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Regular visitors to this blog will know that landscape in all its forms is my main preoccupation. Those who know me better will also know of my interest in identity – national, regional and otherwise. So it was with great anticipation that I arranged to go to the British Library last Friday, the first day of their new exhibition combining both these interests with the written word – Writing Britain from Wastelands to Wonderlands. Place personified in literature is the theme for this British Library exhibition, timed for the Jubilympics and indeed part of the London 2012 Festival/Cultural Olympiad and presumably aimed at tourists from home and abroad. Not that I am objecting – far from it, as I rather like the idea of adopting this as my contribution to the Olympics.

Altough purporting to be about places it is mainly actually about generic types of place rather than specifics (apart from London and the Thames). It is the idea of place rather than giving an idea of a place. Landscape and place come across as interchangeable, undefined so rural, industrial, wild, watery. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it makes for a more universal exhibition – a suggestion of places.

It is a fluid winding journey, not exactly chronological but kind of historical combined with linear – rural/pastoral then industrial/urban, followed by escape out into the wild/wilderness of the Picturesque and later the moors, back through the suburbs/edgelands to London (Cockney) and finally downriver(s) to the sea/seaside.

This imaginative indeterminacy leaves room for individual interpretation, via some suggestions, rather than saying this novel/poem etc is what represents this idea or place. this is what literature should do – be a door to the world, or in this case Britain.

What are we as visitors looking for? – inspiration for ourselves; understanding what or where made a writer write; satisfying curiosity; association – looking for places we know and love, wanting to make a place more meaningful to us.  I guess it may be any of these.

Of course as an exhibition in the British Library it is focused on books and manuscripts (and sound recordings, an important and often disregarded part of the British Library’s collections) as archival objects. The emphasis is very much on the object, including illustrations and book covers, as well as maps, photographs, even a board game, rather than on any analysis of the content. This does have the result of sending one to the books to read them which is certainly a good thing. It does includes some wonderful items. Everyone will have their own favourites.

So into the gloom of the black box basement of the exhibition gallery and am hit with some writers talking before even getting into the exhibition! Simon Armitage (who crops up several more times in sound and writing) “Landscape characterises British prose and poetry”

Simon Armitage reading, Mytholmroyd, July 23rd...

Simon Armitage reading, Mytholmroyd, July 23rd 2010 (Photo credit: Plashing Vole)

“Landscape is a character” according to Robert Macfarlane, and other sound bites by several of the newer generation of writers on place. Slightly distracted I go on in and am immediately transported back to my teenage and later hippy years in Rural Dreams. I lose myself in celtic myth, knights, green men and women, Arthur Rackham illustrations, Alan Garner and archaeology.

For the next three hours or so I am transported from one part of my life to another, memories flooding in, places lived and visited, places only visited through books, places and books meaningful to my parents, some of which I now have such as Mary Webb and Elizabeth Gaskell, books I had (Remains of Elmet, sold in a moment of madness) and books I still have. Reaching the edgelands I am a bit disappointed as I was looking forward to this. It does not seem to hold together or develop enough but perhaps the sense of disjointedness is appropriate. I run out of energy nearing London, and plan a return visit but can’t resist visiting the Thames, where there is a seat opposite the wonderful long expanse of book art by Liz Mathews incorporating text from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, inscribed using a piece of driftwood from the Thames as a pen. I wish I had thought of doing that!

Thames to Dunkirk, 2009 by Liz Mathews, photo copyright Liz Mathews

It seems like more than 150 items and my head is spinning with ideas, thoughts, emotions. I am lucky to be able to return, which I certainly shall. My one concern is that there is no list of all the items. The accompanying book contains some of the items and follows the same general themes as the exhibition but it is not a catalogue. For such an institution this seems a bit of an academic faux pas. I have had to resort to pen and paper.

Patrick Keiller‘s current exhibition at Tate Britain, The Robinson Institute, for the 2012 Duveen Hall commission, based on his psychogeographic film, Robinson in Ruins, makes an interesting comparison.

A series of journeys through the landscape by his imaginary character Robinson, told here through paintings, film clips, books, documents, maps, objects from the Tate and other collections combined with Keiller’s photographs and commentary, it gives both a more intensive and more layered portrayal of place than is possible in the British Library survey. It is a palimpsest demonstrated through visual works as well as written works. Based in real places and in the form of journeys through a small part of Southern England it is purposeful but is also directed by chance encounters. It is also wide ranging through time and thought, political, economic, social, historical and contemporary. In its multi-disciplinary and at first glance seemingly random divergences or tenuously linked changes of subject matter it is very much of our time, akin to trawling around the internet.

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