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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.