A new exhibition from the Head of English and Drama at the British Library celebrates the depiction of landscapes over 1,000 years of English literatu
“Do the suburbs actually exist? For an area that is often written-off as being a bit anonymous and nothingy, suburbs have actually inspired markedly different interpretations” – Jamie Andrews
Why is the exhibition important?
It’s important to celebrate the collections that we have, but it’s important to propose them to people in a way they may not have had the opportunity to consider before. I think that’s the point of an exhibition. One of the overriding aims for us was that Writing Britain would be the start of a reflection conversation. For a visitor who’s never been to Britain before, the exhibition will point to our hidden corners and the ways that those can be celebrated.
Of course everyone knows about London, The Canterbury Tales and William Blake. But maybe in some of the other sections – the waterlands or the suburbs – people will be able to discover more about our landscape, which doesn’t have the great plains of the States or the great lakes of Canada, but does within a relatively small space have a tremendous variety. Hopefully it will be inspiring and allow people to discover more, both about our literature and our spaces and places.
Have urban or rural landscapes had more of an influence on literature?
The concept of change and memory works across the exhibition. That’s true for both the urban and rural sections. It’s the idea of recapturing one’s past and also the idea of change. We think of rural as being this continuum of a pastoral idyll, but the changes that take place in rural areas are incredibly strong and mark people incredibly strongly.
I also found the suburbs very interesting. Do the suburbs actually exist? For an area that is often written-off as being a bit anonymous and nothingy, suburbs have actually inspired markedly different interpretations. The suburbs are seen as being both a place of safety and retreat and a place from which one escapes. At the same time, I think they’re a bit of a blank canvas. Because writers don’t often write about the suburbs, it means that when people do address them they’ve got this tremendous creative freedom to create their own suburban landscape. There’s something quite magical about the suburbs in that no one can quite pin them down. They aren’t so much a physical landscape as a construct of the mind.
What’s your favourite exhibit?
I’m drawn less to the grandiose or majestic, and more to the surreal. We’ve featured someone in the waterlands section called John Taylor, who was a Thames water boatman and poet in the 17th century. He had this absolute genius for self-publicity and was obsessed by paper, which was relatively new. He thought that paper was the way to ensure longevity and so whenever he published a book, he’d have some crazy stunt involving it. One of his stunts involved making a boat out of brown paper and trying to row it down the Thames with dried fish attached to sticks for oars. It promptly sunk! But he always had the sense that he had to physically launch himself into the space he was writing about in the most absurd way.
To learn more about the exhibition, read our previous article Has landscape ever been depicted accurately in a literary work?
Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands is on at the British Library from 11 May – 25 September 2012