Museums, Archives & Heritage

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

By Susie Thomas

The British Library’s major exhibition, Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands (11 May to 25th September 2012), spans nine centuries of literary history and ranges from Windermere to Wimbledon and way beyond. This impressive collection of manuscripts, books, maps and recordings has been assembled in order to showcase Britain’s cultural heritage during the 2012 Olympics, with works by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Wordsworth, Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontës, Woolf, Joyce, Iain Sinclair, J.K. Rowling, Kureishi and many more proudly on display. But even as the exhibition seems to boast that Britain would win gold, silver and bronze in a literary Olympics, across the country more than one hundred libraries have either been closed or are currently being run by volunteers. It is estimated that the Coalition’s austerity measures may cause as many as six hundred libraries to bite the dust. Brent council even made a nocturnal raid on Kensal Rise Library in order to circumnavigate the local community’s attempt to keep their vibrant book culture alive. As for the Women’s Library, the most extensive archive of female history and literature in Europe, this is about to be made homeless by London Metropolitan University because its funding for the humanities has been axed.

Like the running down of the NHS, the BBC, and the Post Office (with water, gas, electricity and the railways sold off long ago), the managed decline of British libraries is part of the relentless marketization of mind and body, which began with Thatcher and Blair is accelerating under the Coalition. As Zadie Smith points out, a library is the one building where communities can gather without having to buy anything. The dissolution of the libraries provides an ironic slant on Writing Britain.

Since there is so much to admire in the exhibition, from Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion to the manuscript of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the semi-vorticist first draft of Ballard’s Crash, perhaps only a sourpuss would cavil about what is on show and how it is arranged. The selection of exhibits is less contentious the further back in time it goes, since nobody knows what great works have been lost or censored or never made it into circulation in the first place. But when it comes to the contemporary era there is so much material to choose from that disappointment when a favourite writer doesn’t get a look-in is almost inevitable. There are probably many people who are outraged that Martin Amis isn’t mentioned once. I hunted in vain for a glimpse of Alexander Baron’s Hackney in The Lowlife, the back streets of Islington in Rosie Hogarth, and Rabbit Marsh off Brick Lane in King Dido. These fantastic London novels are now back in print thanks to Five Leaves and Black Spring Press, but it is a pity that the exhibition missed the opportunity to celebrate the work of a writer who has been described as ‘among the finest, most underrated, of the post-war period.’.

The omission of Alexander Baron is especially disappointing since so few novels by working-class writers seem to have made it into the British Library’s glass cabinets. I didn’t seriously expect to see Waguih Ghali’s tragi-comic masterpiece, Beer in the Snooker Club, about an Egyptian in 1950s London (the good news is that this neglected novel has been reissued by Serpent’s Tail); but I could hardly believe my eyes when Jean Rhys, the acknowledged laureate of lonely Bloomsbury boarding houses, was overlooked again. On the bright side, Patrick Hamilton and Sam Selvon made an appearance; they probably wouldn’t have twenty years ago. The tide of literary reputation goes in and out but, to mix metaphors, fans of psychogeography will be in clover.

The curators have arranged the exhibits thematically rather than chronologically, under general headings: Rural Dreams, Dark Satanic Mills, Wild Places, Cockney Visions, Beyond the City, and Waterlands. (London literature is misleadingly entitled Cockney Visions, with the comical result that an unsuspecting tourist could go home with the impression that Virginia Woolf was a pearly queen.) These categories are further subdivided in order to focus on particular landscapes and historical periods. This often yields rich results, perhaps most notably in ‘Decline, Depression and Division: 20th Century’ which features Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Tony Harrison’s V: a fine testament to the role of the writer as critic of Team GB. The organisation of the exhibition in relation to landscape also allows for fascinating connections between past and present, so that Jez Butterworth’s recent play Jerusalem and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service bump up against Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in ‘Legend and the Land’; while Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s pursuit of Emily Brontë in the ‘Terror and the Wild’ shows that it is not only the common reader who embarks on the kind of literary pilgrimage that Wordsworth complained was spoiling the landscape.

The selection and arrangement of the exhibits comes a bit unstuck in a subdivision of Cockney Visions called ‘He do the police in different voices’. At first glance the title seems to effect a nice transition from Dickens, to the contemporary, via T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. One cabinet contains Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a poem by James Berry, Andrew Salkey’s Escape from an Autumn Pavement and Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani. The curators also include Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover! in Waterlands and Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia in Beyond the City. Blake Morrison’s review in The Guardian claims that that the exhibition has been ‘careful to acknowledge’ the ‘positive effect’ of arrivals from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia and the way they have enlarged and enriched the canon. Since he does not name any of them, or discuss their contribution, this sounds like lip service. But then Morrison also claims that ‘those of black and mixed race heritage are still more prevalent on the playing field than on the page’.

A first eleven could easily be drawn not only from the ranks of the writers on display, but also Ignatius Sancho, Ouladah Equiano, George Lamming, Kamala Markandaya, David Dabydeen, Caryl Phillips, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Andrea Levy, Monica Ali, Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Beryl Gilroy, Buchi Emecheta, Joan Riley, Hanan al-Shaykh, John Agard, Timothy Mo, Grace Nichols, Meera Syal, Alex Wheatle, Hari Kunzru, Tariq Ali, or Courttia Newland. Although the curators hope that the show will allow visitors ‘to read between the lines of great works of English literature, discovering the secrets and stories surrounding the works’ creation’, there is absolutely no sense of how difficult it was for women, working-class, and Black and Asian, writers to get published or make a living.

It was particularly poignant to see Writing Britain after having been to Errol John’s 1957 play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at the National Theatre. At the end of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, Ephraim, the young anti-hero, sets sail from Port of Spain for Liverpool, buoyed up by dreams of a more fulfilling life in the mother country, with scarcely a backward glance at what he is leaving behind. John himself came to England from Trinidad in 1951 to pursue his career as a writer and actor. He died at the age of 63 in London in 1983, having been accorded little recognition and less money.

It also seems slightly perverse to slot Hanif Kureishi exclusively into the suburbs, despite the originality of the setting of The Buddha of Suburbia, since this is only one half of one novel. Moreover, Zadie Smith’s Willesden is a suburb and so is Malkani’s Hounslow and yet White Teeth and Londonstani appear in Cockney Visions rather than Beyond the City. Since there are only seven exhibits by writers of African, Asian and Caribbean descent, out of one hundred and fifty, it is difficult not to conclude that the exhibition’s coverage of immigration is not only muddled but also slightly patronising and perfunctory.

Instead of alluding to a diffuse concept of ‘different voices’, it might have been better to have taken a chronological approach showing how post-war migrants, from Selvon, Salkey, Emecheta and Naipul to Rushdie, viewed Britain with what Rushdie called ‘stereoscopic vision’. The generation of British-born and raised writers, beginning with Hanif Kureishi and Ravinder Randhawa, swiftly followed by Zadie Smith, Diran Adebayo, Monica Ali and Andrea Levy among others, opened up new territory. Together they transformed Britain’s literary landscape. In Kureishi’s essay ‘The Rainbow Sign‘, written in 1985, he called for a recognition that being British is ‘a more complex thing, involving new elements. So there must be a fresh way of seeing Britain and the choices it faces: and a new way of being British after all the time’. Nearly thirty years on it seems that the British Library’s exhibition still finds it difficult to make these adjustments.

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands runs until 25th September at the British Library

One Comment

  1. I too missed the likes of Alexander Baron and Boutros Ghali, and thought that Kureishi was not quite in the right place – but liked the way in which books, illustrations, manuscripts, audio and bits of video worked together to reflect how writers have given a sense of place.

    There were some very nice touches – the drawing by the Chartist and radical Ernest Jones from his common place book suggesting a fear and contempt for the urban and the standardised, alongside a map of O’Connorville, one of the short-lived Chartist Land Plan settlements of the late 1840s.

    There are shortcomings, but on the whole I liked the exhibition. The British Library has not been as outward looking in its new home as the British Museum has in its old home (with the ‘100 Objects’ on Radio 4, which was a great success) – but an exhibition of this sort, which is broadly well curated and well publicised, does suggest that something’s stirring.

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