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Wastelands to wonderlands

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After the Royal Family and Team GB, the British Library is celebrating Britishness

It’s settled then: in this Jubilee and Olympic year we can put aside our squeamishness and accept it’s OK to be British. Along with the Royal Family and Team GB, the British Library is making the most of this year’s celebration of Britishness. Its summer show Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands is a remarkable selection from the library’s archives of manuscripts, photographs and maps covering a thousand years of British landscape history. There’s class war, religious bigotry, NIMBYism and curtain-twitching aplenty.

The exhibition wends its way through countryside, industrial wasteland, heath, city, suburb and shore. The challenge to make a book-bound attraction visually exciting has been met with huge floor-to-ceiling illustrated canvas sails hung between each of the six sections. Sound effects have also been added, though with less success. The clattering engines of the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ area might be fun, but the trickling river in ‘Waterlands’ is easily mistaken for an echo from much closer waterworks.

The ‘Rural Dreams’ section begins the journey. Personifications of nature from the 14th century manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem John Barleycorn trace a pagan tradition that continues to shape country life, from its architecture to its pubs. Elsewhere in this section the likes of Thomas Hardy, John Clare and JR Tolkien make valiant efforts to counter Oscar Wilde’s snub ‘I cannot imagine how anyone manages to survive in the country’, scribbled on his The Importance of Being Earnest manuscript, which is shown covered in speech bubbles and exclamations. Here, too, are the friendly countryfolk, neat hedges and aged oaks so much a part of the British psyche that Danny Boyle wrote them into his Olympic Opening Ceremony.

The industrial revolution, both its birth and legacy, shape ‘Dark Satanic Mills’. An original letter from William Wordsworth to prime minister William Gladstone counsels against the terrible spread of the railways into the Lake District: ‘We are in this neighbourhood all in consternation, that is, every man of taste and feeling, at the stir which is made for carrying a branch railway from Kendal to the head of Windermere.’

Often the paternalistic, conservative relationship that Britain has with its landscape makes it difficult to identify with these places as anything other than curios or, as in George Orwell’s notes for The Road to Wigan Pier, as museums of social history. But the section ‘Wild Places’ offers a glimpse of Britain as we rarely see it: passionate and remote. Mostly poetry here – there’s Seamus Heaney, John Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Unlike in other sections, landscape itself becomes a character, rather than a setting. The moors of Wuthering Heights take shape both through Emily Brontë’s own novel and Sylvia Plath’s poem of the same name. The accompanying recording of Ted Hughes reading Plath’s lines is heavy with a sense of place: ‘There is no life higher than the grasstops/Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind/ Pours by like destiny, bending/Everything in one direction.’

Along the way, though, there’s a nagging sense that the British Library isn’t raving about its collection as much as it should be. The descriptions don’t set the scene and there’s not enough background or biography to introduce unfamiliar works. The library might well have chosen to simply let the texts speak for themselves, but this modesty can be frustrating. Several of the books, Brontë’s Wuthering Heights being one, are displayed showing passages that have no landscape description, as if they fell open at random.

Although the suburbs are often dismissed as life without landscape, ‘Beyond the City’ contrasts their monotony with JG Ballard’s Kingdom Come opener – ‘The suburbs dream of violence’ – shown here on a manuscript with all but that line crossed out. This leads to a world of peeping toms (Jubb by Keith Waterhouse) adultery (Hanif Kureishi’s Buddah of Suburbia) and class conflict (George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion).

An evocative print by James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night, opens ‘Cockney Visions’ and introduces stories of poverty and privilege, migration and over-crowding from Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith. By the time you arrive at ‘Waterlands’, immersion in this much history through so many sights is a little overwhelming. With so much to take in, it would be easy to focus on personal favourites rather than discover new pieces. But there are displays that offer new takes on much-loved texts. TS Eliot’s line in Little Gidding: ‘Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?’ resonated this drab July, while contemporary maps and receipts from a ‘fan-trip’ in the style of Three Men in a Boat, and Ted Hughes’ animated letters to photographer Fay Godwin gathered more attention than other exhibits.

What becomes clear is how muddled and messed-with the landscape of Britain is, and how it’s loved all the more for it. In this of all years, Team BL could have been forgiven a bit more flag-waving. Instead, there’s a touch of stereotypical British reserve with the archive that borders on self-deprecation. Despite that, Writing Britain is a welcome effort at exploring the way we respond to landscape through words. What’s most interesting is how little this response has changed, in the face of industrialisation and population increase: although the environment is different, people aren’t. As Writing Britain proves, it’s the character, the narrator or the author who, as Ian McEwan says, ‘makes places larger’.

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