Keeping Busy

Since I finished work last week, I’ve been busier than ever! Aside from packing and moving the scary amount of possessions I’ve managed to gather around me in slightly less than a year, working on a writing project and rounding up nephews intent on doing mischief, I’ve been to a fantastic exhibition, finally had a tour of Brighton Pavilion, and cheered on the Olympic Flame as it made its way through my mum’s village.  As of today, the sun has finally come out and summer looks like it is here to stay for a while at least, so I’m excited to start making plans for my few weeks of leisure before my first term as a teacher begins!

First things first, the exhibition. I went to see Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands at the British Library last weekend, and I would say it’s probably one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. It is an exploration of how writers are inspired by and represent the British landscape in literature, from the Medieval period to the present day. The exhibits are arranged in six distinct sections, with each of these having several sub sections that explore particular aspects of the broader topic in more detail. The six sections are Rural Dreams, Industrial and Cityscapes, Wild Places, London, Edges, and Waterlands, covering a huge amount of literary texts, some of them obscure and some of them world famous, but all of which had significance in portraying just how closely British literature is linked with the varied and ever changing British landscape. There was so much to take in that I spent almost three hours in the exhibition hall, listening to writers such as Daphne du Maurier, Simon Armitage, Ted Hughes and Stella Gibbons talk about their work, marvelling at original manuscripts of novels such as Jane Eyre, Persuasion, To the Lighthouse and Harry Potter, and making mental notes to read authors who I had never previously heard of, such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It was so intriguing to look at literature from this perspective; to explore the links between social history and geography, to consider the importance of previously unnoticed references to place in novels that I know and love, and to think about the differences and similarities of literature written several centuries apart, interpreting the same landscapes but in such diverse ways. I also enjoyed seeing how literature can act as a tour guide, inspiring readers to visit and appreciate places they would never normally see. Walter Scott’s historical novels triggered a massive rise in Scottish tourism in the Victorian period, and readers of Wordsworth and the Brontes have been making pilgrimages to their famous home regions almost since the day their works were first published.

Something totally unrelated to the exhibition theme was intriguing too; the changing ways in how writers actually write their prose or poetry. The Victorian manuscripts were written in flowing calligraphy, mid century manuscripts were typed with hand written notes in the margins, and modern novels were a mixture of computer generated documents and scribbled pages of biro torn from exercise books and marked with rings from coffee cups. It made me wonder whether what we write with is just as important an influencer as what we write about. When everything was written out on paper, in pen or pencil, mistakes and revisions clearly visible alongside polished paragraphs, the creative process was tangible. Word processed manuscripts have mostly had this element removed; fragments of discarded ideas, sentences, flashes of inspiration that do not, for whatever reason, make the final cut, are now erased in medias res, with no vestiges of their existence remaining to influence and shed further light on the finished product. Will this have a negative impact on the study of our contemporary literature in future? Looking at those scribbles and crossings out and question marks and underlinings that are features of handwritten manuscripts, I can’t help but think we have lost something in our relentless drive to computerise the world.

Keeping on the landscape theme, I boarded a train to Brighton early on Thursday morning, whizzing through suburban Surrey and the East Sussex countryside towards the sea. I don’t love Brighton, I have to say; I find it overcrowded, overrated and overdeveloped, with very little to please the eye or give you the relaxing feeling a day at the seaside should. However, my adopted little sister (actually my best friend who now lives in South Africa’s little sister) who I have known since she was a toddler is at university there, and I owed her a belated birthday visit, so I bit the bullet and went on down. After a wander through the Laines, we stopped for some lunch at Bill’s before going to the famous Pavilion, built for George, then the Prince Regent, in the early 1800s. An elaborate example of Chinoiserie, it has an interior so beautiful that it actually made me gasp out loud. The main banqueting hall is the most impressive room; five huge lotus flower chandeliers hang suspended from the ceiling, held up by enormous gilded dragons, designed to look like they are breathing fire. The walls are painted with stylised Chinese scenes and the ceiling is a glorious riot of gilding and faux bamboo. This takes the definition of bachelor pad to whole new levels; the Prince Regent was a famous dandy, loving women, drinking and partying far more than he did his official duties, and he used his palace at Brighton to entertain the great and good of the day in lavish style. He eventually married, put under pressure by his advisors to have a child that was actually legitimate, and produced a daughter, Princess Charlotte, from what would be an infamously acrimonious marriage. There is currently a small exhibition on Princess Charlotte at the Pavilion, subtitled ‘The Forgotten Princess’. Beautiful, intelligent and adored by the British public, the Princess was the hope of the nation after a series of over indulgent, irresponsible Kings. Her tragic death at the age of just 21 after the traumatic birth of a stillborn son plunged the nation into mourning, and caused a scrabble amongst the now heirless King’s profligate brothers to marry and produce an heir to secure the line of succession. The product of this race to procreate was Queen Victoria, born to King George’s brother The Duke of Kent and Victoria, Dowager Princess of Leiningen, the sister of Princess Charlotte’s grieving widower, Leopold, later King of the Belgians. I had heard of Princess Charlotte before, but I had no idea of how significant her death was in changing the course of British history. What would the 19th century have been like had Victoria not reigned, I wonder?

Seamlessly moving on, history has indeed been a big preoccupation in Britain over the past few weeks, with Olympic fervour reaching fever pitch as the glorious moment of hosting the Games draws ever closer. As befits a nation of moaners, there is a lot of negativity surrounding the Olympics, especially in London, but the Torch Relay that is winding its way through the country on its way to the Olympic Stadium is going some way towards increasing people’s enthusiasm. On Friday the torch went through my mum’s village, and it was absolutely lovely to come together with all the locals to watch people who have made a genuine difference in our community be recognised for their contribution by carrying the torch through the streets. I went with my sister, brother in law and my nephews, and we waved flags and cheered and chatted to strangers as the procession went by (photo is of the pre-event parade – I took a video rather than a photo of the actual torch part and can’t upload it, unfortunately!). I love events like this, that unite communities and allow us to celebrate and be proud of our country and the many ordinary people who do extraordinary things every day without expecting any thanks. People like Verity, who has raised a huge amount for Mind and has raised even more through the sale of her torch. This is what the Olympics is really about, not security debacles, construction delays, transport chaos, inflated council tax and unfair ticket distribution, which is all the news seems to be reporting (and is all true and annoying, but still, I’m trying to be positive here!). Obviously when I returned to London after watching the relay and had to work my way around the re-routed tube station that has been made one way for ease of crowd control during the Games, I felt less warm and fuzzy, but regardless, the Torch Relay has generally reduced my feelings of bah humbug-ness about the whole thing. I am still very sad that I didn’t get any tickets (all I wanted was to watch some gymnastics! I wasn’t asking for much!!), but seeing the Torch Relay was a pretty fantastic experience and does make up for it a fair bit!

In other news, I have booked myself a place on an amazing sounding Eric Ravilious study day at the V&A in November; my interest in Ravilious and his circle grows by the day, so I can’t wait to learn more. Less culturally highbrow is Magic Mike, which is actually a lot deeper and more thought provoking than the trailer would have you suspect, while still managing to provide some superb eye candy for the ladies! (Girls, you need to see this!!) Reading wise, I am having a marvellous time reading Woolf’s first novel, Night and Day, which I did initially abandon after finding it hard going, but once I pushed through the initial few chapters, I became mesmerised, and now I can’t get enough. As soon as I’ve finished, I’ll be starting Anna Karenina- for those wanting to read along, how does a start date of August 1st sound?

Finally, I have said goodbye to North London and am now (semi)permanently ensconced back with my mum in Kent. I’m only half an hour away from London by train, but the distance feels enormous. I’m going to miss it tremendously. No more wanders up the hill to Waterlow Park, Highgate Cemetery, High Tea of Highgate and Ripping Yarns; no more Sunday tramps on Hampstead Heath; no more burgers at Byron followed by a film at Screen on the Green. It’s an end of an all too short era, but hopefully it won’t be too long before I’ll be back again.

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50 comments

  1. God, I wish I was in England. Being half an hour from London sounds wonderful!! I’ve lived in Chicago and near Tokyo (briefly) and it was so great to be near so much culture. My biggest excitement nowadays is driving 90 miles up to Austen, TX to go to my Jane Austen society meetings four times a year. Not much literary culture in San Antonio.

    That must have been an AMAZING exhibit — I’ve seen samples of Dickens’ work, but never anything by Jane Austen in person. And JK Rowling’s manuscript — I’d love to see that. I wish I could find an excuse to go to London!

    1. I shouldn’t moan should I? Nothing takes that long to get to here! Jane Austen Society meetings sound wonderful though!

      Oh it really was – it was such a thrill to see some of my favourite books written in the authors’ hand! I’d never seen J K Rowling’s writing before either – I could just imagine her writing in a notebook in a coffee shop – it definitely looked the part!

  2. My goodness you covered quite a bit in this post. If I commented on everything in your lovely adventures, my comment would be as long as your post. I will try to keep it short.
    I, too have wondered how our technology will make a difference for writers. Since I am a retired teacher, I know that cursive writing is almost obsolete. I always believed that I could tell a lot about my students’ writing by seeing the rough draft and comparing it to the final copy. I also believe that their actual handwriting told a tale. Sometimes as children get interested in their own stories, their handwriting becomes more intense. I am afraid that we are losing something, but then, I tend to be a bit resistant to change. I like old books and old ways of doing things.

    1. I know, it’s all a bit of a mish mash isn’t it!
      I love what you say about handwriting and I totally agree. I think people’s handwriting says a lot about them. I am very out of practice with handwriting though and now mine is just a scrawl – my nephew was trying to read my shopping list for me yesterday and he couldn’t really make out any of the letters! Must get better if I want to set a good example!

  3. And yet more wondrous adventures you have had, Rachel. I would have loved to have seen them all, but, most especially Writing Britain. What writing exhibits I’ve seen leave me all goosebumply and humbled and when there are drafts and letters and such in actual handwriting, I am in awe of the writer and the writing process. Like Janet, I miss the cursive, remembering learning it myself, emulating my father’s magnificent script, on and on. I will say, however, that word processing has opened up writing itself to so many people who are not so gifted in putting actual pen to paper. Our older daughter went from C’s to A’s once her words could actually be read.

    Good luck as you begin your new adventure. I know you will be a magnificent teacher.

    1. Thank you Penny! I am sure you will have loved the exhibition – I wish I could have taken a group of bloggers with me!

      Absolutely – typing has done great favours for many people who struggle with putting pen to paper and that is definitely a big positive. I so worry though that the more we use typing, the less we need to know grammar, spelling and punctuation, as it’s all corrected automatically. The number of people of my generation who don’t know basic English without being prompted by spellcheck is shocking!

      Thank you so much – that means so much to me! I am getting very excited now! :)

  4. Crying with envy over the Writing Britain exhibition. Was there a text or guide-book produced for the exhibition? And if so any good? Thanks for sharing all your latest expeditions.

      1. Thank you for posting the link to the book! Said heretofore unknown relative having failed to turn up with airfare, the book is now winging its way to me via Amazon.

  5. Greetings from Lewis Grassic Gibbon country in the north east of Scotland! Do try to find a copy of Sunset Song – it’s excellent. I would love to visit the Writing Britain exhibition and hope I shall find myself in London before it closes. Thank you for your really interesting comments and hope you will manage to keep up your blog when you start your teaching career. If I’m asked what my favourite book is I would probably answer Anna Karenina (one of very few that I have reread) so you have a wonderful treat ahead of you………

    1. I can’t believe I had never heard of him before, Jilly – I adore Scotland so I will be getting a copy asap!

      I do hope you can make it – it’s definitely worth the trip, I promise. Thank you so much – I will definitely be keeping the blog up, not with the same frequency, I suspect, but I will be blogging at least once a week. I first read Anna Karenina when I was 16, so I can’t wait to find out what I think of it ten years later!

  6. I feel your pain. I have constant dreams about living in London. I spent a year there as an exchange student, and I’ve been wishing to go back ever since. But I know I could never live so far from my family.

    I am looking forward to your thoughts on Anna Karenina. I will be reading along.

    Every post I read about your travels in the UK makes my add to my ‘to see’ list. I really want to see the Royal Pavilion in Brighton now.

    1. Family do get in the way don’t they? ;) I would have stayed in New York if it wasn’t for them!

      Glad to hear it – look forward to your comments!

      The Pavilion is definitely a place that has to be seen to be believed, Elke!

  7. What a wonderful post. I love Brighton. I do do want to join you in Anna Karenina . I am really looking forward to that. Have you ever visited Virginia Woolf’s home at Rodmell – it is wonderful. I know you are going to make a wonderful teacher as you have such an enthusiasm and such vitality. I taught for 38 years in a primary school and often saw how dull teachers could be. They had no creativity or inner lives or enthusiasm unlike you. A love of reading is the best gift you can give any child.

    1. Thanks Enid! Great – look forward to hearing your thoughts when the discussion starts!

      No I haven’t – I am going to this summer though. I have it planned!

      Thank you so much – what a lovely thing to say! I bet you were a fantastic teacher and I hope I can be the same!

      1. Oh Rachel, I would love to hear about your visit to Rodmell – one of the places I definitely want to see some day in my life.
        I discovered your blog only recently and am absolutely delighted. As Enid said, your enthusiasm is contagious and your choice of books quite interesting and new to me. So glad I found you! Martina

      2. Thanks so much,Martina, that’s so lovely of you!

        I am desperate to get there so I will make the trip this summer for definite – can’t wait to blog all about it!

        I look forward to hearing more from you!

  8. ‘… mistakes and revisions clearly visible’

    Beethoven’s manuscripts are a treasure trove for musicologists precisely because the great man used to start off with a deliberately crude idea which he would gradually knock into the shape of something sublime. So absolutely future scholars are going to miss out, now that everything is produced on computers.

    Re the new teaching job. There is no reason why you should read Richard Ingrams’s magazine, ‘The Oldie’, but there is an excellent column in it called ‘Whiteboard Jungle’ by a lady writing under the name of Kate Sawyer. She is an English grad who joined the profession from publishing, probably with similar motivations to you. As you might expect, the evangelical mission (for literature) is all too often subordinated to tedious things like form-filling and crowd control but she has found professional fulfilment in all sorts of unexpected ways … You might find it informative.

    1. That’s so interesting, Bruce! I would love to see that!

      Thank you for the tip off – I will try and track down a copy as I’d love to read that column!

  9. A lovely post. The writing exhibition sounds fabulous. I went to the Dickens And The Supernatural last year at the British Library, and walked past Jane Austen’s writing desk, atop were perched her glasses. They were both so small. I felt myself quite overcome.

    1. Thank you Lilac! Jane’s writing desk IS tiny, isn’t it? I saw it as Chawton and couldn’t believe my eyes – that was such a special moment too!

  10. Sunset Song as been in my TBR list for years. I should do something about it! The exhibition sounds very interesting. I learned about it thanks to the BBC 4 program Open Book. You might want to listen to the podcasts uploaded on May 20, June 17, and June 24, all of which include brief discussions of the relationship between writers and their surroundings. I first got interested in that aspect of Literature after reading D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, which is fraught with incredibly evocative descriptions of the landscape. After that, I got myself a DVD with the complete series A Poet’s Guide to Britain, written and presented by Owen Sheers. Being British you might have been lucky to watch it on TV. If not, try to find a copy. Even for someone not conversant with poetry like me, it was entertaining and instructive.

    I too think Literature has lost quite a few things with the advent of computers. It has also benefited in some ways, but at 26 I miss the good old days when people put pen to paper (literally, on both counts!) and had their handwriting tell part of the story. I hope to visit London before the exhibition closes; not during the Games, though, because I’m not very fond of that kind of events. I like what they used to be back in Ancient Greece, but not what they have become, although there are good things about them, as you point out.

    I’m with you about Brighton. I visited several English towns in 2003 and while most of them were charming (Oxford and Winchester above all), I found Brighton to be quite tacky, with the exception of the Pavilion, of course. As for Victoria not having reigned, I can’t even begin to fathom how different 19th century Britain would have been. I imagine modern society as a whole would also be quite different.

    1. Hi Azahara! Maybe we should read the Grassic Gibbon together! It is supposed to be excellent so we should enjoy ourselves!

      Thank you for the info about the podcasts – I will definitely listen to those!

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who misses handwriting! You should definitely try and visit the exhibition but yes DO avoid London during the Games – it’s going to be transport chaos!

      Yes Brighton IS tacky – I don’t really find any redeeming features in it at all. It’s really not my cup of tea!

  11. This post took me right back to last April when I was in London doing research. I would love to see that Writing Exhibit at the British Library. I enjoyed just the taste I had of their writers’ collection in the Treasures exhibit, particularly a manuscript that Conrad had marked up — he must have been quite the severest critic of his own work I think. I won’t be back this year [unless I can unexpectedly finagle an inheritance from a heretofore unknown relative] but maybe next March or April — I’ll have to check to see how long the exhibit will be up.

    I love looking at manuscripts of all types — I work exclusively on a computer when I work on my book, but my journal is always handwritten and — if I have ink — I use my fountain pen. It makes me feel like a completely different kind of writer … more thoughtful and discursive instead of always striving to be more precise or to meet daily or weekly goals.

    1. Hi AJ – how lucky you were getting to do research at the library! I bet that was wonderful. I think the exhibition ends in September, sadly, but there is an excellent book that accompanies it (see the link I put under my reply to Merenia). It’s not a substitute for the real thing of course but if you can’t get there it’s good enough!

      I love writing with nice pens – it gets my creative juices flowing more as I really have to think rather than splurging everything out knowing I can just delete it later!

  12. We cheered on the torch as it journeyed past both ends of our road on Saturday, it’s such fun. I’m now getting excited about the Olympics.

  13. Interesting comment about the changing style of the writing. I remember seeing a manuscript of a Bronte novel in the old reading room at the British Museum – it was so tiny and every centimetre of the paper was used. It was a very poignant reminder of how a product we take for granted (paper) was an expensive item only a century or so ago.

    1. Yes I love the teeny tiny Bronte manuscripts – very true too about the value of paper. Definitely something we no longer appreciate as we should.

  14. Your recent adventures sound wonderful! The Writing Britain exhibit sounds fascinating. Any post that starts out with that and transition to the Olympics and Magic Mike is pretty great it my book!

  15. I hope you’ll enjoy Lewis Grassic Gibbon when you get round to reading his work. It was pretty common in Scotland when I was younger – my English teachers were always encouraging us to read his books and those of Neil Gunn – we are always that little bit parochial we Scots! But A Scots Quair is well worth reading – Sunset Song is just the first of three great books! And of course enjoy the weeks of leisure before your teacher training starts in earnest!

    1. The first of three, eh? I didn’t realise that he was such a Scottish institution – in that case, i better get reading! I feel like I’ve missed out someone incredibly important! Thank you, Col – I am going to do my best to, though the days seem to be slipping by very quickly already!

  16. You know R, I almost put in a request for you to attend Writing Britain, so we could all hear about it! There aren’t many London events that stand out for me but this certainly does. I recently finished Jamaica Inn and while its a very second rate novel the theme and use of landscape is quite good. Nothing startling or original…the landscape has a character itself, gothic echoes, correlation with the unconscious and more specifically the repressed, etc, but she does it quite well. The landscape moments when Mary Yellan wanders the moors are in some respects what the novel is all about: danger, the unknown, and then when she goes off with the bad boy at the end (girls always like the bad boys!) he too is a moors man. She chooses him, in preference to settled domesticity.

    I think its a wonderful topic, the influence and feature of landscape in literature, and you find it in Shakespeare too: the heath in King Lear, the forest in MN Dream, etc. I’ve read a few books recently with the same theme running through and I want to write about it.

    1. Well I’m glad that you appreciate my thoughts so much, Bop! I wouldn’t have missed this exhibition for the world, it really is that good!

      They had a recording of Daphne du Maurier talking about Jamaica Inn and how she was influenced by the landscape of Cornwall – it was fascinating. I haven’t read any of her novels for a very long time – must remedy that!

      I agree – maybe you should write about it! Someone should!

  17. The exhibit sounds amazing… and what a thought-provoking topic! I really like the topic you raised as well… how the way we write will continue to change and influence future generations’ study of literature. Fascinating! I love reading your blog for little “trips” to England… good luck with the new job when it starts!!

  18. Thanks for posting the links to some restaurants. I haven’t been to Britain since 1999, but it’s nice to know that I, as a vegan / vegetarian, wouldn’t starve to death if I went back. Lovely little places to eat and yummy sounding dishes! I like reading the menus.

    Good luck on your new venture!

    1. Oh you certainly wouldn’t starve, Joan! Bill’s is a lovely place – all fresh and organic and a lovely atmosphere too!

      Thank you very much!

  19. Oh Rachel, the good thing about watching Olympic gymnastics at home is that you can synchronize a whopping stellar dismount in complete privacy! Arms thrust up in the air, dainty wrist and hyper-arched back…don’t tell me you haven’t tried it at least once.
    And I must speak to Taylor about whether or not she visited that gorgeous Pavilion when she visited Brighton last May. All I heard about was bumper cars, haunted house rides and sushi.
    The exhibit at the British Library would have been so interesting and to have found it one of the best…well, that’s high praise from someone who has seen many! I’ve been in the Treasures Room a couple of times so all I can do is imagine it was as stunning and then some.

    1. Hehehehe oh Darlene, you know me too well! I’m somersaulting all over the place and perfecting my dismount in front of the TV every time it’s on!
      I have never been to the Treasures Room – I’m kicking myself for missing that now! I must go back!

  20. First of all- congrats on such a wonderful (series of) experiences! And good luck with your move, I hope Kent manages to feel like home eventually.

    You know, jealousy is a not-at-all-nice feeling I usually try to avoid, but it\’s fairly impossible not to be jealous of your experience at the Writing Britain exhibit. It sounds wonderful and such a unique treat for anyone who\’s interested in either literature, geography or history- and as a Literature and History student myself, I\’d probably give up my right arm to spend even half an hour there. Original manuscripts of the most influential works of literature of all time? Yes, please.

    Wonderful post!

    1. Thank you!

      Oh no, I don’t want you to be jealous! You must get the book of the exhibition – it’s nearly as good as being there and you’ll love it! :)

  21. I’m dying to visit the exhibition at the British Library. When my friend who is currently living in London told me about it I cried with envy. Only on the inside, but still. Those manuscripts! Few things in life thrill me like viewing/handling manuscripts from the authors that have helped shape my identity over the years. It’s pure magic.

    And thank you for posting photos of the Royal Pavilion. I’ve been wanting to visit for quite some time. Knowing that much of Regency society deemed it vulgar and gaudy has only served to enhance my curiosity.

    1. Only true book lovers can appreciate such joy, Diana! I’m sorry you can’t make it to go and see it yourself!

      You are welcome – it is truly spectacular and certainly unique – well worth a visit!

  22. Love the pictures. I always rather liked Brighton. I liked the juxtaposition of old and new, culture and brashness – but it’s a long, long time ago since I was there.

    By the way, nothing to do with this post, but I took your advice, jumped straight in and started reading Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway). I expected to sink, but swam beautifully – I loved it. Cannot think why I was so scared, but it was not easy to write about – and I liked to your post, so I hope you don’t mind http://goo.gl/NQWfm

    1. I wish I could like it Christine – so many people seem to!

      That’s fantastic! I will come and see your post. How wonderful – I’m so pleased you’ve been able to enjoy her!

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