English and Drama blog

4 posts from July 2012

27 July 2012

The Man Booker Prize in Writing Britain (part one)

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.


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…

23 July 2012

A monstrous creature of the beetle tribe...


A horrific shape-shifting Egyptian Beetle; blackmail; mesmeric powers; blurred gender boundaries;  weapons of mass destruction; the challenge of the New Woman; a gentleman detective; and a train crash…

One of the great joys of curating Writing Britain has been the discovery and rediscovery of books either long forgotten, or never previously encountered.

And one of the strangest – and by far the most enjoyable - of these has been Richard Marsh’s The Beetle.
As the list above suggests, the book is one of the strangest to feature in our exhibition; and when it comes to a check-list of fin de siècle fears, The Beetle really does have it all.

In the novel, Robert Holt is a clerk who discovers the awful realities of being ‘out of a situation’- a risk that lurks close to the surface of the precarious existence of the many other ‘clerk’ texts that we feature in Writing Britain (from the foolish Mr Pooter, to the honourable – if put-upon- Robert Thorne in Shan Bullock’s eponymous novel).

Losing even the meagre comforts of his class, Holt is transformed into a ‘penniless, homeless tramp’. Ejected from a doss-house, he heads towards the west London suburbs where endlessly repeated rows of housing herald disorientating effects. In one anonymous villa, Holt discovers the horrific shape-shifting Egyptian Beetle, who penetrates the suburban security of the English middle classes with mesmeric powers. The Beetle represents the threat of the foreign ‘other’. The independent Miss Lindon, who attempts to overcome the creature, personifies the challenge of the New Woman for late Victorian gender relations.

The Beetle was first published in volume form in 1897, the same year as another Gothic horror novel featured in Writing Britain: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As Minna Vuohelainen shows, reviewers praised The Beetle over Stoker’s (now) more famous work (‘Mr. Bram Stoker’s effort of the imagination was not easy to beat, but Mr. Marsh has, so to speak, out-Heroded Herod’), and for many years, The Beetle outsold Stoker’s classic.

Although neglected for many years since, The Beetle is reappearing on Undergraduate syllabi as a new generation of lecturers discovers the work, and succumbs to its mesmeric powers. The Beetle has been republished in recent years, and is available as part of the British Library’s digitized 19th Century books. Last Friday, Dr Victoria Margree of the University of Brighton organized a one day symposium on Marsh’s oeuvre- which is also, slowly, coming back into print. For a full check list of Marsh’s works, see the extremely helpful Research guide prepared by Minna Vuohelainen; and if you only read one tale of shape-shifting, gender-bending, fin de siècle Gothic horror this summer…make sure it’s The Beetle.

13 July 2012

Sound-making as place-making: Mark Peter Wright’s sound installations for Writing Britain

Two sound installations commissioned for the Writing Britain exhibition from award-winning composer and sound artist Mark Peter Wright have been playing since its opening last May.

The first of Mark’s pieces cuts gently through the serenity of the gallery space in the Dark Satanic Mills section, which is dedicated to the literary responses to the changes brought to the country by the Industrial Revolution. It offers a refined continuous sequence of original sounds from fully operational cotton-making machines of the industrial era. Mark makes extensive use of field recordings in his practice and for this particular piece he recorded at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. Although Mark says that nothing has actually been done to the recordings, ‘other than layering some on top of one another and long fades’, the ability to arrange invisible machine sounds in a rhythmical composition for a social and intimate appreciation is, in my opinion, an undeniable achievement.

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The second installation plays in the Waterlands section, which focuses on the lakes, waterways and seas of the British Isles. Sourced from recordings of the rivers Rye and Swale, and at various points on the northeast coast, towards the North Sea, this composition cradles the visitor on a navigational experience of the manifold sonic qualities of water, from the soothing sound of flowing streams to the rumbling waves of the sea.

Each piece is intended as an ambient soundtrack, a diaphanous flow of sound which leaves the exhibition goers at leisure to their readings of the many physical displays. Nonetheless the installations have at times brought out unexpected reactions, like that of a particular visitor, who having been captivated by the literary works on display, mistook the industrial sound installation for a malfunctioning ventilator.

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The exhibition is on until 25 September 2012. Please come along and do prick up your ears!

Listen to excerpts from Mark Peter Wright's installations

05 July 2012

James Berry's 'Windrush Songs'

I was very pleased to be asked to select something from the James Berry archive for Writing Britain as the exhibition has provided the opportunity to display drafts from one of the poet's most significant collections, Windrush Songs, which was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2007. The collection, which consists of three sections 'Hating a Place You Love', 'Let the Sea Be My Road' and 'New Days Arriving' charts the experiences of Berry and others from the Caribbean who felt compelled by circumstances to leave their homelands and seek opportunities abroad. As Berry himself explains in the introduction to the collection the decision to leave was often tempered by mixed emotions as 'here we were, hating the place we loved, because it was on the verge of choking us to death'.

The drafts in the exhibition (one, handwritten notes and, another, an annotated typescript of the poem 'Wanting to Hear Big Ben') illustrate Berry's juxtaposition of Standard English with the rhythm and rhyme of the Jamaican language with which he grew up. At the top of the page of handwritten notes Berry describes Windrush Songs as being a 'Comprehensive and Full Poem Recording Caribbean People's Becoming Part of the British and European Way of Life'. Yet the mixed feelings that I have already mentioned mean the the collection is something of a love letter to the country that Berry left behind. In the 1940s many emigrants' views of England stemmed from their schooling and the colonial relationship that the Caribbean had with Britain. Berry explains how passengers on the SS Orbita 'talked about our own voyage and how we were going to see the England that we'd read about in our school books, where everything was good and shining and moral'. It is easy to understand why they would be keen to see Big Ben, the sound of which had been familiar to new arrivals since they first heard childhood recordings of it -

'and have me rememba, how,

when I was a boy passing a radio

playin in a shop, and a-hear

Big Ben a-strike the time'

As well as this material from the James Berry archive, which the Library acquired in December 2011, the exhibition also includes printed volumes by Berry's friends and contemporaries, Samuel Selvon and Andrew Salkey. Salkey, a writer and journalist was one of the founder members of the Caribbean Artists Movement, in which Berry was also to play a significant role. London has had a long history of welcoming waves of migrants from around the world and I hope that the inclusion of this material goes some way to raise awareness more widely of the important impact of the Caribbean diaspora on British literary life.

These images show James Berry looking at his drafts in the exhibition and further material relating to Windrush Songs in his archive -

JB exhibition snap

James Berry 2