Tag Archives: British Library

Cockney Visions: Writing Britain at the British Library

The British Library’s new exhibition Writing Britain, which runs until 25 September 2012, has big ambitions. It aims to study place and landscape in British literature, looking at how writers and poets have been informed by the land around them, and how their writing has transformed the way we view these spaces.

Phew!

The exhibition is divided into different thematic sections, and includes one on Cockney Visions about London writing, and another on the suburbs, which also has considerable London content.

It’s a remarkably bold concept, but the BL does not shy from a challenge – its exhibition on Liberty a few years ago was one of the most intellectually intense I have ever seen, while the one on Language was similarly involved.

This time, it doesn’t quite pull it off. The problem is the same that blighted last year’s science fiction exhibition – too many books. Entering a BL exhibition is like visiting a first rate antiquarian bookshop, but one were you can’t touch the books and none of them are for sale. It’s great to see these rare and beautiful books, but it’s also incredibly frustrating that you can’t pick them up, feel the pages, smell the history.

Paradoxically perhaps, books are also an insufficient way of examining landscape in the way the exhibition intends. If we can’t actually sit there and read Wuthering Heights, immersing ourself in this extraordinary place the writer has created, we need other ways to make the journey. The most evocative part of the exhibition is the one on the Lake District and Highlands, purely because there are some wonderful paintings on display, which help crystallise our vision of what Wordsworth, Keats and Scott were describing. Conversely, the London section takes in the usual suspects on that well-trod wander from Blake and De Quincey to Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Will Self and Iain Sinclair  (and includes a wonderful copy of the London Psychogeographic Society newsletter from the early 90s), but fails to really plunge us into the city of our imagination.

Where the exhibition – and the BL itself – really does excel is when it can produce original manuscripts, diaries and photographs. These messy, scrappy, lovingly flawed items show the writing process in a way a beautifully bound finished book never can. And some of the best of these are to be found in the sections of the exhibition related to London. There’s a sketch by John Betjeman of Dalston Station; an unpublished poem by Evelyn Waugh about the Crystal Palace (complete with Waugh’s drawing of the building); a couple of pages from JG Ballard’s collection, including the heavily amended opening pages to Kingdom Come and Crash; and a lovely drawing by GK Chesterton to accompany his notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Dalston Station by John Betjeman.

Kingdom Come manuscript

Notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill by GK Chesterton

I loved also a letter by Conan Doyle sent to his mother from South Norwood, in which he carefully sketched the floorplan of a suburban house he was thinking of buying, and a copy of Pygmalion, which Shaw had phonetically annotated to show how he felt the cockney phrases should be pronounced.

a personal favourite was a draft of Albert Angelo by BS Johnson, showing how Johnson wished a section of one page to be cut out so it would reveal a sentence from later in the book, a brilliant way to create a  flash-forward or pre-cognition.

Best of all, though, was this photograph, which shows JM Barrie, GK Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw dressed as cowboys in 1914. For the full story, read this excellent blog post. It has very little to do with Writing Britain, but it’s bloody marvellous all the same.

Pirates from outer space

There are a couple of particularly interesting exhibitions open in London at the moment, and I’ve reviewed both of them for the Independent. The first is Out Of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It, a thorough exploration of genre fiction at the British Library that offers much of interest for the careful reader, while the second is the Museum of London Docklands colourful Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story.

There’s plenty of London interest in both, from the apocalyptic and despotic visions of a future London by everybody from HG Wells to Alan Moore at the British Library, to the fascinating relationship between London’s rich and powerful and common pirates that is explored at the Museum of London Docklands.

London in maps

This was a piece I wrote for the January 2011 issue of Metropolitan magazine.

In July, the Mayor of London introduced a scheme that allowed the public to rent bicycles from 300 docking stations in different London. Within days, maps could be found all over the internet showing exactly where each docking stations could be found and which were the most popular. These maps were largely unofficial and all free, created by tech geeks for fun and copied to internet forums for the use of cyclists, tourists and map lovers. It proved once again that Londoners will map anything. There are maps for free wi-fi hotspots, maps that chart where the most Twitter activity comes from and maps that find the nearest toilet. One of my favourite maps is this 1970s version of the knitted football tribes of London.

 

This love of maps is engrained in London’s psyche, the result of living in a chaotic and unplanned metropolis. Two of the city’s favourite icons are maps: the A-Z, that portable atlas which even seasoned Londoners carry in case they get lost; and the Tube map, a design classic that has been copied by transport networks all over the world and is regularly ‘mashed-up’ by artists, replacing stations with footballers, philosophers, films, authors and anagrams.

In 2006, the British Library organised a ‘London: Life In Maps’ exhibition, curated by Peter Barber, the library’s Head of Maps, who thinks London’s love of maps is far stronger than anything you might find in Paris. ‘The French have a very cool attitude towards maps,’ he says. ‘They don’t, on the whole, use them and there is no comparable market in old maps to the one we have in London. You have to give away old maps of France. Maps in France are associated with authority – they were tools of administration and control. Whereas in England maps were commissioned privately and so are not perceived as being so menacing.’

The Lost Map

Barber names the key maps of London’s past –the Copperplate map of the 1550s, the Morgan map of 1682, the John Rocque map of 1746 and the Horwood map of 1829. Barber makes a distinction between two kinds of maps. There are functional maps for getting you from A to B (or A to Z) and there are maps that work thematically or artistically to present information or ideas over a cartographical plan. The thematic map has been popular in London for centuries – the most famous is Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of 1889, which colour-coded streets according to income. Another is ‘The Modern Plague’ of 1886, produced by the National Temperance League, which showed pubs in central London. These maps are designed to transmit an idea, not aid mobility, and are fascinating to study. One of the first was John Snow’s map, tracking cholera outbreaks in Soho.

Such maps are now getting easier to compile. ‘It’s said that 80 per cent of all knowledge is spatial, and you can geo-reference any phenomenon and plot it on a map,’ says Barber. ‘With digital mapping, the techniques to do this are within the range of everyone. Digital mapping isn’t new, what is new is the ease with which it can be done and the extent of the information that can be plotted.’

Simon Foxall summarised this in his book ‘Mapping London’, writing: ‘Maps have been made to do things they were never expected to tackle and, in doing so, have exposed patterns, connections and ideas that were as interesting as they were unexpected. ‘

Straddling these two types of map is Bill Visick, a former manager at IBM, who has developed the London Time Travel Explorer (TTX) app for the iPhone. This features four maps of London dating from 1746 to 1862 and a contemporary map of the city. Using GPS technology, the user can fade between old and new maps to see how the street on which they stand has changed. It’s virtual time travel.

Visick had been collecting maps of his Kensington home for years, but smart phones allowed him to take this to another level. ‘What sparked it for me was realising that the street I lived on contained the first buildings ever built in Kensington,’ says Visick. ’I was standing outside my door and thinking, “blimey, that was a hedge and that was a field”. So the first thing I did was put this old map on my phone and walk around looking at it – that became the prototype and that’s where the idea of TTX came from. It happened almost as soon as I realised the technology would allow it.’

The novelist and poet Blake Morrison has spoken about ‘our craving for interactivity’, and that is something the artist Stephen Walter is also exploring through maps. In 2008, he created The Island, a vast, exquisitely detailed map of London, crammed with cultural and political references and in-jokes. ‘People have been suggesting I do an app,’ says Walter. ‘The British Library did a brilliant browsing tool for the map and people have suggested I do something for a phone or tablet computer. I’m interested to see if there’s a way people can leave their own tabs on the map, personally configure it with their own information.’

The Island is modern in its outlook, but Walter was following a long tradition. ‘There’s a huge, strong history of map-making in London and we do like to beat our chests about it,’ says Walter. ‘It’s a bragging thing, a celebration of history and size. The Island was a spoof of a medieval map. The twist was that a lot of it was very personal and also a contemporary reaction to the city, whereas at first glance it looks like a pretty conservative world map.’

It has long been understood that the map is subjective, reflecting the views of the maker, although rarely as blatantly as in The Island. In ‘Mapping London’, Foxall writes, ‘The map, as a scaled replica of the entire city, presents a choice to its maker: not what to include, but rather, what to exclude. The mapmaker, like a sculptor, must chip away at the raw block of material that is the city to reveal the shape and representation hidden inside.’

Barber expands this point. ‘Different maps show different things and your judgment of a map depends entirely on what you want from it. In some cases you could draw a direct contrast between the map the man in the street wants and the map the expert says is best. The A-Z is a complete travesty of mapping because the streets are grotesquely enlarged and the open spaces much reduced.’

The irony of the growth of digital mapping is that it comes at the expense of the old-fashioned kind. People no longer need A-Zs, because they can use GPS or SatNav. ‘I spoke to somebody the other day, a businessman in his 60s, who no longer takes directions,’ says Visick, with one example that stands for thousands. ‘He knows he can get anywhere on his phone.’

And into this breach step the digital mappers, who offer information in a manner that all of us can understand. London can be a daunting city to comprehend, so a thematic map that breaks the city down into easily absorbed chunks of information located spatially is very helpful. As Walter muses, ‘It seems the more complicated life gets and the easier it gets to traverse the landscape, the more maps become all about ourselves.’

Gertcha to the British Library, for Viz, Austen and Evolving English

I’ve seen three new exhibitions since being bored senseless by the British Museum’s Book of the Dead, and all of them are vastly superior to that banal blockbuster.

While the British Museum takes a complacent Tesco-like approach of pile it high and intimidate people with sheer weight of history, the Imperial War Museum, Wellcome Collection and British Library all have to work a little harder to get any attention and the results are far more satisfying.

Take Evolving English at the British Library, a superb exhibition about the history of the English language that offers both intelligence, insight and, most tellingly, the cheerful sense of humour that is lacking from Great Russell Street.

There are showstopping exhibits here, such as manuscripts of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ and Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ and a copy of ‘Beowulf’, while the curators were ecstatic about a cabinet that featured side-by-side four historic bibles - the Wycliffe, Tyndale, Book of Common Prayer and King James.

But there are also wilder treats hidden in the margins.

One section on the differences between spoken and written English was illustrated by letters from schoolchildren to their teacher, my beloved BS Johnson, written in a glorious mixture of slang, formality and stream of consciousness that later found their way verbatim into his novel ‘Albert Angelo’. (‘Mr Johnson has a poor outlook towards us, calling us peasants and other insulting names of which we would like to contradict… Mr Johnson on the whole although he isn’t all there is a rotton teacher but not proffesionally for he teaches well… in school Mr Johnson is an authentic nit.’)

 

The section on profanity is illustrated with a copy of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and a copy of Viz, while you can explore London English by reading extracts from Charles Dickens or you can just listen to ‘Gertcha!’.

 

London English, we are reminded, adopts words from many different cultures and I was intrigued to learn about the history of the Black London idiom ‘aksed’ for ‘asked’. This apparently originated in south-west England and found its way to the Southern US states and the Caribbean through emigration, before returning to London via the West Indian diaspora. Take it away, Smiley Culture.

Book of the dead dull: against blockbuster exhibitions

A new British Museum exhibition opens this week and it’s already a guaranteed success. But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.

I went to the press view of the Egyptian Book Of The Dead and afterwards felt much the same as I do after every British Museum exhibition: overwhelmed and underimpressed. But I knew that all the big reviewers would give it a knee-jerk five stars – and sure, enough, before I’d even got home, the first suitably awestruck review was in. Meh.

So why was I so bored, and am I on my own with this? Well, the exhibits are undoubtedly important and fascinating – papyrus and artefacts taken from Egyptian tombs, many dating back more than 3,000 years, which together tell the story of the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. But, gawd, ain’t there a lot of it? And why does the exhibition space look so bloody boring?

 

The British Museum has an incredible talent at taking something potentially fascinating and kicking all the life out of it through stuffy, unimaginative presentation and a conviction that more is better – and getting away with it every time. 

At Book Of The Dead we get acres – and I really mean acres – of stuffy captions and endless cases containing aged papyrus covered in hieroglyphs, with only the odd gaudy mummy case by way of variation. After seeing the first room, I felt I’d seen it all and would have had a more enjoyable experience sitting down with a cup of a tea and reading a good book on the subject. But I still had another dozen rooms to trudge round. Exhibitions are meant to bring a topic to life, but this was deadening. And I was lucky enough to be there when it was relatively empty – for the average punter, it must be chaos.

I’m not sure I’m entirely out on my own here – on my way into the exhibition I bumped into a friend coming out, and he said much the same thing, as did Time Out Art on Twitter. But the British Museum’s methods clearly convince most of the reviewers and they certainly draw the crowds; these are, after all, two of the constituents museums most need to impress. 

As a lover of museums, though, I cannot help feel that the BM is doing the art of exhibitions a disservice. There is none of the thoughtful wit of the Imperial War Museum, or the layered smarts of the Wellcome Collection, or the sheer intellectual depth of the British Library, all three of whom have new exhibitions opening next week that will not get anything like the attention of the BM.

The British Museum make museum-going into something worthy rather than fun. My fear is that thousands of people will push through heaving crowds to see this exhibition drawn by fawning publicity and out of a sense of duty, before emerging battered and bored, vowing to never visit another museum until the next blockbuster rolls into town. That really would be a shame.

Ballardian

I spent this morning at the British Library, looking at the recently acquired archive of JG Ballard. Ballard is one of those authors whose work I have devoured, absorbed, appreciated, exalted and admired but never really adored or even enjoyed, absolutely, that is without reservation.

I read him partly because I feel I should, not necessarily because it gives me the escapist satisfaction of my favourite writers. That’s not to say I read him out of dour and unwilling duty, like a GCSE student forced to confront Conrad, but it is markedly different to how I approach writers like James Ellroy, Jose Saramago or John Lanchester. With them, I know that no matter what the subject, I’m going to have a blast. With Ballard, it’s more complex. I know what I’m going to get, I’ll admire the way it is written, but I won’t be knocked off my feet, not any more anyway.

Ballard’s enthusiasts – among them Will Self and Iain Sinclair – often attribute to him extraordinary powers of insight and perspicacity, of having an almost mystic-like view of what awaits the world. There is some truth in this, as he accurately anticipated an atmosphere of suburban psychosis and predicted a society of disconnected and violent insular communities who have a paranoid fear of the ‘outsider’. But in general, it’s all a bit overstated.

His best novel is 1975′s ‘High Rise’, where he first put together a plot he then relentlessly repeated for almost 35 years – an enclosed community, a charismatic professional, a tribal awakening, a middle-class orgy of destruction.  Many of the books that followed were almost identical, just with the location changed (one of the best is ‘Super-Cannes’ from 2000).

By 2003′s ‘Millennium People’, his dire penultimate novel set in contemporary London, the methodical working through of these familiar tropes had passed firmly into the territory of self-parody. It was still ecstatically reviewed by critics, obsessed with the man rather than the novel he had written. Personally, I have more time for his early short stories, which are more or less straight science fiction and absolutely brilliant but often dismissed by those who are more interested in what he did after the seismic auto-porn ‘Crash’.

All that said, the archive acquired by the British Library is fascinating and will keep biographers busy for years. Expect many of them to mention his early school report for English, which says he ‘has remarkable ability… but with greater concentration, his work could be even better’.

What astounds when looking at the archive is the amount of revision Ballard applied to his work. His first typeset draft of ‘Crash’ is loaded with handwritten amendments, almost every word appears to be changed in a visual, violent display of self-editing. The level of self-criticism is terrifying – it’s enough to put you off the idea of ever being a novelist.

The British Library member of staff in charge of cataloguing the archive says that the most exciting part of his job is getting a new collection in from a great writer and taking the lid off the box to see their novels in draft form. ‘What’s it going to look like? How did they write?’

Those interested in the answers to those questions should get to the British Library from Friday, June 11, where two pages from ‘Crash’ will be on display at The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library.

Magnificent Maps at the British Library

The British Library currently has an excellent new exhibition about maps called Magnificent Maps. I reviewed it for New Statesman (get me), and tried to focus on the sort of political aspects of the maps on display that would appeal to the generally Labour-supporting readers of the New Statesman, seeking any sort of diversion from the electoral massacre they had recently witnessed.

Diamond Geezer also took inspiration from contemporary politics with his review. He wins, I think.

The highlight of the exhibition for many Londoners will undoubtedly be Stephen Walter’s incredible idiosyncratic The Island, which you can study in detail here. This is a very personal and witty look at London by an artist. I particularly like the rather condescending but still satisfying comment he puts next to Herne Hill – ‘If I lived south of the river it would be here’. What finer praise could a North Londoner offer?

If you like maps a lot, you should also check out the hand-drawn gallery at Londonist. A little bird tells me that these may soon get a museum exhibition of their very own.