Review: Writing Britain - Wastelands to Wonderlands

A new show at the British Library traces "space" and "place" across a thousand years of literature.

Writing Britain is expansive and immersive, but then what less would you expect from a show that promises to explore a thousand years of English literature, examining the role that “space” and “place” have played in our collective imagination?

Featuring over 150 works - some very famous, some very rare, some dredged from the long forgotten bottom shelves of authors’ offices - it’s an ample offering (though by no means complete: curator Jamie Andrews is keen to stress that this is but a tiny fraction of the 150 million objects in the British Library’s archive) that delights with both its heavy hitters (Tolkein, Dickens, and J.K Rowling all make appearances) and its unexpected treasures (a 10th-century sailor's poem and a childhood newspaper written by Virginia Wolf, to name but two). Give yourself the time to read and to loiter - to hurry through would be to miss the point entirely.

Writing Britain begins in a white corridor. Once inside you’re treated to a concise introduction that highlights the show’s thematic layout – from the “idyllic rural” to “gritty cities” – and nods to the cyclical relationship of writer and reader, the way in which our own relationship with the British Isles is shaped by the form it takes in tales, novels, or poems - its literary footprint. Hung from the ceiling are willowy, translucent screens bearing imagery from the show: maps, landscapes, rivers and cities. The screens’ opacity lends a feeling of impermanence; they are tenuous and fragile, like a memory. Perhaps it’s intentional.

Carry on and you descend into the heart of the exhibition – a yawning, cavernous space. A promontory of floor to ceiling screens, this time bearing topographic maps, bisects the space. The books themselves are presented, “curiosity”-style, in glass cases that run along the edge of the gallery walls. It’s a literary display that has been curated with a librarian’s sensibility: orderly and quiet, with resting points dotted throughout.

The exhibition is subdivided into six thematic sections. The first, “Rural Dreams”, takes a look at “quintessentially” British literature that glorifies the pastoral landscape. Here sits pages from Poly-Olbion, an epic ballad of almost 15,000 lines deriving its name from “Albion” (the oldest word for Britain) and celebrating the “many Britons” whose legends are now familiar: King Arthur, Robin Hood, wandering bards and hooded druids. Works like Edward Thomas’s popular poem "Adlestrop", first published in the New Statesman in 1917 and written when his train made an unexpected stop in a Cotswolds town, maintain the kind of wistful idealism one often associates with the English countryside. Yet the inclusion of such allegorical texts as Watership Down and The Hobbit hint at notions of change, and an urgent sentimentality.

 “Dark Satanic Mills” charts a literary shift as the landscape of the north became increasingly industrialised. Some reviled it: Charlotte Bronte describes the Yorkshire of her 1849 novel Shirley as “smoke dark houses clustered around their soot vomiting mills”, while Dickens went even further, condemning the exhaust fumes over Coketown as “interminable serpents of smoke”. Others exalted it: The poet W H Auden famously boasted “tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery, That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.”

One of the more poignant moments in the exhibition can be found here, in the form of John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics for "In My Life". This memoir of a bus journey through Liverpool is hurriedly written and half scribbled over, but its mention of clock towers, tram sheds and railways lines that never made it into the final song point towards a more personal reading of Lennon’s universal musings on loss, change, and memory. Here perhaps lies the central truth that allows this show to cover great distances of time in the space of a few paces, grouping such a wide range of texts together in way that feels remarkably timeless. Our idea of “place” is defined by a collective yearning to make meaning of our surroundings. 

(John Lennon’s original draft for "In My Life" Loan MS 86 © Hunter Davies)

John Lennon’s original draft for ‘In My Life’ Loan MS 86 © Hunter Davies

("The Rebecca Notebook", Daphne Du Maurier © Chichester Partnership)

("Hyde Park Gate News". Add. MS 70725, ff.71v-72 © Society of Authors)

(JK Rowling, Chapter six, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone © J K Rowling. Kindly lent by the author)

The exhibition continues on, through “Wild Spaces”, which features a heavy focus on windy moors as exemplified by Charlotte Bronte and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Beyond the City”, an examination of suburbia and its latent eccentricities, “Cockney Visions”, our capital as character, and a rather seedy one at that, and “Waterlands”, a look at the literary heritage of our waterways and seasides. It’s a dense, rich spread whose highlights include a rather disparaging poem penned by William Wordsworth on the bother of tourists and their pamphlets (entitled On Seeing Some Tourist of the Lakes Pass by Reading: A Practise Very Common), a John Berger essay on the curious case of the ever-shortening distance to Islington, and a deliriously retro copy of JG Ballard’s Crash, whose opening paragraph, if you’ve never head the pleasure of reading it, is enough to send hard shivers down your spine. Plus there are original manuscripts of Wind in the Willows, Sweeny Todd, The Buddha of Suburbia, Jane Eyre, Middle March and much, much more.

Writing Britain is a resonant exhibition that makes efforts to broaden our concept of British “space” beyond conventional notions of landscape, expressing a diverse range of experiences in environs both natural and built.  Yet the pervading sentiment is one of a nation caught - almost joyfully - in the grips of nostalgia. It is a sense of the past that beats like a pulse throughout this show - a past real or imagined, authentic or romanticised, it doesn’t really matter.

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands is at the British Library, London NWI until 25 May

(The Strand Magazine. London, 1892. P.P.6004.glk © Conan Doyle Estate Ltd.)

(John Stow, The Survey of London. London, 1633. 576.m.14 © British Library Board)

("Map of the Seat of War" The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G K Chesterton, 012629.bb.10)

(Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre. Add. MS 43474, ff.186v-187 © British Library Board)

A childhood newspaper penned by Virginia Wolf and her siblings. Titled: ‘Hyde Park Gate News’. (© Society of Authors)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon