English and Drama blog

3 posts from August 2012

16 August 2012

Brighton Rock

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)

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:


"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."


"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."


"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."


"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.


01 August 2012

Happy Yorkshire Day

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.

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!).



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).

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.