Writing Britain at the British Library

This exhibition exploring the relationship between literature and landscape in the British Isles is part of the London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad.   It’s hard to know where to begin in this attempt at a review, as the treasures of British (and Irish) literature just kept on coming – from illuminated manuscripts, handwritten manuscripts like Middlemarach; letters from Charlotte Bronte and Dickens; scribblings by James Joyce; letters and typed notes from George Orwell; right up to more present day items including Ian McEwan’s draft of On Chesil Beach (written by hand in a spiral bound notebook no less); and Kazuo Ishiguro’s scribblings titled “Butler in England” (which turned out to be the eventual Remains of the Day).  You can see the complete list of items on display here.

There are so many different ways that this exhibit could have been put together – by region, by time period for example, but the curators have chosen to display the content thematically, covering:

  • Rural Dreams – the legends and stories of the British Isles
  • Dark Satanic Mills – the impact of the Industrial Revolution and the city
  • Wild Places – the influence of wild landscapes, such as the moors (think Wuthering Heights)
  • Beyond the City – from Chaucer’s pilgrims starting their journey on the outskirts of Southwark to today’s suburban influences;
  • Cockney visions – writing London
  • Waterlands – the influence of lakes, rivers and the sea. 

The curators of the exhibition must have shared their inspiration with Danny Boyle to some extent, as many of the Olympic ceremony’s themes were reflected here too – the destruction of the rural idyll giving way to post-industrial revolution literature bemoaning the life in cities.   Yet, the city and the suburbs (where else would J. G Ballard’s Crash and the Harry Potter series be viewed in the same category) move to a more central status.  It’s apt that I was about halfway through reading Zadie Smith’s NW – as in White Teeth (which was featured in the exhibition), the author’s north-west London is again almost a character in its own right, holding the others in place  

An exhibition like this cries out for audio-visual support, though, and it was there – in videos with contemporary authors detailing the impact of wild spaces upon their work, and a similar piece the influence of London.  Readings from poets such as Auden, Larkin, Hughes et al showed the extent to which their writings may have influenced by their location – even if their accents weren’t!  The visualisation of the landscapes play second best to the written word though.

I guess I was most affected by some of the Northern Irish displays – including Seamus Heaney’s reading of “An Aisling in the Burren” from Station Island which I can’t find online, but which brought back to life landscapes familiar from my own childhood. 

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