In my illustrated talk on ‘The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes’, I cover the highlights of this fascinating four-thousand year story. After a recent talk in Cambridge, a member of the audience asked specifically about labyrinths and mazes in the Americas, which is the focus of this post, drawn from a 2018 article I wrote for the website, Mexicolore.
The labyrinth design occurs worldwide during prehistoric times, when travel between the continents would have been virtually non-existent, which simply adds to the mystery. It suggests that humans as a race have always been intrigued by the pattern, preoccupied with spirals, circuitous routes, and their associated rituals. Knowledge of the original purpose of these rituals in specific cultures has not always travelled as effectively over time as the design itself, and from today’s perspective we can only surmise the true meaning in some cases. Labyrinths do, of course, occur in nature and must surely have inspired humans to create labyrinthine symbols. The Greek word for the Nautilus shell, for example, is laburinthoi.
The earliest recorded labyrinths created by humans are found in petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings. Dating these precisely is challenging, and identifying the very first carved labyrinth is tricky, if not impossible. A disputed contender for the earliest is an incision on an inner chamber wall of the Neolithic tomb known as Tomba del Labrinto at Luzzanas in Sardinia; some experts however, have concluded this may actually be Roman. Most intriguing are the early labyrinths of North America.
As Jeff Saward (co-founder of Labyrinthos) declares, the origin of labyrinths in the American Southwest is one of the biggest mysteries of the entire story. Examples are found in southern Arizona, near the Gillespie Dam, and in New Mexico at Arroyo Hondo and Galisteo, but so far, no inscription or decoration has been found on a securely datable object from pre-European times. In the 1930s and ’40s, former Arizona Senator William Coxon recorded labyrinth petroglyphs in the Southwest and devised the theory that these geometric inscriptions, found in very widely separated localities, provided evidence of global migration. Saward calls for further fieldwork and the cataloguing of labyrinth petroglyphs, so we may determine exactly how and when the labyrinth reached the New World.
Meaning and mythology in the Americas
In the Americas the labyrinth can be a symbol of tribal identity. The Man in the Maze design, for example, features in Tohono O’odham and Pima legends. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community adopted the Man in the Maze motif as their Great Seal. In this context, the design symbolizes an elder brother or medicine man, living in a place where people could not find him.
Mazes and labyrinths clearly refuse to conform to any rudimentary definition, and in attempting to navigate their winding history, I devised broadly chronological classifications; ‘classical’, ‘spiritual’, ‘medieval’, ‘rustic’, ‘romantic’ and ‘modern’. In many cultures, labyrinths have been given a metaphysical or sacred status that takes us beyond the natural world, as ritualized symbols and sites with different devotional purposes. And it is this that I specifically refer to the Mesoamerican notion of mazes.
Perhaps the most illuminating way of tracing the real origins of the labyrinth (or maze – I use the term interchangeably) is indeed to investigate its deeper significance. As I’ve already acknowledged, the form is integral to cultures worldwide. In the book I explore historical icons in different locations, along with associated practices and what they signify, particularly from a symbolic and spiritual perspective. By engaging with labyrinths and mazes in a spiritual context, we give meaning to their many and various interpretations. These include a metaphor for life’s journey, a means of warding off evil, a method of ensuring fertility, and a form of spiritual devotion.
The mythology of the Hopi of northern Arizona features labyrinths. Most well-known is the Tapu’at, the “Mother and Child” symbol. Both the circular and square forms represent the womb of Mother Earth, the divine birth-giver. The circular in particular is said to represent the road of a human life. In following it, one attains spiritual rebirth. From early on, the labyrinth has been associated with death and rebirth. In death, one returns to the earth (the eternal mother), from which one is reborn. The Tohono O’odham and the Pima peoples employ the labyrinth design extensively in their craftwork.
Mazes and labyrinths are symbols of all that is experienced in life, depicting the choices we have to make along our journey. For some American indigenous peoples, the centre of the labyrinth exists simultaneously in this world and in the spiritual world, providing us with a doorway to a different dimension of reality. A saying in North America for example, tells us, ‘To die is to walk the path of the dream without returning.’ In some cultures, mazes were used to keep the dead from returning. In 1955 the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in Tristes Tropiques about fragments of Tupi pottery urns in Brazil, with a design that represented a maze intended to confuse the evil spirits looking for the human remains preserved in them.
‘The lacy black markings seemed to form a labyrinth—destined, so people say, to deter those evil spirits which would otherwise have sought out the bones that were once preserved in these urns.’
Kindred spirits across time and continents
In some Mesoamerican cultures it was believed that the wicked could be ‘mazed’ in the underworld, so their souls would not return. The notion of spirits being ‘mazed’ is an interesting one in the context of this history. It gives an indication of where we may tentatively link ancient practices in Mesoamerica to other aspects of the global narrative. For example, the word ‘maze’ itself, like its companion, has multiple derivations. The Roman poet Virgil brings them together in The Aeneid and describes the labyrinth as having, ‘a path woven with blind walks.’ It is a,
‘bewildering work of craft with a thousand ways where the tokens of the course were confused by the indiscoverable and irretraceable maze.’
Here we have ambiguity, confusion, uncertain choices, and the search for a clear path. Much later, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we find examples of early English usage that also combine these themes. People are in a state of “masednesse.” That is, they are puzzled or bewildered.
In my book, The Curious History of Mazes, I cover the topic of mazes as puzzles, from early medieval artefacts to the modern maze revival. That revival was (and still is) realized in the hands of extraordinary individual innovators who garnered not only their incredibly creative and inventive minds but also a vast range of tools and materials, taking the design and construction of mazes to levels of multidimensional complexity never previously imagined. Today there are many companies and maze-makers world-wide who create and construct mazes of all kinds. It is big business.
I also compare the maze and labyrinth experience, acknowledging that some will insist that a maze is a puzzle and a labyrinth is not. However, as W.H. Matthews declares in his most comprehensive 1922 history of labyrinths and mazes, the labyrinth itself represents the enigmatic character of life. This is the intriguing – and puzzling – essence of labyrinths and their mythology. Sig Lonegren, founding member of The Labyrinth Society, writes in 1991 that while a myth is not history, it can point to truths far beyond historical fact. I couldn’t agree more. He says that,
‘each teller adds part of his or her own essence to the tale. Sometimes cultures, for purposes of their own, change significant portions of a given myth; however, the essential bones of the story seem to carry through the many tellings and revisions.’
The essential bones of this story, certainly where ancient American cultures are concerned, do seem to be spiritual, although it appears the creator(s) was not always aiming to confuse. Take the enigmatic series of geoglyphs, the Nazca lines, covering nearly 400 square miles (1,036 sq km) of the Peruvian desert. Discovered by archaeologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe in the 1920s, these lines were drawn by the Nazca people, a civilization that disappeared almost 1,500 years ago, living in what is now modern Peru.
Designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, they were originally created by the scraping away of red dust and rock to reveal the white ground beneath. Many of the designs are geometric shapes or resemble animals including monkeys, humans, birds, and fish. In 2012 a team of British experts declared that they were created to be walked. Well preserved, they were probably walked by small groups of people in single file, indicating that they had a spiritual purpose.
In North America, the Navajo peoples sand painted mandalas were created for ritual healing. Each sacred painting was made communally by several artists who started from the centre and worked outward, following the sun from the east, through south and west, to finish in the north. The eastern side of the circle is left open to allow spiritual beings to enter. Every painting is unique, and like the monks of Tibet, the Navajo used the sand paintings not to confuse but to restore order and harmony. They are still created today.
And finally, we find the labyrinth-like meander design featured in South American art and architecture. For example, the xicalcoliuhqui, known as a “step” or “stepped” fret—greca in Spanish—is a common motif in Mesoamerican art. It consists of three or more steps connected to a hook or spiral. The motif appears on temples and other sacred buildings such as the Pyramid of the Niches at the Veracruz site of El Tajin.
The few examples I’ve featured here suggest that the aim of labyrinths and mazes in the Americas was not always to confuse, but also to harmonize and enlighten. In writing The Curious History of Mazes I certainly aimed to do the latter, by introducing a complex history to a wide audience, citing thoughts and theories while echoing the prevailing mysteries.
The Curious History of Mazes by Julie E. Bounford, is illustrated by Trevor Bounford and published by Wellfleet Press, October 2018, price £12.99 ISBN: 978-1-57715-177-7
If you would like to book an illustrated talk on ‘The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes’, do email:
If you have never heard of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ by Norah Margaret Ruth Cordner James, or of James herself, it is not surprising. Known as ‘Jimmy’ to her friends and associates, James officially became an ‘authoress’ with the publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ in 1929.
The novel was swiftly ruled obscene at the Bow Street Police Court in March 1929, giving James a place on the roll call of authors with British banned books; a place that is neglected in favour of more esteemed names and better writers including James Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D.H. Lawrence (see my post on ‘Mr Reuben, Penguin Books & Lady Chatterley’) and Vladimir Nabokov. If it wasn’t for James and ‘Sleeveless Errand’, however, many banned books by these authors would not have been made available so quickly to a wider audience.
James lived from 1896 to 1979, and had numerous occupations. She was an art student at the Slade, a civil servant and trade union organiser at the Ministry of Pensions, a publicist for the English publisher Jonathan Cape, literary talent scout for American publisher William Morrow, a journalist, private secretary to parliamentary candidate Barbara Ayrton-Gould (mother of the sculptor, filmmaker and author, Michael Ayrton), and the Author’s Society representative on the National Book Council. In 1939 James joined the Auxiliary Fire Service and then the Air Transport Auxiliary. She was appointed Staff Captain in the Directorate of Public Relations at the War Office and invalided out in 1943. She later became a borough councillor in Finsbury.
The oeuvre of a minor author
James wrote over 75 publications including novels, radio plays and a great many short stories and articles such as a 1938 feature for the Aberdeen Press and Journal entitled, ‘Are you a cheat in the marriage game?’
A 1936 review of a James novel, ‘The Lion Beat the Unicorn’, describes her works as a ‘gallery of very human men and women–people like you and your neighbour and the rest of the world.’ The review declares that family life is a theme with which James is very much at home. From the titles I’ve read thus far, this assessment captures the essence of James’ approach to her writing and points to her popular appeal amongst a certain demographic.
I wonder if any of James’ readers were aware that she was gay (or as one would say in her day, lesbian). Not many, I suspect. For the second half of her life James lived with her partner, and occasional co-author, Barbara Beauchamp. In her 1939 autobiography (dedicated to Beauchamp), James chose to avoid writing about her ‘emotional life’.
So far, I’ve read the following:
Sleeveless Errand (1929)
Hail! All Hail! (1929)
I Lived in a Democracy (1939) (autobiography)
Jake the Dog: An Animal Story (1933) (illustrated by Ruth Vale)
Mrs Piffy: A Child’s-Eye View of Life (1934) (illustrated with photographs by C.C. Gaddum)
Cottage Angles (1935) (illustrated by Gwen Raverat)
The Hunted Heart (1941)
Green Fingers and the Gourmet (1949), with Barbara Beauchamp (illustrated by Bruce Roberts)
Hospital Angles (1966) (not ‘Angels’ as listed by the bookseller)
In another 1936 review of another novel, ‘By a Side Wind’, described as ‘curiously mixed’, James’ story is said to be told with,
‘a wearying of sincere simplicity. To the simple-minded who are not afraid of writing that does not call a spade a garden implement, this queer mixture might be palatable.’
The romances are not really my cup of tea but I felt I should read a few to get an overall sense of James’ style. When my copy of ‘Hospital Angles’ arrived and I noticed that it was published by Hurst and Blackett, I must confess I couldn’t get Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket and their hilarious double entendres out of my mind. I can just hear them singing this line from ‘The Hunted Heart’,
‘His mind sped out the room, tossed forth from the high, bright column of his longing.’
Research and rumours
On reading James’ autobiography, it is not difficult to see that much of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ is autobiographical, though I’m pleased to acknowledge that James’ real life took a very different turn to that of her protagonist, Paula Cranford. James’ life is not terribly well documented and I’m still piecing together a chronology and narrative with a mind to publishing a concise biography at some time in the future. I do have enough material for an illustrated talk and will add the topic to my current list of available topics for groups and societies (see page on this website).
I do know that for a number of years during the 1930s, James had a weekend cottage in Great Gransden, the village where I currently reside. I have our friend Val Davison, organiser of the Gransdens Society, to thank for introducing me to the life and work of James. I’m also grateful for the support and encouragement of Dr Charles Turner, friend and village resident, whose aunt’s dog, Brandy, appears in ‘Jake the Dog.’
People do still talk about James’ weekend life in Great Gransden. There is rumour of a ménage à trois, but that is all it is, rumour. We know she jointly purchased the Old Cottage in West Street with Margaret and Frederick Voigt in the early 1930s and she mainly lived with Margaret in London whilst Frederick worked in Berlin for the Manchester Guardian. In 1929, James had travelled to America with Margaret (an American journalist and biographer, Margaret – formerly Margaret Goldsmith – had had a short affair in Berlin with Vita Sackville-West in 1928 and went on to divorce Voigt in 1935).
James on the book trade
James’ autobiography is one of her more interesting tomes, not least because she had a spell working for the publisher, Jonathan Cape from 1926, and makes insightful observations of the book trade which are still relevant today. She observed the prosaic aspects of the business which involved, ‘sitting at a desk and calculating the price of paper per pound’, and acknowledged also, the excitement of the unknown whereby,
‘the whole thing was a gamble. Probably only one book out of five makes money for the publisher. Although you think that you can generally guess which of the five is a winner, you’re not always right.’
Her specific role at Cape was in the ‘queer game’ of publicity and she astutely recognised that a book sells if people talk about it. For James, a book has to be ‘talk-worthy’,
‘One can suggest, in various ways, to people, the book they should be speaking about, but if they haven’t the urge to talk, they won’t. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important things in selling a book.’
And on authors, she writes, ‘Then there were the authors, quite important people–although not so important as they often imagined.’
The plot is uncomplicated and takes place over two days in the early 1920s. Paula Cranford, jilted by her lover, resolves to commit suicide. She meets Bill Cleland and together they wander around London night clubs meeting Paula’s bohemian associates, ‘The Crowd’. Paula and Bill talk all night at her place about their respective families and circumstances, and form a suicide pact, planning to drive a hire car over a cliff on the coast. They drive towards Hove, break down in Brighton and spend the night in a hotel where they meet with a travelling revue company. Bill has second thoughts about suicide and Paula persuades him to return to his wife. She then ends her own life as she had planned before meeting Bill.
Alexander Lockwood, in his 2014 doctoral thesis, observes that ‘Sleeveless Errand’ fails to support post-war efforts to renew British identity through a ‘conservative modernity’ of fixed social relations, marriage and women’s domesticity. During the 1920s the tide was certainly turning, as Patricia Fara, in her 2018 examination of science and suffrage in the First World War (‘A Lab of One’s Own’), concludes, when she declares that however much traditionalists argued for a return to the old conventions, the upheavals of wartime had proved that social change was possible,
‘gender boundaries were more severely challenged and there was no going back to exactly the same situation.’
The feminist cause does not appear, however, to be a primary concern in James’ perceived rejection of the old conventions in this novel. One wonders if her protagonist, Paula, is wedded to any cause at all, as she rejects life itself and all that it entails. The clue is in the title, as given in this definition from The Oxford Dictionary which James herself cites at the beginning;
‘Sleeveless Errand :– Ending in, or leading to nothing’
(Meaning a fool’s errand, this now obsolete phrase is found in Act Five of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.)
We know from early on in the novel that Paula is planning to commit suicide. We even know how she will do it. But why?
Various suggestions have been put forward, including the post-war malaise, an augmentation of the disappointment that characterised ‘feminine middlebrow’ fiction and the failure of hope, a profound boredom, and a rejection of the internal reflection that was afforded by the flowering of psychoanalysis in contemporary popular culture.
The literary critic, Edward Garnett, who wrote the Preface for the First Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ (1929), had called the novel, ‘a real diagnosis of the War generation’s neurotics’. He had also concluded, in his Preface, that the novel’s censorship was a case of, ‘moral righteousness and official Pecksniffery’.
In the Preface, Garnett cites Arnold Bennett’s assessment of the novel as,
“an absolutely merciless exposure of neurotics and decadents, and I should say that the effect of it on the young reader would have been to destroy in him all immoral and unconventional impulses for ever and ever.”
James declared her novel was indeed about neurotics but was not of itself, neurotic. The post-war malaise is certainly not ignored, and Paula Cranford has her own distinctive take on happiness, the moral code, pacifism, the Church, democracy, sexual control and corruption, and marriage. Whilst declaring that her generation seems not to have any moral values at all, Paula says,
“as a whole, my generation of women is rotten to the core… We sneer at goodness and decency whenever we come across it. We’re bored with people who aren’t bawdy. We call them prigs and prudes if they don’t want to talk about copulation at lunchtime and buggery at dinner. We despise people who don’t swill booze down as we do,”
She does at least pose a determinant,
“Freedom came too quickly for us. We weren’t ready for it. We had no reserves with which to meet the deadly disappointment after the War of finding ourselves workless, and husbandless and useless. Those of us who had cared a bit about reconstruction and all that came down with even a greater bang, for we found that there wasn’t going to be any reconstruction at all… it’s in the next generation of children that the chance of a better future lies. The only thing my sort can do is to contaminate them as little as possible.”
Lockwood acknowledges that boredom was a common experience in the interwar period. Paula’s boredom is manifested in her refusal to wallow in self-analysis. In her conversations with Bill, Paula refers to her own ‘handicap of bad heredity’ and calls herself a ‘hopeless egoist’ and a ‘neurotic emotionalist’. But having done so, she then rejects the modern way of introspection (a way that could possibly lead to a reason for living) and, ultimately, any perceived notion of a noble obligation to society, as she tells Bill,
“I’m not going from any quixotic idea that because I’m part of the plague spot I ought to; no, it’s simply that I’m unutterably bored.”
Bill thinks to himself,
“She’s right to die; she at any rate is damned.”
The publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’
In 1928, Eric Honeywood Partridge of Scholartis Press accepted the manuscript of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ for publication. He paid James a £25 advance and received pre-orders from booksellers for around 1,500 copies (the cover price was 7s6d). (Partridge went on to become a renowned lexicographer. I recently bought a 1937 edition of his ‘Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English’, in which I could not find an entry for the phrase, ‘sleeveless errand’, or indeed, ‘fool’s errand’.)
James had previously offered the manuscript of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to her employer, Jonathan Cape, who, whilst appreciating a ‘glowing’ 1928 assessment by Garnett (‘A very interesting novel very well written’), was concerned about upsetting his authors who might have thought she had neglected the promotion of their books for her own writing. In 1939 James writes,
‘I had to agree with him that it might lead to difficulties with some of our authors. I knew how touchy they could be.’
She had also offered the manuscript to the Hogarth Press, meeting with Leonard and Virginia Woolf who turned it down (later on, following the book’s suppression, Virginia described it as ‘vulgar’ but not offensive).
An obscene book
The British Establishment condemned ‘Sleeveless Errand’ with incredible speed, effectively obliterating the very act of publication. Although according to Neil Pearson in his 2007 history of Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press (see below), a few collectors and copyright libraries retained a copy from that first print run, technically retaining it as the first edition. Copies had also been sent to reviewers and to Partridge’s contacts in America.
It was reported that on the evening of 20 February 1929, the Police seized 517 copies. They called upon Eric Partridge at home, escorted him to his office in Museum Street, and confiscated all 289 copies therein including 39 that bore James’ signature. They listed the names of all who had received copies; ten booksellers, the distributor Simpkin Marshall (250 copies) and the exporter William Jackson and Company (100 copies). According to one report, Scotland Yard posted a police constable outside the premises of a bookseller who had placed the book on display in his shop window whilst taking a short holiday. They also visited a reviewer and seized her advance copy, and 1,000 unbound sheets from the The Garden City Press Ltd in Letchworth.
James was oblivious to these events and in 1939 recalls,
‘On the day of publication I walked to the office in Bedford Square, and, on my way, passed a news placard saying: “Woman’s Novel Seized.” So far was I from connecting SE with that news item, that I never even stopped to buy a copy of the paper.’
Just three months earlier James had attended the trial of another banned book, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall. It was the first time she had ever been inside a courtroom. James had got to know Hall through Jonathan Cape who had asked her to read Hall’s manuscript when he was considering publication. Hall and James both frequented the Cave of Harmony, a club owned by the actress Elsa Lanchester (‘Bride of Frankenstein’), a popular meeting place for London intellectuals. James writes in her autobiography,
‘I found her [Hall] an extremely highly-strung woman, with one of the kindest hearts in the world… The Well of Loneliness was a fine and sincere piece of work, and I think it did a great deal of good in enlightening people on a subject that had been too long hidden under a veil of dirty innuendo or shamed self-conscious silence.’
Ostensibly banned because of its obscene language (see below), although in the American edition only three words were cut from the original text, ‘Sleeveless Errand’ tends to be coupled with ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by academics and historians. The challenge that these two books represented to the patriarchal status quo has been observed as a factor in their censorship. Angela Ingram, for example, declares that both novels, in their different ways, show how ‘utterly unalluring’ heterosexual life often was.
The two novels have, however, fared very differently. Initially republished in 1949, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ has over the years gained what Harrison calls, a ‘cultural legitimacy’ that is denied to ‘Sleeveless Errand’. But then ‘The Well of Loneliness’ was a landmark in the history of queer literature.
In 1929, the writer and publisher Percy ‘Inky’ Stephensen, penned a lampoon entitled, ‘The Well of Sleevelessness’, also published by Scholartis Press.
The British Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks (a public morality campaigner who had been instrumental in the prosecution of ‘The Well of Loneliness’), sent a copy of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He had received his copy from the editor of the Morning Post with a covering note declaring the book obscene. A Home Office briefing prepared by a senior civil servant declares,
‘It is astonishing that such a book could be written by a woman, but the authoress must be a woman whose command of foul, obscene, indecent and profane language is, I should hope, unique amongst women who can write.’
The Home Office file for the prosecution itself is missing but there is a transcript of the trial and The Times reported the court proceedings on 5 March 1929. The case against the book, as put by Mr Percival Clarke, supporting the summons on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions, is reported accordingly,
‘The book itself was a novel of 239 pages. The story concerned a period of two days, and was told in the form of a conversation by persons entirely devoid of decency and morality, who for the most part were under the influence of drink, and who not only tolerated but even advocated adultery and promiscuous fornication. Filthy language and indecent situations appeared to be the keynote of the book. He (counsel) did not pretend to be a literary critic, but it seemed to him to be degrading that such a collection of obscene matter should be published by any respectable firm. It was the aim of some writers to pass off as literature matter which could only have a degrading, immoral influence, and which tended to excite unhealthy persons; and to command a market by writing daring and corrupt stories. One thing noticeable about this book was that the name of God or Christ was taken in vain more than 60 times in a way which shocked. Mr. Clarke quoted from the book the saying of one character, “For Christ’s sake give me a drink”, and said that profanity could not possibly be justified, even by the characters in the book.’
The Crown Prosecutor’s file highlighted certain lines from the novel, such as, ‘We call them prigs and prudes if they don’t want to talk about copulation at lunchtime and buggery at dinner.’
Mr Clarke is reported in The Times as stating, “There are decent-minded people who read books and appreciate some of the beauties in English literature, and they look to the strong arm of the law to check and prevent the broadcasting of such foul stuff as this.”
And for the defence, The Times reports Mr Sandlands as stating, “There were a lot of horrible things in it, but the object of the book was to hold up to horror the mode of life and the language and habits of a certain section of the community… far from tending to deprave and demoralise, this book tended entirely the other way. Shakespeare’s works and the Old Testament mentioned horrible things in order to condemn them or to exhort against their use… It called attention to the despair and hopelessness and waste of the life alluded to by contrasting it with a normal life.”
Lord Chief Justice Cockburn was certain that the book would, “suggest to the minds of the young of either sex, or even to persons of more advanced years, thoughts of a most impure character.” He made an order for the destruction of the seized copies; 785 of the 799 were destroyed (there are questions over exactly how many copies Scholartis Press had in the first print run).
Later, in 1939, James writes,
‘I could not understand why. The book had been read by a number of well-known literary people in manuscript, and no one had suggested that I should make any cuts in it. But, apparently, it was called an obscene book–simply because of the words used in it. I would have cut them out willingly if I’d been told it was necessary. But I’d never been told that. It never occurred to me that it would be considered obscene to let the characters in it use the language they used in real life… I don’t believe the book was obscene. I do know that it was a kind of sermon against the stupidity and futility of the life a section of the post-war generation was leading.’
Harrison acknowledges that the official reason for the novel’s suppression cannot help but be attributed to James’s own supposed naïve or superficial–but ultimately heretical–attempt at “being frank”. Its vocabulary was crude, but according to James and her publisher, not intentionally obscene. In a contemporary interview with The Times, James described ‘Sleeveless Errand’ as “an extremely moral book and a condemnation of the people and the life it portrays.” Eric Partridge was of the opinion that the novel had been suppressed for political reasons, with obscenity being a ‘mere pretext’.
Paris and United States editions
An English writer in Paris, Jack Kahane, was also quick off the mark. Having followed the ‘Sleeveless Errand’ case, he decided to publish an English-language edition in France and secured the rights accordingly. James stipulated that half of her royalties from the Kahane deal be paid to Eric Partridge by way of recompense for the loss of income brought about by the trial. She also agreed to place her next novel, ‘Hail! All Hail!’ with Scholartis, which came out in 1929 with this introduction,
‘Miss James’s first novel, Sleeveless Errandwas suppressed. Her new story deals most attractively with life in the English countryside and with a poor district in West Central London. Hail! All Hail! shows an undoubted advance on Sleeveless Errand, which Mr. Arnold Bennett declared to be well constructed and well written, and to disclose a new talent for fiction. Here the pattern of a certain family’s life is worked out with skill and a rare sympathy.’
Kahane’s first Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was published in April 1929 (copies appeared in French bookshops as early as the end of March 1929). Kahane paid Edward Garnett five hundred francs for the preface and set the cover price at one hundred francs. The resulting profit of four hundred thousand francs effectively kickstarted Kahane’s publishing career. He went on to establish the Obelisk Press and re-printed several banned books including Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and books by D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Radclyffe Hall.
An American edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was published by William Morrow and sold well (around 20,000 copies), enabling James to buy a second-hand car and a typewriter (Morrow also gave James the job of representing his firm in Britain as a literary scout). ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was translated into at least six other languages but has never be republished in Britain.
Following the publication in America, Basil Dean, the English film director and theatrical producer, told James that he was quite taken with the book and thought it would make a good play. James, who had high hopes, wrote a script which Dean showed to Noel Coward, who found it to be ‘too defeatist’. The American actress, Talullah Bankhead, told James she thought Paula was not a nice character, and declared, “actresses don’t like being thought not nice–on the stage or off it!”
Wren Sidhe in her 2001 doctoral thesis, considers ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to be ‘an indictment of the generation responsible for the prosecution of the war’ and observes as a matter of interest, the fact that court reports neglect this aspect of the text in favour of one which accuses the writer and publisher of immorality. The novel presented a real challenge to re-imagining the nation. This perspective points to the novel’s suppression as a case of conspiratorial or state-sanctioned action; a conclusion reached by Harrison who calls ‘Sleeveless Errand’ a ‘marginalized and possibly marginal novel’.
‘Sleeveless Errand’ certainly has a place in censorship and publishing history and, as Lockwood points out, it contributed to the establishment of the Obelisk Press and was ‘the first link in the chain’ of their publication of other banned yet more enduring books.
Opinion on the quality of James’ writing in ‘Sleeveless Errand’ is divided. In 1934, T. S. Matthews, literary editor of Time Magazine, described ‘Sleeveless Errand’ as, ‘A story of post-war London; one of the few convincing suicide stories I remember.’ In contrast, Neil Pearson describes it as ‘a deeply terrible book, maudlin, melodramatic and fatally upstaged by its obvious and unabsorbed influences.’ A review recently published on Sheffield Hallam University’s blog on popular fiction 1900-1950, concludes the narrative would have been more successful if the story had been shorter and sharper.
Whilst the subject matter of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ holds much interest, I personally find James’ writing at times clunky and guileless. I’m not offended by the novel’s content, though I suspect there are those today who would find certain terms unacceptable, including the ‘n’ word and, like me, would disagree with Bill’s private thoughts on women and rape.
The story of the book and its censorship would make an excellent drama, especially if placed in the capable hands of British playwright and director, Stephen Poliakoff, who has so successfully tackled a number of intriguing episodes in twentieth century history.
Durability is something that ‘Sleeveless Errand’ lacks, as it is still ‘quarantined from literary expression’.
Perhaps it is time for a new British edition, with or without expurgation.
Brief bibliography, in addition to James’ works cited above:
As we advance the clocks it’s now warm enough for me to work in the ‘Philosopher’s Hut’, my pimped garden shed geared up for writing, and I have much to think about. I’ve been ruminating of late on existential topics, reading Joan Forman on the nature of time and Simone de Beauvoir on the meaning of what it is to live and to die. It’s partly the work on our new book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire, that led me to Forman’s writing, which in turn led me to revisit works that I haven’t read for years such as T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
My cerebral batteries have also been re-charged by a fresh dialectic between a long-proclaimed Cambridge family doctrine and the ‘truth’ that lies behind the life and death of my great-great grandmother Susan Anstee (1864-1914), whose name I learned only last year thanks to a disclosure by a distant cousin.
As a child I wanted to connect with people from the past. I was drawn to stories that shifted our sense of time and history. Particular favourites were Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Gardenand Charlotte Sometimes. It’s a revelation for Tom Long that neither he nor his new friend from the midnight garden are ghosts. He discovers whilst different people have different times, they’re really all bits of the same big Time. People are not really living in the past but are instead living out their individual existences in different layers of that same big Time.
I didn’t know then that I would have to wait over forty years to experience that interruption of now, that moment of timeless synchronicity, when a far family memory is revealed in all its unseemly glory. Consequently, as well as continuing my researches on the topics of Cambridge college servants (which I began in 2016) and the life and work of the author Norah C. James (which I began in 2018), I’m now looking into plight of sex workers in Victorian Cambridge.
Yesterday I attended a course at the Cambridge Central Library – ‘An introduction to memoir writing’. The whole session was a series of writing exercises, what I call ‘fast-twitch’ writing. Whilst stimulating, this was slightly disappointing. I wanted us to talk about what we mean by ‘memoir’ and to hear about published works that might be a good read. During the last six months I’ve read A Lincolnshire Childhood by Ursula Brighouse; I Lived in a Democracy by Norah C. James; In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, and A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir. For one of the workshop tasks we were given a few minutes to write about food that we did or didn’t like. I wrote about a memory from when I was eight or nine.
Gritty, chewy bogies on toast. My grandad would use a needle to delicately pick out the winkles one by one and lay them across a slice of thickly buttered toast. He offered me a taste and, not wanting to displease, I screwed up my eyes, held my nose and popped a tiny grey morsel into my mouth. He didn’t seem to notice my revulsion and smiled approvingly. Trying not to chew, I swallowed as quickly as I could and then took a gulp from my glass of lemonade.
The workshop was certainly a useful anaerobic interlude, prompting a return to the blog writing and a review of my collection of filled notebooks. These are not diaries but ‘sketch’ books, much like my husband Trevor’s but unlike his, filled with words rather than drawings.
Whilst my muscles do need stretching, it’s probably a good thing that my running days are over. The recent unsurprising diagnosis of osteoarthritis in my ankles and knees means I have more time to spend in the hut. Last year I completed The Curious History of Mazes which had to be written according to a strict schedule set by the publisher. Immediately after that I went on to the research and curation for the Window on the Warexhibition on women in Cambridge during World War I, and to the research for our first ghost book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Bedfordshire.
Last January I stepped down from the Monday Collections volunteering at the Museum of Cambridge, to release more time for me to assist Trevor with paid work in the studio. Besides working on the next in our Beer & Spirits series, I’m delivering many illustrated talks for a range of groups and societies on three topics; The Remarkable Story of Heffers of Cambridge, 1876-1999; The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes, and Beer and Spirits: tales of sightings, sounds and sensations in our local haunted hostelries.I enjoy engaging with different audiences and I enjoy winkling out the past, unsavoury though it may be for some.
My distant cousin said the other day, ‘I suppose you’ll be writing about Susan’.
An autumn 2017 commission that I received from Wellfleet Press (an imprint of US publisher Quarto) led to a winter researching and writing an illustrated history of labyrinths and mazes. I spent many short days and long evenings absorbed in the joyful task of piecing together what is hopefully an informative and engaging recitation of this fascinating 4,000-year old phenomenon.
During this time I also managed to deliver a few talks on the history of Heffers of Cambridge and have more coming up in the diary. (I did however, have to pause much of the college servants research, apart from a most interesting conversation with a retired college porter from St John’s — in September last year I wrote about The artist, the college, the bursar and his cook.)
The history talks are such a pleasure for me to deliver, especially when members of the audience share their own memories of enigmatic Heffer people and places. And then, on 5thJune 2018, I had the pleasure of being a guest speaker for the Cambridge Publishing Society. My talk, entitled ‘Some Truths About Opium’, provided a welcome excuse to delve further into another aspect of Heffers — their extraordinary publishing history.
I chose the title because the first half of the twentieth century was clearly an intoxicating time for Heffers publishing. It is taken from a short paper by Herbert A. Giles, published by Heffers in 1923.
A British diplomat and sinologist, Giles was ‘the’ Cambridge Professor of Chinese and much of his output was published by the University Press. This title however, along with his exposition, ‘Chaos in China: A Rhapsody’, was published and printed by Heffers who produced 2,000 copies of the former and 1,000 of the latter. In 1924 Giles paid Heffers £10 to cover a deficit on the publishing costs of the opium paper and ten years later it was taken out of the firm’s catalogue.
Giles had originally sent his treatise to The Times. However, his stance on the topic directly opposed that of the broadsheet. In his sketch of opium in China as a drug from 874AD to the present day (early 1920s), Giles concluded that in view of the historical facts, we had better leave China to work out the opium problem themselves, without the interference of foreigners. Inevitably, the paper was returned as unsuitable. He then tried an academic journal, only to have it rejected once more. Finally, he approached Heffers.
This appears to have been a common scenario for authors published by Heffers. A scout through the old publishing diaries (kindly loaned by Richard Reynolds of Heffers) reveals that in many cases the firm provided a kind of vanity publishing service (a precursor of Troubadour perhaps?).
Anyone who wanted Heffers to publish their book had to be interviewed by Mr Heffer (most likely ‘Mr Ernest’ or ‘Mr Reuben’ — I’ve previously written about Mr Reuben, Penguin Books and Lady Chatterley). Examples of Heffer publishing deals reveal the extent to which the financial risk was offset by some authors:
‘Agreement by letter. Author has agreed to pay £60 towards productions costs on publication and a further £20 if necessary in a year’s time.’
‘Author agreed to guarantee us against loss up to a limit of £10, and to surrender the first £5 of profit to our Firm. Thereafter, profits to be divided equally between Author and Publisher.’
‘No agreement, but Prof. Whitney called and agreed to be responsible for the costs of publication.
‘No Agreement. Author pays all costs of production. To be published but Not Catalogued. All stock to be returned to Author, and any orders for book to be passed to her.’
Heffers first described itself as a publisher in advertisements in the early 1900s and the firm’s list grew with William Heffer’s expansion into printing. Between 1889 and 1959 the firm published around 2,000 titles. The publishing was wound down in the 1960s and ceased altogether in 1975. Several publications were cast into the bargain bin, never to reappear. Intriguing titles such as,
The Problem of the Future Life (1925)
Whatsoever Things are Lovely …Think on these Things(1927)
Mathematical Snack Bar(1936)
The Delights of Dictatorship(1938)
Finland in Summer(1938)
Prayers for a One-Year-Old(1927)
The Two Coins: An English Girl’s Thoughts on Modern Morals(1931)
Those who work in the book trade may know about the annual Bookseller/DiagramOddest Title of the Year(of a book), instigated by Diagram Group director, Trevor Bounford, at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1978. Many Heffer publications would have been worthy contenders for the prize. (In March 2015, I wrote a post, The oddest title for a public lecture?, as I fondly remembered the late Bruce Robertson, co-founder of the Diagram Group.)
I’m pleased to report that I did not have to pay Wellfleet Press to publish the maze book. I’m also pleased to report that the book was illustrated, designed and packaged by my talented husband, Trevor Bounford whose next book, ‘Bend the Rules’, has recently been published by the Tarquin Group in the UK.
The Curious History of Mazes is due out in October 2018. I’ll be writing more about this in due course, and I’m already taking bookings for illustrated talks.
Do get in touch if you’d like me to come and talk to your group – firstname.lastname@example.org
The September 2017 edition of Artists & Illustrators magazine featured the winners of prestigious painting competitions. Benjamin Sullivan had top billing. His winning BP Portrait Award 2017 portrait, Breech!, of his wife Virginia breastfeeding their daughter, is not only skilfully executed but incredibly touching. As feature writer Natalie Milner observes, ‘there’s no doubt that the time and love behind this painting will outlive a casual selfie.’
Whilst I love this painting, it is a 2008 commission of his that I’m particularly drawn to. The All Souls Triptych is a portrait of the domestic and non-academic staff at All Souls College, Oxford. To execute this work, Sullivan lived and worked at the college for 18 months, observing the staff unobtrusively, taking account of ‘idiosyncrasies and nuances of character’. As Milner informs us, Sullivan wanted to give an account of people’s day-to-day activities: to celebrate them as individuals and elevate their work.
Through my research and writing on Cambridge college servants from 1900 to the present day, I’m attempting to achieve a similar result – insightful and engaging descriptions of the different roles that may be broadly described as ‘servants’, illuminated by memories and stories shared by retired and current college staff. Portraits that reflect on how the roles have changed over the past 120 years or so.
As with my illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge, the research also involves exploring archival records. Of late, I’ve been spending time in the excellent King’s College Archive Centre, reading material from the first half of the twentieth century. Guided by the Archivist Patricia McGuire, I’ve scrutinised files on, ‘College Servants (General) Private 1920-34’; ‘Correspondence concerning the appointment of a Lady Superintendent’; ’Bedmakers Bus Service, Dec 1937-May 1940’; and ’Dadie’s War Correspondence’.
I’ve been poring over index cards on bedmakers (1930-1960), typed letters, hand-written notes, annotations, and reports. Some voices from the past are coming through strongly, and I don’t just mean the more obvious, such as Dadie Rylands, already a well-known Cambridge persona who, as it happens, served as Domus Bursar at the college, thereby overseeing servants.
Take chef Arthur G. Allen, who completed an apprenticeship at Trinity College and went on to hotel work in Norwich and Lowestoft before joining the staff at King’s in October 1922. In March that year Allen writes to King’s Bursar, H. G. Durnford, enquiring about possible employment. In his enquiry Allen demonstrates a certain boldness by setting out his terms; £5 a week plus food. Perhaps the fact that he was already in a job gave him self-assurance. His maturity (he was 42 at the time) and his prior experience of college work must have helped too. Furthermore, his family were no strangers to this environment – on further investigation I discovered that his father had worked as a college shoeblack.
And no doubt Allen was in touch with the Cambridge network of college cooks. Wroth, who wrote about college servants at St John’s, Cambridge 1850-1900, acknowledges the network whereby cooks exchanged intimate knowledge of each establishment. One wonders if, in early 1922, Allen had inside information about King’s employment of a temporary chef during that Easter Term at a salary of £6 a week. Word must have been out that King’s were in need of a chef, as in March, Durnford receives another enquiry from an F. W. Wallace, who, whilst having some college experience, clearly considers his time in the ‘Merchant Service’ cooking for as many as 700 passengers, more noteworthy,
‘I have recently seen one of your every day menus & may I say that it is child’s play to what I have had to do when at sea.’
It wasn’t unusual for a qualified cook to work at establishments outside academia after serving his college apprenticeship, and then return to a college in a more senior position. Another chef, or ‘head cook’, who had served his apprenticeship at Trinity was Edwin Cash, whose career was typical of many. After qualifying he gained further experience in London and Cheltenham and then returned to Cambridge to work for St John’s where he gave over 30 years of service.
At St John’s before the twentieth century, and indeed at many Cambridge colleges, the head cook did not receive a college stipend but instead ran the kitchen as his own personal enterprise. Or maybe we should say ‘kingdom’. Wroth says,
‘There was no doubt that those who scrubbed the vegetables, carried sacks of potatoes, and kept fires in the kitchen were college servants. The head cooks, however, did not consider themselves as servants; most of them ran successful enterprises based in the college kitchens supplying both town customers and members of college. The Cambridge community did not consider them as servants either.’
However, this was different at King’s where the cooks were college employees. At the same time Cash was at St John’s, King’s employed a Mr Ernest Ing as cook on a six month trial from Midsummer 1891 at a salary of £180 a year. Ing went on to serve King’s for ten years and during his period of office acted as secretary to the Cambridge College Servants’ Boat, Cricket and Football Clubs. A busy man in the servant fraternity.
So did Allen’s approach to King’s College work out?
In March 1922 it was unsuccessful, as explained by an exchange of letters, after he and Durnford had spoken by telephone. On 15 March Durnford writes,
‘I have thought a good deal about the conditions on which you might be willing to come to this College as Chef. I am afraid I must state at once that a wage of £5 weekly plus food is more than I feel justified in offering for that particular post. I find that 90/- per week is more nearly the wage paid to College Chefs who are not entrusted with any special responsibilities of management besides their own department: and unless the cost of living increases, I [would not] not be prepared to go beyond that figure.’
Allen replies that it would not be of any advantage for him to change his present position. But that’s not the end of the story. On 23 August, Allen turns down another offer from Durnford, saying that under present conditions he is unable to, ‘do justice to the college or myself’. And then, on 31st we find that not only have they spoken once again by telephone but that Allen accepts the post of ‘Cook Manager’ of King’s kitchen, with an agreed starting date of 5 October 1922.
The position of ‘Kitchen Manager’ at King’s had been salaried at £225 in 1919 and a chef was paid £234 (£4.10s per week and food – only ten shillings less than Allen’s original terms of £5 for a chef role). Allen took over from W. Whitecross as Cook Manager at a salary of £250 per annum.
On 19 September 1922, Allen writes to Durnford, recommending a Mr Ellwood from the University Arms Hotel, for employment in his team at King’s, and assures him that,
‘the staff will soon fall in with my systems of working, and that business will go smoothly.’
The male kitchen staff at King’s had been listed at November 1921 as comprising two chefs, three cooks, a store man, a boiler man, seven porters, an apprentice, one kitchen manager, a head clerk and two assistant clerks. One hopes that Allen was able to build good relations with all concerned – unlike at another Cambridge college, where a former apprentice recalls the head chef and kitchen manager, albeit it in the 1960s, as constantly being at loggerheads.
Clearly, kitchens were, and can still be, stressful environments.
Things must have gone well, at least for a few years, because in 1930 Allen is still at the College and his salary is £325. As I continue to read King’s archives over the coming weeks, I hope to discover more of his college story (in the 1939 Register he is listed as ‘Chef Manager’ and I know that he died in 1959). Perhaps his family might read this and can tell me more?
If you work, or have worked as a ‘college servant’, or if you have a family member or ancestor who has done so, I’d be delighted to hear your story.
Three years ago we decided to set up a publishing arm for our long-established graphic design business. My husband Trevor Bounford (illustrator, artist and author) has been designing and creating books for over 45 years. With our shared interest in social history and the prospect of more ‘free’ time on my part after completing the PhD, we set up Gottahavebooks in 2015.
What we now have is very much a cottage industry. And that’s not just because we run the business from our Tudor cottage in a village near Cambridge. We like being small scale. For me this is especially appealing after many years of working in large organisations with highly rigid structures and politicised cultures. I’m loving the new freedom and flexibility of working independently as a writer, editor and micro-publisher.
Our publishing is driven by a desire to share people’s stories, and our titles and activities reflect this.
In 2015 Richard Houghton needed to publish the memories he had gathered from people who had attended Rolling Stones concerts in the 1960s. Richard and Trevor jointly devised a concept they named as ‘You Had To Be There’ and we set about getting Richard’s book to press in double-quick time. We also liaised individually with his 500 contributors, confirming their place in the book and keeping them up to date with the production. This was very time-consuming but worthwhile, and we were pleased to have helped Richard with his first publication.
Our second book, ‘Days of Sorrow, Times of Joy’ by Frances Clemmow (2016), is an extraordinary family memoire, interwoven with the grand picture of modern Chinese history from the late nineteenth century through to the Second World War. Trevor had previously assisted Fran with the design, layout and production of a self-published edition in 2012. We offered to publish a new extended edition as a way of helping Fran to share her story with a wider audience, and we were delighted when historian Michael Wood agreed to contribute a foreword. Professor Anthony Bradley describes the book as a,
‘living history, in which the actors in a far-reaching drama speak in their own words. We need not today endorse all aspects of the missionary enterprise, but readers of this impressive and enjoyable book will surely long remember the vivid scenes in which one family’s commitment enabled its members to play a part in events that have helped to shape our world.’
‘Forever entwined, my young and my old mind, the voices inside me that chatter and chide, encourage and rage, as I look both outwards and in with the curiosity of a benign, yet wary stranger.’
Born in 1944, Carol spent the late 1960s and ’70s living in a ‘so-called community of freaks, immigrants and photographers, artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, drug dealers, models, fashionistas, groupies and hangers-on.’
Whilst giving talks on the history of Heffers of Cambridge, I’m reminded that many have memories of the firm. I enjoy sharing stories from the book and hearing anecdotes from members of the audience who were customers, authors, or employees.
Earlier this year, I received a communication from Sandor P. Vaci RIBA, who worked for the architects Austin Smith: Lord, at the time they were transforming Heffers’ Trinity Street premises into the radical new ‘University and General’ bookshop, opened by Lord Butler in 1970.
Sandor is kindly sharing his memories and images from the project, and I’m looking forward to meeting him later this year to hear more. A Hungarian born British architect who has lived in London since the 1956 Revolution, Sandor has many interests including cultural connections and sharing the public space.
He has put together a gallery of Budapest ‘portas’ (doors and doorways), from the city’s historic centre. As he says, the individually designed portas show astonishing variety, exuberance, originality and craftsmanship rarely found in other cities. It’s a lovely collection.
It’s interesting to note Sandor’s observation that the doorways into residential blocks were single entries: all the residents, servants, tradesmen, deliveries and rubbish removals passed through (no back door or tradesman’s entrance for them).
As I start to work on my next social history project, on college service in the twentieth century, I’m prompted to wonder if the college servants used the same entrances as everyone else.
My aim is to explore the notion of ‘service’, in the context of college, university and town communities in Cambridge. As Alex Saunders from the Cambridge Antiquarian Society said to me recently, it’s a huge topic. My husband, Trevor, says it sounds like another doctoral research proposal (my first – and only PhD, was on the topic of community inside higher education).
When opening the door to a new project, I like to begin by contemplating the broader questions and possibilities. For this topic, some of the questions are informed by my own direct experience of working in higher education and of researching the field. Here are a few:
What do we mean by ‘service’, by ‘being in’ service and by ‘being of’ service?
The condition of being a servant; the fact of serving a master?
The condition, station, or occupation of being a servant?
A particular employ; the serving of a certain master or household?
Performance of the duties of a servant; attendance of servants; work done in obedience to and for the benefit of a master?
To do, bear (one) service, to serve, attend on (a master)?
An act of serving; a duty or piece of work done for a master or superior?
An act of helping or benefiting; an instance of beneficial or friendly action; a useful office?
Waiting at table, supply of food; hence, supply of commodities, etc?
Provision (of labour, material appliances, etc.) for the carrying out of some work for which there is a constant public demand?
(with thanks to the OED)
What roles in this context would be classified as ‘college servants’?
Bedder; porter; gyp; butler; waiter; clerk; librarian?
Who is ‘serving’ whom?
Individuals serving individuals?
Individuals serving institutions?
Institutions serving society?
Society serving institutions?
Institutions serving individuals?
Individuals serving individuals?
What is the impact of the changing undergraduate population during the twentieth century?
The demographic and size of the population changed dramatically between 1900 and 2000.
What is the impact of changes in the role of colleges and universities in society during the twentieth century?
A complex and weathered terrain, the sector saw sweeping changes during this period.
A family in service
Like many who were raised in Cambridge, members of my family were ‘in college service’.
My Nanna, Ethel Lily Driver (1914-2006), lived in Christchurch Street and was a ‘bedder’ at Jesus College. Her mother, Lily Ethel Parsons (1895-1952) who lived in Ross Street, is listed on the 1939 Register as a ‘college help’.
My great-grandmother, Henrietta Saunders (1877-1971) who lived in the old dairy in Gold Street, was a ‘bedder’ at Queens College. Her husband, George Saunders (1873-1965) was a ‘general labourer’ who, as the story goes, once stood back to admire his own work on the roof of the Senate House.
The radio silence over recent months is mainly due to time spent on project managing the 2017 Cambridge History Festival on behalf of the Museum of Cambridge. Considering the vital role that the Museum played in my plea for Heffers stories, it seemed most fitting to work with the trustees, staff and volunteers on this event.
And it was a pleasure. I particularly love the fact that the festival is a community-led initiative. Caroline Biggs, the Creative Director, like so many of us, is passionate about local history. She’s currently researching the story of Daisy Hopkins, arrested in 1891 for ‘walking with a member of the University’. Caroline writes her own blog on Real Cambridge.
Immediately after the festival, I delivered a talk at University College London on the topic of university and campus bookshops. I also started work on editing the next Gottahavebooks publication, ‘The Singer’s Tale’ by jazz singer, Carol Grimes; an autobiography that is refreshingly free from affectation, infused with raw honesty and emotion. Out later this year, it will appeal to many, no doubt.
Now I’m easing back into my own research and writing, catching up with local history conversations. As I do so, here is lesson number three from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge. It is a brief reflection on the practicalities and pitfalls of collecting and recording stories, with extracts from ‘This book is about Heffers’.
The first lesson, ‘Possession is a delicate issue’ tackled the tricky issue of having a personal connection with the topic of the research, and what to do if you find yourself being told what to write!
The second, ‘Connecting up and creating a conversation’, set out the various networks and places that enabled me to reach many people who were willing to share their memories of the firm. I also refer to some of the sources for printed and digital materials. Links to all the networks and sources are provided.
Lesson 3: two small dogs, an exotic caged bird and wandering hands
Visits & gatherings It’s surprising how trusting people can be when it comes to arranging interviews, especially in their own homes. Though perhaps I’m also trusting, as I usually (but not always) go alone. If you’re planning to audio record or film the encounter, do let your host know beforehand. I always declare that the recording saves me having to take notes, and confirm that I will not share it with any third-party. I also have a release form which I ask people to sign. At the end of the Heffers research I had over fifty hours of audio recordings!
Make sure you have enough battery charge in your audio recorder. If you run out and don’t have spare batteries, remember the recording facility on your mobile phone, which can be a great back-up. This happened when I visited author, Pippa Goodhart, who had worked at Heffers from 1974 to 1986. On reading the completed book in November 2016, Pippa kindly told me,
‘You’ve achieved a wonderful balance between a thorough factual account and a very human, often heart-warming and amusing account, and I think you’ve absolutely nailed the character of the Heffers firm… how it was/is made-up of so many characters.’
This is exactly what I had hoped to do by blending stories from living memory and the desk research. I’m thrilled with Pippa’s feedback.
Also, when setting out on a visit, make sure you get all the letters and numbers in the right order when entering them into the SatNav. On one excursion I found myself heading towards Norfolk instead of Suffolk. Not a disaster maybe for one who once lived in North Norfolk and still craves the seaside, but embarrassing nevertheless. The detour meant I was late for my appointment.
The setting of the encounter can drastically affect the quality of the recording. The more challenging, from a recording perspective, included a gathering of several ladies in someone’s lounge, a one-to-one in the corridor of a bustling academic building, and a three-way encounter in someone’s home interspersed with contributions from two small dogs, and an exotic caged bird.
Many meetings involved tea, coffee, sausage rolls, cake and chocolate biscuits, as well as great stories. Much to my delight. It is no wonder that I have walk five miles a day.
The ladies mentioned above had worked as invoice girls in the top office at the Petty Cury bookshop in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some of their memories relate to the 1960 publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. I like this one:
‘The girls had been told they were not to concern themselves with the content of the book. This may have been irresistible for some but they recall that they were more intrigued by books on forensic medicine with their graphic illustrations – occasionally giving themselves nightmares.’
Whilst I usually prepare some notes in advance of what topics I’d like to cover, I prefer the exchange to be more of an open conversation than a structured interview. See what comes up. What then emerges is arguably, more authentic. Sometimes a really significant memory may be shared after you’ve switched off the recorder and when you’re about to leave. If that happens, write it down the moment you get in the car. You can always go back to the person another time to check out the detail.
A particularly memorable visit, kindly arranged by retired bookseller, Clive Cornell, was to the home of his former colleague, Frank Collieson who at the time was fast approaching his ninetieth birthday. At the end of a most captivating afternoon with the two gentlemen, I went to shake Frank’s hand, and he gave me a big hug. As I walked back to my car I found myself in tears. I was most saddened to hear of Franks passing a few weeks later but pleased to learn that he did make that special birthday. I do treasure the meetings, however brief, and fondly recall Frank reminiscing about Heffers as he alternated between glasses of Bushmills whiskey and cups of tea. Much of Frank’s voice is in the book, not only from that afternoon but from a 1985 BBC Radio interview, his writings, and the extraordinary publicity materials he produced for the firm over many years. (The only time I ever broke my rule about sharing a recorded conversation with a third party was when I sent the recording of that afternoon to Frank’s daughters, after he had passed away. Jenny had been present at Frank’s house anyway, and had joined in the conversation.) Earlier this month I received a wonderful letter from a reader in Ireland who had known Frank, thanking me for putting his contribution into print.
I describe the memory cafe at the Museum of Cambridge in a previous post. The event was a pivotal moment, providing a tangible sense of place for the project.
As we all know, photographs can be a great tool for triggering memories.
This image, from a news report on the 1946 fire at Petty Cury, took Audrey and Peter Coleman back to the day they first met. Audrey was working in accounts for Miss King at the time and Peter, who worked for the Electricity Board, attended to the repairs. Audrey says,
“We didn’t know anything ’til we got to work and there’d been this awful fire. Miss King said we’d better first go back for a little while because the Police and everyone were there. We went to her mother’s house in Clarendon Street and then we came back and had to help clear up. All of us put turbans on our heads. There was all the smoke and an awful lot of damage. We had tarpaulins up and we had our national cash machines transferred to the basement. All the books were charred. It was horrible.”
Not all the damaged books were successfully removed, however. Over a decade later, Clive Cornell observed charred books on the shelves when he started work at Petty Cury as a shop assistant in 1958, and Frank Collieson saw the scorch marks still there in 1962.
If you’re collecting someone’s memories via a telephone call, do tell them if you want to record the conversation. I used the loud speaker facility on my mobile phone and recorded the conversation on my digital recorder. Not ideal but adequate.
Books, written accounts and emails
Robert Webb tracked down Sue Bradley’s fascinating 2008 oral history of the book trade via the British Library and I bought the last copy in stock. The book included accounts by Nicholas Heffer and bookseller Frank Stoakley, who served over sixty years with the firm and worked with my great-grandfather. Online you can find summaries of the transcripts. I didn’t have the time or resources to visit the Library and listen to the recordings, but the topics listed in the summaries were nevertheless very useful.
I had written accounts from several former Heffers staff, and from customers. For example, Shelley Lockwood, a Cambridge alumnus and oral historian who now works for the David Parr House project in Gwydir Street, kindly wrote about her experience of Heffers as a student, setting up an account and using her Heffer diary. And Mark Jones, a former Heffers employee who now lives in Scotland, wrote his own memories of working for Heffers Sound. Here is one of his stories from the book,
‘One year, on the last Saturday before Christmas, whilst putting a refund through for a Russian student, Mark accidentally swiped her debit card before first entering the amount to be refunded. Automatically, the till instantly refunded the first four digits of her card number. On the busiest and most profitable day of the entire year, Mark had given away £4,567. His manager was very understanding and the money was returned after a week or so (the student had to ask her bank to refund the refund). The cash register was reprogrammed to prevent a similar error from ever happening again.’
Communicating by letter
Don’t forget that some people still prefer to communicate by letter. for whatever reason. I found former Heffers director, Norman Biggs, via Bunty Heffer who kindly gave me his address. I wrote to Mr Biggs and subsequently arranged our three visits by letter. He had been in charge of Heffers Stationery and the Sidney Street premises for many years, and his stories were most illuminating. He recalled, for example, some of the characters from Cambridge academia,
‘One of the Proctors used to come into the Sidney Street shop early morning, soon after nine o’clock. He hadn’t combed his hair, he clearly hadn’t shaved and his pyjamas were sticking out from the bottom of his corduroy trousers. Another time, an academic customer ended up running out of Sidney Street screaming because they could not find a particular type of stationery file that fitted his exact requirements from the hundreds of options available.’
Mr Biggs also kindly loaned me a very grand portfolio, presented to him by Heffers on his retirement.
Social media has an important role to play, not just in reaching people but in gathering memories, no matter how fleeting. Remember, it’s a continuous feed on both Facebook and Twitter. People will react to an image or quotation. You will get more responses to something specific than to a general plea for stories. Publish your posts at different times of the day and always engage with the responses. It helps if you have a personal connection with the topic and if you share your own memories. Through the dialogue you will no doubt find people who are willing to talk further.
Diplomacy at all times
When collecting stories from living memory, you are very likely to hear anecdotes about people who are still alive. If someone is indiscreet or insensitive, don’t react. Move on to another topic.
Be aware, when writing up, that different people will recall the same incident in differently. It’s a good idea to cross-reference stories and double-check with all sources. Often, just a slight tweak can help to avoid any potential embarrassment or consternation.
A challenging topic in this case was the tricky issue of ‘wandering hands’. As I state in the book,
‘like many organisations certainly at the time [the 1960s], some male colleagues had what was then termed ‘wandering hands’, giving the phrase ‘hands on’ a somewhat different and unpleasant meaning, particularly for the ladies. It would not be appropriate to deny that this occurred, as so many have mentioned it when interviewed for this book, but it would also be inappropriate to name the alleged culprits, who are now long gone. Needless to say, for some ladies, taking dictation could be a hazardous chore, when they were trapped between the wall and their manager. For others, there were certain amenities best avoided, so not to give a gentleman colleague an opportunity to get too close. John Welch [General Manager] was made aware of certain issues on his arrival in 1964 and his response, not untypical of the time, was, “we all have our little idiosyncrasies”.’
And In a previous post I wrote about the challenges of having a personal connection with the topic. I share my thoughts on this blog with the aim of hearing what others think about a range of different topics, and this has been difficult one.
As I said in the previous post, the memories of Heffers are uncomplicated but the family association with the firm did cause a moment of anxiety. That moment came when a member of my family (who had not worked for Heffers) demanded that they be included in the book. As I mentioned in the post, I was told in no uncertain terms that Heffers is “our” family firm. It was because of this they felt they had a right to be included.
This not only created a rather delicate situation, it was deeply upsetting. It was not a matter of disagreeing with their opinion but of balancing that opinion alongside those held by others. Particularly those who had had a more direct involvement with the firm – who were inside that world. This is why, in the book, I acknowledged the claim about it being “our” family firm, whilst at the same time declaring that no doubt Heffers had engendered a similar sense of loyalty in many Cambridge families. I didn’t want to upset other families whose members had given many years of service to the firm, as well as my own. The story of Heffers belongs to everyone and no one. It doesn’t belong to the Heffer family or to any one family, and certainly not to mine.
Everyone’s experience is different and there is a need for diplomacy and sensitivity when collecting and sharing living memories. There were many things that came up in the interviews that I chose not to write about, for the sake of people’s feelings, and I took great care with what I did write.
At the end of the day, it’s a collection of different viewpoints. That’s what history is.
Lessons from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge
I don’t claim to be an expert on doing social history, or any sort of history, and I did have some terrific help with aspects of the Heffers project. My aim in this series of blog posts is to reflect on the experience and hopefully, by doing so, share some useful lessons for anyone who wishes to undertake a social history. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has advice to share, as this experience has left me wanting to do more, and I have a lot to learn!
The first post, Possession is a delicate issue tackled the tricky issue of having a personal connection with the topic of the research, and what to do if you find yourself being told what to write!
In this second post, I refer to the various networks and places that enabled me to reach many people who were willing to share their memories of the firm. I also refer to some of the sources for printed and digital materials, and will be expanding on exactly what I used in a later post. Links to all the networks and sources are provided, plus one or two publications written by authors whom I was fortunate enough to meet during the project.
Lesson number 2: Connecting up and creating a conversation
I may originate from Cambridge but having lived and worked in Norfolk until relatively recently, I had no network as such in the area, apart from family friends. Eve Stafford, who is featured in the book, was the first family friend to have a conversation recorded about her time at Heffers. Eve then facilitated my introduction to Heffers retirees, Marion & Dudley Davenport, Peggy Green and Audrey Coleman, who all have stories in the book.
It didn’t take long of course to identify other effective ways to reach those with memories of Heffers and start a wider conversation. On 23rd January 2016, Chris Elliott published a plea for stories with my contact details in the Cambridge News Memories section. Also, in January, I emailed Chris Jakes at the Cambridgeshire Collection at the Central Library, declaring my intention to carry out some desk research there. Chris responded with very useful and specific information on what the Collection held about the firm and the bookselling trade. Meanwhile, Robert Webb (who’s father worked for Heffers and who worked for the firm himself) found Becky Proctor (running the Mill Road History Project at that time), who suggested I put a plea via the Cambridge in the Good Ol Days Facebook Group. Robert Webb also contacted Fonz Chamberlain, the Cambridge Historian, who writes about Cambridge history and who owns a lot of memorabilia.
As it turned out, both Chris Jakes and Becky Proctor contributed stories for the book (Becky worked as a bookseller at Heffers in the early 1990s). The Facebook Group, run by Derek Smiley, was a great way to reach people with memories of Heffers. It really helped to have something interesting to say about the topic when exchanging thoughts on Facebook. This is where a personal connection or some local knowledge can be useful. Sharing memories, even brief reflections, is a great way to get a conversation going. It’s important to post regularly, whilst at the same time, not making a nuisance of oneself.
I wanted people to understand my motivation for writing the book, and to appreciate that I too, shared their enthusiasm and interest in the topic. To that end, I had already written about my interest in Heffers in my own blog, as early as February 2014, in Choosing books, living life. In fact, it was through this post that I met Robert Webb who must have been keeping an eye out for references to Heffers, as he contacted me after having seen the post. My next reference to Heffers was in Heffers & E.M. Forster, libraries, books & a Del Boy moment, followed by Heffers and the elusive bust, This book is about Heffers, Portrait of a bookseller: the pacifist, and Mr Reuben, Penguin Books and Lady Chatterley. I regularly shared the blog posts via Facebook and Twitter and made some really useful connections in doing so. Bookseller, Claire Brown, got in touch via my website (Claire’s stories are in the book) and I made a useful connection with Dr Samantha Rayner at University College London via Twitter. Samantha kindly facilitated my access to the Penguin Archive at the University of Bristol, and I’m planning to do a talk on Heffers for her Masters students in early 2017.
Whenever I refer to Heffers on Twitter, I use a hashtag. Over the past year, I found that if you googled Heffers or Heffers of Cambridge, images that I had shared, including the book cover of ‘This book is about Heffers’, which we had designed very early on (I shall be writing about the book layout and design later in this series), were fairly prominent. Along with images of large ruminants…
On 2nd February I attended the launch at Heffers of The Promise by Alison Bruce. I had met Alison a few months earlier when she kindly gave a talk at a writing group meeting that I had co-convened in our village. Alison, whose relationship with Heffers is shared in the book, invited me to attend her launch and it was there that I introduced myself to David Robinson (manager of Heffers), bookseller Richard Reynolds and retired bookseller Clive Cornell, who had kindly responded to the Cambridge News Memories plea. I subsequently had a meeting with David and Richard at the shop to tell them about my plans, and to ask if they had anything that may be useful. It turns out they did, including twenty years worth of staff newsletters, the Heffers publishing diaries and other fascinating memorabilia. Much later, in April, I attended another book launch for Timed Out by Barbara Lorna Hudson. Kate Fleet at Heffers had given Barbara my contact details, as she had worked at Heffers as a student in the early 1960s. I attended the launch, bought the book and not only enjoyed it but have retained my contact with Barbara who, as I learned later, was embarking on a second career as a fiction writer after working as an Oxford academic.
Also, in February I emailed the Cambridge University Alumni Office, asking for stories. By then I had written an Advance Information Sheet, which provided a useful summary of the proposed book. I received a swift response and the Alumni team used social media to reach out to Cambridge alumni all over the world. And I emailed Mike Petty, renowned local historian, and he not only agreed to meet up for a chat over coffee but also sent a list of useful references from his own ‘Chronicle of Cambridge News’, a terrific digital database of Cambridge events and stories.
Whilst virtual communication via Facebook and Twitter is great, never underestimate the value of getting together face-to-face. A pivotal moment in the Heffers project was a memory café at the Museum of Cambridge, on Friday 26th February. The Museum, located near the city centre, provides a tangible sense of place and plays a vital role in bringing people together for exchange and reflection. At this event I met members of the Heffer family and Heffers staff, past and present. David Robinson had always wanted to meet the Heffer family, and this was his chance, also. I brought posters and materials to the café and we had a small display. People like to look at photographs and memorabilia, which can of course trigger memories. Others also brought artefacts, including William Heffer who brought the original lease on the Petty Cury bookshop from 1896 –how exciting!
Hilary Cox-Condron at the Museum, made a terrific six-minute film of the memory café, starring Bunty Heffer, now aged 96 years. I was impressed with how relatively easy it was for Hilary to create the film on her mobile phone and I’m planning to use film much more in 2017 to share stories and images from my research and from Gottahavebooks publications.
Early on in the project, having received a communication from Kate Fleet, Heffer’s very enterprising Events Manager, asking if I would be interested in launching the book at Heffers, I had an opportunity to fix a publication date. Thus, I duly agreed with Kate we would launch the book at Heffers on 10th November 2016.
Now I had a DEADLINE.
Better get on with collecting and recording the stories.
How I did that is the topic of the next blog post.
Lessons from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge
One day, back in February this year, whilst striding down Trumpington Street after spending an afternoon at the Cambridgeshire Collection, I felt a rush of pure elation and was reminded of some advice a friend had recently shared on my future direction after finishing the PhD. She said ‘do what gives you joy’.
Since that time the experience of researching, writing and publishing ‘This Book Is About Heffers’ has given me mountains of joy – as well as anxieties, challenges, frustrations, and sadness. There were many things to tackle. For example, the pros and cons of having a personal connection to the topic, finding people willing to share their memories, using digital networks without making a nuisance of oneself, making the most of a face-to-face gathering, visiting people in their homes (and finding their homes in the first place!), recording conversations (with rather odd, and sometimes peripheral, sound effects), finding myself dreaming about it all, and deploying diplomacy at all times.
I don’t claim to be an expert on doing social history, or any sort of history, and I did have some terrific help with aspects of the project. My aim in this series of blog posts is simply to reflect on the experience and hopefully, by doing so, share some useful lessons for anyone who wishes to undertake a social history. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has advice to share, as this experience has left me wanting to do more, and I have a lot to learn!
Lesson number 1: Possession is a delicate issue
It’s not obligatory to have a personal connection with the topic but if you do, it can help, especially at the beginning when you’re trying to explain why you’ve embarked on such a major undertaking. And even when the word is out, (people said ‘she’s writing a book about Heffers’) you’ll need to revisit that special connection from time to time. For me, there were many quiet moments in the study when I thought about my family members who had worked for the firm. It sounds whimsical but I sensed their approval of the legacy I was trying to create and it gave me an inner confidence. It was, and still is, a nice feeling.
A personal connection can also, however, create a bit of a dilemma, as it did with this project. The book was inspired by my childhood memories of visiting Heffers Children’s bookshop every Saturday morning, and of course, by my family’s association with the firm. The memories are uncomplicated but the family association caused a moment of anxiety, which I will explain, as I suspect the scenario is not uncommon.
I hail from a line of Cambridge booksellers, bakers, college bedders and bus cleaners. Members of my family clocked up 120 years of service with Heffers, starting with my great-grandfather, Frederick Anstee, employed by William Heffer in 1896 when the Petty Cury bookshop was first opened. Frederick, along with bookseller F. J. Sebley, was one of the first employees at Heffers, at least on record. Since then of course, hundreds of people have worked for the firm and indeed there have been periods when Heffers employed well over 500 people at any one time across the bookselling, stationery and printing divisions. There are several stories in the book about the different ways in which people got started at Heffers, and how they fared. Frederick, who rose to become Head of Science, sadly died suddenly in 1944 whilst still in service.
The part that Frederick played in helping to build the firm is rightly something to be proud of. That pride is boosted by a letter from a family friend, Duncan Littlechild (bookseller with Heffers for fifty-four years), written in 1968 on the death of my great-grandmother, Frederick’s widow. In expressing his condolences, Littlechild declared that it was Frederick, along with Ernest and Frank Heffer, who ‘founded’ the firm. This of course is his opinion, his ‘selfish feeling’ as he describes it, about a friend whom he described as an, ‘oh such perfect father who lived for his family’. After careful consideration, I decided not to quote this in the book. Another of his ‘selfish feelings’, too indelicate to include, was his opinion that Ernest and Frank were, ‘the only two Heffers who were worth more than a pound a week.’
Littlechild’s letter wasn’t actually the issue that caused the ethical quandary as I wrote the book, though it probably contributed. In late July, I was told in no uncertain terms that Heffers is “our” family firm and that this must be stated in the book. This created a rather delicate situation. Whilst I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feeling, I wasn’t comfortable with making such a claim. Nor was I comfortable with being told what to write. I don’t mind being asked to take something into consideration, and in my work I do try to be sensitive to people’s feelings – and to my own. And so, when this exchange occurred, a number of questions, some of which I’d already been grappling with, came to the fore.
How do you balance personal involvement with a dispassionate telling of the story?
Perhaps it’s like doing sociology, you must hold your connection up to the light so that it can be seen and acknowledged. I did include a narrative about my family’s association with the firm and indeed quoted letters from members of the Heffer family who clearly had high regard for Frederick. I also acknowledged the claim about it being “our” family firm, whilst at the same time declaring that no doubt Heffers had engendered a similar sense of loyalty in many Cambridge families.
Who does the story belong to?
I’m collecting, curating and interpreting people’s memories that are given freely and openly. The history of Heffers, as with other histories, is not in some exclusive ownership. It lives in people’s minds and it’s evolving. The story belongs to everyone and no one. It doesn’t belong to the Heffer family or to any one family, and certainly not to mine.
Who has responsibility for the publication?
As the author, and the publisher in this instance, I have the responsibility. I may have an aversion to the phrase, ‘my book’ (for reasons I need not explain here), but it is my doing. I initiated the project, took control and decided what to write. I was sensitive to people’s feelings, I checked stories and quotations and I made changes accordingly. I did my best to get things right and I didn’t want anyone telling me what I should write. In that sense, perhaps is has to be ‘my book’.
The next post will be about finding people with stories to share.