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.