Poetry Survival and the Carcanet Press Archive

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Victoria Stobo writes:

Since January 2019, I’ve been working as a Project Archivist in Special Collections, exploring the Carcanet Press Archive. Carcanet is a renowned poetry publisher, celebrating its 50th anniversary in late 2019, and the archive is one of the John Ryland Library’s most important literary collections. This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Dr Lise Jaillant, the PI for the project, is exploring how small poetry publishers survive in the global marketplace.

As part of the project, we’re:

  • Making a selection of 100 emails available online, from the born-digital material which forms part of the Carcanet Press Email Archive;
  • Creating new finding aids for records associated with key writers, including Laura (Riding) Jackson, Elizabeth Jennings and Ted Hughes;
  • Exhibiting a selection of Carcanet Press Archive materials relating to Elizabeth Jennings, Sujata Bhatt, the Arts Council and the wider poetry landscape in the UK; and
  • Organising a conference exploring access to born-digital archives, and the use of computational methods (e.g. machine learning), to facilitate this.

This isn’t the first time the John Rylands Library has explored the email archive – Fran Baker and Dr Phil Butler, Caroline Martin, Ben Green and Sandra Bracegirdle did award-winning work building the infrastructure, processes and skills necessary to start capturing and preserving born-digital records back in 2014, and produced some stunning visualisations from the corpus of email (including an illustration of what Elizabeth Gaskell’s inbox might look like).

In this new project we’re taking a broad look at the issues surrounding user access to email archives. Different legal regimes in the EU and the US governing the use of personal data mean that different approaches to access can be confusing and frustrating for researchers. Institutions in the EU generally close access to email archives on data protection and privacy grounds, or only permit access to smaller, pre-approved and appraised collections of email in person, on site at the institution (for example, see Wendy Cope’s email archive at the British Library). In contrast, some US institutions may grant access to email archives if users agree to a variety of access and publication terms and conditions. For example, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin, Texas permits access to some electronic files onsite, but does not allow users to download or copy the files (users are allowed to take photographs of the files on the computer screen, but these images are strictly for personal use only). If users want to publish any of the materials, they must seek permission from the copyright holder, and agree to indemnify the University of Austin through a Notice of Intent to Publish. Indemnification essentially transfers any legal liability associated with publication from the institution to the user.

One of the objectives of our project is to make a selection of emails (approx. 100) available online, subject to sensitivity review and permission from the authors. Process-tracing the decisions, activities and transactions which lead to making this small selection of emails available will illustrate many of the challenges and opportunities associated with enabling access to email archives. This scoping work can then contribute to future research in this area. As part of this process, we’re working with our existing digital preservation repository, Preservica, but also exploring new open source tools that have been developed for managing email archives at a more granular level, specifically ePADD.

In addition to the email archive, I have been working with paper correspondence too: so far, I have catalogued material relating to Sylvia Townsend Warner, Sally Purcell and Laura (Riding) Jackson. The material relating to Townsend-Warner and Purcell is slight, but speaks to the breadth of the Carcanet list; the social and political spheres in which Townsend Warner and Purcell moved; and Michael Schmidt’s abilities as an editor and confidant, to build and maintain good relationships with Carcanet’s writers.

In contrast, there is a significant amount of correspondence with Riding Jackson. Schmidt was determined to get Riding’s work back into print on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 1980s, and their correspondence covers the publication process for A Trojan Ending, Progress of Stories, and her Selected Poems, including correspondence with North American publishers. They also discuss Riding’s treatment in the literary press, and her ongoing disputes with various biographies of Robert Graves, which tended to sensationalise her relationship with Graves during the 1920s and 30s. Riding is simultaneously imperious and vulnerable in the letters: always ready to debate the use of language and its relation to truth-telling in the strongest terms, while acknowledging her physical limitations and her reliance on her assistant, Elizabeth Friedmann. More archival material relating to Laura Riding Jackson can be consulted at Nottingham Trent University.

And finally: Dr Lise Jaillant and I have been also been conducting an oral history of the Carcanet Press. In addition to interviewing Michael Schmidt, we have also spoken to poets and editors associated with the Press, including Grevel Lindop, Anthony Rudolf, Roger Garfitt, Peter Jay, Gareth Reeves, Alison Brackenbury, Mike Freeman, Robyn Marsack, Judith Willson and Helen Tookey. Selected recordings and transcripts will be made available on the project web resource, alongside the emails and the new finding aids.

For more information about the project, including research outputs, see the project website at http://www.poetrysurvival.com/.

Digitisation of Letters by Charles Dickens in the Elizabeth Gaskell Collection

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I am pleased to announce that a collection of 31 letters written by Charles Dickens is now available for access online via Manchester Digital Collections.

Engraving of Charles Dickens 1872. Creators John Forster and D.J. Pound

Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, to name but a few, is considered one of the most eminent authors of the Victorian era. He was also an ardent campaigner for social reform, particularly for the rights of children. Many of Dickens’ novels first appeared in a serialised form in literary magazines and journals, and in 1850 he launched his own journal, Household Words.

Portrait of Elizabeth Gaskell 1832, by William John Thomson

Elizabeth Gaskell, novelist and short-story writer of Cranford, North and South, Wives and Daughters and The Life of Charlotte Brontë, was also a strong believer in social duty, and like Dickens, used fiction to highlight the issues she observed, including Victorian attitudes towards women, and the plight of impoverished workers in the industrialised north of England.

Gaskell’s first published work, Mary Barton, attracted the attention of Dickens who asked her to become a contributor to the literary pages of Household Words. Gaskell’s works Cranford and North and South were first published in Household Words, and she contributed many short stories and gothic stories to the journal. The newly digitised letters were written during this period, and give insight into the occasionally strained relationship between author and editor.

Letter from Charles Dickens to Elizabeth Gaskell. Reproduced with permission from Commander Mark Dickens

The letters include discussion of many of Gaskell’s works, including Lizzie Legh, Cranford and several Christmas stories, which reference to requests by Dickens for contributions for Household Words and All the Year Round. Also included is appreciation of praise by Gaskell for works by Dickens, discussion of their mutual passion for ghost stories, and details of editing, payment, rights, and the process of dividing text for serialisation. My particular favourite passage is the suggestion of a change in title for North and South, originally provisionally entitled Margaret Hale.

The series includes 27 letters are addressed to Elizabeth Gaskell, with an additional 3 written to her husband, the Reverend William Gaskell. I would like to thank our exceptional Imaging team and metadata assistants for the successful completion of this project.

Book for a Cardinal

Following on from her previous post Sara D’Amico has another discovery to share.

The David Lloyd Roberts Collection is mostly devoted to first editions of English authors, but a significant part consists of early editions of major Italian authors. These books stand out for their incredible looks: the gynecologist and bibliophile gathered a large number of fine bindings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, like the one you can see below belonging to the Italian cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589).
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The cardinal was a great collector and patron of the arts: apart from assembling the greatest private collection of Roman sculptures, he continued to enlarge his library through the years. Farnese used to enrich his books with 16th-century Italian full goatskin bindings with gilt borders, arabesque designs coloured in gilt and his coat of arms surmounted by a cardinal’s hat in the centre. On the rear cover, he put the Latin motto Domus Farnesiana sempre florida erit. But which book hides behind this richly decorated cover?
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Il Petrarcha con l’espositione di m. Giouanni Andrea Gesualdo, printed in Venice in 1553. A commentary on Petrarch, something that was very common in the library of a cleric in the 16th century. Ecclesiastical libraries often consisted of classical literature, but Farnese’s collection distinguished itself from the others due to the heavy presence of erudite works. Petrarch was always held above everyone else in Italian literature. However, the book we have examined presents a curious anomaly. This is what the titlepage of other copies looks like (the picture has been taken from a copy in the Bullock Collection):
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The David Lloyd Roberts copy appears to be very different. A closer look to its titlepage reveals something quite peculiar: the imprint has been scratched away using what looks like silver, and the slightest asymmetry of the floral decoration gives it away as a manuscript title, so beautifully done that it seems printed. After closer investigation, it became clear that the original title was painted over with a white pigment, which is starting to show some cracks (you can spot them in the picture below).
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The cardinal’s hat drawn over the printer’s coat of arms is contemporary to the rewritten title, which suggests that it was the cardinal himself who made the alterations. If you squeeze your eyes enough, you can probably read the name Enea Vico in the bottom of the engraved titlepage. Vico (1523-1567) was an Italian engraver and numismatic; his first printed work was Le imagini con tutti i riuersi trouati et le vite de gli imperatori tratte dalle medaglie et dalle historie de gli antichi. Libro primo, 1548, which is the book this titlepage originally belonged to. Cardinal Farnese collected ancient coins and commissioned modern medals, so the presence of an essay about coins in his library makes sense, but we don’t know what happened to Vico’s Imagini in Farnese’s possession and why its titlepage was reused. Luckily, the John Rylands Library holds a copy in the Aldine Collection:
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If you want to go through Vico’s astonishing engravings, you can find a copy of the Imagini in the Aldine Collection (reference: Aldine Collection R227141.1).

If you want to read Gesualdo’s commentary on Petrarch, you can find a copy in the Bullock Collection (reference: Walter L. Bullock Collection 1547) or you can admire Farnese’s handwork in the David Lloyd Roberts copy (reference: David Lloyd Roberts Collection R52115).

Sara D’Amico (2019 Erasmus Intern)

Drawing Dissection: Medical Illustrations by Joseph Jordan’s Apprentice Digitised

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John Hatton blood vessels

Illustration of blood vessels by John Hatton in his ‘Surgical lectures of Joseph Jordan’ (1838)

I’m delighted to announce the recent digitisation of two unique books from our 19th-century medical collections.  Available online in full for the first time (see links below), both items are associated with Manchester surgeon John Hatton (1817-71), who was apprenticed to the pioneering physician Joseph Jordan (1787-1873).  Jordan is credited with founding the first ‘provincial’ school of anatomy to be recognised by the Society of Apothecaries.  

The Dublin Dissector is a printed manual interleaved with Hatton’s manuscript illustrations, and is my favourite discovery from a current Wellcome-funded project.  The ‘Surgical lectures of Joseph Jordan’ is a heavily-illustrated manuscript copy of Joseph Jordan’s lectures on anatomy, offering an insight into Jordan’s teaching as well as representations of the medical body in the early 19th century.

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John Hatton’s diagram ‘of a side view of the pelvis’ in his copy of the Dublin Dissector (1831), which is interleaved with numerous illustrations

Dr Peter Mohr, Honorary Curator of the Museum of Medicine and Health, is currently researching John Hatton and has kindly offered the following biographical note:

From 1833, John Hatton was apprenticed as a medical student to Joseph Jordan, the founder of the Manchester Mount Street Medical School (1826-35). Hatton qualified with Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries (LSA) in 1836 and Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) in 1839. Hatton’s copy of the 2-volume Dublin Dissector (1831) is held in the Medical Print Collections at the University Library. Volume 1 is signed and dated ’26 January 1833′ and marks the start of his apprenticeship, while volume 2 is dated ‘1837’ and inscribed ‘9 Bridge Street, Manchester’─ a time when he was studying for his MRCS. His copy has interspersed blank pages which he has used to illustrate anatomical structures with pen and ink sketches. The Dublin Dissector was written by Robert Harrison (1796-1858), Professor of Anatomy in Dublin, was the most popular dissecting manual of the time.

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Illustration of the brachial artery from ‘Surgical Lectures of Joseph Jordan’ (1838)

During 1837-38 Hatton was acting as Jordan’s assistant at Manchester Royal Infirmary and made a hand-written copy of Jordan’s lectures on surgery, which is now in the University’s Medical Manuscripts Collection. The lectures were the final part of Hatton’s training and he intended that his ‘copy’ should be a gift for Mr Jordan. He signed and inscribed it: ‘presented to Joseph Jordan Esq., as a slight testimony of esteem & regard, by his obedient servant, John Hatton, 10 February 1838’.  He documented 20 lectures and added several excellent drawings to illustrate the text.

By 1841 Hatton was living on Oxford Street and working as Consultant Surgeon to the nearby Chorlton-upon-Medlock Dispensary on Cavendish Street. He kept detailed records and in 1854 he produced a map of cholera cases and published his report on the ‘Sanitary Conditions of Chorlton-upon-Medlock’. He was the Regional Secretary for the British Medical Association for many years, but he had to retired in 1860 due to chronic renal disease. He died in 1871 and is buried in Bowdon.

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John Hatton’s signature at the front of his illustrated copy of the Dublin Dissector.  He served his apprenticeship at Joseph Jordan’s school of anatomy on Bridge Street, a stone’s throw from the John Rylands Library!

 

With thanks to the Imaging Team and Dr Peter Mohr for their expertise.

 

Pietro Antonio Ferro: an Italian painter and his book

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Sara D’Amico spent three months working with us as part of the EU Erasmus+ training scheme. Her project focused on 16th century Italian books in the Walter L. Bullock collection. This work is part of a partnership with the Italian Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo Unico to enhance their Census of 16th Century Italian editions (EDIT16). You can find out more about this in our previous post.

Milan, Christmas 1938: Helen Bullock gives her husband Walter the perfect Christmas present: a sixteenth-century Italian book, Trattato dell’arte de la pittura. Walter Bullock, Serena professor of Italian at the University of Manchester, was putting together an important collection which now enriches the shelves of the John Rylands Library.

The professor, always so keen on rarities, immediately recognised the essay, written by the Italian painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo in 1584 right after losing his sight; what he may have not realised, was that very same book had belonged to Pietro Antonio Ferro, another Italian painter who had much less fortune than Lomazzo.
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As you can see in the picture above, Ferro signed his name and profession (Pietro Antonio Ferro pittore) on the titlepage of each of the seven books which make up the whole work. But at that time very few people may have recognised him: despite his success in the central regions of Italy during the seventeenth century, the painter was long forgotten. He was mentioned for the very first time in 1928 by Wart Arslan in his Relazione di una missione artistica in Basilicata, and was then referred to in a few local guides until 1981, when Anna Grelle redefined his artistic personality and reconstructed his style.

Though he didn’t have much luck in the artistic literature, Ferro’s works can be found almost everywhere in the region of Basilicata, especially in Matera. He was an important exponent of Italian Mannerism and a prolific artist: his activity spans over 40 years (1601-1644).
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Very few biographical facts about him are known. Historians are still unsure about the date of his death (possibly around 1652), but what causes more doubts is his place of birth. In a contract signed in 1601, he refers to himself as a painter from the town of Ferrandina (“pictore de tera Ferandina”), but in a later document he’s referred to as a painter from the diocese of Tricarico (“pictore della città de Tricarico”). It is likeley that Ferro was born in Ferrandina and then moved to Tricarico, where he may have died: interestingly, on the titlepage of the second book of the essay, you can read another ownership inscription, made by Luigi Guerrisi in 1694. The Guerrisi family was an important noble family in Tricarico and the fact that Luigi came in possession of Pietro Antonio’s book a few decades after his death shows that their families must have had a deep connection.

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Another interesting aspect of Ferro’s activity resides in his relationship with printing. Instead of taking inspiration from local artists, he looked at printed pictures (stampe) from the Tuscan-Roman region, so that his own works would be as modern as possible and could compete with those of more artistically evolved regions in Italy. This particular approach to painting led him to often travel to Rome, where he moved in the 1580s for an apprenticeship and where, in 1598, he bought Lomazzo’s essay.

The copy in Bullock’s possession holds more manuscript notes made by Ferro in the margins, notes that may shine a new light on his work. We know that three stages in his art have been identified and in the third stage (second half of the 1630s) we can see Caravaggio’s influence: the paintings tend to be darker. But if we read some of Ferro’s notes, it is clear that he had always been interested in the representation of light and shadows in painting: in the index that precedes Lomazzo’s essay, he marked with a dash the chapters that were most important to him, such as Grande auuertenza nell’allumar le figure di chiaro & scuro, Lumare & ombrare le figure senza contorno and Pittura è il corpo, & la poesia è l’ombra.

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Even the manicule is drawn in a chapter named Come si diano i lumi à i corpi, where the author illustrates how to properly illuminate the bodies in a painting or where the shadows should be based on the direction of the light source.
The manicule is a punctuation mark in the form of a hand (its name derives from the Latin “small hand”), pointing a particularly interesting part of a text. It was first used in Spanish manuscripts in the 12th century, but it became rather popular in the 14th-15th century Italy, where it developed into more and more complex and elaborate drawings, as the one you can see in the picture above.

If you want to read the book and Ferro’s notes, or admire his beautifully coloured initials, you can find it in the John Rylands Special Collections (Walter L. Bullock Book Collection 1165).

Sara D’Amico (2019 Erasmus intern)

16th-century Italian books: a new partnership

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Petrarca, Le cose volgari (Venice, Aldo Manuzio, 1501). Aldine Collection 15442

The Census of Italian 16th-Century Editions (EDIT 16) aims at documenting Italian books printed during the 16th century and at reviewing the countrywide heritage. The data base includes editions printed in Italy between 1501 and 1600, in any language, and editions printed abroad in Italian. It also contains information about the authors, publishers, uniform titles, printers’ devices which can be used for direct search and the related bibliographic sources archive.

1,591 state, local authority, church and private libraries in Italy are taking part in the Census in close collaboration with the Istituto centrale per il catalogo unico delle biblioteche italiane e per le informazioni bibliografiche (ICCU), that manages the project, providing information and describing the 16th-century editions held by them.

Until recently libraries outside of Italy have not been included in the survey. The University of Manchester Library is pleased to be one of the first libraries in the UK to sign a co-operation agreement with ICCU to enhance the EDIT16 database with our holdings of 16th-century Italian books. The John Rylands Library has particularly rich collections of Italian books, especially those from the 2nd Earl Spencer and Walter L. Bullock. In total there are over 5,000 16th-century Italian editions to be added to the database.

We have started work on the Walter L. Bullock collection, with the assistance of Sara D’Amico who spent five months at the library as part of the EU Erasmus+ training scheme. Sara has already discovered nearly 30 editions not recorded in the EDIT16 database and we expect there will be more as the work progresses. Our next step is to share data from the Aldine Collection, the bulk of which was collected by the 2nd Earl Spencer in the early 19th century. We look forward to working more closely with our new Italian partners!

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Rime diversi (Venice, Gabriel Giolito, 1545). Walter L. Bullock Collection 1697

The Manchester Geographical Society (MGS) Map Cataloguing Project

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The Manchester Geographical Society (MGS) was launched on 21st October 1884 with a meeting in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, at which the famous explorer H. M. Stanley gave a lecture. The management of the society was assigned to Eli Sowerbutts, who was the secretary from the foundation of the MGS until his death in 1904. The MGS was known for its lecture series and the publication of a Journal. The society was also instrumental in the appointment of the first Lecturer in Geography at Owens College in 1891, and the first Professor of Geography to be appointed at the University in 1930.

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Digitised lantern slides of the MGS from the collection – available to view here

The Manchester Geographical Society (MGS) collection, which was transferred to the University of Manchester Library in 1970, comprises atlases, printed books, lantern slides, archives and also maps. Within this collection, there are around 2000 map-sheets. However, we have very sparse documentation and hardly any information about these maps. The potential within this collection for research and engagement appears to be significant – this can be seen by opening up any of the many plan-chest drawers where the maps reside. From what we have gathered so far, the collection consists of several manuscript maps, various maps of Lancashire, a significant amount of series mapping of Africa and some fine examples of 19th-century and early 20th-century cartographic ephemera. World maps and maps of other continents are also well represented in the collection. In previous years, there have been individual maps picked out and digitised for use in research and engagement, such as the 2016 digitisation project of Japanese Maps and images of the Manchester Ship Canal featured in the book, ‘Manchester: Mapping the City’. However, the bulk of the collection has not yet been explored to its full extent.

The MGS Map Cataloguing project, which has generously been funded by the Manchester Geographical Society, will be my focus for the next twelve months. The outcome of this project will be to ensure that the estimated 2000 uncatalogued maps from this collection will be discoverable and accessible to researchers, students and public audiences.

Whilst I am carrying out this project, I will be regularly tweeting under the hashtag #ManGeogSoc and I will continue to write a number of blog posts researching and illustrating the fabulous maps that I am working with.

With thanks to Donna Sherman, Maps Librarian, for her guidance.

Sources:

M.D. Leigh, “The Manchester Geographical Society, 1884-1979”, Manchester Geographer Journal, 1980.

T.W. Freeman, “The Manchester Geographical Society, 1884-1984”, Manchester Geographer Journal, 1984.

Paul Hindle, “Turmoil and Transition: the Manchester Geographical Society, 1973-1997”, North West Geographer, 2.1, 1998.

The Papers of Peter Good: An Accrual to the Dave Cunliffe Archive

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Bruce Wilkinson writes:

Dave Cunliffe spent much of the early 1970s in Blackburn’s alternative bookshop Amamus. Increasingly a magnet for much of the town’s underground activity it was here that he met anarchist Peter Good recently arrived from a Welsh commune. Good painstakingly hand-printed prankster magazine Anarchism Lancastrium (AL) a few miles away in Whalley from where he walked to sell his publication. According to Mike Waite’s paper “Remembering Anarchism Lancastrium – Notes on ‘the Cult Seventies Prankster’ 1974-1981” (2002) Cunliffe contributed a range of material to the tract under a variety of aliases and, using insider knowledge from Arthur Moyse, spread salacious gossip about political activists making as much mischief as possible. Printed on recycled newspaper, cardboard boxes and anything else Good could find, AL often came with pull-out extras including anti-fascist beermats and revolutionary stickers (‘Too many chiefs not enough anarchists’) which he asked readers to distribute.

A copy of the Cunningham Amendment in the Peter Good Papers

Anarchism Lancastrium attacked the politics of the then prevalent neo-fascist National Front and other right-wing groups but Good attracted flack for poking fun at the language and attitudes of the left, satirising the lack of humour within the militancy of the period. Articles lampooning the dialectics of socialist collectives either went completely over the heads of their intended targets or caused outrage amongst those who spotted the clever in-jokes and gags. Good and Cunliffe’s habit of turning up to political assemblies in a variety of bizarre costumes and AL’s use of sexual language eventually got them both in trouble, Moss Side Printers rejecting the material, alternative bookshops refusing to sell it and the pair often banned from the very events they advertised in their publications.

Both Cunliffe and Good worked as part-time nurses within a group of Ribble Valley psychiatric hospitals known as the Langho Colony. Peter Good received a doctorate writing about alternative forms of mental health treatment, later turning his Psychiatry PhD research into Language for Those Who Have Nothing (Springer, 2001). He became briefly infamous for his involvement in an industrial dispute at Calderstones hospital where he worked as a qualified nurse. Unexpectedly elected as the institution’s union representative, Good was outraged that unqualified nursing assistants often found themselves in charge of two or sometimes three wards throughout the night. An elderly patient died in a pool of vomited blood, huddled around a toilet bowl, while a young girl in the throes of an epileptic seizure trapped her arm behind a radiator and suffered severe burns. Unsuccessfully raising the understaffing issue with the local health authority, Good balloted for industrial action, returning a 91% vote in favour but, unwilling to conduct a complete walkout for fear of further harming patients, the nurses worked to rule which management merely ignored. Out of desperation Good organised a sit-in of a hospital wing containing 46 residents, lasting 13 days, gaining national media attention and forcing the authorities into an inquiry at which promises were made about future employment levels (later reneged upon). Good was subsequently sacked after plainclothes policemen visited the hospital and he was effectively blacklisted from the NHS, taking up bus driving in order to feed his family.

A copy of the Cunningham Amendment in the papers of Peter Good

The Cunningham Amendment is Good’s beautiful follow-up to AL, started after moving across the Pennines to Bradford and then continued from his current home in Norfolk. Printed with an ancient salvaged letterpress machine on found objects including toilet paper, cheque books and lottery tickets it now runs to more than 14 volumes lasting over thirty years, continuing Good’s anarchic satire.

Cunliffe and Good maintain a strong friendship through written correspondence reflected by missives of lively badinage shared between two provocateurs always on the lookout for trouble. Peter has now kindly donated his letters to the Dave Cunliffe Archive at the John Rylands Library which, along with full sets of Good’s publications, represents a wonderful history of British anarchism since the 1960s.

A copy of the Cunningham Amendment in the papers of Peter Good

Stories in a Box, Part 1: Dostoevsky

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Turning to leave one of our manuscript storage areas I saw a box labelled Small Russian Manuscripts. Curious – I hadn’t realised we had any Russian manuscript material – I took a look inside.

The box was a third full and contained two paper bound printed books and three brown envelopes.

Sitting at my desk the following morning I examined the contents: An autographed printed copy of Vsevold Garshin’s short stories (1882); an anonymous printed volume on state sovereignty which has a handwritten dedication to Ivan Turgenev (1876); the visiting card of Russian Chemist Dmitri Mendeleev; a covering letter from the donor of the items and – most surprisingly – a letter written by Fyodor Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg in December 1863.

One sheet of paper

Opening the envelope (marked in biro: F.M.DOSTOEVSKY) I found a single sheet of paper divided by a fold into four handwritten pages.

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Dostoevsky Letter – 5 December 1863 – page 1

A quick Google indicated that the handwriting and signature were consistent with it being written by Dostoevsky – what was particularly exciting was that it appeared to be uncatalogued. Could this be an undiscovered addition to the Dostoevsky canon? Whilst the greeting on the letter was in GCSE level French (“Mon tres cher Monsieur”) the rest was in Russian. Kindly – and extremely promptly – three undergraduates in the Languages school (thanks to Sam Linley, Maria Kulik and Ana Marinina) provided a translation which allowed me to check against published letters.

Three disappointments

  • It’s been written about (‘discovered’) before by J.S.G. Simmons who thought it worthy of an article in Oxford Slavonic Papers in 1960;
  • Despite its absence from Wikipedia’s list of Dostoevsky letters (I know…) the letter was published in the Complete Letters (Complete letters, Dostoevsky F. M. ; Lowe, David A; Ardis; 1989; Vol 2. the library copy is here );
  • The letter itself is of “less than epoch making literary interest” (Simmons) and “of no literary or historical value” (from the donor’s covering letter).

 Still – what do they know? What does Dostoevsky actually have to say in the letter?

Six excuses

Dostoevsky was a reckless gambler and in catastrophic financial difficulties for much of his life. This letter (to an unknown correspondent) is an almost comically long-winded and convoluted attempt to explain why he has been out of contact with two people he has borrowed money from in Dresden in autumn 1863. The sequential reasons for this are:

  • I was in St. Petersburg “taking care of things”;
  • My wife was taken ill and I had to travel to Vladimir;
  • On the road I lost my bag which had the addresses of all my acquaintances both here and abroad;
  • I forgot your street and house number in Dresden (due to my “extraordinarily weak memory”);
  • I decided to write when I returned to St Petersburg but “day after day went by and brought only new worries”;
  • I had to visit Moscow.

The style is highly strung, neurotic and identifiably Dostoevsky and it was a personal thrill for me to find it in our collections.

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Dostoevsky’s signature and postscript

The full digitised letter is available here. If you would like to see the original you can do so here at the John Rylands Library – please read the access guide here

If you’re interested in the rest of the box and how the material came to the John Rylands I’ll be writing about that very soon on here.

Dominic Marsh, Reader Services Coordinator, John Rylands Library