Tag Archives: theatre

Common Threads: From Past to the Present

The race and diversity narratives project with the Bodleian Libraries and the Museum of Oxford allowed me to explore a crucial aspect of the city of Oxford and its inhabitants. For my research I looked at the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) archives, dating back to the 1960s, directly in correlation with the contemporary Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) 2.0 protests from summer and the global Black Lives Matter movement.

MSS. AAM 607. Reproduced with the permission of the Anti-Apartheid Movement Archives Committee.

MSS. AAM 607. Reproduced with the permission of the Anti-Apartheid Movement Archives Committee.

It was fascinating to trace the common elements between these two historical protests that the city of Oxford has witnessed. The simple but powerful Black Power Fist signifies just how connected the movements are. A poster from the 1980s for ‘End Repression in South Africa’ depicts a man raising his fist and can be directly compared with a picture from 2020 RMF movement and a protestor using the same powerful symbol.

Beyond significant symbols, the city as a space, the involvement of the students and city dwellers together, all become a part of the continued common history.

‘Rhodes Must Fall’ in Oxford, June 2020.

‘Rhodes Must Fall’ in Oxford, June 2020.

The AAM archives hold several letters and correspondences between the local chapter and the national one, between AAM and Oxford citizens who want to be more involved and supportive of the movement, minutes and proceedings of Oxford City Meetings and AAM meetings. The call for protests above is similar to the calls we send out today, the method of dissemination might have evolved, the sentiment remains the same – to unify and stand together.

One particular incident that stood out to me was the boycott of the Apollo Theatre during the Christmas of 1987 because the theatre starred Marti Caine, an actress who said: ‘The best thing we can do for the blacks is send them back into the jungle to recover their culture.’ The protest and the boycott led to Caine issuing a public apology and signing the AAM petition. Caine and Rhodes, Apollo Theatre and Oriel College, these are not the same issues, but similar in how spaces and people come to represent ideologies, often extremely problematic ones, but simultaneously how a unified stand against such ideas brings them down.

The idea of common elements or ‘threads’ between the two protests, for me, reflects how the fight for racial equality is an ongoing conversation and struggle but it has multiple sides to it. While the positives show that the people of Oxford have time and again stood up against the injustice, the counter-question becomes why have these injustices continued well into the 21st century? A critical exploration of archives at the Bodleian relating to the city of Oxford allowed me to ask these questions while contributing to and continuing the conversation. It is perhaps in these historically extending common threads across the decades that the meaning of ‘a movement and not a moment’ truly shines through as minority identities continue their struggles against historical and contemporary injustices.

MS. 18592/3, item 6.

MS. 18592/3, item 6.

Devika
Summer Intern 2020, Bodleian Libraries and Museum of Oxford
MPhil Modern South Asian Studies (2019-2021), St Antony’s College, University of Oxford

 

The Natasha Spender archive is now available

Programme for a piano recital by Natasha Litvin (later Spender) in 1944, from MS. 6647/54The archive of Natasha Spender, concert pianist, academic, and wife of the poet Stephen Spender, is now available.

Natasha Spender, Lady Spender, née Litvin (or Evans), was born on 18 April 1919, the illegitimate daughter of Ray Litvin and Edwin Evans, who was a well-respected (but married) Times music critic.

Ray Litvin (d. 1977) was from a family of Lithuanian Jewish refugees and grew up in Glasgow. She became an actress and was by 1915 a regular with Lilian Baylis’s Old Vic theatre company but in 1926 her career was crushed when she caught typhoid fever and became profoundly deaf.

Young Natasha, who had been fostered out during her early years, went on to spend her holidays with the wealthy and very musical family of George Booth (son of the social reformer Charles Booth) and his wife Margaret at their home Funtington House in West Sussex. A gifted pianist, Natasha trained at the Royal College of Music and following graduation, studied with the musician and composer Clifford Curzon and the pianist Franz Osborn before starting her professional career. During the war, she gave concerts for ENSA and in 1943 she, along with the actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft and the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, founded the Apollo Society which presented poetry with a musical accompaniment. She appeared often on television and radio including as the soloist in the very first concert televised by the BBC. She also gave recitals in the UK and abroad, including a concert for former prisoners in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In the 1960s Natasha made a move into academia after earning a degree in psychology and from 1970 to 1984 she taught music psychology and visual perception at the Royal College of Art. She later contributed to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Natasha met the poet Stephen Spender in 1940 at a lunch party hosted by Horizon, a literary journal that Stephen was co-editing at the time. They married in 1941. For decades, the Spenders were central figures in the London (and international) literary scene, with Stephen Spender’s career as a writer, professor, lecturer, editor and delegate taking them all over the world, with long periods in America.

In the 1950s, Natasha became friends with the terminally alcoholic, noir author Raymond Chandler, who fell in love with her. The exact nature of their relationship became an ongoing source of speculation among his biographers. This, along with controversies over unauthorized biographies and interpretations of Stephen Spender’s life led to Natasha fighting hard for the rights of biographical subjects and particularly for her husband’s reputation. Following Stephen Spender’s death in 1995, Natasha founded the Stephen Spender Memorial Trust, which continues to promote poetry in translation, and she collaborated first with John Sutherland on an official biography of her husband (published in 2004) and then with Lara Feigel on an updated edition of Spender’s journals (published in 2012). Natasha also published articles about friends and associates, including Dame Edith Sitwell and Raymond Chandler, and her archive includes an unfinished memoir covering the early years of her life and marriage. She died on 21 October 2010 at the age of 91.

The papers will be of interest to readers researching the history of early twentieth century theatre and performance, the academic field of visual perception, and the literary circle of Stephen Spender.