The British Library, Carol Ann Duffy and Pubs

By Rob Packer

A few weeks ago I went to Writing Britain, the British Library’s summer exhibition, which looks at the landscape of the British Isles and its influence on literature. With illuminated manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales and W. B. Yeats, notebooks of Blake and Coleridge, and 150 other bits and pieces of literariness, I found it engrossing. But after a good three hours of geekdom, I started to wonder how much background knowledge you need to appreciate a show like this—probably a common problem of curating books. For example, if Mrs Dalloway or Wuthering Heights immediately evoke Woolf’s London or the Bronte’s Pennines, it’s probably because I’ve read them and know both places. On the other hand, if it’s something I’ve never heard of, much less read (such as Walter Brierley’s 1935 novel, Means Test Man), it tells me about an aesthetic movement and that industrial landscapes encouraged literature, but not a lot else. As a result, the exhibition is only at its best when it reminds and evokes, as well as informs.

An exception is poetry and song, which just work quicker, and there are some great pairings that use different media, like the Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ with videos of 1950’s Liverpool, or recordings of poems from Ted Hughes’ Return to Elmet (1979) reunited with Fay Goodwin’s photos (maybe more on that some other time). My easy favourite was Carol Ann Duffy’s paean-lament for the British pub, ‘John Barleycorn’, which recalls an archetypal Britain, creating more of a personal mind map, than anything cartographical.

The poem is from Duffy’s 2011 collection, The Bees, which includes some fantastic poetry that stand alongside her best, such as some of the haikus about whisky and Scotland, and touching ones like two about the death of (her?) mother. Things are harder going when she goes all Earth-Motherly: ‘The Woman in the Moon’ is a letter to humanity that begins with “Darlings”—although I agree with the environmental sentiment—, or when you start to wonder if she’s name-dropping or obliquely referencing her poet laureateship (not sure that’s cool).

The magically evocative ‘John Barleycorn’ is, however, the collection’s absolute highlight (read or watch). The poem is based on the eponymous folksong character, who personifies the barley crop that is thrashed, scythed and killed, but whose violent death is also a rebirth, meaning that beer (and the water of life, whisky) can be brewed. The folk story parallels the supposed demise of the British pub (lots are closing) and the poet travels the pubs of the land looking for his spirit. British pub names are a genre apart and, with repeated names like the Red Lion, Fox and Hounds or Royal Oak, easily recognizable and they appear with their literal meaning and as references to countless pubs in the real world:

I saw him seasonally, at harvest time
in the Wheatsheaf and the Load of Hay.
I saw him, heard his laughter,
in the Star and Garter, in the Fountain, in the Bell,
the Corn Dolly, the Woolpack and the Flowing Spring.
I saw him in the Rising Sun,
the Moon and Sixpence and the Evening Star.
I saw him in the Rose and Crown,
my green man, ancient, barely born, John Barleycorn.

The pub names in this and the other verses seemed to mine my past for identically named pubs and brought forth forgotten memories of village greens (the White Hart), small towns (the Feathers), the backstreets of Cambridge (the Maypole), roundabouts (the Bricklayer’s Arms) or where I grew up (the Bell or Rising Sun). What I like is that this journey of images and memories will, by definition, be different for anyone who’s spent much time in the UK. It also doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to see a parallel between the shared experience of pub-going and the cliché of the pub at the traditional centre of the community.

In homage, here are a few traditional pub signs from near my parents’ home (not really recommendations, I’ve not actually been to any). As a sad aside, thought, these hand-painted signs also seem to be disappearing quickly and are being replaced by some pretty ugly looking numbers in black, white and gold.





Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands until 25 September at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB.

Carol Ann Duffy, The Bees, Picador, 2011

One Response to The British Library, Carol Ann Duffy and Pubs

  1. Fabulous post, Rob! I love the old pub signs. What beauties! Great shots, by the way. The “Roebuck” is a favorite. I also love the topic. Curating literary exhibitions with images! This is something you do very well here! Enjoy the day, Theadora (During a thunderstorm, I recently got to see “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet” at The New York Public Library. It was quite a dramatic visit. In addition to journals and books, the curators included life-size images of Shelley and Mary, along with members of their entourage. It worked!)

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