Indian Magic in Paddington

Indian Magic by Balraj KhannaThe Paddington Library Reading Group enjoyed an illustrated talk last week by prize winning local author Balraj Khannawho spoke about his recently published  novel, Indian Magic.

The story is set in the 1960’s when a well educated young Indian man, Ravi Kumar Mehra arrives  in London to make his way in life and ‘make his fortune’. He finds himself in a series of hilarious situations out of which he has to navigate his way, finally falling in love with a young English girl.The style is lighthearted and the reader does empathise with the young man.

Balraj has written 10 books on art, a children’s story book entitled The Rajah King of the Jungle  and 4 works of fiction: The Mists of Simla and Indian Magic, Sweet Chillies and Nation of Fools. The latter was judged as one of the 200 best novels in English published between 1950 and 2000.

The author is also an artist and has had over 55 one man art shows nationally and internationally and scores of mixed exhibitions. Balraj had a major retrospective last year at MOMA Wales – and his work was seen more recently at Osborne Samuel Gallery in Mayfair three months ago. He also had the honour of being commissioned to paint the Safety Curtain of the newly refurbished Birmingham’s Hippodrome Theatre, the largest painting in this country.

Author Balraj Khanna visits Paddington Library, August 2014

This event was part of the Paddington Festival which runs from June to September in the north west of City Of Westminster.


Summer Reading Challenge – Week 4

Medusa - copyright Sarah McIntyre for The Reading AgencyWe are well over half way through this year’s Summer Reading Challenge, and the end of the summer holidays can be glimpsed through the Maze… but don’t worry, there is lots of time to read those last few books to make sure you get your medal. There is even still time to join if you haven’t already – just visit your local library, it’s free to take part!

So far we’ve had over 1,900 children join the Mythical Maze in Westminster – can we make it to 2,000? You get a medal for reading 6 books from the library – what are you waiting for?

We’ve been busy in our libraries with lots of events to entertain children and families through the holidays. Here is a photo from Church Street Library who recently had a visit from Zoo Lab – are you feeling brave? Sophie from Zoo Lab brought snakes and spiders and told us all about how they live!

Zoo Lab at Church Street Library for the Summer Reading Challenge 2014


The Last Post

After months of planning it was finally here – our Behind the Lines* summer school, the culmination of a year-long project for Westminster Music Library in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Behind the Lines Summer School 2014Having spent the past twelve months delivering workshops featuring Edward Elgar, Maurice Ravel, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney, Gustav Holst, George Butterworth and Arthur Bliss, it could have been a tough choice to pick out just two composers to feature in our summer school, but as Vaughan Williams has an important connection with Westminster Music Library (he opened the Music Library to the public in 1948) and he and Ravel had been good friends, it proved to be quite easy – this was going to be a good fit.

So it was that on a sunny morning in August 2014, twenty five young participants from schools across Westminster descended on the Music Library for the opening workshop, ably led by workshop leaders Detta and Tash with musicians from The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Behind the Lines Summer School 2014

Two war-inspired works were chosen; Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin  and the fourth movement of Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral symphony. One of Ravel’s greatest successes,  Le Tombeau de Couperin  was completed near the end of the War. This suite for solo piano, influenced by the French Baroque composer François Couperin, was composed between 1914 and 1917, and is based on a traditional French Baroque suite, being made up of 18th century-style dance movements. Ravel dedicated each movement to the memory of his friends (or in one case, two brothers) who had died fighting in World War I.

In 1914 Vaughan Williams enlisted as a Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and joined the 2/4th London Field Ambulance, part of the 179th Brigade within the 60th Division. The Pastoral Symphony is clearly and expressively linked to the War and proved to be a necessary and cathartic work for Vaughan Williams. A wordless melody for soprano, accompanied only by a drum roll, that opens the fourth movement, seems to express all the pain and sorrow of the War.

Following a lot of discussion about the horrors of the First World War and the impact it had on our composers, our participants set about creating new melodies, harmonies and poetry based on these two works for their brand new composition, destined for its world premier at St John’s Smith Square.

Behind the Lines Summer School 2014

Later in the week the pupils were joined by adults from local community group Open Age, who were to contribute additional material to the final work and would also be performing on stage alongside our younger musicians. With all these eager performers and brain power it was getting pretty packed in The Music Library – it looked as though we were going to need a much bigger room to rehearse…

One summer school was swiftly re-located to Pimlico Academy and an empty school hall to accommodate what appeared to be almost a full size symphony orchestra with newly formed choir. After four days of rehearsals, re-tunings, new melodies, rhythms, vocal lines, narrative, lost bows and mouth pieces, the consumption of enormous quantities of tea and biscuits, our “magnum opus” was complete. Given that this piece was created by a bunch of people who’d never clapped eyes on each other prior to our summer school, it all sounded pretty impressive at the final rehearsal, and left me in no doubt that their hard work had really paid off.

St John's, Smith Square

But now it was time to put them to the test, in front of a live audience at St John’s Smith Square, an audience which would include some pretty impressive VIPs. No pressure then.

Behind the Lines Summer School 2014

From the opening chords to the incredibly moving finale –  an off-stage performance of The Last Post  (our 13 year old trumpet player had stayed up late the previous night practicing to get it spot on – and he did) there was hardly a dry eye in the house.  What started out as a lot of disconnected ideas at the start of the week had been transformed into a very moving and fitting tribute to our chosen composers, and of course all our many First World War heroes.

Behind the Lines Summer School 2014

And so our year of Behind the Lines – the music and composers of The First World War draws to an impressive close. Or does it? Watch this space (and our events pages) for some more Behind  the Lines  activities this autumn.


*Over the past year, having received a grant from Arts Council England, Westminster Music Library has been working in partnership with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to deliver Behind the Lines – an extensive programme of music workshops for families, schools and adults inspired by the music and composers of the First World War.
Find out more at

“I’m sure they were a lot more sensible in the olden days!”

A chance conversation about how we seem to be taking up more extreme sports, sparked by news of people BASE jumping from Canary Wharf, made me jokingly say that perhaps someone should try the age old one of tightrope walking across the Niagara Falls. This led me to wonder – who was the first to do this?

Off I went to begin my search, of course, via a search engine. As I read into the subject I found it and the first person to do it (in 1859) more and more interesting. Although born in France and with this major exploit being played out between Canada and America, Jean Francois Gravelet (renamed and known forever more as Blondin) had a lot to do with my own local area (Ealing) and indeed Westminster.


Of all the sources it was the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card) which contained the best article. Reading around this, I found it fascinating to see what else was going on 150 years ago (I browsed through articles in the Illustrated London News and other newspapers from the time about copycats such as the Female Blondin). I had always thought of extreme sports and insane stunts as a modern craze. However, it would seem that the dangers of what people get up to these days would pale into insignificance when compared to what went on in the 19th century.

Indeed, it is Monsieur Blondin’s antics over the Falls which really highlight this. He completed this challenge in 1859 and after that seemed to want to add a bit more excitement… more people (such as his daughter!), different venues (eg: Crystal Palace) and adding a bit more to his tightrope tricks.

Blondin amazingly kept working into his seventies living in what is now Westminster and Ealing (where he now has two streets and a house named after him). Indeed, having passed away due to ill health in 1897 he is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

If you are interested in finding out more then…

  • Perhaps try to find him listed in the Censuses and other records from the time (have a look in Ancestry when you visit one of the Triborough Libraries).
  • Find articles and pictures from the 19th Century in The Times, The Illustrated London News, The Guardian or the Observer – or more recent ones about the extreme sports we get up to now:

Other articles:

All sparked from a chance conversation and a curious mind!


Summer Reading Challenge – Week 3: the volunteers!

The Summer Reading Challenge is carrying on all summer in our libraries, so if you haven’t already taken part, there is still time to enter The Mythical Maze!

Eve - Summer Reading Challenge volunteer at Victoria Library 2014This week we are highlighting the work of our fabulous summer volunteers who help us deliver the Challenge in our libraries.

Working with the Reading Agency on their Reading Activists project, we have been focusing on recruiting young people in particular, alongside volunteers from the rest of the community. Reading Activists gives young people new skills and opportunities. We have some great volunteers giving their time to talk to children about their books and helping with events.

Here are just a few of them!

George and Danilo - Summer Reading Challenge volunteers at Paddington Children’s Library 2014


Blessed by a visit from Brian

If you’ve just watched the latest ‘Who Do You Think you Are?’ featuring Brian Blessed, did you spot your friendly local archivist Alison, helping him to uncover his humble roots?

Brian Blessed at Westminster City Archives for Who Do You Think You Are? August 2014. L-R: Alison Kenney, Brian Blessed, Stephen Miller

Alison Kenney, Brian Blessed and Stephen Miller at Westminster City Archives for Who Do You Think You Are?

City of Westminster Archives Centre was pleased to help with piecing together the part of the tale that took place in London, and very much enjoyed Brian’s company as we delved into the story of his great-great-grandfather Jabez.

Incidentally, there’s some discussion about whether this name should be pronounced Jaybeez, Jabberz or a range of other variations that were used throughout the programme – if any historical name experts have a view on this, we’d love to hear from you!

We take up the story as the four orphaned Blessed children are ‘removed’ from Portsmouth just days after the death of their father (their mother having died a few months before). They arrive at the St Martin in the Fields parish workhouse on 11 November 1822. The eldest, Martha (14), is described as ‘an idiot’ in the terminology of the day, so Charles, aged 8, was perhaps the senior child. With them they brought Jabez, aged 6, and Elizabeth, just 22 months.

The Blessed family admission record at St Martin in the Fields Workhouse, 1822

Workhouse life was harsh and one can only imagine what state they were in when they arrived and what befell them next, as Martha was dead within eight days and Elizabeth within the month. Jabez was sent off to an ‘Infant Poorhouse’ north of London, returning to St Martin in 1825 after Charles had already been apprenticed to a shoemaker in Vauxhall. Jabez, perhaps wisely, ran away in 1827… and the story goes on from there, up and down the country from Northumberland to Brixton via Lincolnshire.

Brian was shown a map of the St Martin’s workhouse in Castle Street, on the current site of the National Portrait Gallery. He was particularly interested in the location as he has done literature readings and other performances at St Martin in the Fields Church opposite, never knowing of course that his close relative had lived so nearby.

It is thanks to the sterling work of the Archives Centre volunteers that this vital piece of information was so straightforward to find, as they have created an index of the workhouse admissions books. The Poor Law records for the St Martin in the Fields parish are some of the best sets of records in the country, and will soon be available via the Westminster Collection on Find My Past.

Brian Blessed had stated that he was looking for “humanity” and humble backgrounds, and he certainly found them in the streets of Victorian Westminster.

[Alison and Ali]

“My subject is War and the pity of War”

Some of the most moving poetry in English was written as a result of direct experience of the First World War.

Poetry of the First World War, an anthology by Tim Kendall      A Deep Cry by Anne Powell      Poems of the Great War 1914-1918      The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

Feminist author and poet Vera Brittain wrote her autobiography Testament of Youth as a result of losing her fiancé, her brother and two of her dearest male friends before peace was declared in November 1918. “Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart/Received when in that grand and tragic show/You played your part/Two Years Ago” are words from her poem ‘To my Brother (In Memory of July 1st 1916)’

In Flanders Fields is one of the most memorable poems from the First World War written by a Canadian Officer John McCrae.  “In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row.” Poppies were everywhere on the battlefield of Ypres as they only flower in rooted up earth, and the whole of the Western Front consisted of churned up soil.

Rosenberg (Isaac) wrote some of the best poems of the First World War. His poem ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ had a special mention in Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory. He was born into a working class Jewish family in Dvink (now Latvia) – his parents then emigrated to the East End of London.  It was thought that he might have been one of the outstanding poets of his generation had he survived the war – his work was admired by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He was killed at the front in April 1918.

Sixteen Great War poets are commemorated in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner. The inscription around the names reads “My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity” (Wilfred Owen)

Trained as a chorister in Gloucester Cathedral, Ivor Gurney was a composer as well as a poet. His lifelong friend was Herbert Howells, a director of Music in St Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith. Gurney wrote a collection of poetry for his first book Severn and Somme, which was published in October 1917. He suffered from a mental health condition and spent the last fifteen years of his life in a mental hospital having been gassed in 1917, but it was in hospital that he returned to his wartime experiences and wrote some of his best works.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain In Flanders Fields and other poems by John McCrae The Great War and modern memory by Paul Fussell Poems by Wilfred Owen Severn and Somme by Ivor Gurney

Wilfred Owen is one of the most famous of the War Poets who tragically died in 1918 just one week before the end of World War I. He encapsulated the horrors of the battlefield in his writing.

On 1 August, Cambridge University celebrated putting Siegfried Sassoon’s poems and diaries from the First World War online to mark the centenary of the war. They include an account of the ‘horrifying slaughter’ of the first day.

Rupert Brooke was famous for his War Sonnets which included the poems ‘Peace’ and ‘The Soldier’. “If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England”. Yates described Brooke as “the handsomest young man in England”. He tragically died from an infection caused by a mosquito bite on the way to Gallipoli.

Love poet Robert Graves wrote his first known and loved poems behind the front line in World War I. He was wounded and pronounced dead by his surgeon during a battle but amazingly recovered to read an account of his death in the Times. He was one of the first War Poets to write realistically about life in the “soul-deadening” trenches.

‘Dulce et decorum est’ is a famous poem written by Wilfred Owen, who in October 1917 wrote to his mother “Here is a gas poem, done yesterday – the famous Latin tag (from Horace Odes) means Sweet! And decorous!”. The title was ironic. The intention was to shock people at home who thought war was noble and glorious.

The poems of Wilfred Owen  War Poems by Siegfried Sassoon  Poetical Works by Rupert Brooke  Goodbye to all that by Robert Graves  Three Poets of the First World War

Websites – The War Poets Website contains lots of useful information about the First World War Poets and their poems.  as does the First World War Poets Digital Archive .  Poetry by Heart incorporates a First World War Poetry Showcase.

A Winner of the Costa Biography award in 2012, the title of Matthew Hollis’s biography about the Anglo/Welsh poet Edward Thomas, Now all roads lead to France: the last years of Edward Thomas alludes to his poem ‘Roads’ (1916) in the verse “Now all roads lead to France/And heavy is the tread/Of the living,but the dead/Returning lightly dance”

Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘My boy Jack’ was written when his dear son Jack went missing during the Battle of Loos in 1915.

P   O   E   T   R   Y

Poems from the First world War selected by Gaby Morgan Minds at war by David Roberts Selected Poems by Edward Thomas Out in the dark by David Roberts The Nation's Favourite Poems of Remembrance

All the above books, and many more, can be found in our libraries. Click on the image links, or take a look at our First World War – War Poets and Poetry reading list, where you will also find several other WW1 book selections.