Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

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A  poster. A vision of hell on Earth, or to be more precise, furnaces ablaze in Coalbrookdale, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, emblazoned with Williams Blake’s familiar words: “And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark satanic mills?”.  I slowed the pace of my walk between St Pancras and Euston Stations. When I saw the next poster in the series, that of a ruined utilitarian building in a bleak landscape reminiscent of Mordor, accompanied by JRR Tolkein’s “Not all those who wander are not lost”, I’d made my decision to visit.
Witing Britain exhibition

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands at the British Library explores the connection between literature and Britain’s spaces and places. The exhibition links one hundred and fifty works to their sources of inspiration in the British Isles. The exhibition is quite minimalist, but just as the pictures are better on TV than radio, the power of the written word has the same power to evoke powerful images. My other half’s bookmark says it all:

It is very difficult for a man who has fallen in love with Rosalind and Heloise, Emma and the Duchess of Malfi, to settle for someone merely alive. And where is a woman to find a Sir Lancelot?” – Dr. Maya V. Patel

Many original manuscripts, books and letters are on display. Videos, audio recordings, paintings, maps and interactive displays complement the stories.

Most of my preconceptions about places in Britain come from my past reading. Often you have to look hard for the remnants of Britain glimpsed through a Chaucer tale or Shakespeare’s Scottish play, but they can be found. The places described by Twenty First century writers like Iain Sinclair are easier to find, but seeing them from the writer’s perspective opens many of their secrets.

The written word altered the way we view the British Isles, sometimes taking a toll on the authors. The ‘Rural Dreams’ section of the exhibition highlights the rural folklore with contributions by Shakespeare, Hardy and Houseman. I found the commentary on the destruction of this idyll by the Agricultural Revolution most poignant. Writers and poets like John Clare; who was so incensed by grabbing of Common Land, the migration of workers to industry, draining of the Fens and destruction of forests, that it affected his grip on reality and he ended his days in an asylum. John Clare and Laurie Lee in mourning the passing of  a simpler more harmonious lifestyle can be considered to be early eco-activists, even when they must have felt a little like King Canute on the seashore, faced with a waves of industrialisation and urban sprawl.

The ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ section highlights graphic descriptions of hardship that changed not only mindsets, but would lead indirectly to improvements in living and working conditions. George Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’, DH Laurence’s ‘Sons and lovers’ and George Orwell’s ‘Road to Wigan Pier’ are some literary milestone works, exposing the dark horrors of urban and industrial life in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Britain’s ‘Wild Places’ feature in the next section. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Conan Doyle  ’discovered’ areas of the country where few were tempted to visit before these authors brought to them to life on the page. Some writers actually changed the map of Britain. A prime example being Doone Valley in Exmoor which was added to the maps after hoards of readers wanted to visit the valley from the novel Blackmore’s ‘Lorna Doone’.  Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Lady of the Lake’ is credited with tempting readers North into the Trossachs, where they subsequently discovered the beauty of the  Highlands and thus starting Scotland’s tourist industry.

‘Beyond the City’ explores the seemingly boring suburbs that in the words of JG Ballard are, ‘more interesting than people will let on’.  The Metropolitan Railway’s ‘Metro-land’  coined in the first instance for promotional purposes but later to become a classic study of suburban life by Sir John Betjeman.  Iain Sinclair went to the very limits of London Suburbia in his walk in the acoustic footprint of the M25.

The ‘Cockney Visions’ zone is dedicated entirely to London including samples of works by William Blake, Virginia Woolf and more.

Most places in Britain are close to either the sea, rivers or lakes. ‘Waterland’ is a study of the effect of water on the writing. Here you can find Jane Austen using Lyme Regis as one of her locations in ‘Persuasion’  and later ”The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles is inextricably joined to this coastal town.  Many of the classic stories of Britain have waterside locations as key elements of the story, from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books to Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ to Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under Milkwood’.

British Library

An adult entry costs £9.  Any lover of both Britain and books will adore Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands.  It started 11 May 2012, the day of my visit. It runs until 25 September 2012.

Which books, poems and songs about places and spaces in Britain are important to you and why?

The link between literature and Britain can be further illustrated by these posts by other  members of the SuperBlog team:
Traveling Alone to Bath by @SoloTraveler travel in Jane Austen country.

These posts by @AboutLondon
Take the Family to Bath also in Jane Austen country.
Family-Friendly Oxford Oxford with links to Charles Dodgson (Lewis Caroll) though Oxford is location for many more writers.
Celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th Birthday at Charles Dickens’ World

A Walk through Romney Marsh @501places more Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ locations.
Dartmoor – Boots On For Valleys and Tors @Paule_Steele explores the location for Conan Doyle’s ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’.
‘Pen, Paint & Pixels’ an artistic tour of the English Lakes by @QuirkyTraveller with Thomas Gray and Wordsworth.
Review and photos by John Williams, webmaster of Eurapart and TravelCrunch.

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One Response to “Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands”

  1. Laura @AboutLondon
    May 17, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    What a great post. I’d heard about this exhibition but it had slipped down my ‘to do’ list with all the fun we have in London but your writing has inspired me to want to visit. Thanks!

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