‘Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderland’ at the British Library

I’m a lover of books, I’m fascinated by the British landscape in all its variety, and I strive to create a powerful sense of place in my own writing, so the new exhibition at the British Library examining the way, over 1000 years, writers have faced the challenge of evoking the country in their works, should be right up my street, shouldn’t it?

I was excited about going , and booked a ticket as soon as I saw that the show had opened, and, ever since, I’ve been trying to analyse why it was so difficult to engage with.

I like the idea of it, to show both published books and draft manuscripts in the writers’ own hands, and to link them to particular ideas of this country, be it a mystical pastoral, or an image of pits and mills as the roaring furnaces of hell, or the pull and power of the River Thames.  There are ancient texts, books fragile with age, as well as scruffy scraps of paper and dog-eared notebooks that I could easily imagine had spent years being pulled in and out of jacket pockets as the owner thought of something to jot down.

The displays are grouped thematically, and offer the chance to compare and contrast how different ideas have been approached over the years, and there are large drapes of cloth hung strategically around the space, showing images of town and country taken from some of the volumes on display.

It sounds really interesting, doesn’t it?

I did enjoy seeing John Lennon’s handwriting on a rough draft of ‘In My Life’  Ted Hughes’ scrawl, only wrestled into near legibility in letters to the photographer with whom he collaborated, and Oscar Wilde’s use of speech bubbles in a draft of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, as well as the brutal editing of some of JG Ballard’s work where virtually everything on a page had been scored out in red, but that wasn’t really enough to warrant the journey or the £10 I paid for the privilege.

I think part of the problem is that what is interesting about books are the words inside, not the physical thing itself.  Once I’ve passed the point of saying ‘that’s really old’ or ‘I had one just like that; I wonder where it is now’, there’s a limit to how long I can retain my interest.

I want to read the words the writer wrote, and this is where, for me, the exhibition failed.  The lighting made it virtually impossible to read many of the displays.  If I leant in close, my shadow blocked out the light and obscured the text, and if  I stood back, the angle of the display prevented me seeing anything at all.  Many of the discussions I had with C, who accompanied me, were along the lines of ‘if you stand at this angle you can read the first couple of lines, at least’ or ‘can you read what that says?’  And eventually it all felt too much like hard work for too little reward.

If you do go, I recommend taking a torch and a magnifying glass(!).

Leave a comment


  1. The exhibition planners should do a dry run next time, before they let the public in. In a more commercial environment, it’s called market research.

    • that’s the odd thing – I’ve read reviews in the newspaper from journalists permitted entry before the show opened to the public, and not a one of them mentioned the lighting….maybe I’m just too much of a philistine…….


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