A few weeks ago, I finally went to the Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition at the British Library. It was in its final two weeks, so my friends and I got in just under the wire. I knew that I couldn't miss it, as I'd had this exhibition earmarked as one of my cultural highlights of the year for quite some time. Concentrating on the importance of place and landscape in British literature, Writing Britain featured so many of my absolute favourite books and writers that I wondered if I had been personally consulted on the exhibition and then fed memory-loss pills so that I would forget all about it. (I am not sure in what scenario exactly this would take place.) From Susan Cooper to Kenneth Grahame, from a Heart of Darkness graphic novel to a letter to John Betjeman complaining that the order of the stations in his poem 'The Metropolitan Railway' was wrong - this was very, very much my cup of tea.
Broadly, the places and movements featured in the exhibition included the following: rural Britain; the gradual vanishing of rural Britain due to the Industrial Revolution; industrial landscapes such as the coal mines of Wales and the Midlands; wild places such as the moors, and their interactions with humans; sacred places; London; the suburbs; rivers; and the sea. London is, as always, primarily a place of darkness, but a remarkably varied one, from Gautam Malkani's Londonstani to the original title for Eliot's The Waste Land, "He do the police in different voices", to Conrad's pre-Le Carré and Orwell vision of The Secret Agent and a city haunted by terrorism. The suburbs are both homely and threatening: the Metropolitan Railway invited middle-class commuters to embrace "Metroland", but in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, the suburbs are often settings for dreadful crimes (one of the manuscripts featured was 'The Retired Colourman', where Holmes investigates sinister doings in Lewisham.)
Many poets appeared in Writing Britain. Ted Hughes's collaboration with Fay Godwin, Elmet, was there; 'Belfast Confetti' by the wonderful Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson; a video about Simon Armitage's Stanza Stones project, which carves poems into the natural landscape of Yorkshire; Wendy Cope, Sean O'Brien, and many, many others. Also featured was the much-loved poem by Edward Thomas, 'Adlestrop', in manuscript and in a recording read by his wife. Here is the poem:
ADLESTROP (Edward Thomas)
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
'Adlestrop' gives me a strange feeling of looking in on - almost interrupting - something I find moving but don't entirely understand. I can't help wondering if you have to be English to entirely grasp its emotional import. It was written around the start of World War I - which killed Thomas, like so many others - and there is a sense that he is seizing a quiet, simple moment in the English countryside and storing it away, later to imbue it with even deeper meaning. It has also been pointed out that all the young men of some villages were wiped out in the war, and Thomas may have wondered what the fate of this place and its people would be.
I do think that British landscapes, whether urban or rural, are a palimpsest; their own self-contained beauty or terror, with the human traces which have defaced or celebrated them continually overlaid. I've said before that I tend to see places through a lens of literature and art, and this is particularly the case with Britain. Some of the landscapes are spectacular in themselves, but they tend to be understated, and not technicolour, like some other parts of the world. When you know about the great works of art or the acts of human endeavour that they have produced, the terrible or beautiful events and the echoes that they have left, these places have a hundred times more meaning.
The painting is The Hay-Wain by John Constable, one of the greatest of English painters, though I've always found it much easier to love JMW Turner.