The first voice you hear, should you pause at the headphone points dotted around the British Library’s new exhibition Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, belongs to the poet Simon Armitage.
The man synonymous with West Yorkshire is a fitting choice to begin an examination of how a sense of place has influenced 1000 year of English poetry and prose. As he said himself earlier this year, “It’s a peculiarity of British poetry that so much of it stems from geographical places.
“I think if you got most British poets, they’d be able to point to a place on a map and say: this is where my poetry comes from.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, 1865
To explore this idea in more depth, the British Library have gathered over 150 literary works, from the earliest surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which Armitage adapted in 2007) to original drafts of modern novels, such as Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.
The result is a varied collection that is at turns illuminated and obfuscated by its central theme.
In a dark, nimbly-decorated open space we are lead through six sections that are wisely arranged by loose themes rather than any strict chronology or geographical location.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, Early 15th century
So we have sections on the countryside, industry, the wilds, suburbia and – saving the strongest two till last – London and ‘Waterlands’, which explores work inspired by Britain’s rivers and seasides.
Each section weaves cleverly through writers from multiple periods and backgrounds, which allows for some surprising juxtapositions.
A handwritten sonnet, for example, sent by William Wordsworth to Prime Minister Gladstone urging him not to build a railway in Kendal shares a corner with the typed diary Orwell used to write his critique of industrial working conditions The Road To Wigan Pier.
Two writers not normally thought of together, writing a hundred years apart, suddenly both seem inspired by the same basic thing: an anxiety about modernity and the affects of the industrial revolution. It’s at moments like this the curation seems inspired.
At other times though, the show gets too preoccupied with asserting the idea of place as inspiration and the result is that it doesn’t play to its strengths.
A book in a case is not an inherently interesting thing: we need to know why this particular copy is significant, but frustratingly, the texts that accompany them more often than not don’t bother to tell us.
The first appearance of Sweeney Tood, James Rymer, The String of Pearls, 1846/47
Take for example the big draw of the show, JK Rowling’s original manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Rather than tell the romantic story of how this is the genesis of the most successful story of recent times, the actual sheet of paper Rowling sat with in a coffee shop in Scotland when she was an unknown, the show chooses to reiterate the plot of the book, as if anyone doesn’t know it already.
There are some rare and remarkable items here, old and beautiful, but only on occasion do we learn what about them is special, as opposed to why they’re a good fit for the collection. It would have been easy - and made the show far more exciting for the general public - to do both.
There is a final element to the exhibition – an interactive map to which visitors can submit their own choices of pieces of writings that make them feel connected to a certain place in Britain. It’s a nice attempt to curate individual stories, and perhaps the show could have done with more of that kind of interactivity.
All in all, at £9 an adult (under 18s for free) Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands is a wonderful opportunity to see some rarities from literature arranged around an interesting premise. You just can’t help feeling the British Library could have been a little less modest about the treasures at its disposal.
Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands is at the British Library from 11 May - 25 September.
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