Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Writing Britain

The British Library's current paid-for exhibition is Writing Britain, and I finally managed to get over to see it this weekend - less than a fortnight before it closes.

I'm so glad I managed to squeeze it in, because it's a theme that really resonates with me the relationships of between place and writer, reader and location. It's also full of absolutely wonderful things - they have a "top items" hit list that's so jam packed, even things like Jane Austen's manuscript of Persuasion don't make the cut!

There are some beautiful combinations presented - George MacDonald's The Gray Wolf paired with a 12th century illuminated manuscript depicting Scottish wolves and romantic depictions of Tintern Abbey illustrating Wordsworth's letter describing his pleasure in writing there. Fay Godwin's photos are such a deliriously perfect match for the Ted Hughes poems they're intertwined with, it was glorious to see some of them in large scale prints.

The 1400 book telling the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Night is something magical to anyone with an interest in folk tales or the Aurthurian myths.

Also magical for me were the manuscripts and editing proofs revealing the hidden process of the writing - one that struck me was Seamus Heaney's proof edits on a poem in his Station Island, which he almost entirely re-writes on the page (which I'm sure thrilled his editor, but being able to see where he tightened the phrasing, re-set the beats... wonderful stuff!)

The exhibition also makes us of the Library's extensive audio collections - it's well worth taking the time to put on the headphones and listen, especially to the poets reading their own work - John Betjeman reading Metropolitan Railway was an especial treat, and the location right next to St Pancras magnified the effect nicely.

London does loom large in the exhibition as a whole - not only is there a whole section of the exhibition dedicated to depictions of London (Kureshi's MS of Buddha of Suburbia! Neil Gaiman's Sweeney Todd!. Angela Carter's MS of Wise Children!) but almost all the "suburbia" section is Greater London, and there are plentiful mentions elsewhere - such as Victorian sci-fi After London and Ballard's post-apocalyptic London in Drowned World in the "Wilderness" section (although I'm not 100% sure I didn't see that same pairing in the BL's sci-fi exhibition) Beautiful as art, as much as their writing connection, Steadman's illustration of the white rabbit as a suburban commuter fretting about missing his train, and the poster of The Napoleon of Notting Hill also stand out.

The exhibition runs until Sept 25th - £10 adult, £5 for students - and if you can't make it, the accompanying book is also a treat (and is in the LUP Library, if any of my students are reading)

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