Tag Archives: Observer

Interesting times (1)

As 2016 draws to a close, we have probably all read our fill of celebrity obituaries. Many of us will also have seen other, more local or personal losses. While the argument rages on about whether this was indeed an unusual year or just appeared to be so, we’re likely to have found ourselves thinking or wondering about some of the people whose deaths have been reported in the news – people we’ve heard of, people we’ve not (but feel we should have), and people whose summarised lives turn out to be a whole lot more interesting and varied than we originally thought.

If you want to find out more about a person and their life, use the library. Below, librarian Owen uses Fidel Castro as an example to show the amazing resources Westminster Libraries members have at their fingertips for researching history and biography, but you could apply the same principles to find out more about any of the people below, lost in 2016:

Owen writes:

We recently saw the death of former Cuban leader and revolutionary Fidel Castro. He was seen in death – as he was in life – as someone to celebrate and support, but also someone to despise and oppose, a great leader or a terrible dictator. We can look at how his death was met in newspaper stories, obituaries and images from around the UK (eg: through NewsBank) and around the world (eg: through Library Press Display which includes some newspapers from Florida).

However, your delve into newspaper articles does not have to end there. Why not look back further? Newsbank goes back a good 30 years for a start. But go back further still and you will find yet more. Have a look in The Times Digital Archive; you will find it interesting to see how events in Castro’s life unfolded eg: 1956 saw a failed revolt (the final revolution came in 1958/59). Ironically, considering some of the celebrations recently in Florida we see that on 12 November 1958 people were caught attempting to send Fidel Castro arms to support the uprising.

Don’t stop there though, have a look as well in the Guardian and Observer archive and continue on to the missile crisis (1962 – you can search by date on all databases). In 1968 it begins its article Ten years of Fidel Castro with

‘It’s hard to believe that Fidel Castro’s regime has now been in power for ten years.’

All this can be found via our Online Resources: Newspapers section accessible in any Westminster Library and from home with a Westminster Library card. The newspapers are a great way to get started, but – depending on the person’s field of activity and nationality – take a look too at the Quick Reference, Art & Design (especially Oxford Art), Biography or Music & Performing Arts (especially Oxford Music Online) sections. You never know what you might find!



Read all about it! The Observer

“It is a fact, however disgraceful to human nature, that an old harpy living in a  court near Exeter Change has not less than five little girls in her hovel who she dresses out with all the frippery of meretriciousness and upon whose prostitution she supports an uncertain and even wretched existence – yet such is the force of habit she prefers wickedness and misery to honest labour and competency”

Not the opening of a Gothic novel but a story in the first ever edition of The Observer – the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world – first published on 4 December 1791, 225 years ago last Sunday. As you can see, even then, scandal was what people wanted to read with their Sunday breakfast – one wonders how many people went straight to Exeter Change in order to check the veracity of the piece…

Other stories in the first issue included the Duke of Bedford laying the foundation stone for the new Theatre Royal Drury Lane (it burned down in 1809) and a gentleman who died after being gored by ‘a tormented over-driven ox in Cheapside’. Plus the tantalising snippet that

“The unfortunate man who was driven so inhumanly by the mistaken mob a few days ago proved to be, not Oxley the mail-robber, as was supposed but a poor lunatic who had escaped from his keeper.”

They had a major coup in 1812 when their reporter Vincent Dowling was present at the assassination of the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the Houses of Parliament and was able to give a first-hand account:

‘The deed was perpetrated so suddenly that the man who fired the pistol was not instantly recognized by those in the lobby, but a person passing at the moment behind Mr Perceval promptly seized the pistol and which the assassin surrendered without resistance.’

The ‘person’ was in fact Dowling himself.

While The Observer is now regarded as a Liberal newspaper, it was anything but in its early days and was the last newspaper to accept subsidies from the secret service. It still maintained some editorial independence though, defying an injunction to report on the trial of the  so-called Cato Street conspirators. The proprietor William Clement was fined the enormous sum of £500, which he refused to pay, but the precedent was then set for newspapers writing about ongoing cases.

Another precedent was set in 1891 when The Observer employed its first woman editor, indeed its only woman editor to date. Rachel Beer was not just the first woman to edit the Observer, she was the first woman to edit any national newspaper. She was born into the wealthy Sassoon family (the poet Siegfried Sassoon was her nephew) and married Frederick Beer, whose father had bought The Observer in 1870. Frederick suffered from ill-health and Rachel eventually took over as editor.

Painting of Rachel BeerIn 1895 she bought The Sunday Times and edited this too for several years, becoming the first and perhaps the only person to edit two rival Sunday papers at the same time. As an editor her major coup was exposing the forgery at the heart of the Dreyfus case.

Beer continued to write for both papers, having leader columns written in indecipherable handwriting delivered at the last minute by her footman, no doubt much to the annoyance of the sub-editors.

Another pioneering woman who worked for The Observer was CA Lejeune, employed as a film critic from 1928 (having previously worked for the Manchester Guardian) at a time when it was fashionable not to take the art form seriously. Other celebrated writers for the paper have included the spy Kim Philby, who used his post as their Middle East editor as cover for his work as an MI5 agent, and George Orwell who reported on the end of the war from the Hotel Scribe in Paris.

You can look back at past issues of The Observer and read articles by Vita Sackville-West, Arthur Koestler, Kenneth Tynan and many others – the full Observer archive is available online with your Westminster library card. And very fascinating they are too! Don’t forget we also have the archives of The Guardian, the Times, the Illustrated London News and many other periodicals.


The Fairytale of Leicester City

King Richard IIILast week saw the rather unexpected news of Leicester City clinching the football Premier League title. Was this really as significant as many newspapers described? The most uplifting story in British sporting history, or perhaps the biggest upset/shock? The team’s odds were 5000 to 1 at the beginning of the season having narrowly avoided relegation last year, after all. It was that and more, according to the papers.

To compare this victory with other surprise wins and ‘rise of the underdog’ stories, we should first take a look at how Leicester City’s story was reported last week:

  • Go to the library to look at the recent newspapers held there
  • Use NewsBank to search through all the stories about Leicester City being champions – you can even read Leicester’s local paper The Leicester Mercury. You could go further, following how the story unfolded throughout the season, starting all the way back in August 2015.
  • Read through more stories and see the papers themselves on Library Press Display – the Foxes’ victory was reported as far afield as Thailand, India, the US and more.

But why stop there? Have a look through other resources we have to see whether other sporting shocks had comparable headlines. Explore the tabloid newspapers on UK Press Online and take your search back further and further using the Times Digital Archive or The Guardian and Observer archive. Have a look at some of the suggested shocks mentioned by others: Boris Becker winning Wimbledon in 1985, Denmark winning the European Championships having not qualified, Nottingham Forest’s winning of the league and then European cup just after being promoted from the second division, Wimbledon’s crazy gang’s rise to prominence and FA cup glory in 1988… the list goes on. The headlines and stories are fascinating.

Football stories almost always involve a heroic manager, amazing team work and  notable individuals (Leicester’s stories even discuss the importance of Richard III!). Whatever the sport you will see that the English press – and people – always love an underdog; often more than their own team!

The above is just an illustration of how library resources can help you dig deep, research and analyse a story through looking at how it was reported in the media. The same principles can be applied to any story for personal interest, school projects or other research.

You can find free access to all these great databases – and much more – in the Newspapers and magazines section of our Online resources by subject page. Just log in from wherever you are using the number on your library card. In the Biography section you can also find out more about many of the people involved in the stories mentioned above by looking at Who’s who and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


“The new world: true terror-ridden peace”

This headline from Dorothy Thompson’s article in The Observer of 12 August 1945 (log in with your library card number for access) was, I felt, very apt for what had just occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – not only for Japan but in a wider context. This week 70 years ago marked the end of one era of warfare and the beginning of a new, possibly more frightening time.

Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right) - images courtesy of Wikipedia

Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right) – images courtesy of Wikipedia

Were the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, destroying them completely in seconds, a ‘necessary evil’ to bring a war that had cost millions of lives to an end? Or were they one of many horrific crimes committed during the course of that war? Worse; something which could be used again?

As the newspaper pointed out, the bombs were not easy to create. Perhaps we were safe? But when some of the most powerful members of the Allies’ camp so firmly disapproved of each other, could there be the chance of another war on the way soon after? And with weapons like this just what could that mean?

Hiroshima aftermath - image courtesy of Wikipedia

Hiroshima aftermath – image courtesy of Wikipedia

Did the headline get it completely right? Read this story and many more through the days, months and years that were to come as the world learnt more about what had happened in the Second World War and began living with the underlying fear of the Cold War. Access to several online historical newspaper archives is a fascinating way to view history through the eyes of people actually there at the time. Westminster subscribes to several including the Times Digital Archive, the Guardian and Observer, the Mirror (see UK Press Online) and many more: Newspaper archives.


A Cinema Pioneer

Clapper board / reels of filmIn 1921, your school or university careers adviser would have been unlikely to recommend you the profession of ‘film critic’ for the simple reason that it didn’t yet exist as a full-time job. While film-going was already the most popular entertainment for the masses, the movies still weren’t taken seriously by the intelligentsia and were mostly reviewed in trade journals.

So when Caroline Lejeune from Withington, Manchester, fresh out of university,  announced her intention of becoming a film critic, there were probably a few dropped jaws in the family home. Luckily for her, CP Scott, editor of the Guardian, was a family friend and encouraged her to move to London, take a postgraduate degree and write a regular column in the Manchester Guardian which she kept up until 1928, transferring to the Observer until her retirement in 1960.

I was reminded of Lejeune by an excellent article in the Guardian which links to a few of her reviews. She loved Hitchcock (though abhorred Psycho), hated Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood and admired Eisenstein. Sadly, she’s probably best remembered now for her scathing review of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, mentioned in this blog a few weeks ago, but she deserves far greater recognition.

You can find out more about her life in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (her biography is written Dilys Powell, another notable female film critic)  or from her autobiography Thank you for Having Me. But, most importantly, if you want to read her criticism, check out the Guardian and Observer Archive (log in with your Westminster Library  card). For more writing on cinema, check out the International Index to Performing Arts or why not pay a visit to Westminster Reference Library to explore the excellent Performing Arts Collection?


In pursuit of a crime writer: investigating Reginald Hill

Good Morning, Midnight by Reginald HillEven if you don’t recognise the name you may be familiar with the work of Reginald Hill whose Dalziel & Pascoe series of crime novels was televised by ITV.

Set in Yorkshire, the strength of both novels and TV series was the interplay between the two contrasting characters. As an avid reader of crime novels it has struck me that crime novelists usually either go with the ‘antisocial loner’ or create a partnership between two main characters. The setup of a lead character and sidekick worked for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – why change a winning formula?

Reginald Hill died fairly recently and I thought it would be interesting to find out more about the author using the library. My first step was to read the blurb printed in his novels. Westminster Libraries stock a large number of his books so this information was not hard to find. If you are searching the Westminster library catalogue, many entries include the heading ‘Author Notes’ beneath the item’s details. This contains a brief biographical outline.

The next step was to use Westminster Libraries 24/7 library resources to obtain further information. I consulted Who’s Who / Who Was Who and drew a blank (plenty of other Reginald Hills feature, but not this one). His absence was not due to the compilers’ aversion to crime and thriller writers. Anthony Price, a contemporary of Reginald Hill, has been listed for many years, and other crime writers such as Ian Rankin are also included. I can only conclude that Mr Hill did not wish to be included in this directory as potential subjects are approached by the editors and the entry is compiled from information received.

The other major 24/7 biographical resource used to check for deceased authors is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, but currently people have to have died before 31 December 2010 to be included – Reginald Hill died in 2012.

As my subject was an author the obvious resource to check within the 24/7 library is Contemporary Authors which includes dead and living authors. Author entries include not only a list of their published titles (these lists also helpfully includes any US alternative titles) but also includes any author pseudonyms and their titles. The main part of an entry is a discussion of the author’s work including citations of reviews and links to relevant websites relating to the author and their work.

Reginald Hill died on 12 January 2012. Several newspaper obituaries were published immediately after his death. These can be read using Newsbank or other online newspaper archives. Several references to the author and the Dalziel & Pascoe series can also be found using Newsbank. Note however that many of the search hits refer to the TV listings of the Dalziel & Pascoe series rather than articles about the author and his books. One interesting article, found in the Guardian & Observer Archive was a discussion of television adaptations of crime novels and their authors’ feelings about them. Reginald Hill hated the ITV pilot episode which starred the comedians Hale and Pace. [Observer 16 April 2000. Tina Ogle – “Even the Gumshoes”]. Later the BBC successfully re-launched the Dalziel & Pascoe series and cast Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan in the title roles.

Magnifying glassThis brief investigation of one crime author gave me plenty of leads to follow, and the combination of hard copy evidence and online resources can help you to build up a profile of an individual too, whether you’re a detective, a fan, or both.


“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: www.westminster.gov.uk/newspaper-magazine-links

Other articles:

All sparked from a chance conversation and a curious mind!