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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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