Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, British Library, London

“Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song,” wrote Edmund Spenser, born the son of a journeyman in 16th-century East Smithfield – now Tower Hamlets, site of the Olympic Park. If landscape is constructed by the mind, a nation’s understanding of place – and with it cultural identity – is conditioned by its poets and writers. This is the argument of the British Library’s exhibition staged for Olympic London, which traces versions of pastoral and urban dystopias across half a millennium.

Liz Mathews’ “Thames to Dunkirk” (2009), a 17-metre concertina book composed as a watercolour map of the Thames, with text from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves lettered by Mathews using a piece of Thames driftwood as a pen, echoes a key motif in Spenser, and one recurring in literary images across the centuries – the Oxford boating trip that inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for instance, or the Thames setting for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows: drafts of both are here.

Literary association is inextricable from certain British landscapes: Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lake District, explored in notebooks and diaries; the Gloucestershire of Laurie Lee’s rural lament Cider with Rosie, on show in manuscript; Ted Hughes’s “Remains of Elmet”, a collaboration with photographer Fay Godwin celebrating Hughes’s home in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire (“Without your pictures there would have been no poems at all,” Hughes told Godwin).

Others settings unravel in layers: the London of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – a manuscript copy is a highlight – opening in a Southwark pub connects with the “Cockney Visions” of Blake and Dickens, who in turn anticipate 20th- and 21st-century “psycho-geographers” such as the Angela Carter of Wise Children, and JG Ballard. The violent suburban portraits of gated communities, hyper-real shopping malls and clinical airport terminals in Kingdom Come and Crash are underlined by the force of the author’s revising hand in his manuscripts displayed here.

Runs to September 25


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