#Mondayblogs Beautiful Libraries: Bodleian Libraries, Oxford


in omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro… (Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book)

The first library at Oxford University was a room above the Old Congregation House in 1320. So if you haven’t returned your books yet, expect a very hefty fine. If we skip forward to the 15th century, a chap called Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester pumps in a bit of cash as well as his personal collection of 281 manuscripts, meaning larger premises are required. Humfrey was the younger brother of King Henry V, so he had a bit of clout. But although plans to erect a new library above the Divinity School had been banded about since 1424, work only really began in 1478. If you’re getting excited about seeing these incredible manuscripts, don’t. From the 1550s onwards, various kings and queens destroyed any texts that didn’t conform to their own religious viewpoint.


It’s at this point that our hero enters the scene, Sir Thomas Bodley (1545 – 1613). Bodley had done the obligatory tour of Europe, gulping down as much culture as his elastic guts could contain, as well as diplomatic missions for Queen Elizabeth I between 1585 – 96. Bodley wasn’t short of cash either having married a wealthy widow, and so he pumped all of his energy and cash into creating what is now known as the Bodleian Library. This would see 2,500 books added from his personal collection as well as from donors. There’s no point making influential contacts if you don’t use them.

James ThomasThis was to be a proper library, and so a librarian, Thomas James (1572/3–1629), was appointed. The doors opened on 8 November 1602. This was swiftly followed by the first printed catalogue in 1605. But the real stroke of genius came in 1610 when Bodley entered an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London which ensured a copy of every book published in England would find itself into the collection. This still exists, with the library receiving an average of 2,500 texts a week.

When Bodley died in 1613, his death was suitably commemorated when work began on the building of the Schools Quadrangle the day after his funeral. This was a project he had pushed for, wishing to replace ‘those ruinous little rooms’ with something more fitting for scholars and book lovers. His will would see additional money left for what would become a public museum and picture gallery, the first in England. The last addition to this incredible library came between 1634-7 when an extension (Seldon’s End) was completed. This would enable the storage of valuable manuscripts and scrolls, making the university an absolute must for any scholar worth their salt.

But what marks this library out from all others isn’t the grandiosity of the buildings, nor that it would be the setting for the Harry Potter films, but the observation of a tradition that dictates nobody is allowed to loan books out of the library! Even King Charles I was rebuffed in 1645. Given that heating wasn’t installed until 1845, and proper lighting didn’t arrive until 1929, you had to be a pretty serious reader to visit.

I recently went on a tour of the library (£6 – make sure you book in advance) and it was a mesmerising experience. The ancient texts are chained to shelves, and are right weighty boggers. They’re catalogued according to when they were received and are shelved back to front so that the spines face the wall. This isn’t some fashionable whim, but a necessity to help preserve them. Therefore they are numbered, meaning you always have to ask a librarian where a book is – a useful tactic to ensure a librarian keeps their job.


Oxford oozes history, none more so than in the main entrance to the library tour. The ceiling contains the initials of scholars who had passed their masters, back in the day. This would entail a three hour debate at a pulpit in front of the public, while being constantly interrupted and interrogated by your lecturer. And just to spice things up a bit, you were expected to switch between Greek and Latin. Given that you couldn’t take books out of the library you would be expected to memorise religious texts, along with the rest of your cohort. But as there was only one copy of each, and these were chained up and only accessible during opening times, you had to be pretty patient and pretty good at remembering stuff.

Readers of this blog will know that I was put on this earth as a Notts propagandist and so here’s your six degrees of separation to Oxford: Geoffrey Trease (11 August 1909 – 27 January 1998), author of 113 books.

Trease excelled at Nottingham High School under the careful guidance of his English master Garry Hogg, a kind man who gave him access to his personal library and who encouraged Trease to plump for an Oxford scholarship over Cambridge due to the literary emphasis of Classics at Oxford. Trease did as advised but found Oxford an unpleasant experience, dropping out after his first year in 1929. In his autobiography Trease writes:

trease“I could not go on. I was bored to death with this musty scholarship, this wearisome gibberish concocted by the pedants. One year of Oxford at its driest, unrelieved by one flash of inspiration, humour or understanding from any don concerned with me, had suffocated the enthusiasm with which I had gone up from school. I told myself that if I went on like this for another three years I should hate the Classics for the rest of my life”

Despite the disappointment that things hadn’t worked out, Hogg was on hand to offer alternative support to his favoured ex pupil. He had an aunt who ran a settlement in the East End of London who could put him up for a while. Trease took up the offer and found himself at Kingsley Hall, which “for an aspiring writer, anxious to study human nature, was a living laboratory”. Here he met Muriel Lester, an extraordinary woman who was the antithesis of his dull academic peers. Writing in his notebook at the time he recorded “she never spoke ill of anyone. Her praise was ready and frequent, her blame rare but terrible…she was amazingly human, loving songs and good company”.

Trease took up a series of jobs that ranged from cleaner to youth worker. The experience offered a grounding in humanity that was absent from Oxford and no doubt went some way into shaping the drive for equality that would see him revolutionise children’s stories by giving meaningful roles to both male and female characters. He transformed children’s historical fiction by avoiding the jingoism of the era, such as sidling with the superiority of the victors, and instead emphasised the universal needs of people. To turn your back on Oxford took a fair bit of courage and is one of the reasons we celebrated Trease’s life in issue 11 of Dawn of the Unread.

Source: Bodleian Library Souvenir Guide by Geoffrey Tyack


DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Leo Crane discusses his animation The Library

Our project started on National Libraries’ Day 2014 and to celebrate our first year’s birthday we spoke to Leo Crane, the creator of this gorgeous animation The Library. Leo has kindly allowed us to embed the animation in our Books and Bow Strings comic that celebrates the life of Geoffrey Trease. 

Tell us about yourself and how you got into animation.
Where shall I start? On an icy day many years ago, not far from the desolate Yorkshire moors, I was born. But to be relevant, we can fast forward to 2011, when I gave up a career in museums to undertake an MA in 3D Computer Animation at Bournemouth University. It’s an incredibly exciting medium to be working in: established enough to be available for all to use, but still so young that its full potential remains unchartered – it makes me think of photography in the late 19th century or cinema a few decades later. It’s this potential for exploration and experimentation that drew me in, combined with the way that animation can bring together art, poetry, performance, music, architecture, and many other disciplines.

The commission was for the London Library…
It was my Masters project, but I wanted it to have a place beyond that, not only a purpose or usefulness, but also a potential audience. I felt that I would learn more if I could share the final result with others. The London Library, a beautiful historic institution on St James’s Square, was developing a strategy for its online presence, and so a short film would provide content for them to share with their existing and potential readers. They also wanted fresh ways to convey the spirit of the place, which is so special, but so difficult to capture conventionally.

How did you create the animation?
The Library is a 3D animation, entirely computer generated in a virtual environment. However, I started in the real world, sketching on location, exploring character traits of the readers and finding a style that would evoked the materials of the interiors, predominantly wood and paper. With this in mind, I decided that all the 2D elements (the images in the books and the backgrounds) would be wood-cut prints (real ones), digitised (using Photoshop) and applied to 3D virtual models. For the characters themselves, I studied wooden puppets, modelled them, and then made digital replicas by eye using a software called ZBrush. The rest of the film was built in SoftImage and animated, before post-production using Nuke and editing in Adobe Premiere. Music was composed bespoke by Andrew Hayes, with whom I have collaborated on several films.


How long did it take to make?
As it was my Masters project, there was a clearly defined structure. We had about four weeks for pre-production, including storyboarding and production designs, as well as working with actors to explore subtle nuances of gesture. I also researched and wrote up influences from German Expressionism (especially woodblock prints) as well as the choreography of Pina Bausch, where repetition is a central feature of the narrative. We then had a five-week production period – incredibly short, especially when most of the technical work was at that stage unfamiliar. But that was really the point – forcing us to learn quickly through practical application. I remember I did all the animation in nine days, after finishing modelling, texturing, cinematography, lighting, and all the other elements that 3D animation takes from traditional film making. I had to allocate a considerable amount of time (five or six days, I think) to rendering, when the computer processes all the algorithms in the software to create 25 still images per second. Then there was post-production where the different elements are composited together in the frame, colour graded and effects added. After submission, I worked on the film for another week, tidying it up ready for the London Library and festival distribution.

The film addresses library etiquette, which is something that has adapted recently, such as through having designated space for mobile phone users. What are your thoughts on library etiquette and its function?
I think it’s fair to say that etiquette is changing in some libraries and not others. Large public libraries surely have contemporary relevance as cultural centres, and not simply depositories of books. Exhibitions, events, social spaces all should be part of the mix. Ultimately, with public funding, they should encourage as wide an audience as possible to discover the stories that create our cultural identity. Having said this, there is definitely a place for specialist, academic and private libraries, where the emphasis is more on an environment in which a reader can be stimulated to create his or her own stories. These need to be spaces which encourage focus and concentration and an escape into the imagination. So perhaps here traditional library etiquette is more appropriate.

The Library

The female in the animation is reading Michelangelo. Why did you choose this out of all of the possible books?
I needed an image which was immediately recognisable as both erudite and erotic. I hope that most viewers will recognise Michelangelo’s David as a work with a definitive place in the canon of art history, but also as the icon that has inspired countless erotic fantasies (just see any souvenir stall in Florence to know what I mean!). Botticelli’s Venus, the subject of Theo (the male character)’s fantasy, was chosen for similar reasons.

Talking of books, what do you like to read?
I’m currently reading – and thoroughly enjoying – Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine, the story of Kenelm and Venetia Digby, a 17th-century society couple. Hermione cleverly uses Kenelm’s character to skip about through time as he researches philosophy and science, with crazy lateral links. It’s refreshing to read something so original – and yet it has a compelling narrative that is quite traditional and beautifully described characters. But my favourite novel must be Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Every time I read it, I am swept away by its epic landscapes and the complexity of the characters.

What do libraries mean to you?
I have always had a close association with libraries. I was fortunate to study for my first degree in the Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean archives in Oxford. Being a young undergraduate with an active imagination, I was often distracted by the eccentric characters I saw every day and got to know intimately through observation – but we never spoke! I created names and back stories for all of them. I went on to work at the V&A and the Royal Institute of British Architects, both of which have outstanding historic libraries (the National Art Library and the British Architectural Library) – wonderful places to escape the busy London streets just outside – and free for anyone to use.

Leo Crane

Leo Crane

What are you working on at the moment?
Aside from corporate work, I am working on a short animation called The Lost Romance of Elizabeth Linley. Elizabeth Linley was arguably the most famous celebrity London has ever known – an 18th-century singer who married the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and influenced culture and politics, running two theatres (in her husband’s name of course) and using her fame to solicit votes. The animation will combine portraits by Gainsborough with computer-generated imagery and a contemporary music score. I was lucky to get generous funding from a number of backers on Kickstarter, which is allowing me to use some of the latest software and to have a budget for distribution to film festivals.

London Animation Studio Ltd.
7 Coopers Yard | London SE19 1TN
Follow us @LonAnim

War and Trease

Young Dickon from Bows Against the Barons joins us in Issue 11

Young Dickon from Bows Against the Barons joins us in Issue 11

Geoffrey Trease changed the landscape of children’s fiction by treating his younger readers as mature and thoughtful individuals. Up to 1945 it was an unacknowledged preconception that children lacked experience. As Margaret Meek commented in her analysis of his work “the successful author presents children with an organised illusion which fits their stage of development, a world in which the experience is relevant”.

In his debut novel Bows Against The Barons (1934) Trease showed that harsh winters left the likes of Robin Hood starving and frail and that life wasn’t always merrie in the emerald forest. It would lead to George Orwell complimenting Trease as “that creature we have long been needing, a ‘light’ Left-wing writer, rebellious but human, a sort of P.G Wodehouse after a course of Marx.”

trease and orwell

Given the social context of the first half of the 20th century it was impossible to cocoon children in a bubble of innocence. WWI meant that everyone knew at least one relative who had been killed, the influenza pandemic of 1918-9, at a conservative estimate, wiped out at least 20 million people, and then the 1930s delivered the Wall Street Crash that meant mass unemployment and uncertainty. Trease’s self-proclaimed desire “to correct the old Henty bias with a partisan counterbalance on the Left” meant that Robin Hood could only be a role model to people if he was truly of the people; starvation affects us all.

It may have been the right time to prod the bubble of innocence but bursting it was a different matter. The novel was published by a left-wing press and contained an inside illustration of a mutilated corpse that inevitably caused offence and resulted in many parents refusing to buy it. Those that did purchase a copy ripped the illustration out before handing the book over to their kids.


Trease’s means of coping with harsh realities was to head out into the countryside and lose himself in the landscape. This would inevitably result in a book, Walking in England (1935). For a while he ran a guest house at Castle Cottage in Somerset. At the time he was making a decent living from freelance but this was taking up so much of his time he didn’t have time to write his own novels and so employed a part-time secretary who took down his words in shorthand and then typed them up. It was a logical solution for a man bursting with ideas but not enough time to transfer them to paper, but it does seem to go against the very essence of writing. Be it pen to paper or fingers to keys, writing is a tactile process, a relationship between body, mind and technology. The absence of any of these elements feels like a completely different mode of expression. But I digress…

Freelancing brought about another problem: isolation from people. A writer requires stimulus and so Trease joined two organisations; the Abingdon Labour Party and an amateur dramatic society. Despite being a political person, he found the Labour Party difficult in that no party could ever be right on every issue. There was also something disingenuous about politicians whose job was to “safeguard themselves in ambiguity whereas a writer uses words to express truths”.

Pen is mightier than the sword according to Trease.

Pen is mightier than the sword according to Trease.

Drama offered socialisation as well as another platform for his writing. In The Land of The Mogul (1938) detailed the adventures of the East India Company and made it abundantly clear that Britain had gone to India not for Empire or God but to trade profitably. Another harsh truth. But it was a one-acter called After the Tempest which would gain him national recognition in J.W. Marriott’s annual volume, The Best One-Act Plays of 1938.

Things were going well for Trease as he hit thirty, but they were about to change. WWII was just around the corner and this would put an end to, or delay, many of his projects. Another script set for success was Colony, set on an imaginary island (a familiar staple of his work) and inhabited by disgruntled sugar workers, it highlighted the problems of colonialism through the abuse of labour. It received critical acclaim, with the theatre weekly Era enthusing it as “a piece of really effective theatre written by a young man who obviously has a political cause at heart; but who, nevertheless, is concerned with creating real characters”.

On the 30 August 1939 Trease signed a preliminary agreement with Unity Theatre (West End) Ltd but 48 hours later Hitler attacked Poland. The contract was cancelled. Nobody was going to put on a controversial play during wartime. Trease’s most successful book Cue for Treason (1940) would suffer a more radical form of censorship. Within two weeks of publication the Nazi’s bombed a warehouse containing all of the books. Soon after, another publication Only Natural (1940) suffered an identical fate. Echoing the sentiments of one of the many stoic characters of his books, Trease remained as determined as ever: “I knew I had to go on writing. All my life I had to write. Even a world war could not stop that itch”.

You can read about Geoffrey Trease in issue 11: Books And Bowstrings by Alan Gibbons and Steve Larder



Geoffrey Trease on Grub Street

The book which formed the basis of this research

The book which formed the basis of this research

In 1930 Trease left his job working in the slums of the East End to take up a position as a ‘literary assistant’ for a well-known author, after replying to an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph. Although the role wasn’t quite as glamorous as the title implied, the experience would teach him some valuable lessons in the craft of writing as well as some dodgy dealings.

The idea of book groups was relatively new, at least this side of the Atlantic, due to tight trade laws which placed the cost of shipping books onto the customer. Trease’s employer had a cunning plan on how to get around such restrictions, in what was essentially a discounted book buying scheme.

When he wasn’t ringing up potential punters and luring them in with deals, there was a bit of writing to do as well. The company aimed to have its own monthly journal, containing the best one hundred book reviews in each issue. To prepare them for this staff were offered training at the home of the owner, himself an established author. The aim of the sessions was to brake down the writing process into components and nurture effective reviewers. Here, Trease learned the mechanics of technique and structure; opening and climax; character and plot development; atmosphere; and Polti’s 36 dramatic situations. It was, in essence, like doing an intensive Creative Writing course in a couple of weeks.

One thing they didn’t teach Trease was the need to avoid asking awkward questions concerning company ethics. He found a note in his next payslip saying his services were no longer required. Up until this point it had been unfathomable to him that ‘educated’ people got the sack. It was a harsh lesson in injustice, a theme that would surface time and again in his novels.

In 1931 he did a stint at Blank Publishing Company, in what was advertorial for their three glossy magazines. He had to produce 3,000 words per day, but was warned, similarly to Arthur Seaton at his lathe a few decades on in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), not to overstep his quota as this could do a colleague out of work.

A typical day comprised of writing 4-6 articles and was the equivalent of a novel every five weeks. Trease would be presented with a large manila envelope containing raw material on the subject and various cuttings. The topics varied dramatically and so he deployed a variety of pseudonyms to create the impression that the sections were written by a diverse range of experts. The readers who read the encouraging words of Elizabeth Severn on all matters feminine were reading the encouraging words of Geoffrey Trease.

Illustration: Steve Larder. Taken from issue 11: Books  and Bowstrings

Illustration: Steve Larder. Taken from issue 11: Books and Bowstrings

Pay was a reasonable 45 shillings a week which included a half day on a Saturday. This was the period of the Wall Street Crash and so any work was welcome. But the problem for Trease was he had little energy to write when he got home. He quit and took up a post at an Essex seaside resort teaching History and English and junior Latin and French. It was here that he would meet his future wife Marian, who he married in Cambridgeshire in 1933 on his 24th birthday. His typewriter would accompany the newlyweds on their honeymoon.

No matter what he thought about his respective employers, Trease had become a disciplined writer, able to produce copy to tight deadlines. This gave him the confidence to pursue a freelance career, pitching articles and stories to every market he could think of, which at one point included an article for a nudist magazine. With an average of one in six pitches accepted he was slowly able to make a living as a writer, and always had commissions from Blank Publishing to fall back on as and when needed.

One publication he pitched an article to was the Cooperative Society magazine Dawn. He was frustrated that all children’s books were still rooted in the jingoistic ideas that war was glorious and Britain was superior to foreigners, and that the same old sides always came out on top. “Robin Hood” he wrote “is about the only proletarian hero our children are permitted to admire. Yet even he is not allowed to remain an ordinary working man! He has to be really Earl of Huntingdon.”

This article gave him the idea to pitch a novel based on similar themes to a publishing house with a leftwing bias. That novel was Bows Against the Barons (1934), a soft Marxist reading of the Robin Hood legend. His breakthrough into the children’s fiction market was born not through a desire to write for children, but for political reasons.

You can read about Geoffrey Trease in issue 11: Books and Bowstrings


Geoffrey Trease’s childhood

Trease features in our 11th issue out 8 Jan 2015. Art: Steve Larder. Words: Alan Gibbons

Trease features in our 11th issue out 8 Jan 2015. Art: Steve Larder. Words: Alan Gibbons

‘Before me lay a voluminous and virginal desk-diary which he (father) had brought home for me from the office, a handsome wine-and-spirit-trade production, fat with the introductory pages extolling this shipper’s port and that chateau’s sauternes. What mattered was the delectable acreage of plain white pages that followed, unsullied by anything save the printed days of the week. It was for this that the diaries were passed to me, to scribble in. And scribble I did, the pencil clenched, the small fist moving ceaselessly across the paper’ Geoffrey Trease, A whiff of Burnt Boats

The Trease family business on Castle Gate

The Trease family business on Castle Gate

The family wine-and-spirit shop was, and still is at, No.1 Castle Gate, the narrow Georgian street leading up to the castle, just a few doors away from a surgical-appliance firm where DH Lawrence did a brief stint as a clerk. It was started by Trease’s grandfather George in 1890 with his father eventually joining rank. The family shop had a man-made cave as a cellar. These sandstone caverns that spread throughout Nottingham have been remarked upon by Defoe, Celia Fiennes and most recently in David Belbin’s crime book Bone and Cane. The shop front was ‘inconspicuous’, partly due to his father’s reticence towards self-advertisement and his grandmother’s embarrassment that the neighbours may comment their family home was kept alive by the liquor trade.

Trease accompanied his father to work on some occasions and spent his time “taking the stamps off the violet-inked envelopes from the shippers of Bordeux”, presumably fostering his intrigue of travel. Stamp collecting would become a hobby and help supplement his general knowledge of the world and capitals, cigarette cards were another useful insight into culture.

Nottingham Arboretum taken from Notts History

Nottingham Arboretum taken from Notts History

The family moved home a few times but Trease’s main memories come from the third home at 142 Portland Road, a tall semi close enough to the Arboretum that they could hear Sunday music filtering through from the bandstand. The surrounding roads were named after the likes of Cromwell, Raleigh, Chaucer and Shakespeare, a constant reminder of the men who had defined history and culture. As WWI drew to a close in 1918, the nine year-old Trease was reminded that the glory of great men came with consequences: “I lay in bed with the influenza that was raging across Europe and listened to the horse-drawn funerals rumbling and clattering down our cobbled road on their way to the cemetery.”

The attic of the three storey family home was a proper treasure chest and included bound volumes of the Illustrated London News “covering the Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars, with contemporary accounts of the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Paris Commune, and vigorous line-drawings, all puffs of canon smoke, solid blocks of infantry, brandished sabres, rearing charges, urbane staff-officers with telescopes, and canon-balls littering the ground like fallen fruit. There was rich food for my imagination in that attic.” One body not on the cart was that of his Uncle Syd, a second lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters who’d gone missing at the Sekonika Front, a brave and brutal mission that would wipe out a large percentage of the troops. So distraught was his grandmother at his disappearance that she refused to allow his name to appear on the School war memorial in the hope that one day he would turn up. All they ever found was his helmet.

You can read about Geffrey Trease in Issue 11: Books And Bowstrings