“The life that I have…”

Last week saw the release of The Imitation Game starring man of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, father of modern computer science. Turing was born in Warrington Avenue, Maida Vale (a Blue Plaque at Number 2 now commemorates this) while Joan Clarke, the cryptographer played by Keira Knightley in the film, was another Londoner.

You can read about them both in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - log in with your library card number – or in some of the excellent recent books on the subject such as The Secret Life of Bletchley Park or Colossus: the Secrets of Bletchley Park’s Code-breaking Computers. Searching the library catalogue for ‘Turing‘ or ‘Bletchley Park‘ brings up a wealth of other fascinating titles for your reading pleasure.

The secret life of Bletchley Park, by Sinclair McKay The man who knew too much: Alan Turing and the invention of the computer, by David Leavitt Colossus - the secrets of Bletchley Park's codebreaking computers by  Jack B Copeland

While the mathematical boffins were doing their work in Buckinghamshire, another secret coding operation was going on in Baker Street. This was part of the Special Operations Executive, usually called SOE, a secret organisation formed in July 1940 to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements. The SOE headquarters were at 64 Baker Street though they ended up occupying much of the West side of the street.

Between silk and cyanide, by Leo MarksOne of the key activities of the SOE’s London operations was devising safe codes so that their operatives in occupied countries could send messages safely. The head of the coding operations was the remarkable Leo Marks, who wrote about his wartime career in Between Silk and Cyanide: A Code Maker’s War, 1941-45.

84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene HanffMarks was the son of Benjamin Marks, owner of Marks and Co, the antiquarian bookshop later immortalised by Helene Hanff as 84 Charing Cross Road. In his book, Marks gives an interesting insight into what really went on there (for example, Frank Doel, Hanff’s chief correspondent, ran a price-fixing ring with other booksellers).

Carve her name with pride, by R J MinneyMarks believed the existing coding system used by the SOE agents was hopelessly insecure being mostly double transposition cyphers based on well-known poems which could be tortured out of captured agents or even recognised by a well-read codebreaker. So his first solution was to use poems he wrote himself.

The most famous of these is The Life that I Have, immortalised in the film Carve her Name with Pride starring Virginia McKenna (based on the book of the same name by r J Minney) about the SOE agent Violette Szabo. There are two splendid monuments to this brave lady  in the neighbouring borough of Lambeth, one on the Albert Embankment and another by Stockwell tube station near her childhood home.

Leo Marks’ connection with Westminster continued after the war. In 1960 he wrote the notorious horror film Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell, about a young photographer who kills women with a spike attached to his camera and films their deaths. The film caused an outrage at the time – you can read some contemporary reviews in our newspaper archives. Famously, CA Lejeune wrote in The Observer

“It is a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom…I don’t propose to name the players in this beastly picture.”

However, by Mark’s death in 2001, critical opinion had changed and the film is now acclaimed as a cult masterpiece. It was set and  partly filmed in Soho and plenty of the locations are still recognisable.


“I love my local library and all of its quirks”

It’s not just Guardian Witness (see ‘Love Letters to Libraries‘) who are celebrating the wonders of the library service at the moment – since 8 November, BBC 6 Music has been doing loads of programmes from, about, and inspired by libraries.

We love this brilliant poem about the local library, read on 6 Music by the author, Scroobius Pip:

Tomorrow, 21 November, is the final day of the celebration:

“On Friday 21 November, Steve Lamacq (16:00 – 19:00) takes his programme to the British Library in London. The first time a radio show has ever broadcast live from the national library of the United Kingdom.

The programme will be broadcast from the Entrance Hall of the library, which houses one of the most fascinating and comprehensive Sound Archives in the world. While there, Steve will be exploring its extensive Sound Archive – home to 19th-century cylinders to CDs, Beatles’ manuscripts, 2000 complete John Peel programmes, original demos by The Who – as well as a one off Capital Radio show hosted by Jonny Rotten himself, John Lydon.

Steve will be speaking to the brains behind this great British institution and taking a trip around the current exhibitions, which include modern musical artefacts such as original Beatles lyrics on the back of envelopes.

Sample supremoes, DJ Yoda and Public Service Broadcasting will create brand new tracks from the library’s Sound Archive. Public Service Broadcasting will take listeners on a tour and explain how information films and archive footage inspire their music making; while DJ Yoda has the three hours of the show to produce and perform a brand new track, sampled from their extensive Sound Archive.”

From 6 Music Celebrates Libraries

Love Letters to Libraries

“You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”

"Island of kindness" by Simon WilliamsThe immortal words of Joni Mitchell say a lot about the current appreciation for a much loved institution all over the world, generated by the closure, threatened closure or scaling down of hundreds of libraries. And so it should be. Libraries are relevant and fabulous – as you, our readers, know! We should all be celebrating them, show our support for them and protest against their passing using whatever media.

A short film to look out for – upcoming release 2015 – is Jason LaMotte’s ‘The Library’. It is a story about first love and the sadness that surrounds dementia but the library – backdrop to the story – is just as important an element of the film as the main characters and plot.  Sadly, due to technical reasons, and although Jason loved the space, this film could not be shot at Westminster Reference Library (they went for Tonbridge School in Kent).  There is also ‘Spine’, playwright’s Clara Brennan take on, among other things, library closures. A powerful one-woman piece that premiered at the Edinburgh Festival this year.

And then there are brilliant initiatives such as the GuardianWitness’ Love Letters to Libraries which took off big time this week.  Here, people share tributes to their favourite place of study, research, entertainment, leisure and rest.

Westminster Reference LibraryWestminster Reference Library regularly pops up in blogs and tweets, such as this excellent recent entry from deskoverlondon, delighted at having found a quiet study place in the madness of the West End, but thanks to ‘Love Letters…’ the library has also got a couple of VIP mentions highlighting its art initiatives as well as praising the services provided.

Mayfair LibraryMayfair Library is another much-loved Westminster library which has received a Love Letter in the form of ‘I am a Mayfair Elephant’, but is your own favourite library missing? Perhaps your career turned on some information imparted at Marylebone Library? Your children cultivated a a love of reading at Paddington Children’s Library? Or the events at Westminster Music Library gave you a reason to learn an instrument?

There’s still a few days to contribute your own love letter to the site – we’d love to see it.


The Last Post: A tribute to the First World War generation

The Last Post projectIn this anniversary year of the outbreak of the Great War, communities across the UK have been commemorating the lives of those who lived through and died in the conflict.

For our part at Westminster Music Library, we in the past year have been exploring the music from the wartime period in our project Behind the Lines; and our participation in Superact’s Last Post Project was an apt culmination.

Fittingly stationed between Remembrance Sunday and Remembrance Day was our poignant “The Last Post” evening. It was our great pleasure to be involved in this project, the initiative of arts organisation Superact (with support from the Department for Communities and Local Government, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund). Ours was just one of over 230 such events taking place up and down the country between 4 and 18 November, all featuring an all-important rendition of that well-established remembrance tradition: the Last Post. More information can be found at www.thelastpostproject.org.uk.

The Last Post began life humbly, as a bugle call to mark the end of the day in military camps in an era before soldiers had watches. Over the course of the nineteenth century it started to take on a memorial role, being played at the funerals of those killed in battle. During the First World War, as the numbers of those dying grew rapidly, this haunting tune was played with increasing regularity, and now has a central role in the remembrance of the war dead.

Interest in our Last Post event was huge and we were soon so fully booked it was standing room only! The audience of local residents was augmented with the forces of South Westminster and Church Street Community Choirs whom we were delighted to welcome to add extra depth and harmony to the singing. The singing was brilliantly led by Ruth with fine accompaniment from Anthony on the piano.

Last Post Event at Westminster Music Library - November 2014

The evening began with a sing-along featuring all the old favourite First World War songs. Audience, staff and the choirs were in good voice as we launched into It’s a long way to Tipperary and Pack up your troubles – classic uplifting songs from early in the war, reflecting the nation’s optimism and hope in a swift resolution. It soon transpired, though, that the war would last longer than any had dared to conceive. The country’s musical output became more reflective, giving voice to a greater determination and perseverance. Our programme represented this trend with inclusion of the beautiful and wonderfully nostalgic If you were the only girl in the world, Keep the home fires burning and Roses of Picardy.

We then belted out Oh! It’s a lovely war from the satirical music hall show which, when written, tapped into the increasing cynicism as the war dragged on. When the Americans entered the war they brought their popular songs over with them and we joined in rousing versions of Over there and There’s a long, long trail.

Last Post Event at Westminster Music Library - November 2014To give our singing voices some rest, our songs were interspersed with readings from Ruth. We heard poems and letters home – some humorous, some sad, but all poignant, reflecting the varying experiences of those who lived both through the trenches and on the home front.

Our final song was, perhaps inevitably, the ever popular Good-bye-ee, but the evening’s climax was still to come. As the applause died down, hidden from sight behind the bookshelves, came the words of Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, movingly recited by Andrew. You could hear a pin drop. After a moment’s pause we heard the opening notes of the Last Post. The audience spontaneously stood in respect as this ever-moving bugle call, brilliantly played by Jon, broke through the still silence. As the music came to an end, we paused for two minutes’ reflection.

And so our tribute to the First World War generation came to a close. The contrast between the lively sing along and the intensity of the Last Post at the end was stark and heartrending.

Here are some comments from members of the audience:

“A lovely evening with readings and songs and a very moving Last Post”

“Wonderful to have a singing event! Very nostalgic and very moving”

“Wonderful – released all sorts of emotions- excellent readings by Ruth. Whole concert was well thought out and performed”

Finally, we would like to extend our gratitude to South Westminster and Church Street Community Choirs for their support.

Here are Andrew and Jon performing The Last Post:

The Last Post Project: sponsors and supporting organisations

[Andrew and Jon]

Paddington Book Festival continues…

Paddington Book FestivalAs the brilliant Paddington Book Festival runs into its seventh week, Barrie Taylor – Chair of the Paddington Festival group – tells us how he first came up with the idea:

“The book festival felt like a natural extension of the popular Paddington Festival. This film festival in Paddington, which has been running for two years, had been a great success and I saw an opportunity for a festival celebrating the written word, in our libraries and in the communities of Paddington. This was how the idea of a book festival was first conceived.”

So far there have been some great, well-attended events with expert authors discussing Tudor and Stuart Africans in London, Victorian women travellers and the current situation in Syria.

If that wide range of subjects wasn’t enough, coming next are events for both children and adults: former Home Secretary and successful author Alan Johnson is at the Beethoven Centre next week [event now FULLY BOOKED], followed by ‘How to Write Everything’ author David Quantick at Paddington Library.

Later in the month we have a brilliant ‘Funny Bones’ event at Queen’s Park Library, based around the ever popular Janet & Allan Ahlberg book.

Come and join us and make the most of Paddington Book Festival and your library service!

A new Blue Plaque in Marylebone

Blue plaque for Sir Fabien Ware, Wyndham Place W1In the last week of September Marylebone gained another blue plaque with the unveiling in Wyndham Place W1 of a plaque to Sir Fabian Ware, the founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission (now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission).

Using the English Heritage Blue Plaques search, I was astonished to discover that there are 282 plaques within a mile radius of Marylebone Library. This area also incorporates the eastern part of Fitzrovia and also Bloomsbury over the border in Camden. However a sizable proportion of this total falls within Westminster’s borders.

In total the City of Westminster contains 303 plaques, almost a third of London’s total of 887. Added to this Westminster total there are another 62 local Westminster Green Plaques on buildings. The majority of these celebrate former residents. The remainder were erected to record standing significant buildings such as the Savoy Theatre or to record the site of a former building such as the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place.

The English Heritage website is solely a location finder for plaques rather than a biographical tool. Clicking on an entry will display details of the plaque’s location and text together with details of the material used in the plaque’s construction. For further biographical details of an individual, consult the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card) and also the Library catalogue for autobiographies and biographies of individuals.

(Non)plaque to William Hogarth in ReadingMany other towns have set up their own commemorative plaque scheme, but not all plaques are official. For several years in Reading’s Zinzan Street this unofficial example brought a smile to the face of many a passer by…


Church Street Library gets healthy

Church Street Library hosted two key health events in October, organised by Westminster Libraries’ Bengali Service in partnership with the Health Information Project and Westminster Family Learning Service.

Health event at Church Street Library, October 2014The first event, tied in with Black History Month, aimed to promote Black and Ethnic minorities’ health information and raise awareness of common illnesses that these communities are naturally predisposed to, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

An author and producer from Gift of Living Organ Donation (GOLD), Dela Idowu, gave a presentation of a film about her emotional struggle dealing with a family member’s kidney failures. She had produced the film to raise awareness about living organ donation, which is a concern in both the Black and Asian communities. The film showcase was followed by a Q&A session and was a great success. There are plans to host more events like this in both Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham libraries.

Health event at Church Street Library, October 2014

The idea for the next event was to bring families together through the festive periods of both Eid and Diwali by providing family learning activities and to convey a message about health. The story book used was ‘Dinosaur Douglas and the Beastly Bugs‘ by Heather Meisner and is part of a project commissioned by Public Health, aimed at improving dental and oral health in primary school children. The idea is to encourage children to brush their teeth at bedtime so that they get rid of the ‘Beastly Bugs’.

Making tooth brushing fun, with Dinosaur Douglas

The event started with a story session, followed by family workshops making pop-up cards using the main character from the book and Islamic colouring and painting.

While some families were happily taking part in the workshops others were immersing themselves with free massage and henna arts designs. Over one hundred people attended, which led to a great and busy day!