I went to the British Library’s current exhibition anticipating that it would be interesting. What I didn’t expect was that it would move me to tears.
Writing Britain is a history of landscape presented through works of literature, from the original manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Dickens and Woolf. It reunited me with some wonderful books I grew up with: Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale and Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, to name just two.
And there were gems I’d never seen before; The Labours of Women, a witty feminist tract of 1792 by Mary Collier who was a peasant and washerwoman, Henry Moore’s lithographic illustrations of WH Auden’s poems, and Fay Godwin’s haunting photographs for Poet Laureate Ted Hughes.
Books and landscape
No matter how far we travel or how long we’re away, there’s a visceral connection to where we come from, and it can surface when we least expect it. It was the “Dark Satanic Mills” section of the show that got to me. I felt suddenly overwhelmed standing in front of Charlotte Bronte’s manuscript for Shirley. This is the book where, like her friend Mrs Gaskell, she writes with passionate concern about the conflicts between labour and capital at a time when factory production was transforming the face of England.
That landscape has changed again in my own lifetime. The northern industrial communities that were the subject matter of so many writers were the centre of my world growing up in postwar Lancashire. Then came Thatcherism, and in a few short years it ruthlessly wiped out the productive basis of those communities. But they live on, in two centuries’ worth of great books that are with us for all time. Thank goodness for libraries that celebrate them.
An unexpected consequence of the economic crisis in London is a rise in the quality of busking. On the tube over the weekend I heard a brilliant Mozart violin performance, a fine Spanish guitarist and an outstanding saxophonist. Some of the buskers may be out-of-work musos, others students struggling to pay tuition fees that government no longer funds – either way, they’re great and you just hope they’ll be able to keep on playing. And get properly paid for it.
Talking of the Underground – for anyone back in Oz planning a trip here, I hope you know about the Oyster. The Transport for London kind, not the Sydney Rock kind. It’s the prepaid rechargeable pass for tube and buses, and it’s hard going getting round without one. You can order one online, it’s delivered to your home address in Australia within days, and when you arrive at Heathrow you can jump straight on the tube into town. Much cheaper than cabs and given the state of the roads, much quicker too. And you can keep it to use again on subsequent visits.