Friday, July 13, 2012

Writing Britain

To avoid avoiding having to write, I often take myself down to the British Library near Kings Cross to work. The idea is that all that learning, serious thought, coffee and barely repressed sexual tension will stop me browsing the Internet or talking rubbish on Twitter and make me concentrate. It works - at least up to a point.  The time always comes when I need a diversion though, and happily at the moment the Library is holding an exhibition called 'Writing Britain', which celebrates more than 1000 years of English literature.

The big selling points are the hundreds of manuscripts, drafts and notebooks the curators have collected from a legion of English writers as diverse as Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, JG Ballard and JK Rowling. The exhibition is split into themes, covering different parts of the country and its past. So 'Dark Satanic Mills' examines those writers who were influenced by the Industrial Revolution, while 'Wild Places' explores the moors and heaths that played such a part in the works of writers like Emily Bronte.

Maybe it was the writer rather than reader in me, but I have to admit I was less interested in the themes be than in the works themselves. There's something thrilling about seeing Dickens and Conan Doyle's handwriting, and intriguing about seeing a reworked draft. Many of them are handwritten - which still amazes me, given how essential I find a computer to write and edit as I write. The finality of committing a thought to paper by pen would terrify me, but I suppose it might encourage greater care. And as the exhibition shows, it didn't stop people rewriting and reworking. The page from Crash by Ballard is so strewn with crossings out and amendments it's difficult to see what remains. My particular favourite is from the final page of Stella Gibbons' manuscript for Cold Comfort Farm, where she scribbles 'THE END' in joyous capitals. We all know the feeling.

However, the exhibition left me a tiny bit cold, perhaps because there are simply way too many manuscripts and books. There's too much to take in, and by the end you find yourself wandering around in a daze. That said, the handwritten lyrics to In My Life by John Lennon are very moving. I'm no huge Beatles fan, but I've always liked that song, and the draft reveals the earlier version to be more of a meditation on his past and the Liverpool he knew as a child, which was in the process of being lost. In amongst these huge weighty scripts, it was odd that a few lines of poignant lyrics had the most impact.


Dan - Friday


  1. Lovely post. And the Penny Lane scribbles evoked a still-vivid memory.

    Never been to the British Library. But I have visited the British Museum, a collection whose eclectic span just lit me up. There was something about going from the Rosetta Stone to a display case of handwritten Beatles lyrics...

  2. You made me miss London. It's been far too long. You also had me doubling and redoubling the page size on my browser trying to find what secrets there might be in Ballard's opening changes to "Crash." In light of the time I took on just one page, I understand the daze you must have found among so many.

    Still...until when is that exhibit running?