for an agile old lady to run for a bus.

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She is insightful about character attributes and how world-view and morals change over time, and she adds in anecdotes about her own experiences and those of her family and friends.

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Reading through the diaries gives the impression of someone lively and thoughtful, who analyses the problems that ageing can bring but who enjoys life to the full.

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50 objects 34: Bill Griffith’s work on prisons

prison1Have you been following the BBC Radio 4 series “Rethinking Clink”, about the history of prison reform? Did you know Brunel holds primary sources on this subject, in the papers of polymath Bill Griffiths?

Until his death in 2007 Dr Griffiths was active in a wide range of spheres including classical music, publishing, creative writing, medieval studies, dialect, and local history.

He was also a correspondent with, and advocate for, several prisoners. As previously described on this blog, “One of the key relationships in Bill Griffiths’s life was with the several prisoners he wrote to. He began communicating with a number of prisoners after encountering a stall with prison literature which motivated him to write and support them. Chief amongst them was the prisoner Ray Gilbert, who served time in a series of English prisons from the sixties, while protesting his innocence for a murder sentence. There are hundreds of letters in the collection that document these exchanges, focusing on the period 1996-2004, which reveal many of the daily details of prison life.

Bill Griffiths additionally campaigned to improve conditions in prisons and the appeals prison3process. Various folders in the archive contain letters that deal with his attempts to address Gilbert’s and others situation, as well as the short tracts and essays he published on the subject.”

Shown here is the cover from Griffiths’ work Star fish jail, the title inspired by the physical shape of prisons such as Wandsworth, with wings radiating from a central point and so resembling a starfish.

You can see more details of this material by consulting the finding aids on our Bill Griffiths collection page.

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His understanding of prison life reflects in other aspects of Bill Griffiths’ work; his poetry uses language forms drawn from prisoners, and he writes for the marginalised and against the establishment, using poetry as social commentary to combat injustice.