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27 posts categorized "Writing Britain"

28 September 2012

Written Britain

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Writing Britain closed on Tuesday evening. It's been an incredible year working on the exhibition (very weird to think that a year ago we only had a vague outline of what it would be about) and it's been a great opportunity for us to show some of our greatest literary treasures.

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I think one of the most satisfying things about working on this exhibition is that it's made people want to read. We had so many enquiries about the exhibit list in general and titles of specific books in particular, because visitors were inspired to read books they hadn't heard of, or ones they had read as a child and forgotten about. So although the physical presence of Writing Britain is being dismantled to make room for Mughal India, I hope it will be a literary inspiration for people for a while yet.

So the exhibition's over but English and Drama will still be blogging. From next week we'll be using the blog to update you on other happenings in the department, including events, interviews, new acquisitions and hidden gems from the British Library's literary collections.

17 September 2012

A country life - a poem, the pastoral and the pretender

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As Writing Britain enters its last couple of weeks, I wanted to tell you about one of the more surprising exhibits in the exhibition. In the Rural Dreams section is a pocket book containing a reworking of a poem by a woman called Katherine Philips.

Philips
Katherine Philips

Philips was born in London in 1632 but on her marriage at the age of 16 she moved to Wales and lived in Cardigan until her death in 1664. First appearing in print in 1651, she developed a renown for writing poems about friendship and for having a group of close associates all of whom used assumed names drawn from a classical tradition (Philips was known as Orinda). Her husband James Philips was a supporter of parliament and held a prominent role in Welsh politics, but Katherine is believed to have harboured royalist sympathies.

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© British Library Board. Shelfmark C.79.a.30

You may well be wondering what all this has to do with the British landscape.

In fact, one of Katherine’s most famous poems was called ‘A Country Life’:
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© British Library Board. Shelfmark C.79.a.30

It begins:

How sacred and how innocent
A country life appears,
How free from tumult, discontent,
From flattery and fears.
This couplet sums up an idyllic pastoral retreat from the evils of town, which perhaps was written from Katherine’s own experience of leaving London for the Welsh countryside.

I’m particularly fond of the poem because it includes the lines

Happy in friendship and in health,
On roots, not beasts, they fed.

A seventeenth century rallying call for vegetarians! Or so I like to think.

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© British Library Board. Shelfmark C.79.a.30

Generally the poem speaks of the virtues of the simple life and of the British countryside as a retreat. It’s displayed in Writing Britain as an early example of the use of the pastoral tradition in English literature – a genre that came from classical literature and promoted the countryside as an often unrealistically perfect place. Although some later writers embraced this tradition – in the same section of the exhibition you can see a first edition of AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh – others questioned it, which is why we’re also displaying Thomas Hardy’s proof copy of Far from the Madding Crowd, in which the countryside is anything from ‘free from tumult [and] discontent’.

Back to Katherine Philips and that pocket book I mentioned.

Katherine Philips

© British Library Board. Shelfmark: Egerton MS 1527

The significance of this object is extremely compelling once you know the back story. It belonged to James Scott, who was the 1st Duke of Monmouth and illegitimate son of Charles II – and the pretender to the throne during the Monmouth Rebellion of June-July 1685.

There is a note in the front of the pocket book written by James II to say that the book was found on the Duke’s person when he was captured after the Battle of Sedgemoor. According to our catalogue entry it contains:

medical and general recipes; charms; prayers; events in English history; English and French songs, with music; routes in Holland; addresses of various persons; values of Dutch and English coins, etc.

Among all these things is a reworked (or possibly written from memory) version of Katherine Philips’ ‘A Country Life’, evidently written out because it was meaningful for him and worthy of rereading in quiet moments.

The final couplet of the original poem reads:

In this retired integrity,
Free from both war and noise,
I live not by necessity,
But wholly by my choice.

I can’t help but find irony in the significance this poem obviously held for Scott, given that his attempt to seize power was far removed from the simple life Katherine Philips described. Sometimes retreating to a country idyll far from the perils of court really was a safer bet.




09 September 2012

Islington: "remote and faintly suspect"?

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With the grace and strength of Mo Farah kicking for home, Writing Britain is lengthening its stride and entering the final bend (i.e. it’s closing soon on 25 September). We’re continuing to get some nice reviews- including an exciting two pager in Newsweek- but we’ve also been involved opening a new exhibition at King’s College London’s Inigo Rooms dedicated to the writer, critic, storyteller, and artist John Berger.

This week we’ve been installing some of the John Berger archive in the exhibition space at KCL, and have been carefully monitoring light, humidity, and temperature levels in the gallery. The necessary attention to environmental conditions is a far cry from the last time I saw the Berger archive: at Berger’s home (carefully laid out in the stables) in the French Alps, where I had gone to arrange his papers.

John had generously agreed to donate his archive, consisting of nearly 400 files of drafts, notes, correspondence and cuttings collected over 60 years of work as a storyteller, artist, poet, critic, screenwriter and farmer. I collected it from his home in 2009, recording my progress on a series of audioboos.

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Having brought the archive back to the Library- and got rid of any insects who might have come along for the ride- the papers were catalogued by Tom Overton as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council-Funded Collaborative Doctoral Award between the Library and King’s College London, and Tom has also curated the current exhibition, Art and Property Now.

As a huge fan of Berger’s work- and the spirit that informs it- I was keen to include some of the Berger archive in Writing Britain as well. Although now based in France, he is a Londoner born and bred, and returned to London in his 2005 stories Here is Where we Meet.

One of the stories, ‘Islington’, looks at the idea of the suburbs as a state of mind, reminding us that the London borough of Islington was once ‘remote and faintly suspect’. Berger followed in a tradition originating with the poet Edward Thomas in 1906, who wrote that the suburbs were not a matter of geography, but rather a ‘problem of the mind’.

JB MS

Berger notes how ‘poor and therefore uneasy districts … are pushed, in the imagination of those who are prospering, further away than they really are’ and thinks ‘today Islington is far closer than it used to be’. The manuscript of this text is in the introduction to the suburbs section, alongside manuscripts of Conan Doyle and JG Ballard, all examining under-examined edge-lands that are, in the words of JG Ballard, ‘more interesting than people will let on’.

Having emphasised Berger’s engagement with the idea of suburbs, I was pleased to discover a companion piece in Tom’s exhibition- a drawing called ‘London Suburb’. The drawing dates from the 1940s, when Berger’s studio was in a maid’s room on the top floor of a house on Pilgrims Lane, Hampstead, and the drawing was made looking out of the window in the room next to it, towards Downshire Hill.

Hampstead, like Islington, no longer so suburban, but a nice link across two exhibitions- and more than sixty years of acute observation and compassionate writing/drawing.

03 September 2012

Coleridge, Wordsworth and digital mapping

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I have just come back from this year’s conference of the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS), hosted by the University of Sheffield. This year’s conference theme was ‘Victorian value’ and speakers presented papers on a wide range of topics which explored the idea of value and the valuable within the social, political, ethical, spiritual and aesthetic discourses of the nineteenth century.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended was the Digital Humanities panel, which included a talk by Ian Gregory on the value of using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in studying literary and historical texts of the Lake District. ‘Mapping the Lakes’ is a British Academy funded project by Lancaster University to undertake a literary mapping of the Lake District. The pilot project focusses specifically on two canonical tours of the region: Thomas Gray’s tour in the autumn of 1769 and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1802 tour, recorded in his ‘Lakes’ Notebook.

Using a variety of techniques – including digitisation and tagging of the texts, ‘density smoothing’ to highlight the amount of time spent in/relative altitude of the areas visited, and exploratory maps which similarly use a system of shading to delineate imaginative and emotional responses to landscape and environment - the project has created a number of visualization tools offering different cartographical versions of Gray’s and Coleridge’s tours.

The value for readers and researchers of using such tools is clear: even for the reader who is well acquainted with the region, attempting to visualize the network of relationships between the myriad places mentioned by the poets presents a considerable challenge. The site – beyond its pilot stage – will also allow the integration of a vast amount of disparate data sources, such as images, topographical drawings and census information – which will enable the reader to assess the texts within their wider cultural and historical context. Avoiding the pitfalls of some digital humanities projects, whose sophisticated visualization tools can run the risk of rendering the literary text obsolete and divorcing the reader from a response to the text, the project seeks to enable both an abstract mapping and a geographically enhanced reading: to encourage a return to the text with an increased understanding and enlarged perspective. Offering the chance to overlay and compare the maps generated, the project - taking its cue from the work of the twentieth century poet Norman Nicholson - presents a visualization of the Cumbrian topography as a palimpsest: a landscape whose every detail and feature is documented and can be excavated in multiple literary texts.

Thomas Gray and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both figure prominently in the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition. One of the sections of the exhibition explores the idea of literary tourism and the Lake District, along with other areas of the country such as the Wye Valley and the Scottish highlands, became one of the centres of tourism when that industry began to develop in the mid to late eighteenth century. Guidebooks for the burgeoning tourist market proliferated (Thomas West’s 1778 Guide to the Lakes was one of the earliest and most influential), informing travellers which places they should see, the correct vantage points from which to view them, and even advice on the correct equipment (eg a Claude glass and sometimes camera obscura) that they should take to facilitate their viewing experience.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Lakes’ Notebook
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Lakes’ Notebook, 1802. © British Library Board

Within this section of the Writing Britain exhibition, visitors can see on display a volume of maps owned and annotated by Thomas Gray and the manuscript of Coleridge’s ‘Lakes’ Notebook, in which he records the nine day tour (or ‘circumcursion’, as he called it) which he made round the Lake District in August 1802. The British Library holds over fifty Notebooks of Coleridge, and this one, which contains his sketches as well as his reflections on the majesty and sublimity of the landscape, is one of the most compelling and moving of the series. Also displayed is one of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals (generously loaned by the Wordsworth Trust), in which she records her walks around the area, often with her brother, William. Alongside this are shown a manuscript of William’s poem (entitled ‘On Seeing Some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading; a practice very common’) and the 1835 edition of his Guide to the Lakes. Written in 1805, although not published until fifty years after his death, Wordsworth’s poem chastises the tourists who, overly influenced by the popular guidebooks, flock to the Lake District and are content with an inadequate and vicarious experience, mediated through what they have read, of the glorious and awe-inspiring landscape which surrounds them. Wordsworth’s own Guide was written as a corrective to the numerous existing guides to the Lakes and advocates the need for a wholeness of perception (an encounter beyond the merely visual), seeking to communicate to visitors his own love and reverence for his native region.

William Wordsworth, ‘On seeing some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading’
William Wordsworth, ‘On seeing some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading’, 1806. © British Library Board

Aligning and juxtaposing these various voices, the exhibition similarly suggests a textual palimpsest, layered over time, created for this area of the country. The spiritual resonances within all of these representations of landscape are key, and these writers’ responses to landscape are situated within a wider nineteenth century dialogue between the value of solitary, individual encounter and the ideal of shared, communal experience. Both the British Library’s exhibition and Lancaster’s ‘Mapping the Lakes’ site offer a chance to reflect on the theoretical and philosophical implications of this debate in our contemporary response to landscape, literature, and the relationship between them, as well as the opportunity for direct engagement with some of the most famous literature of the Lake District.

Rachel Foss, Lead Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts

Writing Britain: From Wastelands to Wonderlands runs at the British Library until 25th September

16 August 2012

Brighton Rock

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Brighton-Rock-dust-jacket
The image above shows the first American edition of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, as displayed in the 'Waterlands' section of the British Library's summer exhibition, Writing Britain. The dynamic cover design is the work of the celebrated book designer George Salter. Greene's novel forms part of a modest display devoted to the south coast seaside resort of Brighton. First published in 1938, Brighton Rock lifts the curtain on the Brighton of day-trippers, ice cream and donkey rides on the beach, to reveal a landscape of decrepit boarding-houses roamed by razor-wielding spivs. The civic-minded Brighton Gazette was moved to declare the book a 'gross libel' on the town, and it may have had a point. Though the Brighton of the period was indeed afflicted with areas of poverty and slum housing, its level of violent crime was no worse than that of any other comparably-sized town. Greene's fictional Brighton was, as he has admitted in print, a considerable transformation of the reality. In the autobiographical work Ways of Escape, Greene reflected on his artistic treatment of the town he in fact loved more than any other ('No city before the war, not London, Paris or Oxford, had such a hold on my affections.'): 

        I must plead guilty to manufacturing this Brighton of mine as I never manufactured Mexico or Indo-China. There were no living models for these gangsters, nor for the barmaid who so obstinately refused to come alive. [...] Why did I exclude so much of the Brighton I really knew from this imaginary Brighton? I had every intention of describing it, but it was as though my characters had taken the Brighton I knew into their own consciousness and transformed the whole picture. I have never again felt so much the victim of my inventions.

If Brighton Rock presents a one-sided picture of the Brighton of the 1930s, it is nonetheless a gripping one, and one that has endured in the public consciousness - thanks also in no small part to the Boulting Brothers classic 1947 film version and in particular Richard Attenborough's chilling portrayal of the psychotic teenage gangster Pinkie, a role he had previously played in a 1943 stage adaptation of the book.

In the exhibition Greene's novel is displayed alongside a handwritten manuscript page from Terence Rattigan's 'outline treatment' for the film - one of many Rattigan drafts in the British Library's collection - and a vintage copy of The West Pier, the 1951 novel by Patrick Hamilton considered by Greene to be 'the best book written about Brighton', superior even to his own. 

A CD anthology of Graham Greene's talks, readings and interviews, in which he discusses Brighton Rock, the films that have been made of his books, and his own career as a film critic, among other subjects, was issued by the British Library in collaboration with the BBC in 2007. It is available to buy from the British Library online shop

07 August 2012

The Art of Wandering (and competition)

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We did a lot of reading (and walking) in preparation for curating Writing Britain, and one of the authors I found most useful in curating the ‘Cockney Dreams’ section of the exhibition was Merlin Coverley. Merlin’s books on London writing, and especially psychogeographical dérives around the capital (the London Writing and Psychogeography Pocket Essentials), were inspiring and informative in the development of the section.

Art of won

So I was delighted to get an advance copy of Merlin’s latest book, The Art of Wandering, a history of the writer as walker. Walker-writers – Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Edward Thomas, Iain Sinclair- play a prominent part in Writing Britain, and Writing Britain is referenced in the press release for Merlin's book, alongside a number of other current walking-writing cultural touchstones (the work of Sinclair, Self, Papadimitriou and others).

Merlin’s new book is a perfect accompaniment to, and expansion on, a number of the ideas in Writing Britain, and was in fact written and researched for the most part in the British Library, using our collections. It takes in walkers of all ages and environments- including a wonderful chapter on imaginary walks: from Albert Speer’s circumnavigation of the world in his prison yard, to the Voyage autour de ma chambre (Travel around my Room) by Xavier de Maistre.

Merlin kindly agreed to respond to questions on email, the text of which I reproduce below:

ON THE ORIGINS OF THE ART OF WANDERING…

"The origins of this book grew out of research I had done for an earlier book, Psychogeography, in which I had tried to outline the literary predecessors to contemporary writers such as Sinclair, Ackroyd and Self. By exploring the work of De Quincey and Stevenson, the Surrealists, the Situationists and so on, I was able to piece together a tradition of writing about space and place that obviously had much to do with the role of walking and its relationship to literary composition.

In The Art of Wandering I returned to many of these figures, this time focussing explicitly upon the writer as walker and enlarging the scope of the project to include a much wider time frame. This obviously generated a much larger range of sources and to deal with this I decided to arrange these texts according to the form of walking they represented, from the philosopher to the pilgrim, the visionary to the Romantic, right up to the present day. One of the consequences of this approach was that writers, whose works rarely if ever come into contact, were now sharing the same page. For example, Hilaire Belloc and Werner Herzog came together under the heading of pilgrimage, while Albert Speer and Xavier de Maistre were discussed as examples of the imaginary walker. In fact, I can’t think of another single activity that would bring together such a diverse group of writers as that of walking."

ON THE EXISTENCE OF A CONTEMPORARY WRITING MOMENT…

"I’ve thought a great deal about this question without managing to reach any clear conclusions. This walking moment certainly seems to have become a fairly prolonged one and shows no signs of waning. Intellectual fashions for psychogeography and walking as performance certainly play a part, as does the role of the publishing industry in identifying and exploiting literary trends. But there does seem to me to be a political component too, a way of using walking as a means of challenging prescribed routes and, in particular, a means of drawing attention to parts of the city that would otherwise be overlooked. This has certainly been the case in London over the last 30 years as walking has become tied up with questions concerning the redevelopment of urban space. But then, of course, the same was true of the Paris of Baudelaire and Aragon, and so I’m not sure that we are witnessing something wholly new here, perhaps merely the latest and most visible instalment in an ongoing historical process."

ON DISCOVERING NEW WORKS IN RESEARCHING THE BOOK…

"There are a couple of books which I was very pleasantly surprised to discover while researching this book. The first of these was Albert Speer’s Spandau: The Secret Diaries, which I first came across in Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking, and which was definitely not a name one would expect to find in a literary survey of this kind. Speer’s book is now out of print, but the story it tells is so remarkable, so unexpected, and so unique that it certainly deserves to be rediscovered. I noticed that Iain Sinclair discusses Speer in his recent book, Ghost Milk, so perhaps he is already reaching the attention of a wider audience.

Someone else whom I have read and enjoyed for many years is Arthur Machen, and I had always planned to include his work in The Art of Wandering – not least because I pinched the title from his book of the same name written in 1924. So it was a real pleasure to unearth a collection of his essays and journalism called The Secret of the Sangraal, first published in 1995 by Tartarus Press. Machen writes about London in a way that no other author ever has and his accounts of walks taken through the London suburbs as a young man are amongst the best things he ever wrote."

ON BEING A WALKER AS WELL AS A WRITER…

"I liked to think of myself as a walker before embarking on The Art of Wandering, but having read and written about the pedestrian achievements of De Quincey, Wordsworth and co., I began to see that this term in an altogether different light and I’m now rather reluctant to describe myself as a walker at all. In fact since my children were born my already modest achievements as a walker have been diminished even further and I am now reduced to repeating a short daily circuit to and from school/nursery at an excruciatingly slow pace."

The Art of Wandering is published by Oldcastle Books, and a PDF of the introduction is available for free from the publisher’s site.

**A SIGNED COPY OF THE ART OF WANDERING, PLUS PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY, IS UP FOR GRABS: JUST LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW, OR DIRECT MESSAGE @BLENGLISH_DRAMA, WITH THE ANSWER TO THE FOLLOWING QUESTION: WHICH STOKE NEWINGTON EDUCATED AMERICAN WRITER WROTE THE KEY LONDON WALKING TEXT 'THE MAN OF THE CROWD' (CURRENTLY ON DISPLAY IN WRITING BRITAIN)?**

01 August 2012

Happy Yorkshire Day

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1 August is Yorkshire Day, and as an honorary Yorkshirewoman (married to a genuine Yorkshireman, who greets people with ‘howdo?’) I thought I’d point out that this is a county with a rich literary heritage. It features in four of the six sections of Writing Britain, in around 10 literary works (plus a couple more slightly questionable mentions).

The exhibition opens with Michael Drayton’s enormously long poem Poly-olbion, published in the early 17th century – an attempt to describe the whole of the landscape of England and Wales in a single poem, getting in a lot of local folklore as he went.

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Michael Drayton, Poly-olbion. British Library shelfmark 79.h.3

It’s such a beautiful book that we have two copies of it on display in the exhibition so you can see different pages – the engraved title page featuring Britannia, and the illustration for Yorkshire. The poem itself isn’t great but the engravings are amazing, with rivers and hills being identified by cavorting personifications. I picked Yorkshire to display because I loved the fact that York is demonstrated by a lady in a flowing dress wearing York Minster on her head like a hat (sadly I don’t have a picture, so you’ll have to come and see it in person!).

 

YorkMinsterWest

York Minster. Definitely unsuitable for use as a hat.By Andy Barrett (User:Big Smooth) (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Also in the Rural Dreams section of the exhibition is one of my favourite books of all time, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. I will say this: you’d never guess that a 500-odd page novel about a county council could be so gripping – which will be an interesting test when JK Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy, also about a county council, comes out in September. South Riding is set in the 1930s at a time of great change in agriculture and social policy, and features an enormous cast of characters across all society. It’s set in fictional South Riding, based on the East Riding of Yorkshire where Holtby’s mother was a councillor. (Yorkshire fact: Riding means ‘third’ and the three ridings of Yorkshire are North, East and West – so a South Riding couldn’t exist.) We have the first edition on show, with a really beautiful 1930s dust jacket, and were lucky enough to be able to borrow from the Hull History Centre Holtby’s own hand-drawn map of South Riding, mapped over the real places.

Also from the Hull History Centre we have borrowed Philip Larkin’s notebook containing his drafts for his poem ‘To the Sea’. This poem perfectly epitomised a lot of the British literature about seaside towns in the Waterlands section of Writing Britain  – Larkin celebrates ‘the miniature gaity of seasides’ and says that to many people, the concept of the seaside holiday was ‘half an annual pleasure, half a rite’ with many people returning to the same nostalgic spot year after year. It’s an evocative and somehow incredibly British vision.

In contrast to this rose-tinted view of seaside towns, there's Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a novel which might not exist if it wasn’t for Whitby in North Yorkshire. Stoker was on holiday in the town when it’s believed he read a history book which inspired him to write the novel, and which had the reference number "Whitby Library 0.1097." Later he set one of the most key scenes in the book in Whitby, when Dracula enters England during a storm, in the body of a black dog, swimming from an eerie shipwreck which had a corpse lashed to the helm and some mysterious boxes of earth in the hold. It’s a scene that today inspires Goths to visit Whitby for a semi-annual festival, Whitby Goth Weekend.

And finally, one of the more tenuous mentions: most people think of Robin Hood as a Nottingham man, but some early ballads about him record his origins as being in Barnsley in South Yorkshire. On show in Writing Britain is a short pamphlet A true tale of Robin Hood, printed in 1787 in Nottingham (after popular history had situated him firmly there) and made to be sold cheaply on the street.

Other Yorkshire literature in Writing Britain includes: manuscripts of Jane Eyre and Shirley by Charlotte Bronte; Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (and a magnificent photo by Fay Godwin of Top Withens, the farm thought to be Emily’s inspiration); Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies; and even an illustration of Castle Howard which for many is the perfect embodiment of Brideshead in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (although Waugh didn’t use Castle Howard as his model).

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Fay Godwin, Top Withens © British Library Board

And, I almost forgot to add, if you think we missed the best novel, poem, play or song lyric about Yorkshire, please add it to our literary map Pin-A-Tale.

27 July 2012

The Man Booker Prize in Writing Britain (part one)

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The English and Drama office was a place of great anticipation on Wednesday as we waited for the publication of the 2012 Man Booker Prize long list – which eventually, most inconsiderately, appeared while we were all in a departmental meeting.

Anyway in all this Booker excitement I started wondering how many previous winning and shortlisted novels feature in Writing Britain. I did a quick tally and the answer appears to be three – and for all three, what we have on display is the original manuscript.

Graham Swift was nominated in 1983 for his novel Waterland, a book about the Fens, love, loss, and the nature of history and memory.

Waterland

We have Swift’s literary archive here at the British Library (Add MS 88919), and were able to show the original manuscript of the chapter he called ‘About the Fens’, beautifully written in fountain pen. The novel is part of a small group of books in the exhibition which all feature British seascapes or rivers as triggers of memories – the 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Seafarer', written in the Exeter Book, one of our most precious loans; a graphic novel reworking of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, by David Zane Mairowitz and Catherine Anyango; and the original notebook in which Daphne du Maurier wrote her outline plan for the novel Rebecca.

As part of Writing Britain we approached various authors who featured in the exhibition and asked them if we could go with them to the place they immortalised in their writing and interview them about their inspirations. Graham Swift very kindly agreed to be swept off to the Fens and questioned about Waterland, and I found what he said quite surprising and really interesting:

“I don’t come from the Fens, I’m a Londoner… I’ve never lived here, and my only connection with the Fens is from having written this novel Waterland… But this hasn’t stopped people ever since the book was published from assuming that I come from here or that the book has some kind of autobiographical basis but it simply doesn’t at all, which means that even for me it’s something of a mystery – why did I set this book here? I suppose I have a few theories. One would be – well, when you look around you can see this is a very peculiar environment… not typical of the rest of the country, and when you’re here you can feel that you’re in a foreign country within your own country, and that perspective is one I’ve always wanted in my work… to look at my own country but to see it from the outside. The Fens gave me that focus.”

Graham went on to say that he thought the Fens would be a bland backdrop that would allow the story he was telling to be thrown into the spotlight, but that as he wrote the novel he found that the landscape was becoming so key to the story that by the end it had almost the significance of a main character.

I actually found it really surprising that he said he hadn’t stayed for any kind of extended period in the Fens, and had only briefly visited it whilst researching the novel. However we did find it very gratifying that some of the research for the novel had in fact been done in the British Library!

You can see some of Graham’s fascinating interview about Waterland in this video we made for the gallery, also featuring Robert Macfarlane, Owen Sheers and Alice Oswald.

  

I’m going to save our other two Man Booker Prize exhibits for another blog post but if you want to guess what they are, please leave a comment! No actual prize other than the satisfaction of being right…