January 2015 sees the addition of 226 biographies to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, offering the lives of those who have played their part in shaping British history between the late 20th and early 21st century. The sectors and professions each of these individuals influenced range from medicine to film, including Nobel Prize and Oscar winners. Explore our infographic below as we highlight a selection of these new lives: some well-renowned, some lesser-known, yet all significant.
You can download both jpg and pdf versions of the infographic. To discover more about these lives, visit the Oxford DNB’s January update page.
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The New Year brings with it a new instalment of Oxford DNB biographies which, as every January, extend the Dictionary’s coverage of people who shaped British life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This January we add biographies of 226 men and women who died during 2011. These new biographies were commissioned by my predecessor as editor, Lawrence Goldman, but having recently assumed the editor’s chair, I take full and appreciative responsibility for introducing them.
The new biographies bear vivid witness to an astonishing diversity of personal experience, individual achievement, and occasional delinquency; and they range from Claude Choules (b.1901), the last British-born veteran of the First World War, who died at the age of 110, to the singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse (b.1983), who died from alcohol poisoning aged just twenty-seven. The great majority of the people whose biographies are now added (191, or 84%) were born before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the majority (137, or 60%) were born before 1930. Typically, therefore, most were active between the 1940s and the 1980s, but some (such as Choules) are included for their activities before 1918, and several (such as Winehouse, or the anti-war campaigner, Brian Haw) only came to prominence in the 2000s.
The lives of Choules and Winehouse—the one exceptionally long, the other cut tragically short—draw attention to two of the most significant groups to be found in this new selection. A generation after Choules, many Britons served bravely during the Second World War, among them the SOE veteran Nancy Wake who led a group of resistance fighters and who killed German soldiers with her bare hands; SOE’s French section sent 39 women agents into France during the war, and Wake was undoubtedly among the toughest and most redoubtable. Her fellow SOE officer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, is best known for his capture, on Crete, of the German officer General Kreipe—an event that was retold in the film Ill Met by Moonlight (1957). In March 1942 Leslie Audus was captured by the Japanese and put to work in a slave labour camp. There he employed his skills as a botanist to create a nutritional supplement from fermented soya beans, saving him and hundreds of his fellow prisoners from starvation. After the war, Audus enjoyed a distinguished scientific career though, with great modesty, he made little of his remarkable prison work, which remained known only to former captives who owed him their lives.
The troubled creative life of our latest-born person, Amy Winehouse, is representative of a second significant group of lives to emerge from our new set of biographies. These were the entertainers for whom the celebrity-devouring world of show business was a place of some highs but ultimately of disenchantment and disappointment. Forty years before Winehouse came to public attention, the singer Kathy Kirby enjoyed a glittering career. Ubiquitous in the early 1960s with hit after hit, she was reputedly the highest-paid female singer of her generation. However, she failed to adapt to the rise of rock’n’roll, and soon spiralled into drug and alcohol abuse, bankruptcy, and psychiatric problems. The difficulties Kathy Kirby experienced bear similarities to those of the Paisley-born songwriter Gerry Rafferty, best known for his hit single ‘Baker Street’, which deals with loneliness in a big city; Rafferty too found fame hard to cope with, and eventually succumbed to alcoholism.
Of course, not all encounters with modern British popular culture were so troubled. One of the longest biographies added in this new update is that of the actress Elizabeth Taylor who shot to stardom in National Velvet (1944) and remained ever after a figure of international standing. While Taylor’s private life garnered almost as much attention as her screen roles, she’s also notable in pioneering the now popular association between celebrity and charitable causes—in Taylor’s case for charities working to combat HIV/AIDS. To that of Elizabeth Taylor we can also add other well-known names, among them Lucian Freud—by common consent the greatest British artist of his day, whose depictions of human flesh are unrivalled in their impact and immediacy; the journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who made his career in the US; Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of British cinema; and the dramatist Shelagh Delany, best-known for her play, A Taste of Honey (1958).
In addition to documenting the lives, and legacies, of well-known individuals—such as Freud, Hitchens, and Delaney—it’s also the purpose of each January update of the ODNB to include people of real historical significance who did not make the headlines. In creating a rounded picture of those who’ve shaped modern Britain, we’re helped enormously by more than 400 external specialists. Divided into specialist panels—from archaeology and broadcasting to the voluntary sector and zoology—our advisers recommend people for inclusion from long lists of possible candidates. And it’s their insight that ensures we provide biographies of many less familiar figures responsible for some truly remarkable achievements. Here is just one example. Leslie Collier was a virologist who, in the 1960s, developed a heat-stable vaccine for smallpox which made possible a mass vaccination programme in Africa and South America. The result was the complete eradication of smallpox as proclaimed by the World Health Organization in 1980. How many figures can claim to have abolished what was once a terrifying global disease?
Whether long or short, good or bad, exemplary or tragic, or something more nuanced and complex in-between, the 226 new biographies now added to the Oxford DNB make fascinating—and sometimes sobering—reading.
Featured image credit: Amy Winehouse, singing, by NRK P3. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
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By Nigel Young
Following the funeral, the British radio waves are full of Amy Winehouse music. Those of us who learned as teenagers about great women blues and soul singers from listening to the voices of Billie Holliday and Bessie Smith, had no such contemporary singers of our own “Beatles” generation, white or black. The emergence of great new talents in this genre was something remarkable.
With parents allowing looser rules over children’s media consumption in summer months (it’s no wonder kids dread fall and back-to-school time. During the summer, 49% of children watch more TV, 46% play more video games, 45% surf the Web... Read the rest of this post
HarperCollins has bought rights to a memoir by the father of late soul singer Amy Winehouse.
Nick Canham, editorial director for Harper Non-Fiction, bought UK and Commonwealth rights, excluding Canada, to Amy, My Daughter by Mitch Winehouse, from Maggie Hanbury at the Hanbury Agency.
Lisa Sharkey, senior vice-president and director for creative development at HarperCollins US bought North American rights from Robin Straus at the Robin Straus Agency in conjunction with Maggie Hanbury. The book will be published worldwide in summer 2012.
I have been a member of the Highgate Poetry Society for 24 years. It was founded in 1977 in the Highgate Society, where I run my Highgate workshops. The Poets have produced 26 anthologies and we have many award winning and published poets who have been part of our group. I honed my poetry writing and reading aloud skills with the Poets and I owe the monthly workshops and the rigour of the critique a great deal. However, in the past few years my focus has been so much on writing Y.A. fiction that my poetry has dropped off considerably. I still get a regular flow of ideas and my notebooks are full of starters, but taking the time to sit and carefully craft a poem always comes second to writing the next chapter. I therefore decided that my NY Resolution, 2013, would be ‘To write more poetry’. And then foolishly posted it on Facebook and Twitter – and NOW I'm even blogging about it. So there’ll be considerable egg on my face if I don’t DO IT!! The first poem of the New Year therefore had a sort of taking stock theme to it. not like Mum, dead before seventy; I’ll ride a Harley down Route 66 Bob Dylan trailing in the slipstream, drink moonshine brewed by cowboys and learn to shoot straight. I’ll eat chocolate with every meal sell my Freedom Pass at street value and wear jeans to fancy weddings. I’ll push my Zimmer into Starbucks shouting at my smartphone; looking mad like business men and yummy mummies. And when I need to go into a Home I’ll start a squat, siphon off the leckie from the streetlights, grow skunk in the living room. I know I’ll never stand in Armstrong’s footsteps on the moon, base jump El Capitain, sleep overnight on the Antarctic ice. I’m standing naked on a beach, the wind in my hair, 19 again and all of life spreading out before me. I know about the 'wearing purple' poem, but mine is for the hippie generation! My next poem – which is currently in bits and pieces – is about Amy Winehouse. For lots of reasons, but mainly because she was the same age as my daughter and mine is alive and well. Here is the opening gambit : She is a Jools Holland Boxed Set now a birthday present for the better half She sang like Piaf but died like Janis in a flood of poisoned blood and tears broke all our hearts twice over. In the yellow pub near Camden Square she sings, “Heard it on the grapevine” over the lunchtime crowd while we wait. Then my girl bounds over the threshold caught for a second in a halo of sunlight her skin radiant, unpainted, veins running clear. It’s a starters and we’ll see if it develops. And it’s only January. (excuses, excuses)
It would be nice to aim for a poem a week. I have one to write about visiting San Francisco last summer :
This town rings with writers/ Kerouac, Frost, Dashiel Hammett/
And notes for another one about my generation being unwired and all the other things we didn’t have like :
black, partner, celebrity jungles/ and the only X we knew was in x-ray/ I’ll let you know how I get on in another blog – of course this might be IT and I’ll stall at these unfinished lines. But I hope not. You can read a couple of my poems from the 26thHighgate Poets Anthology on my website.
I was planning to post about the debt ceiling in the US today. But then word came that Amy Winehouse was found dead in her apartment, of a presumed overdose. Her father is on an airplane, not knowing that she is lying dead, while millions of us are already reading and writing and talking about it. They have already made her a member of the Forever 27 Club, along with Janis, Jimi and Morrison.
So many people are FaceBooking, Tweeting about Amy that her death was a given, because of her addiction. That's easy to say now that she is dead. But people do overcome addiction, even when it looks as though they will fail. And there are celebrities who are still struggling while in the limelight. I want you to know, even though they don't, that I am pulling for them. Lindsay, Brittany, you're in that group. You CAN make it. Millions of people want you to.
It was a happy day when Robert Downey, Jr. turned the corner. He struggled mightily in front of everyone, and seemed lost so many times. Let's hope he never has to struggle that hard again. He is a brilliant man with so much talent and we are so lucky to get to be the beneficiaries of it. That is how I feel about all the people I know who are survivors of their addictions, who are making it in this world in spite of that terrible disease. They are heroes. Addiction is a killer.
We are going to have to do better as a society. We have recognized that addiction is a disease. We have devised various ways to deal with that. But we still attach a stigma on the one hand and glamorize it on the other. We lose family and friends and our celebrity darlings. These are real people with real talents. We have to do better. We need our people who have talents and skills in the areas of science, medicine, counseling, celebrity wrangling, psychology, to start putting their heads together to save our future generations from addition. And as for the rest of us we need to stop stigmatizing and glamorizing ... however and whenever we can.
Addiction runs rampant in my own family. I have survivors, I have practicing alcoholics, I have family members who think they have control. We all know which ones we are. How about you? Are you untouched?
Amy Winehouse’s death is such a tragic waste – talented singer, loving family, a voice of youth.
Drugs are ‘friends’ that invite people in for a party, but drugs are not friends and take everything:-
They destroy familes, young lives, community.
Young people are so vulnerable – I personally know young people trapped by drugs, some are in and out of mental health hospitals, can’t keep a job, live for the next hit and some have died like Amy.
Music is such a real way to reach emotions, express emotions, reach into lives – but it’s got to be NO to drugs.
Amy’s death is so deeply sad.
Scene from videoclip of Psycho Dad
This isn’t your grandmother’s “Snow White”! (Kristin Stewart is armed to the teeth for an upcoming rendition of the fairy tale, “Snow White & The Huntsmen.” Compare that to Lily Collins’s overly twee... Read the rest of this post