The Blog

You Can Tell the Olympics Are Coming

At the British Library, we were aware that summer 2012 demanded something special for our major exhibition programme. From the manuscript of, to the notebooks of J. G. Ballard, the Library has the finest collection of English Literature in the world, and the opportunity to open up this literary treasure-house to visitors in 2012 seemed irresistible.

In advance of the Olympic torch being trundled round the streets of Haringey (in North London, where I live), the road engineers have been busy. For the past few weeks, all traffic has been diverted, and a shiny new road surface laid down on the torch route up and over Ally Pally (Alexandra Palace, the glorious white elephant on the hill that dates from an earlier grand project).

While other roads in Haringey remain pot-hole-pocked (e.g. my road), the torch bearers will enjoy frictionless flame-carrying on burnished tarmac.

And, why not? It would be a particularly unambitious council that didn't want to show its streets off to their best, and all over London neighbourhoods are getting a facelift, and buildings buffed up for the big day.

Yet beyond an understandable covering over of the city's cracks, what less tangible dividends will be drawn from the great Olympic beano?

London 2012 Festival http://festival.london2012.com/ - the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad - launched recently, with the aim to mark the best in British and world culture. A rambunctious salad of culture, London 2012 Festival is not only a chance to celebrate cultural achievement in the present, it must also present a chance for artists to take stock of where the country is - and, crucially, where it thinks it is - in 2012. A chance to draw on, and react against, our rich cultural heritage; to express genuine fears for the future, as well as a lively glorying of the past.

At the British Library, we were aware that summer 2012 demanded something special for our major exhibition programme. From the manuscript of Beowulf, to the notebooks of J. G. Ballard, the Library has the finest collection of English Literature in the world, and the opportunity to open up this literary treasure-house to visitors in 2012 seemed irresistible.

And so Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands presents over one hundred and fifty items from the Library's literature collections, alongside loans of manuscripts and drawings from libraries and museums in the UK and overseas. We wanted to use these stunning artefacts - handwritten drafts for Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend that the author only just managed to rescue from a train crash, or childhood poetry handwritten by Emily Brontë - to say something about the ways that our country has been seen by writers over the past millennium. To show that authors not only describe and record the changing and the eternal spaces and places of the British Isles; but actively construct, and even create, those spaces and places.

Writing Britain comprises six 'thematic snap-shots', opening with an examination of "Rural Dreams". Not only the eternal truths of an earthly paradise that Danny Boyle has drawn on for his Olympic Opening Ceremony (Britain as a 'green and pleasant land'), but equally the hard-bitten realities of living off the land.

From pastoral visions to "Dark satanic mills", in a section that traces the ways that writers initially welcomed the awesome changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, but moved quickly from wonder to critical depictions of the new landscapes it had created.

"Wild Places" such as lonely moors or stormy heaths are frequently framed by writers as sites of confrontation, where humans grapple with sinister forces and raw elements beyond any rational ordering.

More down to earth, the following section looks at the construction of suburbia as a place of anonymity and security 'Beyond the City', while acknowledging that writers from G. K. Chesterton to J. G. Ballard have shown that something more interesting - or alarming - is often happening behind the twitching net curtains.

A section on 'Cockney Visions' looks at two sides of London writing: the lurid characters and nightmarish scenes of what poet James Thomson called a 'City of Dreadful Night'; and the visionary texts of writer-walkers from William Blake to Will Self who transcend the reality of the capital.

Finally, the exhibition finishes with the country's 'Waterlands' - the possibilities for transgressor and transition invested in our liminal coastal spaces, and the cycles of renewal and regeneration driven by descriptions of its rivers.

Throughout these sections, and the more than 150 literary masterpieces that run through them, we hope that visitors will be encouraged to think about other landscapes that they know; the ways those landscapes have been recorded - and created - by writers; and how we live so often, as Wallace Stevens wrote, "in a description of a place and not in the place itself."