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.

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