British Library – Writing Britain exhibition

[Posted this elsewhere, on a messageboard, hence the lack of the usual Jamesian poise and Flaubertian precision, but it’s RED HOT OFF THE PRESSES, I only went this morning:]

I just went to British Library exhibition, Writing Britain.

It was a bit rubbish. [<— it wasn’t THAT bad, it was meh it was ok.]

The organising principles, as represented by the groupings of works and the title they were grouped under, seemed by turns vague, unhelpful, misleading, and without any overall structure. With a subject as large as ‘Writing Britain’ there has to be some kind of argument, or underpinning set of principles. The section headings were occasionally a little weird – ‘Dark Satanic Mills’, fine, but in a section that didn’t include ANY Blake, just mainly 19th C thru Victorian novels, bleeding into some stuff about the contemporary workplace (David Lodge’s [i]Nice Work[/i] in a glass box, with a catalogue entry by it, really?).

Also, if you’re displaying books and manuscripts, you’ve really got to have a catalogue that situates them as objects. This object you are seeing before has this context, and this meaning for the subject in hand. Ok, so from time to time you’d have ‘Wordsworth wrote Tintern Abbey when he yadda yadda’, or ‘Keats wrote this letter to his brother Tom while on a walking holiday in Scotland’ (great! I enjoyed peering at Keats’ massive letter with tiny writing). But there wasn’t much more than that. Occasionally it would be as bad as ‘Disraeli wrote a book about social divisions, called Sybil, here is an edition of Sybil’. Well, maybe never quite as bad as that, but I thought it shd have worked a lot harder at making the objects talk. These are garrulous, companionable and informative objects, but they go silent under a glass case. Lots of dodging your head about trying to nix the reflection, and squinting at your enforced distance, decoding handwriting from the neatly miniscule (19th century women writers + RLS) to the formally incomprehensible (yes, you, William Dunbar).

Good things!

  • Done Keats’ letter – huge and with a sonnet in the top left-hand corner. Good letter.
  • Gerald of Wales’ 12th Century Topographia Hibernica with a marginal illustration of a werewolf asking a priest to administer last rites to his werewolf friend. At least, the catalogue note said werewolf, and indeed said they were mentioned as such in the text, but thinking about it, the normal interpretation of animals in mariginal drawings would be via fables and exemplars, although strange creatures like the anthropophagi and ape-pygmies do also appear. Anyway, good picture.
  • Manuscript of Crash with Ballard’s emendations.
  • Victorian board game, which was a map of Britain, where you had to progress from the Thames Estuary, round the country, with its various industries and back again. Looked incredibly not fun, but I don’t like board games and anyway the map was good.

BEST bit of writing was a letter written to John Betjeman complaining that one of his Metroland poems was historically inaccurate, ended with this

I remember Willesden Green station when it was lit only by oil lamps, and one left it into unlighted lanes with hedges, which is my first recollection of Walm Lane. I remember walking to Cricklewood and being so frightened of the loneliness of it all that I turned tail and scuttled back home again as fast as I could!

I quite like Cricklewood – it’s nothing like London – but for some reason that description seems to me strangely still pertinent somehow.

Most surprising thing I didn’t know – John Galsworthy was a fuckin NOBEL LAUREATE?

Most unsurprising thing I knew already – typewriters really are the only tool for creative writing. The pen is too laborious, generally, the computer too much like writing in water if you’re not careful, but the combination of permanence, clarity and immediacy of typewritten manuscripts puts them in first place for me.

Oh, couple of other things:

Wales shamefully under-represented (as was Cornwall). [<—- yeah yeah the mabinogion wotevs. Conan-Doyle half mentioned as a decent suburban writer, but no mention of Arthur Machen, also an exceptional writer of London and suburbia. I know you’re constrained by your exhibits, but not to have The Hill of Dreams anywhere is bizarre. (He was represented by a quote on a board, from his excellent autobiography Far Off Things.) Also, no Jocelyn Brooke, scant mention of the Powys clan (they could have joined them thru John Ireland – they had soundscapes and Mai Dun would have fit in nicely), Chesterton, yes, but no Belloc. YES he’s a cunt, YES he should have been in there.

Think that’s why you need an argument, because without it you become necessarily inclusive: with such a large subject, the exhibition becomes patchy and somewhat incomprehensible.

They probably could have done more with the representation of words in the landscape. Especially considering their gates were designed by the wife of David Kindersley, who proposed an effective and attractive national design for roadsigns, was himself apprenticed to Eric Gill (font+literary sculpture of Prospero and a big-willied Ariel on the front of Broadcasting House), who was a student of Edward Johnston, designer of the font used on the tube.

A bit more imagination, plus a bit more rigour might’ve produced a better exhibition. Like I’d know. I’m sure a helluva lot of work went into it.

Oh, and an entire section on London but NOTHING on Henry Mayhew (Neil Gaiman, by contrast, seems to have his grubby fingers everywhere).

Still, plenty of bits to enjoy here, just feel more could have been done with it. Wouldn’t have minded something I’d disagreed with more – it all just felt a bit nebulous.

Did make me think I must do my thing on MALIGN PASTORAL or whatever it was going to be. It got a bit unwieldy.

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