Writing Britain

What is it about being British? And what does Britain look like when seen through the pen of poets…

This summer a huge crowd of sports fanatics wills pour into London. Fortunately some of these may turn out to be less one-eyed and single-minded than seem to be the case if we listen to the news.

To cater for these crossovers, the Olympic city is mounting a cultural program, the London 2012 Festival, which runs from the 21th of June to the 9th of September.

Most of this is of course the usually mix of mimes, lightly clad dancers in weird performances and insipid music galore. One gem, however, should be recommended, although it is hardly mentioned in the official program: the exhibition at The British Library: Writing Britain. Wastelands to Wonderlands.

From William Blake to the 21st-century suburban hinterlands of J G Ballard, Writing Britain examines how the landscapes of Britain permeate great literary works. According to the official blurb, it allows visitors to read between the lines of some of the great works of English literature, discover the secrets and stories surrounding the works’ creation and  and explore the ways in which they speak to the country today.

Over 150 literary works, including many first-time loans from overseas and directly from authors: sound recordings, videos, letters, photographs, maps, song lyrics and drawings – as well as manuscripts and printed editions are on show.

The exhibition is organized in six themes – Rural Dreams, Industrial and Cityscapes, Wild Places, London, Edges and Waterlands – presenting a huge variety of artists, their dreams and visions about Britain packed in one gallery.

Naturally, for the medievalist some of the exhibits are especially important such as for instance the Landsdowne manuscript (Lansdowne MS 851) with a text of the Canterbury Tales. It would, however, be a pity to limit oneself to only part of the bonanza. The amazing and huge variety of manuscripts and sound-renderings is really amazing and gives a glimpse of the diverse ways, in which artists were and still seems to be the all-important agents in setting the scene for the creation of what some might wish to term “The British Identity”.

Naturally this is a troublesome concept; nevertheless looking at Albion from afar there is such a “thing”, encapsulated in a mixture of the smiling countryside, bleak coal-districts and postmodern cityscapes and suburbia. We recognize it immediately because we have “read” it all. Although this is an eclectic selection, it is all on show  and we recognize it easily.

Maybe this is not be the sole object of the exhibition, but it really does invite the guests to start (re)reading the classics (most of them luckily available in nice and cheap edition from the Penguin Press.) What more can you wish for?

Well, maybe there is room for one quibble: Why is the exhibition not mounted in collaboration with the National Gallery? It would have been a feast to see to what extent the visual and the literary arts might have complimented each other.

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands
British Library, London NW1 2DB
11.5-2012 -25.09.2012

The Exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by The British Library:
Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands
by Christina Hardyment
British Library 2012






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