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,

(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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If you don’t know who Willy Vlautin is, you should

Vlautin is one of literature’s greats: so why is he still not a big-hitter in contemporary American fiction?

Over four previous novels Willy Vlautin has quietly crafted a body of work a world away from the perceived big-hitters of contemporary American fiction. Yet any one of his books offers as valuable an insight into the day-to-day grind of existence in a country whose dream has long turned sour as anything published this century.

In small scenarios he tackles big themes such as loss and loneliness, almost always against backgrounds of transience, poverty and the endless battle of simply getting by. His characters are not restless wanderers, but rather survivors questing towards the chance of a better life. Their situations are harsh but, crucially, never entirely devoid of hope. Vlautin’s debut The Motel Life concerned two brothers on the lam after a tragic hit and run accident, while Lean On Pete (adapted for a forthcoming film by the British director Andrew Haigh) beautifully explored the relationship between a teenage boy and a failing racehorse. As in his songs (as a musician Vlautin is best known for his work with the band Richmond Fontaine) these are lives that pivot on luck or resourcefulness, with reviewers drawing comparisons to Steinbeck and Carver, though I’d stir Denis Johnson, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen into the mix too.

Don’t Skip Out On Me tracks the journey of 21-year-old Horace Hopper, a half-Paiute Indian, half-white Nevadan ranch worker who was abandoned as a child to a “a grandmother who drank Coors Light on ice from 11am until she fell asleep on the couch at nine, who chain-smoked cigarettes, who ate only frozen dinners, and who was scared of Indians, blacks and Mexicans”.

Horace is also an aspiring boxer. He finds employment and surrogate love from good-hearted ageing rancher Mr Reese and his housebound wife, who want to gift him their family business, but his ambitions in the ring prove too great. Reasoning that all the best fighters are Mexican he moves to Tucson, Arizona, where he reinvents himself as “Hector Hidalgo” by adopting Hispanic clothes, eating spicy food that he dislikes and finding a Mexican trainer, who rips him off.

Fights come his way, brutal undercard battles in which Horace/Hector takes frequent beatings, but is often saved by his big-punching abilities. Rarely has the aftermath of boxing been so well portrayed: the sobbing in the shower, the reset noses, the constant need for codeine. And the emotional scars too.

For at the core of Don’t Skip Out On Me lies a deep well of existential emptiness that is distinctly American. The expansive mirage of the country – “Texas is just a line in the dirt,” shrugs one character – and the empty promise of consumerism found in drab retail parks and fast food diners amplify the young Horace’s solitude and his slim chances of success. Vlautin is hardly the first to note the overwhelming sadness of a neon sign flickering in the darkness or miles of empty car parks where fields once stood, but his are scenes bathed in pathos. Alone beside a strip mall Hector watches the cars pass by: “Every single person in every single car had a TV, a phone, a bed, and ate chicken and got the runs. How many chickens got killed every day?”

Food features heavily throughout, but it is only ever cheap and functional, consumed for quick gratification and always with a nauseous belched-back aftertaste. Stifling heat plays its part too; the pages of this book almost feel slick with the border states’ sweat. The prose smells of synthetic sugar, salt, frying oil, locker rooms and desperation.

Vlautin is particularly adept at fleeting encounters and sorrowful glimpses that add a Homeric dimension. An immigrant shepherd tending to Mr Reese’s flock has a complete mental collapse high in the mountains. A pregnant woman and her toddler are stranded at a Greyhound bus stop, her diaper bag and the child’s stuffed rabbit continuing the journey without them. When he discovers two teenage stowaways in the back of his truck en route to Mexico, Mr Reese sees that their maltreated dog has worms, an eye infection and an injured paw, and buys it off them for $50. A desperate life is made a little better. Such moments are what elevate Vlautin to literary greatness: he understands the necessity for compassion through small acts of kindness.

Ultimately, Horace’s core strength is engulfed by his overwhelming alienation when he washes up in Las Vegas, the vulgar end-point of America’s briefly glorious boom-time. Vlautin’s characters are the walking wounded yet manage to carry themselves with dignity, and only a reader with a heart of anthracite could be unmoved by their situations. They continue to live on long after Don’t Skip Out On Me has ended in devastating style. 

Don’t Skip Out On Me
Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game