Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

by SJ Griffin

I love the British Library. I wrote my MA thesis in the reading room and my membership card was the thing I loved most about my second degree. I do tend to see most of the exhibitions there but I wasn’t sure how I was going to like Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands. Catch it in the wrong mood and I could see myself leaving in a towering rage born of envy and frustration. Happily, I was in a mellow frame of mind and no tantrums occurred.

The exhibition covers five themes. Rural dreams which is pastoral and farming and the like. Industrial and city scapes. This covers industrialisation, decline and depression. It’s not cheerful. There’s Wild Terror which is all Wuthering Heights and Tintern Abbey. Beloved London. They don’t called it that, they just call it London because I suppose they have to be impartial about these things. For some reason this includes Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. There was an eight year old girl who was impressed by this but next to the Blake and the Doyle and all the others I felt a bit sorry for it. And then I felt bad because that’s a very snotty thing to think. I was delighted that Alan Moore’s From Hell is included. Because that is brilliant. And there’s Edges which included Crash by JG Ballard one of my absolute favourite books set in London. I was reading it on the tube once and someone looked over my shoulder and told me it was disgusting. I told them it was literature and suggested they might not want to bother with the next page because there were some long words on it. ‘What, like semen?’ she said in a really loud voice and the whole carriage looked at her. I refrained from responding, although I should have pointed out that two syllables does not a long word make. Anyway, back to the library. Finally there’s Waterlands. All about rivers and docks and the like. Rather inevitably this includes Graham Swift. But also rather happily Brighton Rock.

If you are interested in writing, gentle reader, and I suspect you are, you could enjoy an hour or two in this exhibition. My best bits were the page of the original manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the Waterlands section. Almost every single line has been crossed out with red pen, some with blue and only about five remain untouched. Imagine if he’d published the unedited version.

There is also a copy of Angela Carters notebook featuring Wise Children. She has really neat handwriting which for some made me laugh out loud. I would have expected her to have scrawling two words on a line camel case scribble, but no. It’s as neat as if a teacher was looking over her shoulder. William Blake’s handwriting is as you would expect. Utterly chaotic. Like a demon is whispering in his ears and he’s trying to get away.
Find out more about the exhibition which is on until the 25 September 2012.