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Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

Using words to reflect and create our experience of landscapes, and vice versa, is a powerful ruse. Leo Mellor admires the view


THE Culture
Credit: Liz Mathews/Virginia Woolf/Thames to Dunkirk 2009, © Liz Mathews


Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

British Library, London, 11 May-25 September

A few lines of biro on lined yellow paper - a draft of a late Harold Pinter poem replete with staccato melancholia - are fragile and poignant. It is in memory of Pinter’s teacher and takes the form of an imagined walk in Hackney, London - a listing of places along a “dead trolleybus route”. Unlike the published version, the draft is still crowded with other people, a ghost walk accompanied by many named spirits of classmates.

But even before arriving at a first draft, a writer can leave traces. There’s something extraordinary in the tight scrawl of a page from W.H. Auden’s notebook as it lists Derbyshire mining terms. They form part of a deep lexical seam - the industrial sublime - which he quarried from his childhood obsessions into his 1948 poem In Praise of Limestone.

These are some seemingly minor works in the new British Library exhibition, which showcases its literary Crown jewels. It is formed of six sections, charting the relationship between texts and landscapes in different thematic zones - both geographical and conceptual. More than replete with wonders, it includes illuminated manuscripts of Chaucer, Ted Hughes’ drafts (in his bulk-bought school-junked exercise books), Coleridge’s map-filled notebook - and also some spectacular curios-ities: from Daphne du Maurier’s custom-stamped text of Rebecca (1938, used in a court case) to George Orwell’s unemployment book. But so many of the items, from the glossy-gossipy proto-Hello spreads of Arthur Conan Doyle - showing you into his lovely home - through to maps of Hardy’s Wessex, involve the layering of the fictional on to the real. For while the exhibition covers 150 items, what brings it together is a truism: for writers and the British landscape, which includes the cityscape and all shades of suburb, the process of interaction has been a busy two-way street, or at least a well-tramped country lane. Texts both reflect and create the experience of our environment, not just for themselves but also for subsequent generations of writers and readers.

Thus landscapes inspire literature, but literature also inspires landscapes - and cityscapes - in ways of seeing and assigning value, finding them beautiful, memorable or repulsive. Yet perhaps the real stars are those texts that will never be digitised, or used as part of the Cultural Olympiad: sometimes fragments such as Auden’s list and Pinter’s draft can enthral far more than any burnished text. The glimpse of the torn edge, the thumbprint or some handwritten addition is what enlightens, as it shows the very process of composition as an encounter with landscape.

The section “Rural Dreams” draws attention to the warp and weft of muddy materiality and spun artifice. Here are courtly love and exaggerated pain, and suspiciously literate shepherds with more than sheep-counting on their minds. Here, too, are the tracks and haunting visages of the Green Man in woods and nightmares. A green-dream of pantheist spirituality remains present in the strangest places. The exhibition has Kenneth Grahame’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, a chapter usually cut from modern versions of The Wind in the Willows (1908), with a looming presence bewitching the animals beyond their anthropomorphised everyday pleasures.

Thus cultural anxieties and inchoate dreams are projected on to bracken and bramble, sedge and willow. One of the highlights is the mix of melancholia and colour-wash in Laurie Lee’s drawing of Slad, the Gloucestershire village chronicled in his Cider with Rosie (1959) and the place he stepped out from in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969). The paper is saturated with multiple shades of green: vivid, verdant, alluring and yet poisonous. The buildings look insubstantial and the escarpment heaped above lords it over the village. It might be something to both love and run from.

The complications of this relationship between rootedness and wanderlust can be seen in one of Lee’s typescripts, on display here too. His loving descriptions of the village were written on the reverse of an ^A4 piece of BBC script; recollections of the rural taking place quite literally on the back of metropolitan employment.

The section called “Dark Satanic Mills” has superb examples, such as Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” locking in service of Molochian early capitalism, alongside 20th-century cries against chartered streets and chartered companies. Walter Brierley’s Means Test Man (1935) is part of a now eclipsed tradition of working-class, politically committed writing. For there’s no vista of bucolic, tasteful and well-arrayed civilisation that isn’t also a mapping of power on to topography.

The complicity of such a gaze is touched on in another section that uses the title of a recent book - Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (2007) - and turns it into a meditation, questioning why writers from the 18th century onwards went looking for crags and moors with templates and checklists of “beauty” in mind. The absurd grotesqueries of such endeavours become clear in a cartoon: a gent with guidebook stumbles while a yokel yawns in the background. But throughout history again and again beauty has a darker edge, aesthetic value can elide the human subject; depoliticising a terrain that will - always - be contested territory. The Welsh poet R.S. Thomas wrote in Reservoirs (1968) of a beguiling sheen on the surface of artificially flooded valleys, and his whole poem violently swings round on a line break: “The serenity of their expression/revolts me.”

A section in the exhibition titled “Cockney Visions” brings myriad impressions; the literature of London has always had its own, deeply split, character. For the multiple iterations of the capital as a bride and a monster, a whirlpool and a flower seem to be quite resilient and utterly ahistorical, from Dunbar in the 15th century through to Henry James fastidiously sniffing in 1906. Attention to detail - a politics of noticing - is evident in both George Gissing and Virginia Woolf, who are here with their different versions of street haunting.

But perhaps the most fascinating work comes in those writers grouped as “Beyond the City”. J.G. Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come (2006), begins with the incantatory line: “The suburbs dream of violence”. This is the only line to survive from the first page: Ballard’s dystopian allure was generated through a savage weave of criss-crossing and rearranging, the slashing lines rendering a mimetic savagery - as they had done in his draft of Crash (also on display) some 40 years before. Yet violence comes in many forms. The precise hand of Katherine Mansfield in A Suburban Fairy Tale (1919), with its casual heartlessness and elegant ellipses, offers a glimpse of what this most fastidiously introspective modernist would achieve in her more famous (and less funny) works.

This part of the exhibition unknowingly makes the case that one of the most important literary influences on British writing over the past 40 years has not been a French theorist or an American hipster-savant, but rather a naturalist: Richard Mabey. The startling prescience of The Unofficial Countryside (1973) brings a ludic joy in wastelands, penumbras, drosscapes and overgrown zones. The wantonly digressive nature of Mabey’s looping perambulations envelops culture as well as flora, selfhood as well as history.

This seems to have marked a track - both for the hordes of psychogeographers who have followed, with their rapt attention to discordant signs as wonders and also for many newer forms of nature writing. It is the wondrously untidy marginalia of the city, as well as those of the texts, that finally resonate so tellingly from this exhibition.

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